Dilemmas for a poesía de la tierra


Venezuelan writer Igor Barreto. Photo: Lisbeth Salas.

Every now and then, the act of writing implies accepting that certain physical ailments were only diseases of the spirit and the word. As Susan Sontag points out in Illness as Metaphor, illness stimulates imaginative activity. Romanticism, for that matter, served as a metaphor for tuberculosis during the nineteenth century, gradually exceeded by cancer and AIDS as contemporary containers of its figurative representations.

The metaphorical condition associated with illness has made a healthy-sick practice of literary craftsmanship. In that regard, the strongest tie between poetry and illness comes from scarcity as the origin of poetic creation.

Nevertheless, all that has been said so far is only to confess the anxiety that afflicts me every time I return to Caracas after the trips I continuously make within Venezuela. When looking at the city from the chasms of the mountains that surround it, my body is taken over by a disarray, a malaise inciting its own metaphors, provoking my psyche’s need to search for an explanation, a form of rationalization in order to locate the origins of such a concern.

We tend to forget that the so-called city is a residual fact. Caracas, for that matter, is an unfinished and ambiguous city. Even though she tirelessly buries her rural past, her desire for modernity does not end up being fulfilled. Every moment past of her history leaves a layer of verbiage, a geological stratum of a different cultural nature. Like other Latin American cities, Caracas has not been able to suffice the nineteenth-century liberal dream, that of building an urban world in the manner of the European and North American metropolises. Argentine politician and intellectual Domingo Faustino Sarmiento called this urban utopia Argirópolis: an ideal city built by turning its back on peasant barbarism.

Now, every utopic experience leads into exile. The cities I cherish the most were built as an extension of this experience. In Los nombres del exilio [The names of exile], Spanish psychiatrist and essayist José Solanes recalls that the word exile is a derivative of the Latin word exiliare: to leap out. In Caracas’ case, exile was a form of departure from the space of tradition, an away from nature.

Perhaps these circumstances make me experience such disarray; to see myself enter the zone of ​​ambiguity, to confront myself with undeclared ruptures. A Latin American poesía de la tierra should accept this “leap out” and speak from the consciousness of exile. It should fill itself with this reality; it should assimilate it. [1] When referring to poesía de la tierra I speak of a type of writing usually invoked from the distance of the urban world, an idealizing distance from the past and nature. But our distance is much more than that; it is the loss of memory, a void to which Derek Walcott refers to in What the Twilight Says when he says that amnesia is the true history of the New World.

Among us this amnesia has the violent nature of the cancellation of large segments of past time. It is not my intention to recount the circumstances in which these cancellations have occurred, but I would like to underline the evident coincidence of these acts with significant national historical events: the Conquest, the founding of the Republic, or the birth of the Oil Democracy. Recent icons of this amnesic will are the photos taken by Venezuelan photographer Pedro Duim on the construction sites of the Bolívar Avenue or El Silencio neighborhood in Caracas. The sinkholes reaching the peeling of the earth and some provincial houses bordered by huge mounds of debris captured in the photos are unforgettable. In addition, it is important to say that forgetfulness often arises to resolve a discord; as in other Latin American countries, in Venezuela the premodern currents—resistant to change—have faced the modernizing ones arduously. This explains the violence of the cancellation acts and our short memory.

In this context, Graciela Montaldo’s words in her essay De pronto, el campo [Suddenly, the country] are useful for a possible understanding of the rural in Venezuela—and I am thinking about the “rural” because that category symbolizes appropriately the terms tradition and nature. Montaldo explains how the reference to the rural will be not content so much as a constant tension. “The city and the countryside, its practices and senses,” says Montaldo, “are two species that, since the end of the century in the Argentine culture, form a complex construe that cannot be regarded separately.”

Both quotes speak of a reality similar to ours, but in the first one we are told something that is of particular concern to contemporary Venezuela: the rural is a constant tension. Cities are built through opposition to the rural world, always with the unachieved desire to cancel it. A Romantic standpoint would be one that hides, forgets, idealizes, and simplifies this “tension” that is part of everyday life, just as the heron that glides over the highway of a Caribbean metropolis.

To write from the epicenter of this tension is a more desirable destiny for a poet interested in a tradition of misunderstandings such as those that accompany the poesía de la tierra. It is also a poetry of exile because it is written from an urban outside, from a situation of estrangement in which wildlife utopia is evoked as in Virgil’s Eclogues and Bucolics, where the rural is also a placid and courteous enumeration. Or as in San Juan de la Cruz, for whom nature is the incarnation of its celestial counterpart, and the longitudinal deprives the latitudinal. Another example of this is the writing of Alberto Caeiro, who breaks the Virgilian unity of the landscape with his paganism, his sensorial quality, his distancing that allows us to approach nature as if it were an other. In Caeiro’s poems, both contemporaneity and primitive arcadia are claimed at the same time, sweetened by Theocritus’ idylls and Virgil’s verses in favor of progress and manufacturing activities. Caeiro believes in nature as an other because he never refers to it directly, that is, when he writes his thoughts he does it facing us; nature remains behind him, and there it remains, in its own way, absent. Let us not forget that the poet comes from the stony world of the pastoral mountains, where he surely was able to see and hear this otherness, hence making him able to speak about it without rhetorical enchantment. In contrast to the latter, the Romantic tradition standpoint diminishes the approach to nature as an other. There is not enough awareness of it and it enhances a strategy of subjection to the natural. The inevitable use of the pronoun “I” by the poet invades and appropriates the geographical space. I believe that in Latin America this way is of great prestige with tutelary figures, even in the latest literary avant-gardes.

In On Grief and Reason, Joseph Brodsky discusses the poetry of Robert Frost by referring to what could be taken as the characterization of the encounter of an American with nature: when an American walks out of his house and encounters a tree it is a meeting of equals. Man and tree face each other in their respective primal power, free of references: neither has a past, and as to whose future is greater, it is a toss-up coin.[2]

For both Latin American and US American societies, the tossed-up coin has already fallen to the ground, although we could speak of a meeting of equals as an assumption that typifies our attitude toward nature. A meeting of equals will no longer be possible if we do not consider the other—nature—as an autonomous entity, regardless of the dictates of reason and emotion. This attitude gains urgency as the only possible cure for such an affected lyricism.

The Romantic tradition fed Modernity with the poetic transfiguration of the everyday: by drawing the curtains of that which was familiar, it sought an approach to beauty and marvel. Such an idea was expressed more or less by both William Wordsworth in his Lyrical Ballads and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria, where they never cease to warn us about the risks of prosaism and the pedestrian representation of objects and actions. The warning is directed precisely to that which could facilitate a different look, a look toward the other.

In the very scarce bibliography on the literary treatment of nature in Venezuela, Julio Miranda’s essay Poesía, paisaje y política [Poetry, landscape, and politics] points intelligently to Canto Fúnebre [Dirge], by Romantic Venezuelan poet José Antonio Maitín, as an example of the manifestation of nature as the other. The poem can be described as a melancholic piece following Edgar Allan Poe’s theory in The Philosophy of Composition: a poem is that which deals with the death of a beautiful woman. In the poem, Maitín laments the disappearance of his wife using the exuberant landscape of the Choroní mountains, in the north-central region of Venezuela, as a sorrowful image. In the manner of Alphonse de Lamartine’s poetry, we contemplate a paysage-état d’âme. However, unlike the characteristic de Lamartinian chiaroscuro and its image of nature as filtered through a fog, Maitín’s poems carry inevitable moments of incandescent light. This light guides us as readers through the chant number XIII of his elegy where, on the shores of the stony Choroní river, the poet becomes aware of the impassiveness of the splendid nature, alien to its words filled with sorrow: “Here everything contrasts/with my gloomy regret:/in this solemn and vast solitude/I do not find a pain that corresponds to mine.”

As the poem unfolds, the latter serves as a moment of particular relief that also applies to the poetry written in Venezuela during that time, where the illusion of a dialogue between the Romantic poet and nature is completely suspended—let us remember, as an example, Woodsworth’s The Prelude. In the poem, Maitín remains alone as a person while nature coexists in a distant, almost photographic autonomy. How different would our destiny be if Maitín’s poem would have departed from a consciousness of nature and the world as an other. We would have been in front of a text contained in the unfolding of emotions and substantivity—I mean of otherness. The world would not have been a desert, as the poet writes at the end of his elegy.

This cancellation of the other, this voracious subjectivism, are also features of contemporary poetry. In these times, the development of symbolism—that suggestive and resonant practice of the word—exhausted its power of penetration and led us to the dead end of what is believed to be spiritual and beautiful. Other contemporary determinisms led to an identical idealization. Today we live in that tunnel of the supposedly transcendental.

Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva embodies one of those points of departure of modern Venezuelan poetry, especially if we refer to the poesía de la tierra. Her poetry is also a good example of territorial uprooting and internalization. Without a geographical or historical perspective, the poem becomes the subjective measure of the world. This statement could be the motto of her work. In 1939, the poet sent a letter from Barinitas, in the south of Venezuela, to the Venezuelan writer Julian Padrón, where she says: “This is not the plain, but a plain worse than the others, or that is in worse condition than others. The others have their own vent. This one is blind.” Enriqueta recognizes that the plains of her time have perhaps broken down a mythical tradition, and part of the poetic Modernity of her work consists in giving an account of this urban rupture. She only writes from the shudder that aims to return transcendence to what no longer has it. Long gone are the 19th century and beginnings of the 20th century llanero de solera cordobesa [plainsman of Cordoban stock] described in 1948 by Venezuelan writer Fernando Calzadilla Valdés in Por los Llanos de Apure [On the plains of Apure], as well as the plains represented by the Criollistas and in Venezuelan painter Carmelo Fernández’s drawings. Enriqueta’s reclusion in the old Arvelo family house in Barinitas—her confinement in the poem—has the double meaning of a farewell to the old conception of the plains and the birth of a Modern consciousness that revolves around the pronoun “I.” The truth is no longer in the spectacle of the world, but in herself. The plains are not blind; it is the poet who does not want to see its qualities in the materiality and richness of its various situations. This is about the assumption of a Modern aesthetic stand with all its injunctions: its rejection of the enumeration of geographical details and narration—two of the traditional resources employed in the poetry of this steppe space. With this kind of poetry, we inaugurate the loss of the map of a territory within Modernity, a blurring effect present in contemporary lyrical works, such as the poems by Venezuelan Luis Alberto Crespo.

Another example of this is Argentinian Francisco Madariaga’s oeuvre, particularly his anthology El tren casi fluvial [The almost fluvial train]. Madariaga was a leading contemporary poet whose lyrical work was related to the imaginary and oneiric poetry of Peruvian César Moro, as well as to the Romantic lyrical voice inherited from Colombian Aurelio Arturo and Venezuelan Vicente Gerbasi. Madariaga was also a mentor-like figure of the deterritorialization of Modernity by means of an imaginative saturation in the poems that disjointed his writing and blurred the sense of place.

On the other side of these aesthetic and imaginary determinisms are poets like Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal and Chilean Jorge Teillier, whose lyrical intentions are reminiscent of the provincialism tenderness in some of Cesare Pavese’s poems.

However, in neither of these aesthetic traditions was a poesía de la tierra conceived to be written from the halfway-place Latin America has become today. A culture that, as Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade said in an interview, takes place between the field and the elevator. Facing our forgetfulness and separation from the tradition, as well as a coexistence as equals with nature, it corresponds to the poesía de la tierra to write from an awareness of exile, that is, to write without forgetting the distances, from a sensitive and committed amnesia. It implies a moving away from the astonishing enumerations and the transcendentalist cult to a nature that either no longer exists or is in danger of extinction. The conscience of exile will reestablish a territory in crisis, mobile and changing, where the word must be alert. Another conviction that could illustrate a poesía de la tierra is the awareness of nature as an other, which implies an ethic and political attitude toward nature and its image. These ideas are guided by writing as a form of experience, hence they do not intend to become recipes. Given that, they are only half-truths.

From “Dilemas para una poesía de la tierra,”
Nuestra América, no. 4, 2007, pp. 111-117

Translated by Gianfranco Selgas


[1] Translator’s Note: I have decided to keep the original poesía de la tierra—i.e., poetry of the earth or regionalist poetry—as it holds the same meaning coined by scholars regarding the studies of the novela de la tierra or regionalist literature genre in Latin America.

[2] Translator’s Note: The Spanish translation of On Grief and Reason by Brodsky translates “toss-up” as “la moneda sigue en el aire”—the coin is still up in the air. In Barreto’s original, this reference permeates the paragraph following the quotation. As a consequence of that, I have decided to add-up the word “coin” in Brodsky’s reference in order to keep Barreto’s meaning as clear as possible.


Ida Vitale in LALT
Number 12

In our twelfth issue, we pay homage to two giants of Latin American letters: Ida Vitale of Uruguay, winner of the 2018 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro of Peru, whose work we celebrate on the ninetieth anniversary of his birth. We also feature poetry, interviews, and stories that range from the Caribbean to the Andes and from Central American to Brazil, exclusive book previews and reflections from translators, and a special section dedicated to the work of Edwin Lucero Rinza, a young poet who recently published the first ever verse collection in Kañaris Quechua.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Ida Vitale

Dossier: Julio Ramón Ribeyro





Brazilian Literature


Indigenous Literature

On Translation


Nota Bene