5 Exceptional Spanish Poems in Latin American Literature
Do you want to read more Spanish poems and learn about the history of poetry and literature in Spanish? One of the best ways to understand the inner workings of a culture is to learn about its art forms, especially its literary culture. I invite you to submerge yourself in the world of Latin American Poetry!
Why Is Poetry Essential?
Language, whether Spanish, English, Portuguese or Mandarin, is the medium through which all humans communicate. It is a system of signs that humanity uses to express ideas and feelings and to build relationships. For creative artists who often think outside the box, language may feel too structured, full of rules and regulations, leading to unique forms of expression. Figures of speech begin to appear, such as metaphors, similes, or hyperboles (among many others) and provide a fertile and expansive ground for creating poetry.
It is through poetry that a culture exposes its deepest secrets, expressing its inner world of tendencies, definitions, and complex emotions. As the linguist Roland Barthes says, “To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little…” The ordinary and typical use of language alone is seemingly incapable of expressing the whole truth of a sentiment—which is where poetry comes in.
Poetry expresses powerful and complicated emotions like fear, love, anger, loss. It serves both as a tool to communicate our deepest truths and to document humanity’s legacy of love and loss.
Latin American Literary History of Spanish Poetry
You may believe that Latin American literature is simply literature in the Spanish language, but you’d be sorely mistaken. Every world language has its own history to tell through its literature, exposing its challenges and triumphs; its weakness and strengths through words.
When we look through the written masterpieces of Latin American literature, we begin with Latin America’s birth as a cluster of independent nations, freshly separated from their Spanish and Porteguese colonizers. These first recognised pieces of literature came from Creoles (sons and daughters of colonisers) and Colonisers who recounted their experiences of making a home in the new world. It focused on the mysteries of the unknown for Europe and all their adventures in the Indies as well as the fights for independence. These harrowing tales and experiences were a great source of interest in literature.
Mixture of Cultures
While the stories of exploits in the New World are fascinating, they ignore one of the most crucial and captivating aspects of Latin American’s literary history: the mixture of cultures and languages with the natives. These cultural clashes gave rise to a new politics, a new culture, and newer forms of language.
Up until today, Latin American literature carries along this history, a history of colonization and independence, of mixing cultures, and as such, it is an extraordinarily unique and emotionally-charged literature full of different voices.
Latin American literature was not widely recognised around the world until 1840 when a group of Latin Americans began a magazine in Paris. The intense and permeating influences of their writing stemmed from highly political changes occurring in their homelands, and this creative vigor remains an integral part of Latin America’s literary tradition until today. The air of revolution and independence is one that has crowded Latin American art for decades due to its complex history.
One movement, known as the literary “boom,” came after the Cuban revolution during a time when many other countries in the region were stymied by civil wars. The movement’s peak was in the 1970s and includes famous writers whose talents have withstood the hands of time, such as:
- Gabriel García Márques
- Julio Cortázar
- Mario Vargas Llosa
- Miguel Ángel Asturias
- Octavio Paz
- María Luisa Bombal
- Rosario Castellanos
- Nélida Piñon
The “boom” writers made the everyday, mundane elements of life a powerful, message-laden focus in literature. They wrote about normal people and common events, those that had been often overlooked and taken for granted. However, through this mundanity, they were able to communicate with humanity, with the ordinary events that connect us as living beings.
Many other movements and exceptionally creative writers have helped to form the literary tradition of Latin America into one that is as varied and broad as its territory and numerous cultures.
5 Exceptional Poets from Latin America
Let’s explore 5 poems written by well-known writers in Latin America. These poets have belonged to different traditions and movements throughout history, exposing the depth of the culture they belong to and the human life they reflect.
1. Humberto Ak’abal
Humberto Ak’abal was a Guatemalan poet, born in the region of Momostenango in 1952. His Mayan ancestry is reflected in his work and ideology. Ak’abal’s work is organic and simple, including a lot of natural elements form his surroundings and his cultural beliefs. The following poem is direct and short as is his usual style, and it reveals the difficult history of colonization amongst Mayan and indigenous communities and their continuous struggles.
me pusieron dos lágrimas
en los ojos
para que pudiera ver
el tamaño del dolor de mi gente.
When I was born
they put two tears
in my eyes
so that I could see
the amount of pain in my people.
2. Gabriela Mistral
Gabriela Mistral was born in the town of Vicuña, Chile in 1889. She received a Nobel Prize in literature in 1945. Her poetry is dominated by the different kinds of love that crowd the human heart. The following verses reflect the influence of spirituality and religion of her upbringing and culture as well as literary influences such as Dante.
¡Biblia, mi noble Biblia, panorama estupendo,
en donde se quedaron mis ojos largamente,
tienes sobre los Salmos las lavas más ardientes
y en su río de fuego mi corazón enciendo!
Sustentaste a mis gentes con tu robusto vino
y los erguiste recios en medio de los hombres,
y a mí me yergue de ímpetu sólo el decir tu nombre;
porque yo de ti vengo, he quebrado al destino
Después de ti tan solo me traspasó los huesos
con su ancho alarido el sumo florentino
Bible, my noble Bible, magnificent panorama,
where my eyes lingered for a long time,
you have in the Psalms the most burning of lavas
and in its river of fire I lit my heart!
You sustained my people with your strong wine
and you made them stand strong among men,
and just saying your name gives me strength;
because I come from you I have broken destiny
After you, only the scream of the great Florentine
went through my bones.
3. César Vallejo
César Vallejo was born in the town of Santiago Chuco, Perú in 1892. His ancestry was a mix of Chimu Indigenous culture and Spanish Catholic, which gave him a strictly religious upbringing. Vallejo was a highly educated poet and his poetry is influenced by his interest in the working classes’ struggles and politics. He was exiled from Perú in the 1930’s due to his political beliefs, after which he moved around Europe for a few years. The following poem is about his time living in Paris while he was being prosecuted before gaining residency.
Piedra Negra Sobre Una Piedra Blanca
Me moriré en París con aguacero,
un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.
Me moriré en París -y no me corro-
tal vez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño.
Jueves será, porque hoy, jueves, que proso
estos versos, los húmeros me he puesto
a la mala y, jamás como hoy, me he vuelto,
con todo mi camino, a verme solo.
César Vallejo ha muerto, le pegaban
todos sin que él les haga nada;
le daban duro con un palo y duro
también con una soga; son testigos
los días jueves y los huesos húmeros,
la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos…
Black Stone Lying On A White Stone
I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,
on some day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris – and I don’t step aside –
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.
It will be a Thursday, because today, Thursday, setting down
these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on
wrong, and never so much as today have I found myself
with all the road ahead of me, alone.
César Vallejo is dead. Everyone beat him
although he never does anything to them;
they beat him hard with a stick and hard also
with a rope. These are the witnesses:
the Thursdays, and the bones of my arms,
the solitude, and the rain, and the roads…
4. Octavio Paz
Octavio Paz was born in 1914 in Mexico City and won the Nobel Prize in 1990 a few years before his death. He was born into a prominent family that had ties with elites from different backgrounds such as politics and military. Some of his most well-known works dealt with representations of Mexican society and politics. The following poem demonstrates the influence of philosophy and existence in his work.
Soy Hombre: duro poco
y es enorme la noche.
Pero miro hacia arriba:
Las estrellas escriben.
Sin entender comprendo:
también soy escritura
y en este mismo instante
alguien me deletrea.
I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
the stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.
5. Alejandra Pizarnik
Alejandra Pizarnik was born in Argentina, 1936 to Jewish immigrants from Russia. Her work and ideology is linked to feminist movements and the most popular themes found in her poetry are love and death. She was an autobiographical poet, and the following poem demonstrates the sadness in love and death of which she often wrote.
Mata su luz un fuego abandonado.
Sube su canto un pájaro enamorado.
Tantas criaturas ávidas en mi silencio
y esta pequeña lluvia que me acompaña
Kill your light, an abandoned fire.
A bird in love rises to his song.
So many avid creatures in my silence
and this little rain that accompanies me
Rich Literary Traditions
As you can see, these writers come from different backgrounds, different countries and different times, but they all manage to communicate their culture and feelings through the same language. This is one of the main reasons why the Latin American literary tradition is so rich, being one of the largest territories which share the Spanish language. Additionally, this allows for building connections across countries and cultures and it has become a source of union for the region; one that is recognised worldwide.
You already know that one of the best ways to learn a language is to read it! Take some time to study the profound poems I’ve shared with you today. If you’d like to practice your skills at reading out loud or polishing yours accent, sign up for a free class with our literature-loving team of native Spanish teachers. They will be happy to help you expand your vocabulary and sharpen your command of the language. Don’t hesitate, immerse yourself in Spanish literature and language today!
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