Saltana Arctic Poems by Vicente Huidobro Revista de literatura i traducció A Journal of Literature & Translation Revista de literatura y traducción
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Poemas árticos is the earliest example of avant-garde writing in Spanish and, containing short poems, was the volume most accessible to readers unfamiliar with the new aesthetic. Its poems were read and reread, studied, and imitated by a whole generation of young Spaniards ready for something new. Those who could not acquire the book itself, hand-copied its content. Some of these early enthusiasts, like Antonio Machado, were eventually disturbed by Huidobro's extravagant imagery; while others, like Gerardo Diego, saw new possibilities for lyric poetry.(1) Juan Larrea was an instant convert. He recalls how Gerardo Diego, returning from Madrid in May of 1919, passed through Bilbao, «bringing with him three Huidobro poems that he had copied by hand from Poemas árticos». For Larrea, these poems were decisive: «Their novelty impressed me in such a way that from that day on I began to feel that I was a completely different person.»(2) One of the poems was «Luna» (Moon):

Estábamos tan lejos de la vida
Que el viento nos hacía suspirar


Inútilmente hemos huido
El invierno cayó en nuestro camino
Y el pasado lleno de hojas secas
Pierde el sendero de la floresta
                   Tanto fumamos bajo los árboles
                                  Que los almendros huelen a tabaco
Sobre la vida lejana
                                        alguien llora
Y la luna olvidó dar la hora

(We were so far from life / that the wind would make us sigh / THE MOON SOUNDS OFF LIKE A CLOCK / Uselessly have we fled / The winter fell across our route / And the past filled with dry leaves / Loses the trail in the grove / We smoked so much under the arbour / That the almond trees smell of tobacco / Midnight / Over the distant life / someone cries / And the moon forgot to give the time)

What impressed Larrea was the poem's otherworldly atmosphere, particularly the intriguing quality of the false simile around which everything seems to be organized: «LA LUNA SUENA COMO UN RELOJ». It is only after thinking about the poem, and analysing the mechanism of its imagery, that one is able to decode the comparison: the disk of the full moon is taken for the illuminated face of a church clock; as night falls the moon-clock fails to give the time. For an acute reader such as Larrea, the poem is only momentarily disorienting, and that is its charm. A less acute reader could however be left outside the poem, completely excluded from its private system of associations.

This is the sort of thing that Juan Gris was concerned about in Poemas árticos, its occasional hermeticism and the forced quality of some of its imagery. In a letter of October 1918, he raises the point with Huidobro:(3)

Regarding your books I ought to tell you first the great pleasure your dedication gives me [«To Juan Gris and Jacques Lipchitz, remembering our evening chats in that corner of France», in Poemas árticos] and then the great poetic emotion that I had in reading them, especially Poemas árticos. In these books something is given off that does not exist for example in the book of Juan Ramón [Jiménez] that you sent me: a lyricism and a poetry that it is quite rare to find and that is the only thing that interests me. And now since I am your friend and since on repeated occasions you have asked me to do it, I proceed to make a critique of your books. I consider Poemas árticos to be superior to Ecuatorial or at least I understand it better, being more familiar. The other book is too grandiose for me and I haven't yet managed to penetrate it. The two of them are certainly better than Horizon carré, but . . . since then I have reflected a lot about certain things and if before I could accept certain literary procedures that you use now I don't accept them. I will explain myself better. There is in your productions a certain itch for imagery that is exaggerated and that takes some force away from your poems and from the true emotive image. Thus, when you write cotton clouds you make an image that is clever but arid and not poetic, but when you write the clouds passed by sailing toward the Orient you give an emotion, while an elevator like a diver has no other basis than your own cleverness. Notice how all the powerful images in your book have in common a solid base. The winter comes, etc. (cold cemetery). Tied to a ship etc. (tied to destiny), and nothing more vulgar than a handkerchief drying in the sun to which you add in the moon. Surely, a good adjective is worth more than a clever non-emotive image, and even some of Mallarmé's touffe is better than an image that is forced.

Huidobro was fortunate in having the candid criticism of a mind as sharp as that of Gris. But art was moving away from the cerebral kind of synthetic Cubism preferred by the painter, and Dada, with its penchant for striking metaphor «found» by chance, was in the air. Especially in Spain, where Picabia had returned to bring out 391. Huidobro would eventually move in this direction, although only briefly; but for now, his books of 1918 must be considered within the framework of literary Cubism. A somewhat heterodox Cubism to be sure, as Gris's critique makes apparent, but one in which the imagery, however bizarre, was not the result of mere chance, but of the poet's mental inventiveness. Actually, what was happening in Huidobro's poetry, and what Gris did not completely grasp, was that as the author abandoned the idea of the picture-poem in the manner of «Paysage» for its essentially static quality, he began to cultivate a new kind of textual dynamism, based on the principle that a poem is read through from beginning to end. Rather than a collage of words, a poem is really a verbal sequence. Similarly, a book is a sequence of texts. And in Poemas árticos one text often generates another. Not in a rigidly structured pattern, but in a loose intertextual way. A poem like «Luna», for example, is related to another, earlier poem in the book, «Luna o reloj» (Moon or Clock), where a night scene is evoked: «Después en el valle sin sol / un mismo ruido / la luna y el reloj» (Later in the valley without sun / one same noise / the moon and the clock).

There are many such images in Poemas árticos, images that through the force of repetition lose their hermeticism and acquire their fullest significance only in the larger context of the book. Cigarettes glowing in the dark, for example, generate a whole family of luminescent associations, usually serving to make near what is far, or vice versa. And too, something as elusive as time is often made tangible; in one case through an implicit relation to the oval shape of an hourglass: «Los frutos que caen son ovalados / y las horas también» (The fruits that fall are oval / and the hours also). These lines from «Donjon» (Turret) can be made to reflect back on other poems and, ultimately, to clarify the closing image of «Horas» (Hours), the book's first poem:

El villorrio
Un tren detenido sobre el llano
En cada charco
                               duermen estrellas sordas
Y el agua tiembla
Cortinaje al viento
                                      La noche cuelga en la arboleda
En el campanario florecido
Una gotera viva
                                    desangra las estrellas

De cuando en cuando
Las horas maduras
                                                       caen sobre la vida

(The scrub town / A train stopped on the prairie / In every puddle / deaf stars sleep / And the water trembles / Curtains to the wind / The night hangs in the grove / In the flowered bell turret / A heavy leak / bleeds the stars / From time to time / The ripe hours / fall down on life)

Here, ripeness (madura) is the idea that triggers the association with fruit and time. In a similar way, some lines from «Cigarro» (Cigar), can be summoned to illumine the enigmatic central image of the night hanging in the grove («La noche cuelga en la arboleda»): «Aquello que cae de los árboles es la noche» (That which is falling from the trees is the night). Language is being stretched throughout Poemas árticos to make possible in the reader's imagination what does not exist in reality.

In «Horas» we have a static sequence. Verbs are used to arrest action or, alternately, to give the idea of a perpetual, almost frozen-in-time stasis to the scene: a train stopped in a prairie town in the dead of night. A sense of stability is created by the unusual vocabulary: collective nouns (cortinaje, arboleda), presenting as a single mass what plurals would otherwise break down into separate components (cortinas, árboles). The inanimate is made animate, albeit statically: «deaf» stars, light years away, brought to earth by their reflection in a puddle, being bled to death by time. An ordinary night scence is thus transformed, turned inside out in the poet's mind, and given a new and independent existence. In this way, time, an otherwise abstract concept, is rendered concrete. Time does not merely «hang heavy», as in the popular expression; in this poem it is made to fall.

This is a more intense application of the principle of artistic transformation of reality outlined in Horizon carré. Eventually, in the manifesto to Création (November 1921), Huidobro would spell out the formula for this particular kind of «creationism»:

To invent is to make two things parallel in space come together in time, or vice versa, thus presenting in their conjunction something new. The ensemble of diverse new realities united by a common esprit is what constitutes the created work.

Juan Gris was then saying much the same thing about his own work, when, defining his art as one of «synthesis», he specified: «I try to make concrete what is abstract; I proceed from the general to the particular in order to arrive at something new.»(4) The difference between them is not one of method but of means, and of temperament. Gris, like Reverdy, was disciplined and analytic; Huidobro was lyrical and fanciful.

The poet's transformation of just one of the painter's images is sufficient to appreciate this difference: when Gris was translating «Arte poética» from El espejo de agua, he added in these lines, entirely of his own invention:

Un bouton
un léger coup
et toutes les chambres s'éclairent.

Electricity as the symbol of the modern age. Huidobro, in Poemas árticos, putting Gris's genial inspiration into Spanish, raised it to a higher level of fantasy. In «Nadador» (Swimmer), a flick of the switch doesn't merely light up the house, but the universe:

Apretando un botón
Todos los astros se iluminan

(Pushing a button / all the stars light up)

It was this aspect of Huidobro's work that then attracted Dada, a movement in which he was somehow absorbed. The fact is that when Tzara included «Cow Boy», a poem from Horizon carré in Dada 3 (December 1918), one critic of the time based his review of the movement on it, finding this poem not only «representative», but capable of «enchanting everyone with any lyric sensibility».(5) Not everyone. The poem contains a variant of that elevator image Gris found so gratuitous in Poemas árticos: in «Llueve» one went down like a diver («Desciende el ascensor mejor que un buzo»); in «Cow Boy» they are rising up like thermometers: «Les ascenseurs montent comme des thermomètres». Huidobro, like the avant-garde movement of which he is an integral part, was moving in several different directions at the same time in his personal quest for modernity.

Only fleetingly in his work does one encounter the trappings of modernity of the sort which so enthralled the Futurists: airplanes, race-cars, skyscrapers, etc. When they do appear though, they are thoroughly, often whimsically transformed in the poet's imagination; man's inventions are made more man-sized, brought to the level of the ordinary, as in the elevator example. In «Universo» (Universe), an airplane, the symbol of the age, is but a moth:

Junto al arco voltaico
Un aeroplano daba vueltas

(Next to the electric light / an airplane was fluttering about)

The Nord-Sud group, put off by the more superficial aspects of the modern, thought of themselves as charged with restoring a kind of order to the avant-garde. Paul Dermée, on several occasions in the review, raised the idea of a new classicism, most especially in «Quand le Symbolisme fut mort» (March 1917) and «Intelligence et Création» (August-September 1917). Huidobro in Spain, and later in Chile, spoke of the group's effort in these same terms, prompting Cansinos-Asséns to write in 1919: «they are like new Parnassians, the Thermidorean reaction to the revolution; they have even proclaimed themselves classicists».(6)

This classicism could be, and was, interpreted in various ways. On a theoretical basis, to write like the classics meant to imitate them in their inventive capacity; and much was then made of the fact that poet (poietes) in Greek, means inventor, creator. On a practical basis, classicism also meant updating the classics, «translating» the great works of the past into the modern idiom of the avant-garde. Huidobro did this with «Égloga» (Eclogue), a modern version of Saint John of the Cross' «Noche oscura del alma» (Dark Night of the Soul). This masterwork was described by the Spanish mystic as a poem «in which the soul sings of the fortunate adventure that it had in passing through the dark night of faith (...) to union with the Beloved». The setting is pastoral:

Quedéme, y olvidéme
el rostro recliné sobre el Amado,
cesó todo, y dejéme,
dejando mi cuidado
entre las azucenas olvidado.

(I stayed, and lost myself completely / I layed my head on the Loved One, / everything came to a standstill, and I let myself go, / setting aside my cares / losing them among the lilies.)

Huidobro, in an attempt at what today would be called réécriture, reworked this Renaissance poem, putting it into the language of his Poemas árticos:

                                    Sol muriente
Hay una panne en el motor
Y un olor primaveral
Deja en el aire al pasar
                                             En algún sitio
                                                                          una canción

                     EN DÓNDE ESTÁS

Una tarde como ésta
                                          te busqué en vano
Sobre la niebla de todos los caminos
Me encontraba a mí mismo
Y en el humo de mi cigarro
Había un pájaro perdido

Nadie respondía

                        Los últimos pastores se ahogaron

y los corderos equivocados
Comían flores y no daban miel

El viento que pasaba
Amontona sus lanas

                                        Entre las nubes
                                        Mojadas de mis lágrimas

A qué otra vez llorar

                                        lo ya llorado

Y pues que las ovejas comen flores
Señal que ya has pasado

(Dying sun / There is a breakdown in the motor / And a springlike aroma / Remains in the air on passing / Some place / a song / WHERE ARE YOU / One evening like this / I looked for you in vain / Over the mist of all the roads / I kept on running into myself / And in the smoke of my cigar / There was a lost bird / No one would answer / The last shepherds had drowned / And the confused sheep / Were eating flowers and giving no honey / The wind that was passing by / Piles up the wool / Among the clouds / Wet from my tears / Why cry again / over the already lamented / And since the sheep are eating flowers / Sign that you have just passed by)

Huidobro himself has explicated this poem, or at least tried to. When he was in Chile in 1919, spreading the word about the new aesthetic, he was taken for an iconoclast. Seeking to correct this misinterpretation, he visited Hernán Díaz Arrieta, his conservative-minded friend from the days of Musa Joven and Azul, and then critic for the influential weekly Zig-Zag. As evidence of his classicism, he pointed out «Égloga» and tried to explain its imagery. The critic, although unconvinced, has fortunately left us a record of the attempt:(7)

After a long conversation with the author [of «Égloga»], we have arrived at the following conclusions. The dying sun offers no difficulty; it could be creationist, just as well as classicist, or even romantic. It is the same old sun that dies out every afternoon. The breakdown in the motor? I first took that to mean that the poet had gone on a trip and that his car had broken down. But no; the breakdown is suffered by the sun and it is for this reason that it is dying. That's what Huidobro says. Alright. At bottom, it is not really an important issue. Continuing along in the poem, one hears a lost song, someone is looking for something, remembers, feels alone. All this is stated in a rather extravagant manner; but when have poets ever expressed themselves like the rest of us? Suddenly, «in the smoke of my cigar a lost bird». And this? What is it? No one replies; the last shepherds are drowned, in other words they are silenced. Someone, then goes on calling out for someone else. One comes across some sheep strangely confused. Up above, the clouds pile up like mountains of wool. A reflection of contentment. And the explanation for the sheep eating flowers: someone special had just been there . . .
— Do you understand now?
— Very little.
— But this is a translation of an eclogue of San Juan de la Cruz!
— It doesn't surprise me; if you had translated it into Chinese I wouldn't have understood it either.

It was the patently whimsical nature of this sort of inventiveness that astonished the readers of Poemas árticos, exasperating some and enchanting others.
(1) Compare: Antonio Machado, «Sobre las imágenes en la lírica (al margen de un libro de V. Huidobro)», in his Obras completas (Madrid: Plenitud,1957); Gerardo Diego, «Posibilidades creacionistas», Cervantes (Madrid), October 1919, pp. 23-8.
(2) «Vicente Huidobro en vanguardia», Revista Iberoamericana, xlv, 106-7 (January-June 1979), 217-18.
(3) Unpublished letter (Beaulieu-près-Loches, 15 October 1918): «Sobre tus libros debo lo primero decirte el gran placer que me ha causado tu dedicatoria ["A Juan Gris y Jacques Lipchitz, recordando nuestras charlas vesperales en aquel rincón de Francia"] y en seguida la gran emoción poética que he tenido leyéndolos sobre todo los Poemas árticos. De ellos se dégage algo que no existe por ejemplo en el libro de Juan Ramón que me enviaste. El lirismo y la poesía que es tan raro encontrar y que es lo único que me interesa. Y ahora, como soy tu amigo y como repetidas veces me lo has pedido, paso a hacerte la crítica de ellos. Poemas árticos yo lo considero superior a Ecuatorial o por lo menos lo comprendo mejor, lo poseo mejor por ser más familiar. El otro es para mí demasiado grandioso y no he llegado aún bien a penetrarlo. Los dos son seguramente mejores que Horizon carré, pero... Desde entonces acá he reflexionado mucho sobre ciertas cosas y si antes admitía ciertos medios literarios que tú usas, ahora no los admito, me explico mejor: hay en tus producciones un cierto prurito por las imágenes que es exagerado y que quita fuerza a tus poemas y a la verdadera imagen emotiva. Así cuando escribes "nubes hidrófilas" haces una imagen ingeniosa pero seca y no poética, pero cuando escribes "pasaron las nubes balando hacia el oriente" das una emoción, mientras que "el ascensor como un buzo" no tiene otra base que tu pura ingeniosidad. Fíjate cómo todas las imágenes fuertes de tu libro tienen una base sólida y común. El invierno viene etc. (cementerio frío). Atado a un barco etc. (atado a su destino) y nada más vulgar que un pañuelo que seca al sol al cual puedes añadir la luna. Seguramente, más vale un adjetivo bueno que una imagen no emotiva e ingeniosa y una considerable touffe de Mallarmé vale más que una imagen forzada».
(4) Juan Gris, as cited in John Golding, Cubism (Paris, 1962), p. 103.
(5) François Poncetton, «Du dadaisme», Clair (Paris), 29 January 1919.
(6) Rafael Cansinos-Asséns, «La nueva lírica (Horizon carré, Poemas árticos, Ecuatorial)», Cosmópolis (Madrid), 1, 5 (May 1919).
(7) Hernán Díaz Arrieta, «El Creacionismo», Zig-Zag (Santiago), xv, 755 (9 August 1919).

[This text is a digital reprint from René DE COSTA, Vicente Huidobro: The Careers of a Poet, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984, pp. 57-65.]
Arctic Poems by Vicente Huidobro