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date: 07 October 2022

Poetry of the Latin American Avant-Gardelocked

Poetry of the Latin American Avant-Gardelocked

  • Justin ReadJustin ReadRomance Languages and Literatures, University at Buffalo

Summary

The Latin American avant-garde—more widely known by the Spanish vanguardia or vanguardismo—emerged after 1910, roughly contemporaneously with parallel literary movements in Europe and Anglo America, and often in direct dialogue with them. Although vanguardistas worked across various media and genres (novels, theatre, film, painting, sculpture), the primary modes of vanguardismo were poetry and, curiously, poetic manifestos that blur lines between poetry and performance (a hybridized “performance manifesto” as Vicky Unruh has called it). Like many other facets of Latin American culture and society, the historical trajectory of vanguardista poetry roughly traces patterns of political-economic dependency between rich and poor countries in the 20th century. Vanguardismo was born of the rapid transformation of Latin America from rural-agrarian to urban-industrial societies between 1870 and 1920. New modes of transportation made circum-Atlantic travel and communication more fluid than ever. A poet like Vicente Huidobro (considered the foundational figure of vanguardismo) could follow new artistic developments in Europe from his native Chile, reject the traditionalism of prior generations, and reformulate symbolism, cubism, futurism, and so forth into his Creacionismo—a movement he then “exported” back to Spain, fomenting vanguardismo in the former colonial metropolis. Huidobro would be followed by several major “international” vanguardistas—notably Pablo Neruda (Chile), César Vallejo (Peru), Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina), and Nicolás Guillén (Cuba)—who ingrained themselves in key literary circles like Dada, negritude, surrealism, and other Parisian avant-garde “-isms.” Back in the Western Hemisphere, vanguardista poetry flowered in the 1920s and 1930s, yet mainly by way of small, close-knit intellectual circles in urban centers publishing their own small, ephemeral journals. This “localized” vanguardismo most forcefully began in São Paulo, Brazil with the “Modern Art Week” held in the city’s beaux-arts Municipal Theatre in February 1922. The three-day event abruptly altered the literary culture of the entire nation and continues to influence poetry, popular music, film, and art. Brazilian poets would be followed by other small movements in other large Latin American cities. Although these movements often had minimal contact with one another, they almost uniformly promised the creation of a national utopia by means of new poetic practice. Such movements did not merely rehash or regurgitate Europe and Anglo-American “advancements” so much as they attempted to reformulate Latin American identity vis-à-vis Europe. Rather than colonial copies of European development, Latin American poetry would now be exported back to Europe as a utopic beacon of a new modernity; while Europe fell into decadence, the Latin American vanguardia remained largely hopeful and positive despite its frequent attacks on tradition. Poetic utopias failed to materialize even as vanguardismo continued to influence poetic innovation in the latter half of the 20th century. In retrospect, vanguardista poets transformed literary arts, yet could not revolutionize the rest of society. The era was dominated by the poetic production of white males (with very few black, indigenous, and female poets) who continued to perpetuate legacies of colonial appropriation even as they sought to dismantle them.

Subjects

  • Latin American and Caribbean Literatures
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Poetry

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