Poetry Review: Expanding the Power of Verse — The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry

One feels when reading this anthology of Latin American poetry that editor Ilan Stavans tucks each poet he features into a folder but that this categorization, while limiting, also encourages an English-speaking readership to appreciate the eye-opening diversity of Latin American poetry.

The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: An Anthology. Edited by Ilan Stavans. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 768 pages, $25.

By Kevin Hong

Translation is power to Ilan Stavans, editor of The FSG book of Twentieth Century Latin American Poetry, who seeks to capture the expansive energy of the poetic voices of Latin America in this new anthology. Stavans proclaims his mission in the opening of his introduction: “to showcase the rich, multifarious poetic tradition in Latin America during the twentieth century; and to invite the reader to recognize the range of verbal possibilities of that tradition.”

The editor’s approach to the anthology is driven by Wittgenstein’s philosophical conception of how language shapes thought: to Stavans, the culture and syntactical patterns that the Spanish and Portuguese brought to Latin America changed—even harmed—the region profoundly. “What do we mean,” he writes, “when we say that the region became modern? What scar did the eclipse of the dozens of aboriginal tongues used until then leave on the way people approached life from colonial times onward?”

Stavans claims that the officialdom of these languages are “but a mirage” and celebrates the persistence of aboriginal languages such as K’iche, Mapuche, and Náhuatl. His motivation, then, is to integrate aboriginal languages into English-readers’ tapestry of Latin American poetry, a poetry that is “far more pluralistic than is commonly understood.” Modernity has obliterated many native tongues, but each of the dozens that has survived has its own worldview, reaching back to pre-colonial times and absorbing the complexities of the current.

Of course, this nationalist sentiment does not discredit all the poetry written in Spanish and Portuguese, which are seen as “weapons of conquest.” Stavans cites the Modernismo movement as Latin America’s first aesthetic break with Spanish literature, and this is where the FSG survey begins. José Martí and Rubén Darío, two leaders of the movement, open the anthology with a “hemispheric literature” that is at once autochthonous and cosmopolitan:

The city appals me! Full
Of cups to be emptied, and empty cups!
I fear — ah me! — that this wine
May be poison, and sink its teeth,
Vengeful imp, in my veins!
I thirst — but for a wine that none on earth
knows how to drink! I have not yet
endured enough to break through the wall
that keeps me — ah grief! — from my vineyard!
Take, oh squalid tasters
of humble human wines, these cups
from which, with no fear or pity,
you swill the lily’s juice!
Take them! I am honorable, and I am afraid!

– Martí, from “Love in the Big City”, trans. Esther Allen

The dominant spirit of Stavans’s collection is ideological, and I wonder whether an approach driven by political idealism provides a completely successful representation of a region’s literature. We can compare the FSG book with another collection, Stephan Tapscott’s 1996 Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry, to consider what is gained and lost in the more recent version. The Stavans edition consists of 84 poets, while the Tapscott edition features 77; they share 56 writers in common. Within these 56, the editors’ selections of their poets’ work is telling. Readers will find a healthy dose of 17 poems by César Vallejo in Tapscott’s collection, whereas the poet’s apparent importance has been diminished in Stavans’s. Three out of the four Vallejo poems chosen are explicitly political.

Peruvian poet César Vallejo— a diminished presence because of politics?

Tapscott’s emphasis on the lyric form (which he claims is the most important mode in the Latin American poetic tradition) calls for a more representative group of poems by Jorge Luis Borges: his “Ars Poetica,” “Spinoza,” “Everness,” et cetera, each a cerebral gem. Stavans’s motivations shape his selections, which showcase Borges’s Anglo-Saxon vision. Thus Borges’s apolitical work takes on a political suggestiveness in the FSG anthology.

The concentration of shorter works in Tapscott’s book also allows for more direct interaction between poets: I was delighted to see “Ode to César Vallejo” by Neruda and “Disillusion for Rubén Darío” by Nancy Morejón. Enrique Gonález Martínez’s “Wring the Swan’s Neck” follows soon after Darío’s sonnet“The Swan”:

The song of the swan is heard above the storms
of the human sea; its aria never ceases;
it dominates the hammering of old Thor,
and the trumpets hailing the sword of Argentir.

– Darío, from “The Swan”, trans. Lysander Kemp

Wring the swan’s neck who with deceiving plumage
inscribes his whiteness on the azure stream;
he merely vaunts his grace and nothing feels
of nature’s voice or of the soul of things.

– Martínez, from “Wring the Swan’s Neck,” trans. Samuel Beckett

Overall, Stavans makes his decisions in favor of work that illustrates a writer’s stances on politics, poetry, and selfhood. Concerned with showing readers each poet’s worldview, the editor sometimes omits poems that are more aesthetically accomplished in order to highlight a poet’s leanings. He chooses the poem “Squares and Angles” (“Lined houses, lined houses / lined houses. / Squares, squares, squares. / Lined houses. . . .”) to demonstrate Alfonsina Storni’s modernist influences but in so doing neglects potent lines that are more deserving of a reader’s attention. At times, Stavans’s editorial vision becomes suffocatingly narrow.

Still, this is not to say that the FSG anthology doesn’t compensate with impressive riches. Stavans probably understands the qualms that many readers will have, but he believes his editorial direction to be necessary: his deliberately pendular selections (between the private and the epic, the cosmopolitan and the idealistic) are there to provide English readers with work that fills linguistic and cultural gaps. And this is just where Tapscott’s book is weak; the editor recognizes in the preface that he does not include works by poets in the Hispanic diaspora, works in indigenous languages, experimental poems, and poems in “multisemic language combinations.”

Stavans does all of this, providing us with translations of work that has barely received an audience in any other hemisphere, and the result is a fresh and revealing overview of Latin American poetry than has not previously been available. As he writes, “this volume isn’t only in but about translation.” Under his direction, Ladino, the language of Iberian Jews circa 1492, is rendered in English and the result fascinates:

akeyos polvos
trujeron estos lodos
i estas nuves
estas luvias
i estas luvias
trujeron estos friyos
i estos friyos
trujeron estos yelos
i estos yelos trujeron
i akeyos polvos
son lo ke fueron
ke son esto
ke más no será

– Moscona, “Lo ke fue

Spoken before and after the expulsion of the Jews from the peninsula, the language reflects the pressures of history. Droplets of repeated words trickle down Myriam Moscona’s verse, dramatizing for the reader how languages of the past seep into contemporary culture, ringing of time and pain: “and those dusts / are what were / which are this / which no more will be.”

Editor Ilan Stavans — The dominant spirit of his collection is ideological, which raises the issue of whether an approach driven by political idealism can fairly represent a region’s literature.

Both Tapscott and Stavans feature Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, but only Stavans includes Archy Obejas’s translations, which delightfully render Guillén’s Negrista street language via similar English slang. And while Tapscott’s selection of Borges poems are more representative of the writer’s accomplishments, Stavans’s inclusion of “Two English Poems” is eye-opening; after reading it and the prose poem “Borges and I,” I felt I understood with more confidence than ever before where the poet was writing from:

It doesn’t cost me anything to confess he has achieved a few valid pages, but those pages can’t save me, perhaps because what’s good no longer belongs to anyone, not even to the other, but to language and tradition. In any case, I’m destined to be lost, definitively, and just some instant of mine will survive in the other. . . .

– from “Borges and I,” trans. Ilan Stavans

One feels when reading this anthology of Latin American poetry that editor Stavans tucks each poet he features into a folder but that this categorization, while limiting, also encourages an English-speaking readership to appreciate the eye-opening diversity of Latin American poetry.

The volume also features an armada of skilled and successful translators, many of which also play roles in Tapscott’s book. Stavans’s own experience shows in his deft and nuanced renderings of Martí, Leopoldo Lugones, and Juan Gelman. I was spellbound by Ursula K. Le Guin’s translations of Gabriela Mistral and Margaret Sayers Peden’s renditions of Vallejo. For some, W. S. Merwin, Richard Wilbur, and and Samuel Beckett will be familiar translators of Latin American poetry. Alistair Reid’s treatment of Borges and others continues to be unmatched in its sensitivity to rhythm and tone.

Stavans rejects Robert Frost’s old adage that poetry is what gets lost in translation, proclaiming, “Just the opposite: poetry refurbishes itself through translation because translation is power.” This indispensable book extends our appreciation of the Latin American poetic tradition by granting us the power to understand, finally, the breadth of the region’s genius.


  1. Antonio Balson on June 16, 2012 at 11:28 pm

    Fascinating reading. Although I agree with Frost on the loss of meaning after translation I understand the power of translation. I will definitely look out for this book as I am interested in the Baroque poetry of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the possible translations and the heritage she leaves to more modern Mexican poets.

  2. Shelley on June 18, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    As a writer, I believe that not only separation from one’s native tongue causes language problems, but simple poverty of language causes problems. How many of our students in the U.S. are regularly exposed to real poetry by masters, real literature, to teach them what their language is capable of?

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