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Guillen, Cernuda, and the vicissitudes of Spanish modernism.

Standard accounts of the influence of modernist poets in the postwar period usually mention the publication of Damso Alonso's Los hijos de la ira and Vicente Aleixandre's Sombra del paraiso in 1944, Aleixandre's mentoring of successive generations of younger poets, and the iconic status of Antonio Machado. Critics agree that Luis Cernuda mature work was the major influence on the younger poets of the 1950s, and that neither Federico Garcia Lorca nor Jorge Guillen provided models that could be easily assimilated or imitated. The modernist poets themselves, with the notable exception of Juan Ramon Jimenez, had themselves abandoned modernist poetry. Writing of the "Generation of 1927" in 1963, Jose Angel Valente points out that "esa generacion ... ha tenido que levantarse tacitamente contra si misma. A mas de treinta anos vista, el despegue de esos escritores de sus propios supuestos generacionales es evidente en la evolucion de la obra de Alberti, Cernuda, Aleixandre, Damaso Alonso y, en su etapa mas reciente, Jorge Guillen" (Las palabras de la tribu 140).

This standard account is adequate, as far as it goes, but I believe that there is another story that needs to be told: modernism does indeed seem exhausted after the Spanish civil war, its aesthetic principles largely discredited, but a distinctively Spanish variety of late modernism, exemplified by the work of Valente and Antonio Gamoneda, enjoys a remarkable resurgence beginning in the late 1970s. The shifting reputations of two significant representative of Spanish modernism, Jorge Guillen and Luis Cernuda, will illustrate these developments. Guillen exemplifies both the exhaustion of modernism and the difficulties of transcending it. Cernuda, on the other hand, offered the best hope for a path beyond modernism in 1950s and 1960s, but his appropriation of British romantic and Victorian models now seems much less convincing than it once did.

Guillen: Modernism in Decline

In historical terms Jorge Guillen has to be considered the quintessential modernist poet of Spain. Cantico, a celebrated work published in four successive editions (1928, 1936, 1945, 1950) is firmly enshrined in the canon, and has been the object of serious critical study (both in Spain and abroad) beginning with the first edition of Casalduero's study in 1946. For multiple reasons, Lorca, whom many serious readers would now regard as the most significant poet of Spanish modernism, has never been able to occupy an equivalent position. Lorca has always been a canonical figure, of course, but his work has frequently been the object of censorship and ideological suspicion. In some cases, the actual textual integrity of his work has been in doubt, with controversy surrounding Poeta en Nueva York in particular. Lorca's work, split between neopopularism and the avant-garde, did not present a unified image of plenitude and self-sufficiency. Guillen, in contrast, was able to shape the response to his own work in essays like Lenguaje y poesia and El argumento de la obra. Even as his particular variety of modernism was becoming a bit frayed around the edges, in the 1960s and 1970s, it remained a favorite with scholars and critics, posing no ideological challenge to either the left or the right. With its "structured vision of reality," Guillen poetry was particularly amenable to academic analysis in the formalist and structuralist vein.

Despite Guillen's canonical status as the quintessential poet of the "Generation of 1927" (or perhaps because of this status), younger poets of the 1950s and 1960s felt deep ambivalence toward his achievement. Their resistance had two major causes. In the first place, many felt that Guillen's later work (the 1950 edition of Cantico and the first installments of Clamor), represented a falling off from the unquestionable excellence of his earlier work. Secondly, the poetic vision of Cantico itself, even in its earlier incarnations, seemed too perfect and placid against the backdrop of more turbulent strains of European modernism. It was in this period that Guillen himself adopted an apologetic posture, trying to limit the scope of the idea that that "el mundo esta bien hecho," often cited as an aphorism without reference to its original context in the poem "Beato sillon."

In an interview with Federico Campbell, published in 1971, Claudio Rodriguez states a position shared by many other readers of Guillen's later work: "Hay poetas que siguen escribiendo y no escriben poesia. Es el caso de Guillen. Conserva su buena palabra, pero la poesia ha desaparecido" (Campbell 237). Rodriguez does not explain this judgment, but other poets of his generation confirm the underlying intuition. Juan Ferrate, in a short essay dating from 1955 and printed in the 1968 book Dinamica de la poesia ("E1 altavoz de Jorge Guillen"), dissects Guillen's "Naturaleza con altavoz" in a somewhat high-handed manner. The major problem, for Ferrate, is that Guillen's high modernist style is at odds with the ostensible triviality of his subject matter: "El tema no ha sido trascendido, solo ha sido caricaturizado en una fallida pretension ennoblecedora. Guillen no ha sacado ningun partido intuitivo de su tema vulgar, solo ha logrado hacerlo aun mas vulgar. En eso estriba su ejemplar fracaso" (66).

Ferrate, along with his brother Gabriel Ferrater, belonged to the circle around Jaime Gil de Biedma and the "School of Barcelona." Gil de Biedma dedicates his 1960 study "Cantico": el mundo y poesia de Jorge Guillen, in fact, to Gabriel Ferrater and to Jaime Salinas (the son of Guillen's closest literary associate, Pedro Salinas). While professing great admiration for Guillen, Gil de Biedma concludes his study on a reluctantly negative note, arguing that the older poet was unable to find a convincing path out of modernism. In some of the longer poems added to Cantico in its final, 1950 edition, Guillen uses descriptive and narrative elements to illustrate his vison of the world, but with an excessively didactic intention: "unas veces mejor y otras peor, Guillen logra salir del paso, pero el instrumento chirria y se queja. Miembro de una promocion de excelentisimos liricos y pobres narradores, el autor de Cantico es sin disputa el mas pobre de todos" (188). Gil de Biedma characterizes the poem "Tiempo libre," for example, as "una especie de interminable y tediosa guardarropia del teatro poetico guilleniano" (ibid.).

At the root of this aesthetic failure, according to Gil de Biedma, is Guillen's half-hearted attempt to transcend his own modernism. Both Ferrate and Gil de Biedma point to the disjunction between the style of Cantico, with its modernist gravitas, and the more descriptive, observational mode that Guillen began to use increasingly in the 1940s. The visionary style of "Mas alla" is ill-suited for a description of a loudspeaker ata picnic anda lyric poet of visionary consciousness is a very poor narrator of seemingly insignificant material. The conclusion drawn by Gil de Biedma is that modernism itself is in decline. Seen in the broader context of European poetry,
   la obra de Guillen adquiere especial significacion a la
   luz de un hecho del cual la mayor parte de nuestros criticos
   no se han dado todavia entera cuenta: la progresiva
   perdida de vitalidad de una tradicion moderna cuya
   iniciacion suele fijarse en Baudelaire y que, a traves de
   Mallarme y Rimbaud, prolonga su vigencia hasta los
   dias de la poesia pura y del surrealismo, para luego
   sobrevivir gracias a los poetas formados en estos dos
   movimientos. (190)


Gil de Biedma's label for what we now might call modernism is "una tradicion poetica moderna" with roots in Baudelaire and French symbolism. His historical description of this tradition is unremarkable, but the implication that other Spanish critics have yet not become aware of the decline of modernism is worthy of note. Guillen's dilemma, if we are to believe Gil de Biedma, is that he can neither extend the life of this declining tradition nor see his way out of it: the final edition of Cantico "nos aparece como ultima encarnacion viva de una tradicion que entre 1870 y 1930 ha fecundado la mejor poesia europea, y como un primer intento de superacion no siempre logrado" (ibid; emphasis added). Interestingly, Gil de Biedma leaves open the possibility that Guillen's Clamor will offer the promised escape from modernism: "Solo despues de leido Clamor, el libro en que actualmente trabaja y una de cuyas partes ha publicado ya, estaremos en condiciones de saber si Guillen ha conseguido, o no, ir mas alla de su poesia, hasta inventarse otra distinta pero igualmente suya, igualmente excelsa" (189). It seems highly doubtful, however, that the narrative and descriptive modes of Clamor could have satisfied Gil de Biedma, who has already characterized Guillen as the least adept narrator in a generation of "pobres narradores." In fact, Gil de Biedma did not go on to actively champion Guillen's Clamor.

Like Gil de Biedma, but for very different reasons, Jose Angel Valente is ambivalent toward the author of Cantico and Clamor. The major difference here is that Gil de Biedma considers modernism to be "una tradicion cuya supervivencia ahora estorba" (191), while Valente devotes the final two decades of his career to an unapologetic revindication of the high modernist project. Beginning in the 1970s, with books like Material memoria, Valente comes to identify more and more with literary modernism, distancing himself from the postwar emphasis on mimetic realism. At one time Valente, like many others of his so-called "generation," was more or less identified with the precepts of social poetry as held by Gil de Biedma and Jose Maria Castellet. Valente's ultimate solution to the modernist conundrum, however, was to become more rather than less modernist. His sympathies with a certain strain of modernism are already evident, I believe, in the essays devoted to figures like Rilke, Lezama Lima, Lorca, and Zambrano in the 1971 Las palabras de la tribu.

The paradox is that Valente, more closely identified with modernism than is Gil de Biedma, is less generous in his praise of Guillen, the prototypical Spanish modernist. (Precisely because he has cut his ties with modernism in his own poetry, Gil de Biedma feels safer in professing admiration for the earlier work of Guillen.) The problem with Guillen work, as Valente argues in "Cantico o la excepcion de la normalidad," is its radically conservative emphasis on normality: "No es Cantico una poesia del ser, sino del ajustarse satisfactoriamente el ser y el existir en un presente lleno, es decir, en un presente cuyo pasado o cuyo future fueran superfluos" (Las palabras de la tribu 103). A work that emphasizes this quality of adjustment is conservative by its very nature, and does not even seem properly modernist--if literary modernity is defined by the linguistic skepticism of Mallarme and Blanchot or the alienation of Kafka and Beckett. Valente regards Guillen's unwavering affirmation with ironic incredulity:

El hombre--vuelve a repetir Guillen--"encajado en su lugar" siente como como "suficientes la salud y la libertad". ?Suficientes la salud y la libertad? ?Como? E1 arte ha despertado al hombre durante siglos ofreciendoles imagenes de su liberacion total: tal ha sido el sueno de la poesia o de la tragedia. He aqui, bruscamente, la promesa cumplida o el descubrimiento de que ya se nos habia de antemano cumplido en el fenomeno extraordinario de la "normalidad". ?Como? Mediante la adecuacion al orden presente satisfactorio, planetario, normal, normativo, invisible casi de lo puro visible. (Valente, Las palabras de la tribu 102)

By presenting the dream of human liberation as already accomplished in a self-sufficient present, Guillen reverses the utopian impulse of modernism and makes it appear curiously flat and domesticated. I would go as far as to say that Guillen's normality is exceptional, for Valente, because it is atypical of modernist literature itself, where normality is definitely not the norm. By pointing to the flagrant

anomaly of Guillen's poetry, Valente subtly displaces him from his centrality in the modernist canon.

Valente renews his critique of Guillen in a 1995 essay entitled "Formas de lectura y dinamica de la tradicion." Here he takes Damaso Alonso and Jorge Guillen to task for their views of San Juan de la Cruz, denigrating these canonical modernist poets (too harshly perhaps) for their lack of philosophical depth: "La generacion del 27 es mas una generacion de profesores que de pensadores" (144). Both Alonso and Guillen, well known as "poet-professors," attempt to read the poetry of San Juan by setting aside its mysticism and attempting to read it "desde esta ladera," that is, as secular love poetry without regard to its religious dimension. Valente points out that this secularized approach to mystic poetry is wholly inadequate. The insistence on reading San Juan de la Cruz as a poet of "human," in other words, erotic love by putting its religious content to one side is absurd because it is based on a dualistic conception, "una interpretacion dualista, en suma, de una obra cuyo eje y viviente sustancia es la integracion, la fusion, la union" (La experiencia abisal, 147).

The attempt to read San Juan without reference to biographical, historical, and religious contexts reflects the rise of intrinsic approaches to literature in the early years of the twentieth century. Alonso, writing in the 1940s, might also have been attempting to carve out a space for a non-devotional reading of a Catholic saint in a period of Spanish history dominated by the church. A decontexualized, secular reading of San Juan, nevertheless, is dualistic in the sense that it treats mysticism itself as extraneous to a presumably intrinsic reading of the work, treating it as an extrapoetic factor. Valente, of course, has consistently viewed mysticism as an intrinsically poetic phenomenon. Greatly influenced by Maria Zambrano, he valued San Juan de Cruz because San Juan was a great mystic poet, and thus had no need to apologize for the religious implications of "Cantico espiritual."

Valente's sustained interest in mysticism and philosophy leads him to dismiss the work of the entire "Generation of 1927," with the exception of Cernuda, in categorical terms: "Ademas, el pensamiento espanol que les es contemporaneo no se interesa por la mistica o, en general, por el problema de la experiencia religiosa como exploracion de la interioridad. Segun el propio Guillen indica (1962), el unico gran tema que no abunda en su presunta generacion poetica es el religioso" (La experiencia abisal 145). Valente argues that Guillen's and Alonso's inadequate readings of San Juan are evidence of a fatal flaw in Spanish modernist poetry, its philosophical weakness:
   Hace falta que fuera muy endeble la relacion entre
   poesia y pensamiento para llegar a definir la poesia
   como comunicacion, en terminos de Vicente Aleixandre
   que Guillen recoge y reitera en uno de los ensayos de
   Lenguaje y poesia (1962), al que tambien pertenece su
   muy opinable lectura de San Juan de la cruz. (Ibid)


For Valente the words "pensamiento" refers to a variety of German postromanticism derived from Friedrich Holderlin by way of Martin Heidegger, and, within the Spanish tradition, to figures like Machado, Unamuno, and Cernuda, whose poetry engages directly with more abstract thought. Taking his cues from Cernuda and Zambrano, Valente places a high value on modes of writing that combine poetry, philosophy, and religious experience. From Zambrano, in particular, he develops a less secularized view of literary modernity, one that recognized "lo sacro" as the key element of Garca Lorca, for example (Zambrano, Algunos lugares de la pintura 145-50). Poets like Aleixandre and Guillen, by affirming that poetry is mere "communication," effectively disqualify themselves in Valente's eyes, severing the connection between modernist poetry and this deeper philosophical tradition. Valente will have to construct his own modernist genealogy by looking to writers like Zambrano, Cernuda, and Lezama Lima, rather than to the canonical writers associated with the concept of the "Generation of 1927."

Cernuda--For Right and Wrong Reasons

Unlike Guillen, Luis Cernuda did not always occupy the center of canon of modernist poetry. His growing reputation in the 1950s and 1960s, in fact, derived from largely from his marginal relation to his immediate contemporaries. It was precisely Cernuda's effort to transcend modernism that made him valuable for Valente, Brines, and Gil de Biedma. Cernuda seemed to offer an answer to the other poets of the generation of 1927 and at the same time a path toward a deeper modernity, one with roots in German and English romanticism. Gil de Biedma put it like this: "Cernuda es, hoy por hoy, al menos para mi, el mas vivo, el mas contemporaneo entre todos los grandes poetas del 27, precisamente porque nos ayuda a liberarnos de los grandes poetas del 27" (El pie de la letra 74). The 1962 homage to Cernuda in La Cana Gris contained significant essays by Brines, Valente, Gil de Biedma, and the issue's editor, Jacobo Munoz, that took essentially the same line, praising Cernuda's later poetry (from Las nubes to Desolacion de la quimera) and emphasizing the poet's significant encounter with the British romantic and Victorian tradition, which led to his use of a Robert Browning-style dramatic monologue. This became, in effect, the consensus view of Cernuda's work, a view that was barely distinguishable, in fact, from Cernuda's own accounts of his poetic development in "Historiai de un libro." Many critics have simply taken Cernuda's own views as their own, without taking into account the blatantly self-serving nature of this text.

Gil de Biedma, Valente and Brines helped to shape the consensus that Cernuda's lasting legacy was to be found in his "mature" work, that is, the additions to La realidad y el deseo from Las nubes through Desolacion de la quimera. Al-though critics have echoed the consensus that emerged in the 1960s, repeating the earlier arguments almost verbatim, a different view of Cernuda's historical import has begun to emerge in recent years. From the perspective of many readers of the early twenty-first century, it is Cernuda's earlier, modernist poetry, especially Un rio, un amor, Los placeres prohibidos, and Donde habite el olvido, that remains the strongest and most enduring. The dramatic monologues of Cernuda's later phase have their historic interest, but they no longer have to carry the burden of being the necessary alternative to the high modernism of Guillen's Cantico. In "Ni experiencia ni meditacion: Cernuda por razones equivocadas," Julian Jimenez Heffernan offers a potentially devastating critique of Cernuda's literary criticism, and by extension, the use of Cernuda in the work of poets of the 1950s.

Jimenez Heffernan is a professor of English at the University of Cordoba anda translator of John Ashbery. Los papeles rotos includes essays devoted to Vallejo, Cernuda, Valente, and Olvido Garcia Valdes, among others, but the sympathies of the critic lie with Lorca: "De haberlo planeado, habria escrito sobre Lorca, el unico poeta en castellano que realmente me preocupa" (9). "Ni experiencia ni meditacion: Cernuda por razones equivocadas" dismantles the critical consensus about Cernuda's use of the British tradition, taking aim especially at Cernuda's 1958 book El pensamiento poetico en la lirica inglesa del siglo XIX. An admirer of Cernuda's earlier, quasi-surrealist works, Jimenez Heffernan is not impressed by Cernuda's later work or by his literary criticism: "La critica literaria de Cernuda es pobre. Sus conceptos y criterios son escasos, imprecisos, de segunda mano, y la aplicacion de los mismos suele estar dominada por la celeridad, la desatencion al texto, el capricho personal, a veces la mezquindad" (81). He even finds that Cernuda committed direct plagiarism (113-14). Cernuda's knowledge of nineteenth-century English poetry, in particular, turns out to be much less impressive than Gil de Biedma and Valente had assumed.

By demonstrating in somewhat painful detail that Cernuda's understanding of nineteenth-century British poetry is superficial, second-hand, and frequently mistaken, Jimenez Heffernan is able to undermine one of the central narratives of postwar Spanish literary history. The title of Jimenez Heffernan's essay ("Ni experiencia ni meditacion") refers to Robert Langbaum's Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (1957) and Louis Martz's The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature (1954), two books of literary criticism that were used by Gil de Biedma and Valente, among others, to bolster the argument that Cernuda's work has deep roots in the British tradition. Jimenez Heffernan cuts the ground from beneath Valente's argument for a relation between Cernuda and the meditative poetry of the English metaphysical tradition, as well as the frequent comparisons between Cernuda and Browning. His essay also implicitly undermines an analogous argument: Philip Silver's contention that Cernuda is the poet of high romanticism that Spain never had in the nineteenth century itself.

Jimenez Heffernan's critique of Cernuda echoes Gil de Biedma's critique of Guillen: neither Guillen (in the more descriptive poems of later editions of Cantico) nor Cernuda (in sections added to La realidad y el deseo during more or less the same period) are able to move beyond modernism. Cernuda, then, loses his exceptional status within the group historically defined as the "Generation of 1927." The later installments of La realidad y el deseo (from Las nubes to Desolacion de la quimera) belong to the same category as other (largely unsuccessful) attempts to write a more historically engaged poetry, including Guillen's Clamor and Aleixandre's Historia del corazon and En un vasto dominio.

Jimenez Heffernan also calls into question the value of the Cernudian dramatic monologue, practiced by successive waves of Spanish poets from Cernuda to the "poesia de la experiencia" of Luis Garcia Montero: "Nada interesante de ahi ha brotado para la poesia espanola" (95) he concludes. Cernuda himself "jamas ha escrito un solo poema de la experiencia en el sentido que da Langbaum al termino" (ibid.). If Jimenez Heffernan is correct in these judgments, then the entire history of postwar Spanish poetry will need to be revised, since the Browningesque dramatic monologue is, supposedly, the foundation of three successive waves of "experiential poetry," in Cernuda himself, in Jaime Gil de Biedma, and in Luis Garcia Montero. Even the novisimos wrote dramatic monologues, although Jimenez Heffernan finds them to be "insufribles" (ibid.).

To see why Cernuda's later poetry often seems so unsatisfactory, I have chosen my own example, his elegi for Andre Gide, "In Memoriam A.G.," from Con las horas contadas. The tone of the poem is appropriately dignified, but the language is pompous and stiff:
   Con el su vida entera coincidia,
   Toda promesa y realidad iguales,
   La mocedad austera vuelta apenas
   Gozosa madurez, tan demoradas
   Como dia estival. Asi olvidaste,
   Amando su existir, temer su muerte.

   Pero su muerte, al allegarle ahora,
   Callo la voz que cerca nunca oiste,
   A cuyos ecos despertaron tantos
   Suenos del mundo en ti nunca vividos,
   Hoy ya no sonados porque ya son vida.

   Cuando para seguir nos falta aliento,
   Roto el magico encanto de las cosas,
   Si en soledad alzabas la cabeza,
   Sonreir le veias tras sus libros.
   Ya entre ellos y tu falta una sombra,
   Falta su sombra noble ya en la vida.

   Usandonos a ciegas todo sigue,
   Aunque unos pocos, como tu, os digais:
   Lo que en el termina en nuestro mundo
   No volvera a este mundo. Y no hay consuelo,
   Que el tiempo es duro y sin virtud los hombres.
   Ya pocos que admirar te quedan. (Cernuda 300)


Cernuda achieves a distancing effect, as he frequently does in the poetry written during this period, by a merely grammatical transposition: the yo lirico, in the implicit lyric subjectivity of the poem, is recast as a tu. This technique, combined with the poem's abstract, ceremonial language, serves to temper a nakedly autobiographical statement of grief. The problem is that, in the absence of any concrete details about Gide himself, or, indeed, of any explanation of why Gide is important for Cernuda in the first place, the attempt at poignancy feels rather forced. We know (not from the poem itself but from Cernuda's biography) that Gide's openness about his homosexuality, and his presentation of this openness as a stance of ethical authenticity, was significant for the Spanish poet. Yet the mature Cernuda still speaks from deep within the closet, since the poem dares not name the very source of his admiration for Gide. The French writer, who was undoubtedly a complex and problematic figure, ends up being reduced to a simplified, one-dimensional caricature.

Cernuda wrote other poems more accomplished than this one. Judged by the standards of the most accomplished modernist poetry, however, Cernuda's "mature" poetic language is all too often dead--lacking in musicality, visual imagery, metaphorical inventiveness, and colloquial immediacy. In his elegy for Gide, a figure who obviously meant quite a bit to the poet, there is not a single striking phrase, or, indeed, any very specific indication of why Gide should be so admired. The reader is asked to admire a decontextualized attitude. The aesthetic and rhetorical failure of this poem results from the use of a poetic language that seemly wholly inadequate to the task at hand. Like Guillen, Cernuda appears to be a poor narrator. His failure, in fact, is quite similar to that of Guillen's "Altavoz" and "Tiempo libre": in both cases a well-developed, mature poetic style is deployed in way does not quite match up with the demands of the subject matter.

In the second half of his essay ("Ni meditacion"), Jimenez Heffernan takes issue with another cornerstone of Cernuda's late poetics, the concept of pensamiento. Valente, as we saw above, used this concept to dismiss the entire "Generation of 1927" (except, of course, for Cernuda himself), and thus a wide swath of Spanish modernist poetry. The problem is that Cernuda also claims to finds pensamiento in the sententious bourgeois sensibility of Campoamor, thus implicitly reducing it to the idea of using verse-form to express abstract ideas or mere opinions. Jimenez Heffernan responds with incredulity: "No acierto a comprender que entendia Campoamor por pensamiento. Sus poemas no solucionan mucho. Mas bien asustan. Mayor perplejidad, si cabe, produce que Cernuda compare Campoamor con Browning.... La broma ya es de mal gusto" (110). As we saw with "In memoriam, A.G.," and as Jimenez Heffernan points out in reference to Cernuda's poetry generally, there is a certain conceptual weakness to Cernuda's own poetry. It is conceptually abstract, but his ideas themselves are not impressive: "Pero (me pregunto), ?donde estan esos pensamientos?, que piensa Cernuda en sus poemas?" (Jimenez Heffernan 109).

For Maria Zambrano (another of Valente's principal influences) both poesia and pensamiento retain their full value, and thus the attempt to combine the two remains an ambitious and worthwhile enterprise. After all, the two have been separated since Plato (Zambrano, Filosofia y poesia). Cernuda's notion of pensamiento, in contrast, remains quite distant from the high modernist/high romantic ideal. Cernuda, then, turns out to be surprisingly similar (once again) to Guillen, in that the weakness of much of his later work is the direct result of an inability to find a satisfactory solution to the problem of transcending modernist poetics. Jimenez Heffernan's devaluation of Cernuda's late work, in fact, assumes the continued viability of the high romantic/high modernist tradition. Relying on a Bloomian notion of "strong poets," and arguing that the true history of poetry is an internal rather than an external one, this critic proposes a division between an official Spanish modernism and the strength of the best Vallejo and Lorca:
   Los supervivientes del 27 que se quedaron (Alonso y
   Aleixandre) no podian (no querian), pese a su honestidad,
   enfrentarse a esa poesia fuerte. Los exiliados in
   catedra (Salinas y Guillen) debian sentir arcadas mentales
   ante dicha escritura fuerte. Y no se olvide, esos
   cuatro nombres son los responsables absolutos de una
   interpretacion de nuestra poesia moderna, que llegara a
   influyentes herederos academicos, como Bousono, y acabara
   inundando toda la critica. (101; original emphasis)


Jimenez Heffernan's modernism, like that of Jose Angel Valente, is more modernist than that of the modernists themselves. Canonical poets, like the four mentioned here, barely qualify.

A Modernism of Our Own

But aren't we supposed to be living in the postmodern age? Perhaps not. From the perspective of a critic like Jimenez Heffernan, the reputations of certain poets have declined not because they are too modernist but because they are not modernist enough. What has shifted in the period since about 1980, then, is our own relationship to modernism. It is no longer a movement "whose survival is an obstacle," as it was for Gil de Biedma, but a perennial source of aesthetic renovation. From the perspective I am proposing here, the first "postmodernism," in other words, the various attempts to transcend modernism among poets originally identified with the historic "Generation of 1927"--Aleixandre's emphasis on communication, Guillen's descriptive dilution of the vision of Cantico in the 1950 version, and Cernuda's Victorian-style dramatic monologues--do not match, much less surpass, the strength of these poets' earlier work. What is even more significant is that the main development of Spanish poetry since the 1960s has been an explicit return to modernist principles of aesthetic ambition and experimentation, beginning with Claudio Rodriguez's Don de la ebriedad and continuing with the novisimos, the great books of Valente of the 1980s, the rise of Gamoneda, and the gradual rediscovery of Zambrano. Seen in the light of this "modernist turn," recent Spanish poetry has been moving toward modernist ideals rather than away from them.

Such an argument, needless to say, is the polar opposite of another prevalent narrative, which might be summarized thus: "after the anachronistic aestheticist experimentation of the novisimos, short-lived and doomed to failure, Spanish poetry came to terms with the fact that the avant-garde is passe. The most relevant poetry from Cernuda's dramatic monologues and the 'poetry of experience' of the 1950s." I will not rehearse the debate between these two rival narratives, since I have done so elsewhere at great length (Mayhew, The Twilight of the Avant-Garde). The reason why we continue to debate such issues is that our own, contemporary relationship to modernism remains an open question. Gil de Biedma concludes his study of Guillen's poetry with this sentence: "De mi se decir que me siento a la vez demasiado ligado y demasiado extrano a la poesia de Guillen, precisamente porque su lectura y estudio ha constituido un factor esencial en la formacion de mi conciencia historica de escritor" (El pie de la letra 191). Much the same could be said of many other contemporary readers of poetry: for someone whose sensibilities have been formed from within the modernist paradigm, modernism can never belong to an irrelevant, distant past.

The paradox I have explored in this essay is that Spanish poetry is closer to modernism now, in the first decades of the twenty-first century, than ir was in the early 1960s, when modernism was a more recent memory. The "modernist turn" in the later work of Valente and Gamoneda has brought Lorca and Zambrano to the foreground, while giving less importance to Guillen, Alonso, Aleixandre, and Cernuda. Of course, this is a return to a modernism that did not exist, in this exact formulation, during the modernist period itself: it is an attempt to recuperate a past that never existed, or to piece together fragments from the past in order to arrive ata more satisfying narrative. From a conventional perspective, modernism might seem to be receding into an ever more remote past, but from another view is that it is a movement that still awaits its final realization.

WORKS CITED

Campbell, Federico. Inflame turba. Barcelona: Lumen, 1971. La Cana Gris. "Homenaje a Luis Cernuda" (1962). Seville: Editorial Renacimiento, 2002.

Casalduero, Joaquin. Jorge Guillen: Cantico. Santiago de Chile: Cruz del Sur, 1946.

Cernuda, Luis. La realidad y el deseo. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1964.

Ferrate, Joan. Dinamica de la poesia. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1968.

--. La operacion de leer y otros ensayos. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1962.

Gil de Biedma, Jaime. El pie de la letra: ensayos 1955-1979. Barcelona: Editorial Critica, 1980.

Jimenez Heffernan, Julian. Los papeles rotos: ensayos sobre poesia espanola contemporanea. Madrid: Abada Editores, 2004.

Mayhew, Jonathan. The Twilight of the Avant-Garde: Spanish Poetry 1980-2000. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2009.

Valente, Jose Angel. Las palabras de la tribu. Barcelona: Tusquets: 1971, 1994.

--. La experiencia abisal. Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg/ Circulo de Lectores, 2004.

Zambrano, Maria. Algunos lugares de la pintura. Ed. Amalia Iglesias. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1989.

--. Poesia y filosofia. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1987.

JONATHAN MAYHEW

University of Kansas
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Author:Mayhew, Jonathan
Publication:Anales de la Literatura Espanola Contemporanea
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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