Surrealist influence in Latin-American poetry.

Arturo Reyes



In a first epoch the influence of the surrealist movement in poetry upon the Latin-American poets of the 1920’s was exiguous as it is witnessed by the reaction of the mature poets Vicente Huiodobro and Cesar Vallejo then living in the Surrealist Paris. Huidobro opposed Surrealism on the grounds that the surrealists in their pursue for the total lack of control of the mind in writing, converted poetry in a spiritist trick. He argued also that poetry is created more than ever by the poet with all the strength of his awaken senses. The poet has not a passive but an active role in the management and gadget of the poem otherwise-addressing- the surrealists ‘if we follow your theories we pave the way for the improvisers’. Poetry in this way becomes a banal indulgence. No, poetry according to Huidobro, exudes either from a superconscience or has its pedigree in the inner life of the poet who is caught by a poetical delirium. He also opposes the view that every one is little bit mad and little bit a poet of which the surrealists made a solid ground for the creativity of the poet. The Chilean poet does deny that the controlling reason, that is not evident in surrealist poetry making, is of a controlling nature but that it lies in the same level than that of imagination. Against all other ‘isms’ Huidobro opposes his own one, ‘creationism’ which -in a paraphrases- stands for the projection of creativity to the foreground in every act of writing poetry, assisted by a superconscious mind without a all pervading reason but that one levelled with imagination.

As with Neruda’s Tentativa where he abandoned the incursion into surrealist literary paraphernalia, Vallejo with his Trilce experienced a quite similar saga. Vallejo published Trilce the same year he departed for Paris, 1922 -the first Surrealist manifest was published in 1925. Comparing Vallejo’s previous work, for example Los Heraldos Negros one can see a big difference in style with Trilce. These difference shows that Vallejo was already very much acquainted with the literary tools of the French avant-garde that served as substratum for the Surrealist movement.

Cesar Vallejo, although having instituted friendship with the majority of the surrealists, did not agree in the most of their postulates. A difference from Huidobro, Vallejo impugns surrealism more from the social vantage view than formally. About the devise most widely associated with surrealism, automatic writing, Vallejo refers it as ‘abracadabra method’. He acknowledges nevertheless that at certain point, surrealism was sympathetic to the proletarian revolution, which was lovable from the humanist view that is imbedded in art.

Cesar Vallejo’s compatriots Xavier Abril, Cesar Moro and Emilio Adolfo Westphalen promoted with enthusiasm the surrealist mode in Perú. Apparently the influence came either from the Spanish version of surrealism or from particular surrealists as Breton or Éluard.

The poetry of Xavier Abril Dificil Trabajo (1935) is characterised by his daredevil images, the avant-garde rhetoric and the surrealist hermetism. Cesar Moro was one of the few Latin-American writers of this period that published surrealist poems in French and in Spanish. Moro went to Paris in 1925, joined the surrealist movement and collaborated in the magazine Le surrealism au Service de la Revolution. Along with Emilo Adolfo Westphalen and Moreno Jimeno funded the surrealist magazine El uso de la palabra in 1933. Moro moved to Mexico. In 1940 and along with André Bretón and Wolfgang Paalen in Mexico too they organised an international exhibition of Surrealist Art.

Emilio Adolfo Westphalen also followed the prescribed rules of Surrealism. The poems of his first book Insulas extranñas (1933) characterises by the use of psychic automatism. These poems lack syntactic structure and are deprived of images and punctuation. Abolición de la muerte (1935) is more legible and contains themes as time, existence and the beyond.

Buenos Aires was another centre of surrealist influence. Argentinean poetry before cultivator of gauchesque themes and modernist ones endured a complete transformation when Jorge Luis Borges came back form Madrid in 1921. Borges introduced Ultraism that was the Spanish version of Huidobro’s Creationism.

Many of the Argentinean poets arrived to surrealism under the influence of the Spanish poets of the Generación de 1927. Ultraism in Argentina was a movement that helped to prepare the terrain for surrealism. Surrealism as a formal concertation appeared in 1928 when Aldo Pellegrini founded the magazine Que (1928-30). However the first surrealists did not have a great success due to they were caught in rivalries between a group called "Boedo" and the "Martinfierrists". Twenty years later, in 1948, the Argentinean surrealists organised themselves again around the magazine Ciclo (1948-49). At this time some previous militant surealsits had abandoned the files but new blood was infused and the surrealist reorganized themselves around the magazine A partir de 0 (1952-56) directed by Enrique Molina. The surrealists also collaborated in the establishment of Letras y Lineas (1953-55)

In Chile surrealism formally started in July of 1938 with the forming of the group Mandrágora which included Braulio Arenas, Jorge Cáceres, Teófilo Gómez-Correa, Armando Gaete, Mariano Medina, Fernando Onfray, Gustavo Ossorio, Gonzalo Rojas-Pizarro, Mario Urzula y Eugenio Vidaurrazaga. The Chilean surrealist celebrated their first art exhibition in 1941 and an international organisation in 1948.

Pablo Neruda’s Tentativa del Hombre Infinito antedates the publication of the first Manifest of Surrealism by two years. In this book Neruda’s suppression of capital letters, absence of punctuation, irregular verse, and telegraphic syntax resembles very much automatic writing -surrealism’s central tenet- and it is impossible to not detect Neruda’s acquaintance with the poetry of the ‘isms’ that preceded surrealism, cubism, dadaism and futurism. Apparently, influenced by them, Neruda considered unnecessary to follow their latest expression, namely surrealism. In biographical accounts Neruda tells how he knew all about the movements in literature in Europe by the time he was studying French at the College. It is impossible not to suspect that Neruda, previous to the publication of Tentativa…surely knew of the French symbolist poets and their every more distancing the cause from the effect in their construction of metaphors and also their tendency to almost total estrangement of the image, which makes it to come closer to the fantastic representation, proper of the absurdity of dreams; all these futures that entered in the surrealist terminology as automatic writing. Thus, Neruda neither opposing nor openly acclaiming surrealism could be concluded that he was not influenced by it.

Surrealism in Venezuela came to fruition till 1936 when the group Grupo Viernes was founded. The group launched a manifest in the manner of the French surrealists. Among it s members were Luis Fernando Alvarez, José Ramon Heredia, Angel Miguel Queremel, Pablo Rojas Guardia, Vicente Filardo, Rafael Olivares Figueroa and the literary critiquer Fernado Cabrices. The mentor and speaker of the group was Angel Miguel Queremel.

The different French avant–garde movements of the two first decades of the twentieth century echoed in Mexico: futurism with the name of stridentism, Dadaism and cubism. The poets that founded the magazine Contemporáneos (1928-31) directed by Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano introduced surrealism. Among the most important poets of that period counts Carlos Pellicer, Xavier Villaurrutia, Jaime Torres Bodet. Jose Gorostiza y Salvador Novo. These poets embodied in their works all the techniques of the surrealist literature but they expressed the same in themes of solitude, bitterness, pessimism and death.

André Breton visited Mexico and was invirted to deliver a few talks. He became enchanted by the popularity of surrealism there. Wolfgang Paalen came to Mexico also and he organised an international surrealist exhibition in 1940. In 1942 Paalen founded the surrealist magazine Dyn (1942-44). Benjamin Perret followed his compatriots to Mexico and stayed in Mexico for five years. It is this environment that Octavio Paz grow up. It is perhaps him who most did for both the propagation and the accomplishment of the resources surrealism bequeathed to literature. In his prose books he always acknowledges his debt to surrealism. But is in his book La busqueda del comienzo he is more explicit in what surrealism meant for him and pays tribute to that legacy.

In March 1950 Breton and Perret published Almanach surréaliste du demi-siécle in which they included the name of Octavi oPaz as one of the selected ones.

In Cuba the surrealist influence is not transparent but Roberto Fernandez Retamar designates Felix Pita Rodriguez, Ramón Guirao y Lorenzo García Vega among the Cuban poets that show surrealist elements in their poetry. Apparently the cuban poets were not unaware of the avant-garde literature of the times as is witnessed by the magazine Revista de Avance (1927-30) but they were more troubled with fighting the dictatorship that plagued the Island of these days. Poets like Mario Brull has surrealist futures. The frequent use of ‘jitanjáforas’ and other onomatopoetic resources found in his poetry resembled very much the word games used by the French surrealists of the time (1930’s).

In the view of some scholars like John S. Brushwood the 1930’s is an important period of prose writing in Latin-America because the techniques of the avant-garde appear with growing regularity. He however maintains that there are exceptions in Mexico that reveal an early acceptance in fiction of their techniques. During the 1920’s the use of free association, dream-like images and the disproportionate use of time was of common use in fiction. Gilberto Owen, La llama Fria, 1925; Novela como nube, 1928; Jaime Tores Bodet, Margarita de Niebla, 1927; La educación sentimental, 1930; Salvador Novo, El joven, 1928; Xavier Icaza, Panchito Chapopote, 1928; Arqueles Vela, El café de nadie, 1926; Jose Marinez Sotomayor, La rueca de aire, 1930 and La Malahora (1923) de Mariano Azuela as he in this novel incorporates fragmented and retrospective scenes and the disproportionate use of time. Is worth mentioning that the majority of the above mentioned were members of the Stridentist movement which was the Mexican version of Futurism.

The time between 1935 and 1946 can be considered as a period of experimentation with the surrealist elements. To these dates correspond Borges’ Historia general de la infamia (1935) and concludes with Miguel Angel Asturias El señor presidente (1946).

From 1946 onwards the surrealist legacy form an integral part of the Latin-American narrative and it is hard to disengage. Corresponded to a second generation of writers to make of that heritage the honour with which the Latin-American literature has been acknowledged. Now there has been a engaging debate about the terming of the Latin-American literature from this period onwards. The purposes of this paper is not to contribute to that debate but to make a recollection of the works of the most influential writers which show influences of the techniques first systematised by the French surrealist movement.

Alejo Carpentier’s Ecué-Yamba (1933) is situated in that period of surrealist experimentation, but for its treatment of the narrative and the use of the surrealist paraphernalia can be placed within his period of maturity. El Reino de este mundo (1949) is already a novel which shows a more sophisticated use of these elements and therefore not considered as surrealist properly speaking. It is however Los Pasos perdidos (1953) his masterpiece, an exploration of South America from the view of the surrealist le merveilleux with which Carpentier abandons surrealism to be with his own.

Manuel Rojas from Chile with Hijo de ladrón (1951) contributes to the second generation of surrealists. This work, written mainly as a realist novel, contains numerous examples of interior monologue, counterpoint resources, and the use of non-chronological time.

Some critics consider that Ernesto Sabato’s El tunel (1948) is an existentialist novel or even Freudian for the techniques in the use of language, nevertheless in my view it is of surrealist brand.

His Sobre héroes y tumbas (1962) is a clear example of surrealist literature. The reader is submerged in the caves of the unconscious and it is written with a rich stile in metaphors, symbols and dream-like elements.

Juan Rulfo from Mexico with his Pedro Páramo (1955) undertakes one of the most intrepid experiments in the modern novel. He appears to express his own concept of ‘mexicanity’ through the creation of an infernal environment where homicide, incest despotism and lechery reveals itself in a very poetical form. Rulfo seems to pussels the reader with the use of scenes that at first sight do not seem to be connected and with the non-chronological time.

Another mexican, Juan Jose Arreola is one of the best representatives of the genre. His works are like surrealist paintings. The short stories Varia Invención (1949) y Confabulario (1952) could well be called modern fables, but of a very abstract nature. The interpretations of the symbols in his works are entangled and hard to grasp in a first attempt. One would need to approach them from various vantagepoints.

The method of ‘automatic writing’ discovered and used by the surrealist poets, Andre Breton, Benjamin Perret, Antonín Artaud among the most influential within the surrealist movement, came to the knowledge of the most representative poets of the Latin-American avant-garde soon after the publication of the first manifest of the movement. These partly because some of them like Vicente Huidobro from Chile and Cesar Vallejo from Peru were in Paris when the surrealist movement started. Others like Octavio Paz from Mexico and Pablo Neruda from Chile came into contact with Surrealism in its second wind by the mid thirties. Pablo Neruda never ascribed himself to the movement of the ‘automatic writing’ the search for the infinite and ‘insanity’ as the best way to create poetry nor criticised it either. In a few declarations scattered among his thousands of texts Neruda distanced himself from the surrealist mode although preserved a deep friendship with Eluard and Aragon based in mutual respect and admiration in view of the part the two played during the years of the Popular Front.