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A child's wisdom in a poet's heart.

The works of Maria Elena Walsh are one of the hidden treasures of Latin American literature. You won't find many of her verses in the regional anthologies that have proliferated in recent years, nor will you find much of her material in translation. But this in no way diminishes her stature as a major writer. Just ask members of recent generations who have grown up with la Reina Batata, Mono Liso, Manuelita la Tortuga, or la Vaca Estudiosa de Humahuaca. They know Walsh. So do those who have been transported to places with euphonious names like Gulubu, el Pais de Nomeacuerdo, Calle Chacabuco, or el Reino del Reves.

Why then has Walsh been overlooked? In part the answer lies in the fallacy of categorization. It is said that Walsh writes for children. How can humorous stuff for kids be great literature? What's more, her verses are set to music! Over her career, however, Walsh has also penned serious verse for adults not to mention dozens of essays, even a novel. And, her rhymes and fables for children are high art in their lyricism, celebration of the sound of words, and efficient presentation of complex notions. She imposes no arbitrary restraints on what can be but rather encourages unfettered young minds to remain faithful to the infinite reaches of their own imaginations. As did James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, and Edward Lear, Walsh focuses on the musicality of language: assonance, tonality, rhythm, tempo. People of all ages can find plenty to chew on in her extensive body of work.

Walsh often has been called a juglaresa The term fits her well because she does literally "juggle" both word and melody in the manner of a medieval troubador. Sometimes the material is humorous, other times she serves up bittersweet wisdom or a nostalgic longing for the past. In recent years a few academics have begun to subject her lines to overly ponderous analysis. But Walsh unimpressed, insisting that she just speaks from the heart. Like Bob Dylan, another great poet who just happens to deliver his lines as songs, Walsh succeeds in expressing herself in a down-to-earth manner. Never forgetting her origins, she identifies with the masses, especially with women trying to survive in an unfair world.

Born in 1930, the future poet was raised in the Buenos Aires suburb of Ramos Mejia. Walsh's ancestry was a combustible mix of Andalusia on her mother's side and the Emerald Isle on her father's. It is to her Irishness that she credits her imagination, receptivity to rebelliousness, and love of myths and fairies. What about her love of words? "Perhaps. My father, an administrator with the railways, used to tell and sing nursery rhymes, limericks, word games, all in English. I adored them. I didn't write them down, but I remembered them." As a teenager, Walsh often read tales of adventure that took her far away: Gulliver's Travels, Huckleberry Finn, Baron Munchhausen, and the stories of Jules Verne. There was also a great deal of music in the Walsh household. Her father and sister both played the piano, and Maria Elena became an accomplished singer of English and Irish folk songs, Schubert lieder, works by Stephen Foster, and spirituals from the southern United States. She loved the 1940s crooners -- Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Fred Astaire -- all of whom she would impersonate using a broom for a microphone.

Homelife, however, was often stormy. Walsh's father could be autocratic, even violent, and thus she took refuge in a private world of writing poetry. On her own, at age fifteen, she submitted a verse to the Buenos Aires daily El Hogar, and it was accepted. So began the young poet's induction into the city's cultural establishment. She placed another poem in the literary section of La Nacion, which was directed by novelist Eduardo Mallea, and other lines appeared in Sur, the famous literary journal edited by Victoria Ocampo. Eventually, at her own expense, Walsh published a collection of her own poetry, Otono imperdonable [Unforgiving Autumn]. The book received plaudits and won the 1947 Premio Municipal de Poesia de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires.

Walsh was a mere seventeen years old when her poetry catapulted her into the limelight of Argentina's literary elite. It was not unusual for her to have dinner at the home of Adolfo Bioy Casares and his wife, Silvina Ocampo. Jorge Luis Borges, too, often stopped by. "Borges was a strange fellow. Extremely shy in those days. Always sort of an interior dialogue with himself, a genius with an overactive mind like a computer. He could never stay with one thing. I was very shy, too ... uneasy with him. I didn't know what to say." These frequent encounters came to a close two years later with Walsh's departure for the United States, where she stayed with the Spanish poet (and future Nobel laureate) Juan Ramon Jimenez.

Jimenez, Walsh recalls, "wrote me after I'd sent him a book of my poems. We used to send our poems to everyone. What's wrong with that? And so when he came to Argentina -- a big star -- on a cold August day, we met his ship, and he invited me to spend a few months at his home in Maryland. It was such a surprise. I had no money at all, but he arranged for a scholarship from the Williams Foundation in the United States." It was 1948. Her father had died of cancer the year before. Her mother gave the trip plans a silent nod of approval. Once settled in Riverdale (outside Washington, D. C.), Walsh took some classes at the University of Maryland, frequently read at the Library of Congress, and made periodic trips to New York City, where she spent most of her time at art museums, Carnegie Hall, or Radio City (to see the Rockettes). "When I came home, I was lost. We were living in a dictatorship: Peron. It was hard to make a living here, especially as a poet. It was a rather melancholy period for me."

But this impasse yielded to a new chapter in Walsh's life. In this case, the catalyst was her friend, Leda Valladares, a folksinger from Tucuman then living in Costa Rica. Steeped in the blues, jazz, as well as folk music from Argentina's northwestern provinces, Valladares in a letter proposed escape from the oppressive cultural climate of Peronist Argentina and a new venture as nightclub singers in Paris. "We had this idea of going to see places and earning a living one way or another. We found we could do it by singing professionally in small clubs, on radio, TV, at galas. From the beginning I developed my own material alongside the folksongs. Other Europeans taught us songs as well."

Postwar Paris was a heady place -- the existentialist boom having just reached its peak, the revival of jazz, and the powerful presence of other Cono Sur expatriates like Atahualpa Yupanqui, Julio Cortazar, and Violeta Parra. Leda and Maria (as they became known) lived in the Latin Quarter, holed up in the small Hotel du Gran Balcon. They played in clubs with legendary names like Les Deux Magots, El Flore, Scandia, L'Ecluse, and the Crazy Horse Saloon. At the core of their performances were the different forms of traditional Argentine folk music: vadalitas, bagualas, chacareras, zambas, carnavalitos, and cuecas. But they also leavened their act with material inspired by jazz, the blues, and rhythms from other parts of Latin America. Often they performed on the same stage with famed chansonniers Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour, and Georges Brassens. Thus, for Leda and Maria, a certain intimate music-hall style began to evolve. On French national radio they performed with Yves Montand, Juliette Greco, and Guy Beart, and they also recorded several collections of Argentine folk music. Walsh found time, as well, to fall in love with a schoolmate from Buenos Aires, fellow expatriate Jose Maria Fernandez. The affair later inspired her famous "Zamba para Pepe":

So many years since

you've been gone

I said goodbye without a tear

Like an Argentine in a tango song

In Paris, solitary, no one near

You chose to leave our glorious sun

For drizzled streets, dim and drear.

So many years I've cared for you

Many more since you've

thought of me.

They say you won't come back again

And I may not recross the sea,

Some night I'll see you here,

on Corrientes

At the corner of Rivoli...

Walsh penned the song soon after her return to Buenos Aires in 1956. "We enjoyed acceptance overseas, but it wasn't home. When we returned it was very difficult. We could only find work singing in the universities. The idea of musica popular in Argentina was different, not developed. We were considered rough and wild. The tangos of that period were very sweet and nostalgic. Our songs had a rebellious edge." Leda and Maria did earn a living by singing, even finding an audience for the Spanish folk songs they had collected during forays in Spain. "In Spain we got them from the nanas who remembered the old songs. We did a recording of them."

While in Paris, yet another side of the multifaceted Walsh had begun to manifest itself -- writing verses for young people. Walsh pursued this new direction with great intensity upon her return to Argentina. "It wasn't a conscious thing. I didn't want to teach things to children, per se. I'd just inherited the tradition: folklore, simple music, nursery rhymes, Spanish coplas, love of proverbs." Playing games with words held a special fascination for her, whether she was translating English nonsense verses or creating new material. A comparison of the English version of "Hey Diddle Diddle" with Walsh's Spanish "Cancion tonta" [Foolish Song] demonstrates how brilliantly she maintained the sound and rhythm of the original:

Hey diddle diddle!

??Tilin, tilin, tilin??

The cat and the fiddle

El gato y el violin

The cow jumped over the moon

La vaca vacuna se trepa a la luna

The little dog laughed

La oveja esta sola

to see such sport

con traje de cola

And the dish ran away

A la flor canela

with the spoon.

le duele la muela.

Frequently, Walsh drew upon verse forms her father had used, especially English limericks that had delighted her so as a child. Among the many she concocted in Spanish, two from "Zoo loco" [Crazy Zoo] (1964) show her to be a born teacher, possessed with an infectious sense of humor. In these verses, a wolf tries to buy a stewed-chicken ice-cream cone and a pig is taught to meow like a cat. Inversion of different elements in language became a particularly rich vein in the Walsh lode of verse. At first she edited a collection of traditional Spanish coplas with flip-flopped phrases that produced an appealing nonsensical chaos:

By the side of a man

A river sat in shade

Sharpening its horse's edge

And watering its blade.

Then she applied the principle to individual words, flopping syllables to produce the sort of tongue-twisting madness that children love to invent on their own:

Un Noguipin un Greti un Lodricoco

Un Toquimos, un Mapu una Rratoco.

Una Faraji un Toga

un Rrope, una Tavioga

Un Llobaca, un Norrizo, y un Teyoco.

In 1963 she wrote "El reino del reves" [The Realm of Reverse], a youngster's primer, it could be argued, for the absurdity of reality or, as one critic said, "the arbitrariness and vulnerability of order":

In the Realm of Reverse they all agree

People dance upside down

quite naturally.

Thieves there are

judges and gendarmerie

And two and two add up to three.

Dona Disparate, or Madame Blunder, is yet another example of a Walsh creation that is "explicitly for children and implicitly for adults," according to critics Ilse Luraschi and Kay Sibald. On one level, Dona Disparate's inane exploits tickle the ribs of children, but on another this personification of confusion again stands as a metaphor for humankind's struggle to maintain equilibrium. In the first stanza poor "Dona Disparate, sweet potato nose, forgets, she forgets her own name"; in the last stanza, unable to resist yet another twist, Walsh closes with "Dona Disparate, merengue nose, blenders, I mean blunders all of the time." (Don't we all!)

Although this sorceress's incantations by themselves stand as fine poetry, all were conceived as songs set to original tunes composed by Walsh. Had she been professionally trained? "Hardly! I'm ignorant of writing music, but I've heard a lot, and I think I've inherited universal music. So my melodic lines, rhythms, I pick them from here and there ... from jazz, from folk music of Spain and the Americas, from everywhere. We are such a melange of races and nationalities. Our music is the same story."

Walsh went on to record eight collections of her children's songs. (Some are being reissued by Sony as compact disks.) Collections of her verses also appeared as children's books in editions so popular that even now, decades later, sixteen different titles remain in print. Walsh also performed frequently on radio, for television, and most of all in a theater program, which she called Cabaret para ninos [Cabaret for Children). Throughout the early 1960s thousands of lucky chudren were transfixed as Walsh weaved her magic by mixing stories and songs, accompanied by guitarists Jorge Panitsch or Oscar Cardozo Ocampo. Walsh managed to overcome her innate shyness and emerge as a public person, even an international figure, as she took her show on tour in Mexico, the United States, and Europe.

During the 1960s, alongside the material for children, quietly Walsh began to write songs aimed at an adult audience. The verses, many later published as Cancionero contra el mal de ojo [Songbook to Cure the Evil Eye], embraced a wide range of humanistic concerns, particularly those of women. "Requiem de madre" [Requiem for a Mother] paid homage to working-class housewives. The poverty-stricken circumstances of Andean weavers became a theme for "Tejedoras" [The Weavers), whereas "Campana de palo" [Bell of Reprimand] was a tribute to rural schoolteachers. "Serenata para la tierra de uno" [Serenade for One's Land] was the author's overtly political response to military rule in Argentina, and "Oracion a la justicia" [Oration to Justice], her stinging condemnation of corruption in the courts. Walsh's production for grown-ups had its lighter moments, too. "Vals municipal" [Municipal Waltz) was her paean to some favonte streets and plazas of Buenos Aires, while "El viejo variete" [The Old Variety] reflected the author's unabashed admiration for performers like Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, as well as tango king Carlos Gardel.

In the early 1970s Walsh began to record her adult material for the Columbia Broadcasting System. Then, in response to the suggestion of theater director Maria Luz Reggs, she decided to go before the lights and perform on the music-hall stage. Once again, Walsh had to overcome her initial reluctance to share with the public the private nature of her material, but in time she found the courage to sing before packed crowds. Her admiring fans would not tolerate a concert without standards like "El 45," "Los ejecutivos" [The Executives], and "Zamba para Pepe," but most of all they expected her to perform her signature song, "Como la cigarra".

By the late 1970s the political situation in Argentina had begun to represent an enormous psychological burden for Walsh. "We heard terrible things, but we didn't know for sure what was happening." The military government subjected her work to increased censorship, and her performances, too, were a target for harassment. In 1978 she stopped performing altogether. Other personal problems ensued, particularly, a diagnosis of bone cancer. Fortunately, after five operations and numerous chemotherapy sessions, she has recovered to take on a full slate of challenging projects (a friend has described an inactive Walsh as an oxymoron!).

In the early 1980s, after Argentina's return to democracy, "Como la cigarra" became for many people an unofficial anthem or leitmotiv epocal (in the words of Walshs biographer Sergio Pujol). Its theme of rebirth in the face of extreme adversity spoke to the painful experiences of many of Walshs fellow Argentines. The song's popularity, the power of its words, moved folksinger Mercedes Sosa to record her own version, as did Cuarteto Zupay and Susana Rinaldi. "Originally, `Como la cigarra' had no political context," Walsh recalls. "It is just that after the fact it could be read that way. It was about life, an artist's life. Sometimes you are very well known, people adore you, and then the next day nobody knows you, no one loves you. That was the idea. The song started more easily than others. I had it almost completed in my mind. It was a very strong feeling and then, as has happened many times after I write something, I realized it had different meanings. It became a symbol for people in exile, those who had survived."

In 1984 Editorial Sudamericana issued Los Poemas de Maria Elena Walsh, a compendium of her "nonmusical" verses. Six years later, the same press published Novios de antado [Boyfriends of Yesteryear], a novel based on her memories of growing up in Ramos Mejia. (The novel's title refers to her four, much older step brothers by her father's first marriage.) In 1993 Editorial Sudamericana published Walsh's Desventuras en el Pais-Jardin-de-Infantes [Misfortunes in the Nursery School Country], a collection of essays and letters that had appeared in El Hogar, La Nacion, and Clarin. Some were pure literary criticism (commentary on the work of Pablo Neruda, Doris Lessing, Pedro Salinas, Emily Dickinson, and Amy Lowell; others took well-deserved pokes at sexism, governmental mismanagement, adults acting like juveniles. Several had a strong feminist message ("??Por que usted es machista?") [Why Are You a Macho?], while others dealt with public issues ("Oda a los banos publicos") [Ode to the Public Lavatories].

Has Walsh become something of a conscience for Argentina? "So they say," she quietly responds. "It takes courage to take positions not necessarily popular. But how badly we need some models. In the past it's been Borges, Maradona. It's important to have some referente, and I know I am one of those people."

Over the years Walsh has been honored with numerous awards, including the Order of the Smile (granted by the Polish Government for children's literature), an honorary doctorate from the Universidad de Cordoba, and special recognition by the Asociacion Mutua Israeli-Argentina for her children's songs and poems translated into Hebrew.

And, through the years, Walsh has continued to perceive her poetry as songs. "I always think in musical terms: rhythm and rhyme. With a poem you are free to choose, but it's very difficult to write words for a song. It has to be very short. You have to ter a lot of things in a few verses, an entire story in minutes. It may look easy, but it's a great deal of work." Indeed it is. Walsh's lines manage to spring forth with the freshness of a new idea, but they are often charged with a characteristic tension between sadness and optimism, seriousness and playfulness, which has become her trademark.

Perhaps Walsh's "Balada de la mariposa" [Ballad of the Butterfly] best sums up the poet's challenge. It is a tale of two unlikely partners, a sailor and butterfly, who, in the finite limits of their destiny, commit themselves to true love:

A butterfly once bestowed her passion

Upon a sailor -- in her fashion

Flitting about the hotel gate

Waiting, ecstatic, to follow her mate

Upon his white cap to alight

Then onto his white ship,

at dizzying height

She flew to the vessel's

high-reaching stack

At her first glimpse of ocean

quite taken aback.

On him she lavished all the rapture

Her brief day's span of life

could capture

Singing: O lovely Sailor!

O Sailor, my love

Our happiness lights

the heavens above

In the afternoon as the sun sank low

From the sailor's eyes

sad tears did flow

So to distract him from his sorrow

She danced in the air without

thought of the morrow.

From the white masts

she drifted away

As a mighty gust interrupted

her play.

Into the gray sea she fell and drowned

The stalwart sailor heard not a sound

But all unaware a salty tear

Rolled down his cheek,

though he felt no fear,

Marking the end of the love so true

Of the butterfly and the lad in blue.
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Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Argentine poet Maria Elena Walsh
Author:Bach, Caleb
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1995
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