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Poetry Guide: Spanish American Poetry

Poetry has existed in Latin America since the earliest pre-Colombian civilizations existed. Many of the indigenous societies that populated the American territory had already established great histories, myths, and legends which made up the culture of communities such as the Aztec, Inca, and Maya. Just as other societies had developed poetry via oral traditions that kept these cultures alive in the memory of their people for over thousands of years, Latin America is no exception.

Both the Maya and the Inca had developed systems of writing which greatly differentiated from the Latin alphabet. The Maya had developed books which mixed ideographic signs and symbols of phonetic value. The Aztecs on the other hand, left pictographs in various codexes. The Incas had developed quipu, a series of threads or knots which value and significance depended upon its color and location on the cords. These were often used to tell stories and note various statistical data. There were also many languages that were spoken (and still are) such as Quechua, spoken by the Incans, Quiche, which is attributed to the Mayans, and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. These civilizations were very artistic and advanced in many areas.

But for these indigenous civilizations, the conquest, colonization and their encounters with the Spanish signified great chaos and the loss of cultural identity as the conquistadors as well as the missionaries began to destroy all that was indigenous--their religion, gods, beliefs, temples, traditions, and laws in order to put the Catholic religion in its place with European ideals and values. Fortunately there were some exceptions to the missionaries and colonizers who were interested in defining the indigenous people, and who also had a thirst for knowing there rituals and customs while preserving them for the future. Today an assortment of songs, myths, legends and traditions of these precolombian cultures have survived. Perhaps the best known example of this is the Popol Vuh.

Flor y Canto

The Aztecs had an developed a form of oral poetry called "Flor y Canto" (Flower and Song) which was often sung to music. The Aztecs did not rely on rhyme but on a delicate balance of accented and unaccented syllables and a vast symbolism that reflected their culture. They established "Houses of songs" in order to train young poets and conduct various poetry contests.

The unification of Indigenous and Spanish cultures produced a unique and extraordinary body of literature in Spanish America. Later with the introduction of African slaves to the new world, African traditions greatly infiltrated Spanish American poetry.

During the period of Conquest and Colonization many Hispanic Americans were educated in Spain. The poets of this historical period followed the European trends in literature but their subjects were always distinctly American.

The struggle for independence of the Spanish Colonies saw a literature of defiance of authority and a sense of social injustice that is ever present in Spanish American poetics. Jose Marti is an example of a poet-martyr who literally died fighting for the freedom of Cuba. His most famous poem, Guantanamera has entered into popular culture as it has been reproduced hundreds of times, most recently by Celia Cruz and even the Fugees.

From the Preconquest to the beginning of Colonialization

Unsurprisingly, most of the early poetry written in the colonies and fledgling republic used contemporary Spanish models of poetic form, diction, and theme. However, in the 19th century, a distinctive Spanish-American tradition began to emerge with the creation of Modernismo (not to be confused with Modernism).

Modernismo: a literary movement that arose in Spanish America in the late 19th century and was subsequently transmitted to Spain. Introduced by Ruben Dario with the publication of Azul (1888), this new style of poetry was strongly influenced by the French symbolist and Parnassians. In rebellion against romanticism, the modernists attempted to renew poetic language and to create a poetry characterized by formal perfection, musicality, and strongly evocative imagery. The wider use of the term applies to the various experimental and avant-garde trends of the early twentieth century.

Toward the end of the millennium, consideration of Spanish American poetry has taken a multi-cultural approach, as scholars begin to emphasise poetry by women, Afro/a Hispanics, contemporary indigenous communities and other subcultural groupings. Poetry, and creative writing in general, also tended to become more professionalized with the growth of Creative Writing programs. After Modernismo and World War I, there were many new currents which influenced Spanish American poets -- Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Ultraism -- Argentinian poet Borges brings it to this continent. Creacionismo--Huidobro. All this (1910 and 1940). Many more movements and groups continue to write the history of Spanish American literature until the present.

The images found in pre-colombian culture appear again in poets like from across Latin America.

Nicolás Guillén from Cuba and Luis Palés-Matos from Puerto Rico incorporate the African roots in the rhythm of their poetry, making their song unique. Afro-Caribbean trends reappear in the poetry of Nuyorican poets who continue the tradition of poetry as song