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The Twilight of the Avant-Garde: Spanish Poetry 1980-2000$

Jonathan Mayhew

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9781846311833

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846315947

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Three Apologies for Poetry

Three Apologies for Poetry

(p.32) Chapter Two Three Apologies for Poetry
The Twilight of the Avant-Garde: Spanish Poetry 1980-2000
Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explains the conflictive connection between the modernist/avant-garde tradition and the ‘poetry of experience’ by exploring three contemporary ‘Apologies for Poetry’. It specifically defines three models for understanding the place of poetry within the larger culture. The first is based on the high-culture, high-modernist paradigm. The second is a ‘middle-brow’ model. The third is an avant-garde model. This chapter elaborates the problems with the poetry of experience. Then, it explores the tones of Felipe Benítez Reyes, Isla Correyero and José Ángel Valente toward poetry. It suggests that all of them use irony, but in each case, the irony develops from a different contradiction and results in a markedly different tone.

Keywords:   poetry of experience, Apologies for Poetry, middle-brow model, avant-garde model, high-modernist paradigm, Felipe Benítez Reyes, Isla Correyero, José Ángel Valente, poetry

The place of poetry within the cultural context in which it is produced and consumed is a particularly vexing question for contemporary poets and critics in Spain. How and why does poetry matter? What is its standing among the myriad discourses of postmodernity? The most readily available answer to this question, of course, is that the genre has lost whatever larger significance it once possessed: aside from the poets themselves and a few academic specialists, the familiar argument runs, poetry has scant resonance with the public. The emerging field of Hispanic Cultural Studies grants only minimal importance to poetry, a genre still heavily identified with the values that have shaped the literary canon: no contemporary poets are mentioned in Graham and Labanyi's Spanish Cultural Studies, except in Chris Perriam's survey of gay and lesbian culture. Within literary criticism, on the other hand, poetry is often regarded as a minor genre that began to wane in significance after the glory days of the generation of 1927. Even truly exceptional Spanish poets often appear to be minor figures when compared to even moderately successful novelists.

Even if we accept this pessimistic view, however, the specific claims made on behalf of poetry in contemporary Spain are highly revealing, providing clues about the status of literature as a whole. In the pages that follow I propose to examine the three principal arguments that have guided discussions of poetry in the past fifteen years, with an eye to answering the fundamental question of how poetry can still make a viable claim on the cultural imagination. The division of recent Spanish poetry into three main currents is reasonably wellestablished: there is an “essentialist” or metaphysical poetry, a “poetry of experience,” and a neo-avant-garde poetry of “difference.”1 What I propose to examine here are the issues underlying this three-way split. Each of the main tendencies speaks to a different readership and envisions a markedly different cultural role for poetry. All, however, can be understood as reactions to the “marginal” status of the genre in the closing years of the millennium.

For the first group of poets, poetry does not require any external justification; its value does not depend on the number of readers it attracts.2 This attitude, (p.33) most clearly exemplified by José Ángel Valente, is rooted in the assumptions of literary modernism. While the school of poetry inspired by Valente is usually termed “essentialist” or “metaphysical,” I prefer the more inclusive term “late modernist.” Valente's recent collection of aphorisms, Notas de un simulador, makes constant reference to the icons of the modern literary tradition, from Friedrich Hölderlin to Juan Ramón Jiménez, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, José Lezama Lima, and Edmond Jabès. He quotes Joyce's definition of the “epiphany” with unqualified approval, as well as the trilogy of aesthetic principles, from St. Thomas Aquinas, that Joyce's Stephen Dedalus expounds in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Las tres cualidades de la obra literaria según Sto. Tomás: integritas (unidad, totalidad), consonantia (coherencia, ‘decorum’), claritas (capacidad de iluminación de la palabra)” (The three qualities of the literary work according to St. Thomas: integritas (unity, totality), consonantia (coherence, ‘decorum’), claritas (the capacity for illumination in the word) (27).

For a poet working within this modernist paradigm, the relationship between literature and history is necessarily oblique:

En el diario de Kafka las líneas dedicadas a la primera guerra mundial no pasan de cincuenta. Pocas semanas después del comienzo de la guerra sus preocupaciones son la escritura de “La colonia penitenciaria” y el comienzo de El proceso.

Durante la guerra, Joyce está entregado a la escritura de la primera parte de Ulises.

El tiempo del escritor no es el tiempo de la historia. Aunque el escritor, como toda persona, pueda ser triturado por ella. (34)

(In Kafka's diary the lines about the First World War number less than fifty. A few weeks after the start of the war his preoccupations are the writing of “The Penal Colony” and the beginning of The Trial.

During the war, Joyce dedicates himself to writing of the first part of Ulysses. The time of the writer is not the time of history. Although the writer, like anyone else, can be mangled by it.)

Valente participated in the debates surrounding the social utility of poetry in the 1950s and 1960s, and his own poetry continues to make occasional references to historical events. His argument is not for “art-for-art's-sake,” but for an even more exalted conception of the poet's cultural role, one based, implicitly, on his confidence in the superiority of the artist's vision of reality. He consciously models himself after the late-modernist poet Paul Celan, whose holocaust poems are notoriously hermetic. The model of cultural significance implicit in his poetic theory and practice remains an eliteone. Valente makes no concessions to the literary marketplace. If he ultimately makes an impact on the larger culture, it will be in the same uncompromising way that Kafka or Beckett have.

The idea of the autonomy of literary value is residual in contemporary (p.34) culture.3 Respected poets like Valente continue to enjoy a high level of prestige; the idea of the “great poet” still resonates with the public that reads the culture section of El país or ABC and is curious about which contemporary writer will be elected to the real academia. The size of this audience is relatively small. Valente often published new collections of poetry in small, expensive editions, although editions of his collected poems and antologías poéticas still come out with some frequency. For the modernist paradigm, of course, contemporary readership is not the real issue: a significant work, while read by a minuscule group of initiates at the time of its first publication, will eventually reach a substantial audience. This paradigm continues to show signs of life even at the end of the century: cheap, mass-market editions of Rimbaud, Kafka, Beckett, Pessoa, Lorca, Alberti, and even Gimferrer are available in bookstores and newstands in Spanish cities. Valente's own poetry remains available in a wide variety of formats, ranging from critical editions to pocket anthologies. Along with his contemporaries Claudio Rodríguez and Francisco Brines, he is likely to remain a part of the literary canon for at least the immediate future. The question, however, is whether this canon itself has lost its centrality in an age in which the educational system is becoming increasingly reluctant to assert the value of “great literature.”

If the High-Modernist model is residual, as prestigious as it is outmoded, there is another school of poetry in contemporary Spain that has defined itself, rather self-consciously, as dominant. Since the early 1980s, proponents of “la poesía de la experiencia” have exercised a sort of literary hegemony, often characterizing other aesthetic options as outdated, misguided, and lacking in literary quality. Anthologies of recent Spanish poetry, especially those edited by Luis Antonio de Villena and José Luis Garcia Martin, give pride of place to this tendency, often to the exclusion of other modes.4 Luis García Montero, a prolific and persuasive essayist and poet, is the de facto leader of this dominant group, which is comprised primarily of male poets born after 1955 or so.5 Other prominent poets in this category are Felipe Benítez Reyes and Carlos Marzal.

The poets of “experience” reject modernist or avant-garde principles; instead, they propose a “normalization” of poetry that would make it more palatable to the ordinary reader. The immediate model for this renewal of contact with the reader is the poetry of the 1950s, including Ángel González, Jaime Gil de Biedma, and perhaps the early Valente. The phrase that has given this school its name derives from Robert Langbaum's study of the dramatic monologue in English poetry, The Poetry of Experience, which Gil de Biedma read in the 1950s. Generally speaking, the values to which the dominant poets of the 1980s and 1990s appeal are those of literary realism. García Montero has revived the concept of verisimilitude, while García Martín has coined the phrase “poesía figurativa,” making an analogy with figurative (i.e. non-abstract) painting. These poets also (p.35) like to appeal to the use-value of poetry for the ordinary person; their poetry aims to be engaging, accessible, finely crafted, and relevant to everyday life.

This poetry, then, aims to reach the well-educated public that nevertheless feels relatively alienated from the late modernist aesthetic championed by José ángel Valente. Unlike the social poetry of the 1950s, however, “the poetry of experience” is not populist; there is no talk here of Blas de Otero's immense majority. The appeal, rather, is to a cultivated, but not excessively high-brow, middle class. There is often a conservative tone in García Montero's rejection of the avant-garde, although he might bristle at this characterization. As outlined in Chapter 1, he proposes a “normalization” of poetry, on the analogy of the normalization of Spanish society in the transition to democracy after the death of Franco.6 Hence, the role he envisions for the poet is that of a well-adjusted citizen speaking to similarly situated subjects.

García Montero's solution to the problem of audience has been successful on its own terms. A prolific poet, he has many books in print, and his numerous imitators dominate the anthologies, fostering a small but far from negligible audience for this sort of poetry. The fatal flaw with the poetry of experience, however, is a certain ideological and aesthetic restrictiveness, masked by an appeal to the common sense of the “ordinary reader.” García Montero's ridicule of avant-garde poetics and of alternative subject-positions has the effect of limiting the sphere in which poetry can operate. We might wonder about a literary climate in which a poem like José Luis Rendueles's “Vindicación del desencanto” (A Vindication of Disenchantment) is considered worthy of anthologizing. The speaker of this poem recounts the course of a love affair in fairly banal language. Here is a representative verse-paragraph:

  • A la etapa de la charla interminable,
  • de los besos por cualquier excusa tonta,
  • siguió la de la camaradería silenciosa.
  • Sin habernos dado cuenta
  • habíamos cambiado el romanticismo
  • por el hábito, pero no era algo tan malo
  • después de todo
  •                       ¿no crees? (Villena, 10 menos 30 206)
  • (After the stage of interminable talk,
  • of kisses for any silly excuse,
  • there followed that of silent camaraderie.
  • Without having realized it
  • we had exchanged Romanticism
  • for habit, but it wasn't anything that bad
  • in the end,
  •                       don't you think?)

(p.36) Ironically, this poem appears in an anthology that purports to demonstrate how younger poets (ten poets under the age of thirty) go beyond the precepts of the poetry of experience, which, by the mid-1990s, had exhausted its limited resources. This poem, obviously, does not mount a serious challenge to the realist aesthetic: its title, in fact, implies a half-hearted acceptance of the world-weary cultural mood commonly labeled “el desencanto.” Luis Antonio Villena, who selected “Vindicación del desencanto” for this anthology, asserts that younger poets have grown restless with the narrow restrictions of the dominant school. This observation may be accurate, but it still falsely assumes that this deliberately subdued poetic realism is the only game in town. In any case, a large number of the poems selected in 10 menos 30 fail to signal any clear advance over the “dominant tendency” of the 1980s, despite the subtitle of the anthology: “la ruptura interior en la ‘poesía de la experiencia’” (the interior rupture in “the poetry of experience”).

The most obvious problem with the revival of realist or “figurative” poetry, then, is that it offers very little to the hard-core reader of poetry, who typically demands some combination of highly charged language, expressive intensity, and intellectual stimulation. It might appeal more to readers of prose fiction, who are sometimes content with a fairly ordinary plot recounted in an unexceptional prose style. García Montero's poetry, then, fills a precise niche: it is a poetry that can be consumed without undue exertion by an audience accustomed to the finely crafted novels of Antonio Muñoz Molina and Javier Marías. Since poetry remains a residually prestigious genre, there is a need for an upper-middle-brow poet who reflects the cultural aspirations of a certain sector of society. It is in this context that Raquel Medina has spoken of “la conversión de la poesía en un artículo de consumo para la clase política y la burguesía” (the conversion of poetry into an article of consumption for the political and the bourgeois classes) (603). This astute sociological observation nicely accounts for García Montero's centrist appeal, which is difficult to explain in either late modernist or populist terms.7

Another problem with the poetry of experience is its desire to position itself as the central current of contemporary Spanish poetry. Proponents of this sort of writing use words like dominant and hegemonic, usually without a trace of irony (Villena, 10 menos 30 12; García Martín, Seleccion nacional 10). Proponents of the concept of a “dominant tendency,” it is true, are quick to disavow the negative implications of this formulation, characterizing this dominance as a natural development of the genre rather than as a pernicious conspiracy to exclude other poetic options.8 Luis Antonio de Villena, for example, is relatively nuanced in his assessment of recent Spanish poetry, giving at least minimal credit to alternative tendencies. Still, he is far too invested in the notion of success:

(p.37) Lo que para mí quedaba claro, en el verano de 1992—cuando realicé la antología—, era que entre todos los tonos de la generación del 80, la llamada poesía de la experiencia se había convertido en el más transitado, el más aplaudido, el más seguido, el más denostado—clara señal del éxito—y en el que estaban algunos, bastantes, de los poetas clave del momento.

What was clear to me in the summer of 1992, when I did the anthology [Fin de siglo], was that among all the tones of the generation of 1980, the so-called poetry of experience had become the most well-travelled, the most applauded, the most followed, the most attacked (a clear sign of success) and within it were working some, quite a few, of the key poets of the moment. (10 menos 30 15)

By the same logic, poets who depart from this dominant tendency, are inexorably associated with failure:

Este heteroclítico grupo final – autodenominado de la diferencia – está compuesto por poetas de varia edad y condición, cuyo único nexo unitivo es el fracaso, la conciencia de su falta de éxito. Explicable en unos por una clara ausencia de calidad y en otros – de mucho mejor página – por un nítido desfase histórico…

This final, heterogeneous group, self-denominated as the poetry of difference, is composed of poets of varying age and condition, whose only unifying link is failure, the consciousness of a lack of success. Explainable in some by a clear lack of quality and in others—much better writers—by a clear-cut historical anachronism… (10 menos 30 11)9

The reasoning here is circular: poets fail because they don't write well or are out of step with the times. The failure of any poet working outside the “dominant” tendency is virtually tautological: nothing fails like failure.

This poetry of “difference” is the third main current in recent Spanish poetry. If high modernism is residual and the “poetry of experience” is culturally dominant, this final tendency is perhaps emergent. It consists of an amorphous group of poets whose common denominator is not their lack of success, as Villena would have it, but their explicit rejection of the all-too-successful experiential mode. It is the hegemony of the dominant school, in fact, that lends this poetry much of its oppositional force. Without such a well-defined and self-confident orthodoxy, in other words, the difference of this group might be more difficult to discern.

No single figure stands out as the most representative poet of this heterogeneous category. Most of the women writing today belong to it almost by default, since they are largely absent from the “dominant” anthologies edited by the two most prolific anthologists of the moment: Villena and García Martín. (None of these anthologies includes more than two women; Villena's 10 menos 30 is exclusively male.) By the same token, anthologies of women poets, like Buenaventura's Las Diosas Blancas and Benegas and Munárriz's Ellas tienen la palabra, tend to promote a self-consciously avant-garde or alternative agenda, even though (p.38) some of the women poets included in them are closer to either residual high modernism or to the mainstream poetry of experience. Beginning in the early 1980s, a whole generation of younger women were inspired by the examples of Ana Rossetti and Blanca Andreu. Isla Correyero, herself one of the strongest of these poets, has recently edited a compilation entitled Feroces: radicales, marginales y heterodoxos en la última poesía española. “Difference,” as I am using the term here, is not a unitary school of poetry, but a blanket label covering explicitly political poets, like Jorge Riechmann, poets who represent extreme or marginal subjectivities, like Leopoldo María Panero, and poets who consider themselves to be linguistically innovative or avant-garde.

The division between “difference” and “experience” is not an absolute one. Many poets are justifiably wary of such labels and categories; some could be included in either grouping, depending on how and where the line is drawn. Esperanza López Parada is included in both the orthodox Fin de siglo (the only woman in this anthology!) and in Antonio Ortega's heterodox La prueba del nueve. Yet the dividing line is not entirely artificial: at stake, once again, is the crucial matter of poetry's cultural aspirations. In this respect the poetry of difference, pace Villena, has also found its core audience. Blanca Andreu's De una niña de provincias que se vino a vivir en un Chagall was a publishing success, as were Las Diosas Blancas and Ellas tienen la palabra. Correyero's Feroces has also made a significant impact. One of the regular book reviewers for the widely circulated monthly Reseña, Salustiano Martín, has championed alternatives to the dominant “poetry of experience” regularly throughout the 1990s, often castigating anthologies that limit themselves to this hegemonic school.

The appeal of a self-consciously “marginal” poetry is not difficult to explain. A significant segment of the reading public is not likely to respond well to a poetry that promotes itself as socially normative and hegemonic. This category would include politically active progres, younger people generally, and women readers alienated by a literary establishment that still arrogantly perpetuates male privilege. For members of this group, the marginality of poetry, its status as a minor genre, resonates with their own sense of standing outside the dominant currents of power. Some of the poetry of “difference” continues to draw from modernist and late modernist models, like the poetry of Antonio Gamoneda and José Ángel Valente. Other poets speak more directly to a generation more attuned to alternative rock than to classic literature. Ironically, “alternative” or “counter-cultural” movements often have more in common with residual literary modernism than they do with the mainstream culture of the cultivated middle class. The neo-avant-garde poetry of difference tends to reject, however, the Olympian viewpoint of high modernism. More engaged in the here and now, it does not seek vindication from posterity.

These, then, are three easily discernible “apologies for poetry” in contemporary (p.39) Spain. Each addresses and, indeed, defines a particular segment of the reading public. The total size of the audience for poetry remains small relative to the population as a whole; hence the surprise when a book of poetry begins to resonate with more than a thousand readers or so. Still, the divisions within this already small group are telling, mirroring larger societal attitudes toward literary culture. In general, readers of literature tend to fall into the three categories outlined above. Members of the literary élite, the smallest group, justify their preferences in terms of literary autonomy, with deliberate disregard for the marketplace. “Middle-brow” readers prefer lighter, less demanding fare, but still seek some degree of intellectual stimulation and cultural prestige. Because this group is more numerous than the first, it has the power to determine which books will be best-sellers and which literary tendencies will be perceived as “dominant” at any given moment. Finally, young, marginal, or progressive readers favor literature that reflects their own “alternative” sensibility.10

These categories of readers are somewhat speculative. I have based my categories on anecdotal evidence and on the virtual reading-subjects interpellated in each of the three “apologies for poetry.” It is possible that a closer look at actual readership would modify my conclusions.11 All the same, my categories are not only plausible but virtually tautological: readers will inevitably prefer works that interpellate them as the sort of readers they aspire to be. Thus the rhetorical mode of the text itself is a fairly good predictor of both its intended and its real audience. On the other hand, it could be that the entire audience for poetry is a relatively élite one, and that the debate over literary value takes place largely among warring factions of a small literary tribe. That poets belonging to the three major tendencies often publish their books with the same publishers (especially Visor and Hiperión) might indicate that the audience for poetry is less divided than I have indicated. In this scenario, élite readers identify with the particular “apology for poetry” that they find most congenial. A professor of literature might read García Montero's poetry and identify with its interpellation of the “ordinary citizen,” even though he or she possesses a great deal more cultural capital than the implicit reader. This process is analogous to Blas de Otero's simultaneous address to a virtual “inmensa mayoría” and to a real readership comprised largely of leftist intellectuals.

Even if the entire audience for poetry is an élite one—a debatable proposition—the divisions within this audience will still reflect differences of age, gender, status, and ideology. The poetry world would thus be a microcosm of the culture as a whole, a relatively self-contained mundillo literario that exemplifies larger cultural currents on a smaller scale. Pierre Bourdieu's theory of the literary field provides a useful model for analyzing this situation:

The literary field (one may also speak of the artistic field, the philosophical field, etc.) is an independent social universe with its own laws of functioning, its (p.40) specific relations of force, its dominants and its dominated, and so forth. Put another way, to speak of a “field” is to recall that literary works are produced in a particular social universe endowed with particular institutions and obeying specific laws. And yet this observation runs counter both to the tradition of internal reading, which considers works in themselves independently from historical conditions in which they were produced, and the tradition of external explication, which one normally associates with sociology and which relates the works directly to the economic and social conditions of the moment. (The Field of Cultural Production 163)

The independence of the literary field does not mean that it functions without reference to other spheres. Rather, this field acts “somewhat like a prism which refracts every external determination: demographic, economic, or political events are always retranslated according to the specific logic of the field, and it is by this intermediary that they act on the logic of the development of works” (Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production 164; original emphasis).12

The seemingly intractable question of literary “quality” often emerges in discussions of contemporary literature. One common way of conceptualizing this problem is to appeal to the private “taste” of individuals. If taste were a personal matter, however, it would be impossible to explain how any cultural product could appeal to more than a handful of people whose preferences happened to coincide. Much of the disparity in the assessment of quality in recent Spanish poetry is attributable, not to individual differences among readers, but to the social and cultural divisions outlined above. The modernist criterion of literary value is perhaps the easiest to define, since it has dominated the process of canon-formation for quite some time: José Ángel Valente and Pere Gimferrer have been successful according to the same criteria that have made Juan Ramón Jiménez or Jorge Guillén canonical poets. The poets of “experience” deploy the notion of literary quality in a discernibly different way. Although they still invoke canonical literary values to some extent, in order to claim for themselves the prestige traditionally associated with poetry, they also explicitly link quality to success with a particular segment of the literary marketplace. This poetry often appears well-written, when judged by conventional standards, though it may seem merely conventional to readers who prefer either high modernist or alternative options. From a perspective outside the dominant one, then, the poetry that has the most invested in conventional ideas of quality can easily appear to be the least stimulating.

The poetry of diferencia is least likely to wrap itself up in the mantle of “quality,” since it owes the least to conventional standards of literary value. This very independence, however, lends it a vitality that is sometimes absent from the ostensibly “well-written” poetry of the other two tendencies. Too narrow a definition of quality, evidently, is a hindrance to poetic innovation, since quality is usually defined with reference to already established literary models. (p.41) Judged by conventional standards, many of the poems collected in Correyero's Feroces may seem deficient. Yet it is precisely these standards that this vibrant anthology calls into question. Once again, the poetry of difference has more in common with the late modernist model than it does with the centrist poetry of “experience.” Modernism, though now often perceived as the repository of conservative literary values, is rooted in vanguard movements of past decades. It thus shares more with the contemporary avant-garde than it does with the self-consciously mainstream sensibility of the dominant school. The “élitism” of the residual poetry of modernism is structurally similar to the “marginality” of the contemporary avant-garde: in both cases, value is attributed to poetic practices that diverge from middle-of-the-road taste.

It should be obvious at this point that the author of this book is not a neutral observer of the debate surrounding literary value in contemporary Spanish poetry. It is difficult even to find an objective vocabulary with which to describe this debate, since words like “élite” and “middle-brow” are fraught with negative connotations. As a reader accustomed to difficult modern poetry, in any case, I prefer both residual modernism and the emergent neo-avantgarde to the dominant “poetry of experience.” While sympathetic to Valente's intransigent opposition to the marketplace, I welcome the diversity of voices presented in Ellas tienen la palabra and Feroces. (I also admire Felipe Benítez Reyes, despite my antipathy to his professed poetics.) This “exclusion of the middle” is actually quite widespread among academic readers, who disdain middlebrow culture much more than they do the products of mass entertainment.13 This logic perhaps accounts for the gap between proponents and critics of the poetry of experience. It is not surprising that traditional humanists loyal to the modernist canon join hands with young avant-garde poets to reject the revival of a normative literary realism:

La esfera de lo que llamamos real o realidad suele quedar acotada por lo que somos capaces de imaginar en un momento dado. La realidad y sus realismos suelen ser el fruto de una imaginación impotente, no capaz de imaginar otra cosa. (Valente, Notas de un simulador 27)

(The sphere of what we called real or reality is usually limited by what we are capable of imagining in a given moment. Reality and its realisms are usually the result of an impotent imagination, incapable of imagining anything else.)

Many scholarly studies on contemporary Spanish poetry consist of a series of textual analyses framed by background information on the poet(s) studied and by a theoretical approach. My description of the cultural field of Spanish poetry obviously departs from this model; yet some concrete examples are necessary to demonstrate the ways in which contemporary poetry dramatizes the issue of (p.42) poetry's cultural viability. In order to maintain some degree of even-handedness, I have chosen texts from three poets who might be judged among the “best” in each category. An untitled prose-poem by José Ángel Valente is the first exhibit:

EJERCEMOS UN ARTE mínima, pobre, no vendible, salvo en contadas ocasiones, nunca públicas, igual que ésta, aquí, en la tarde, en la hora incierta de la absoluta desaparición. (Valente, No amanece el cantor 99)

(THE ART WE PRACTICE is minimal, poor, unmarketable, save on limited occasions, never public, like this one, here, this afternoon, at the indefinable hour of absolute disappearance.)

Valente emphasizes poetry's residual status: poetry is a threatened art, on the verge of extinction because of its lack of market value and public utility. Presumably, however, this precarious status is a mark of distinction, since it lends poetry its exceptional status. Valente's minimalism conceals his confidence in the privileged status of poetic language.

Felipe Benítez Reyes's “Apunte” (Note) is a skillful poem written in the dominant style:

  • Esos barcos que llegan sigilosos al muelle
  • tienen algo de símbolo y de fácil metáfora.
  • El símbolo quizá de lo que muere.
  • La metáfora, en fin, de una vida ignorada.
  • De niño los miraba inventando unas rutas
  • por olvidados mares y por tierras de magos.
  • Perdiéndose en la niebla, helados por la luna,
  • los barcos de mi infancia iban siempre de paso.
  • Perseguían un mundo que no existe. Un mundo
  • que ha muerto en mí, que está borrándose
  • al evocarlo ahora desde este mar oscuro
  • que sólo surcan ya los barcos fantasmales. (Sombras particulares 30)
  • (Those ships that silently slip into the docks
  • have something of the symbol or the facile metaphor.
  • The symbol, perhaps, of all that dies,
  • The metaphor, finally, of an unknown life.
  • As a child I looked at them inventing routes
  • through forgotten seas and lands of wizards.
  • Fading in the mist, frozen by the moon,
  • the ships of my childhood were always just passing by.
  • They were searching for a world that doesn't exist. A world
  • that has died in me, that is wiped away
  • as I evoke it now from this dark sea
  • that is crossed now only by phantasmal ships.)

(p.43) This poem can be paraphrased thus: “I had stereotypically ‘literary’ aspirations in my youth, but I have put aside childish things. Nevertheless, my reputation as a poet rests on my skill at manipulating easily recognizable metaphors.” (As if distrusting his readers' literary competence, however, he explains the significance of these metaphors!) In keeping with this message, Benítez Reyes's sing-song alejandrinos contrast with Valente's spare prose-rhythms.

Finally, a dated entry from Isla Correyero's 1996 Diario de una enfermera can represent the poetry of “difference”:

  •       29 de septiembre de 1994
  • Hemos actuado precipitadamente.
  • No hemos esperado el tiempo necesario para comprobar si verdaderamente estaba muerto.
  • Le hemos amortajado entre algodón y bromas y hemos sellado sus ojos con el “Nobecutane”.
  • Creímos ver un músculo facial que se movía…
  • Nada.
  • Trabajamos nerviosos, alegres.
  • Falta muy poco para irnos a casa. (Benegas, ed. Ellas tienen la palabra 309)
  •       (September 29, 1994
  • We've acted hastily.
  • We didn't wait the time necessary to confirm that he was really dead.
  • We shrouded him in cotton and jokes and sealed his eyes with “Nobecutane.”
  • We thought we saw his face move.
  • Naah.
  • We work nervously, gaily.
  • There's very little time left before we go home.)

Isla Correyero's nurse speaks with a different tone: the cadaver (the literary tradition itself?) may or may not be completely dead, but who cares? The speaker's concerns are elsewhere. While this meta-poetic reading finds no direct justification in the text (there is nothing to link the supposedly dead man with poetry or literature), the rejection of elegy reveals a decidedly less respectful attitude toward the past.14 In contrast both to Valente's solemn elegiac mode and Benítez Reyes's self-deprecating but still self-absorbed nostalgia, Correyero's speaker is desenfadada.

These three tones of voice reveal three distinct attitudes toward poetry itself. All three poets employ irony, but in each case the irony arises from a different contradiction and results in a markedly different tone. In Valente, the underlying contradiction is between the splendor of the modern poetic tradition and its residual status in contemporary society. In Benítez Reyes, the narcissistic speaker seems to be all too aware that his images are trite, but he is unable to step outside of his stereotypically “literary” patterns of thought: the resulting irony is self-parodic. Finally, Isla Correyero's poem achieves its comic effect (p.44) through a contrast between the potentially grave error (mistaking a live body for a dead one) and the speaker's flippant tone. In this last case, of course, the irony has nothing directly to do with the status of poetry per se, in part because the speaker of the poem is not defined implicitly as a “poet,” as in the other two texts. Correyero is much less encumbered by the weight of literary tradition and by readerly expectations about what poetry should sound like. The desenfado that characterizes many of the younger women poets of the past twenty years is a sign of an absence of anxiety about the survival of any particular version of the literary tradition.

If poetry is merely residual in contemporary society, then its future is precarious despite its prestige among a group of élite readers. The poetry of experience, on the other hand, attempts to salvage poetry by appealing to a mainstream audience that cares less intensely about the survival of poetry. As is evident in Benítez Reyes's “Apunte,” this dominant school often simply reinscribes the cultural problem in a parodic but ultimately conservative mode. Despite its constant appeal to realism and verisimilitude, the poetry of experience remains resolutely “literary” or “poetic,” in the conventional sense of these terms. The evocation of the real, of course, is always a transparently ideological gesture. Realism itself, however, is not inherently reactionary: many of the poets in Isla Correyero's Feroces write in a direct, autobiographical mode that approximates the ideal of “experience,” though without García Montero's and Benítez Reyes's finely nuanced appeals to the ordinary-yet-cultivated reader.

Both residual late modernism and the poetry of experience have quite a bit invested in particular versions of the literary past; thus they stake their claims to future viability on the survival of specific definitions of poetry. In both cases, the traditions invoked are versions of what was once understood as poetic “modernity.” Valente's modernity derives from a tradition of difficult, linguistically dense poetry (Mallarmé, Celan). García Montero is “modern,” on the other hand, in the urbane, conversational mode of Auden and Gil de Biedma. Both traditions are potentially rich sources of poetic innovation; in the current field of literary values, however, both are stuck in a sort of holding pattern. The future of Spanish poetry lies elsewhere: in the alternative poetic practices, some as yet undefined, that were beginning to emerge in the final years of the twentieth century.

One danger in this confident prediction is that it is too respectful of the lines drawn by Spanish poets, anthologists, and critics. Studies of these ideological divisions (including my own book) inevitably give inordinate emphasis to anthologies, since these provide prima facie evidence of how the poetry world conceives of itself. The problem is that the same poet, included in anthologies of opposing tendencies, might be read differently. Is the Jorge Riechmann of Postnovísimos the same as that of La prueba del nueve? Is he the “Jorge Riechman” (p.45) [sic] of Feroces? Is his poetry a left-wing version of the often conservative poetry of experience, or does his commitment to radicalism automatically place him in the category of “difference”? By the same token, the persistent discrimination against women poets in mainstream anthologies tends to obscure the differences among them. Esperanza López Parada is the token woman in Fin de siglo. Is she a neo-classicist, as Villena would have it? Or does she fit more comfortably in Ortega's La prueba del nueve, where she is one of three women poets, or in the gynocentric Ellas tienen la palabra?

While I am not arguing for a liberation from ideological preconceptions, the tendentious divisions of the poetic field enacted in these anthologies do indeed erect artificial barriers and distort perceptions. What is more, this territorial imperative is not an accidental by-product, but the main cultural function that anthologies serve. This divisiveness can clarify the ideological and aesthetic issues at stake in the debate, but it also conceals potential points of convergence between seemingly irreconcilable positions. Only one poet—Alberto Tesán—is included in both 10 menos 30 and Feroces. These two anthologies, then, offer essentially separate visions of contemporary Spanish poetry. This lack of convergence almost certainly reflects the explicit division between poetic mainstream and poetic margin: Villena and Correyero are equally selfconscious about their advocacy of “orthodox” and “heterodox” poetics, respectively. Yet both of these anthologies, published only a year apart, feature poets of the same age-group and promote a revival of poetic “realism” inspired by writers like Raymond Carver and Charles Bukowski. The dominant tone in each anthology reflects the anthologist's overt agenda: Villena's selections tend to be more low-keyed and lyrical, in contrast with the stridency of Correyero's radicales. Yet this blatant difference obscures a significant commonality between these two groups of poets: poets of “experience,” in their attempt to break free from the restrictions of this school, are moving in more or less the same direction as “marginal” poets, to the extent that at least one of these poets finds himself in the strange position of being both a representative of the dominant school and a poetic rebel.

The vigorous debate surrounding the issue of poetic value in contemporary Spain is itself a sign of the continued vitality of the genre. The perceived marginality of poetry in relation to other forms of cultural expression, then, is not necessarily cause for pessimism. An art form with a relatively small but impassioned audience can achieve a concentrated energy that is sometimes lacking in genres that are more directly subject to market forces. Contemporary Spanish fiction, for example, reaches a larger audience but may not enjoy the same degree of creative ferment. In the words of Antonio Gamoneda, a poet ambiguously situated between a late modernist aesthetic and the poetics of difference,

(p.46) La poesía, ajena al mercado y escasa en funciones externas, es, por ello precisamente, la única actividad que, dentro de las circunstancias, puede escapar el gregarismo. En el fervor minotario, en la subjectivación radical, en la amplificación “anormal” del lenguaje, ahí se ha producido la mutación cualitativa que legitima su supervivencia, la que se logra en el carácter de la propia máquina poética y en la intensificación de la vida del emisor y de unos pocos receptores. (21)

(Poetry, alien to the market and poor in external functions, is, precisely for this reason, the only activity that, in these circumstances, can avoid gregariousness. In the fervor of a minority, in a radical subjectivism, in the “abnormal” amplification of language, there has taken shape the qualitative mutation that legitimates its survival, which is achieved in the character of the poetic mechanism itself and in the intensification of the life of the emitter and of a few receptors.)

Perhaps a reversal of perspectives is in order, then: rather than asking how poetry can lay a claim to the postmodern cultural imagination, one might ask what hope there is for a culture that neglects the poetic imagination.




(1) See, for example, the opening pages of Villena's introduction to 10 menos 30 (9–12).

(2) Responding to my article “How to be Great,” in which I note the persistence of modernist values in the poetic canon, George Yúdice offers “una explicación acaso demasiado simplista. De todos los géneros literarios y artísticos, la poesía es el más alejado del mercado, fundamento de evaluación según mucho en tiempos posmodernos. Ese alejamiento del mercado se traduce en escasez de lectores, en especial los que pertenecen al público masivo. El público lector de la poesía hoy en día suele consistir en los poetas mismos” (401). This observation has very limited validity: it might explain the persistence of a certain late modernism, but it fails to account for the entire field of poetic production and consumption. Hiperión and Visor continue to publish original collections of peninsular and Latin American poetry, along with translations of foreign language poets, at a brisk rate, suggesting an audience that extends well beyond the producers themselves. The audience for contemporary poetry is actually far larger now than it was in the 1920s, in the heyday of modernism.

(3) The terms residual, dominant, and emergent are taken from Raymond Williams's Marxism and Literature. My analysis of contemporary Spanish poetry, however, owes more to Pierre Bourdieu's theory of the cultural field. I have analyzed the residual poetry in the high modern tradition in “Nuevos textos sagrados” and “How to be Great.”

(4) Whereas Villena's Postnovísimos is eclectic, Fin de siglo is devoted exclusively to the poetry of experience. See the discussion of 10 menos 30 below. García Martín's La generación de los ochenta and Selección nacional are more restrictive than Villena's anthologies.

(5) See the essays collected in García Montero's Confesiones poéticas, along with his introduction to Felipe Benítez Reyes's Poesía and the book written in collaboration with Antonio Muñoz Molina, Por qué no es útil la literatura.

(6) For an ideological critique of García Montero's poetics, see my article “The Avant-Garde and its Discontents.”

(7) My negative characterization of García Montero is, of course, open to debate. Indubitably he is a capable writer who has been able to connect with his audience. My point here is that his position as a leading contemporary poet is inexplicable in the hierarchy of values that privileges modernist or late modernist poets like Rilke, Lezama Lima, or Ashbery.

(8) Felipe Benítez Reyes, writing under the pseudonym “Eligio Rabanera,” pokes fun at the very idea of a dominant school in his tongue-in-cheek introduction to El sindicato del crimen. The real target of his irony, however, are those who view his own faction as too powerful. He proposes a facetious list of goals for poets in this dominant school, including being corrupt, sending Christmas presents to critics, and even “No ser buena persona” (12). The point of this satire, presumably, is to disarm criticism by suggesting that the idea of a corrupt poetic “crime syndicate” dominating Spanish poetry is absurd. Maybe so, but his anthology does include all the “usual suspects.” See Medina for a useful account of the debate surrounding the real or perceived dominance of this school.

(9) Ironically, the theme of failure occurs frequently in poets of the dominant, ostensibly “successful” school, especially Felipe Benítez Reyes and José Gutiérrez.

(10) A fourth segment of the reading public is the mass audience that lacks intellectual or literary pretensions; since these readers are likely to be attracted to popular forms of entertainment rather than to books, many of them, are, in fact, non-readers. In any case, this is not the audience envisioned by contemporary Spanish poets, even by those whose work is written in an accessible style.

(11) In October of 1999 I interviewed Jesús Munárriz, the director of Hiperión, the largest publisher of poetry in Spain. He envisions the audience for poetry as being predominantly young. Affordable pricing is thus a key to reaching this public: most books in the Hiperión collection cost 900 pesetas, slightly more than the price of a movie ticket. There is a core audience who will purchase twenty or thirty books a year. Poetry books are printed in editions of 1,000 to 3,000 copies, and an edition will sell out in a period of time ranging anywhere from a month to ten years. Hiperión's current “best-seller” is José Hierro's Cuaderno de Nueva York, which had sold 23,000 copies as of October, 1999. Munárriz's ecleticism, in my estimation, is the key to his success: he helped to create the boom in women's poetry in the 1980s; but he has also published numerous books by García Montero and Felipe Benítez Reyes.

(12) Bourdieu's analysis here is especially pertinent because it describes developments in nineteenth-century French literature that produced the categories still used today to refer to cultural divisions: avant-garde, academic, bourgeois, etc.

(13) From this same perspective, the most egregious “élitists” are actually the conservative, “middle-brow” cultural critics. Prestigious intellectuals are presumably sophisticated enough to shun stereotypically “élitist” positions, although they often fail to do so. Accounts of the high/low split usually avoid dealing with the treacherous middle ground. Among recent theorists, Bourdieu has the most clearly articulated theory of “middlebrow” culture:

This middle-brow culture (culture moyenne) owes some of its charm, in the eyes of the middle classes who are its main consumers, to the references to legitimate culture it contains and which encourage and justify confusion of the two—accessible versions of avant-garde experiments or accessible works which pass for avant-garde experiments, film “adaptations” of classic drama and literature, “popular arrangements” of classical music or “orchestral versions” of popular tunes, vocal interpretations of classics in a style evocative of scout choruses or angelic choirs, in short, everything that goes to make up “quality” weeklies and “quality” shows, which are entirely organized to give the impression of bringing legitimate culture within the reach of all, by combining two normally exclusive characteristics, immediate accessibility and the outward signs of cultural legitimacy. (Distinction 232) While Bourdieu is often read as an anti-élitist, this description of petit-bourgeois culture is itself written from a decidedly “high-brow” perspective.

(14) Although any poem can be read metapoetically, I am hesitant to push this reading of Correyero's poem too far. In fact, it was only through the juxtaposition of this text to (p.48) the other two poems that this interpretation suggested itself to me. Diario de una enfermera, like Valente's “Paisaje con pájaros amarillos,” is an elegiac work, dominated by the death of the speaker's father. (Valente's sequence was written for his dead son Antonio.) I would interpret both poems somewhat differently in the context of the books of poetry to which they belong.