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«Colón 1   Mysterious Melodies: Futurism, Primitivism, and the Onomatopoetics of ultraísmo and negrismo David Colón Texas Christian University In ...»

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Mysterious Melodies:

Futurism, Primitivism, and the Onomatopoetics of ultraísmo and negrismo

David Colón

Texas Christian University

In his influential essay “Posibilidades creacionistas,” published in Cervantes in October

of 1919, Gerardo Diego schematizes the literary concept of the imagen, the most vital

compositional facet of the Spanish and Latin American poetic avant-gardes of the 1920s. Diego

begins by identifying the various forms of the imagen, rhetorically explained in a method comparable to a musical scale, in which he starts with the singular imagen and develops a theory

of the complication of this primal aspect of lyric:

Primero está la Imagen, esto es, la palabra. La palabra en su sentido primitivo, ingenuo, de primer grado, intuitivo, generalmente ahogado en su valor lógico de juicio, de pensamiento. En segundo lugar contamos con la Imagen refleja o simple, esto es, la imagen tradicional estudiada en las retóricas. En tercer lugar, la Imagen doble. La imagen representa, a la vez, dos objetos, contiene en sí una doble virtualidad. Disminuye la precisión, aumenta el poder sugestivo. Se hallan aisladas en los clásicos: los creacionistas las prodigan constantemente. En cuarto lugar, encuentra la Imagen triple, cuádruple, etc. Advertid cómo nos vamos alejando de la literatura tradicional. Estas imágenes que se presentan a varias interpretaciones, serían tachadas desde el antiguo punto de vista como gravísimos extravíos, de ogminidad, anfibología, extravagancia, etc. Finalmente, está la Imagen multiple. No explica nada; es intraducible a la prosa. Es la Poesía, en el más puro sentido de la palabra. Es también, y exactamente, la Música, que es Hispanet Journal 2 (December 2009)   Colón 2   substancialmente el arte de las imágenes multiples; todo valor disuasivo, escolástico, filosofico, anecdótico, es esencialmente ajeno a ella. La música no quiere decir nada. (Diego 26-7) Diego’s ultimate conceptualization of the “imagen multiple” expresses the aesthetic apex of creacionista poetry—and ultraísta poetry, for the two movements are stylistically almost indistinguishable (Bernal 8-14). Diego’s ideal is that poetry is imbued with a sense of musicality that is vacant of rational or semantic meaning, and that this very quality ought to bethe dominant aspect of the new avant-garde poetry.

Yet, the various Spanish language avant-garde poetic movements—such as creacionismo, ultraísmo, and surrealismo—took this value of the imagen in different ways. The influence of the imagen was prevalent throughout the Spanish and Latin American nueva poesía of the late 1910s and 1920s, but its usage was as multiplicitous as its desired poetic effects. This eclecticism is evidenced in the numerous manifestos of the Latino avant-gardes. As Juan-Jacobo Bajarlía notes in his chapter, “La imagen como estructura de vanguardia,” the imagen was often translated by the vanguardistas as metaphor (Bajarlía 56-9), in which the imagen was realized as a structure of new poetic creation that reflected upon the modern condition by means of momentary epiphanies of judgment and comparison. This understanding of the imagen appears quite different from Diego’s idea of the imagen—and particularly of its highest potential in the “imagen múltiple”—as pure music, but it should be considered that the imagen as metaphor similarly aspires to a scenario in which poetic sensibility is reduced (or raised, depending on one’s point of view) to a level of being that escapes semantic explication and appeals to a more immediate and primordial source of wisdom.

–  –  –

Take, for example, Jorge Luis Borges’s essay “Ultraísmo,” published in Nosotros in December of 1921, in which he offers four key principles for ultraísta poetry and its treatment of the imagen: “ La reducción de la lírica a su elemento primordial: la metáfora, y la tachadura de las frases medianeras, los nexos y los adjetivos inútiles. También la abolición de los trebejos ornamentales, el confesionalismo, la circunstanciación, las prédicas y la nebulosidad rebuscada.

Incluso, la íntesis de dos o más imágenes en una, que ensancha de ese modo su facultad de sugerencia” (Borges 468).

Borges’s urge towards economy, synthesis, and suggestiveness hints at Diego’s idea of the musicality of the imagen insofar as the poetic recourse to achieve Borges’s proposed goals for ultraísmo seems necessarily to appeal to a sensibility of conciseness and harmony that cannot be realized through convention, description, or rhetorical explanation but rather through a siphoning of lyric poetry to some basic aspect. In Borges’s view, ultraísta poetry ought to pare away both the trappings and the recognition of traditional high poetic narrative while maintaining the capacity for nuance, lyricism, and imagery of the poem. So in this sense, Borges’s idealized vision of the imagen is one that is closer to Diego’s version of the musical imagen than immediately evident. The metaphorical imagen of Borges and the musical imagen of Diego both strive for an untainted, uncorrupted aesthetic element of poetry, and, since both are vitally grounded in the theory of the lyric, are contingent not upon the visual image (as one might expect from the terminology of imagen) but rather upon a fundamental exploration of the evocative faculties of the sonorous.

Such explorations are common—if not identifying—aspects of many of the Spanish and Latin American avant-gardes. However, these explorations are directed by many differing motives, and these differences in objective result in a wide range of permutations. Diego’s

–  –  –

objective for creacionismo is to utilize the imagen so as to “invent that which does not exist”—a sentiment shared by nearly all the Latin American vanguard poetic movements of the early twentieth century (Bernal 43-6). Borges’s objective for ultraísmo—as outlined by the four principles in his essay of the same name—seems somewhat more reactionary, reacting explicitly in opposition to the conventional tendencies of his immediate historical precursors, as evidenced by his lexicon of negation. Other poetic movements that access the imagen in Diego’s sense of the term present different objectives, colored by their cultural contexts and historical moments.

Take, for example, the “Manifesto euforista,” written by the Puerto Ricans Tomás L. Batista and Vicente Palés Matos and published in El Imparcial in November of 1922. In this manifesto, the euforista agenda is illustrated as a revision of sentimental and lyric poetry, imbibed with the lifeforce of contemporary modern society and material culture: “¡Viva la máquina, la llave, la aldaba, la tuerca, la sierra, el marrón, el truck, el brazo derecho, el cuarto de hotel, el vaso de agua, el porter, la navaja, el delirium tremens, el puntapiés y el aplauso!” (Batista and Matos 3).

The particular contexts and objectives of the various Spanish-speaking avant-gardes of the early twentieth century constitute quite different realizations of the imagen modernista.

Nevertheless, their avant-garde tendencies seem to coalesce around some unifying aspect of expression, especially in their reverence for the lyric’s ability to express more than what it says.

The vanguardistas—in all their myriad names—owe much to Diego and his articulation of the concept of the imagen-as-music, for the radicalizations of lyrical expression the avant-gardists wished to exhibit are summarily encapsulated by his idea that “with words we can make a thing similar to music, by means of multiple images” (Diego 27).

The most vibrant and promising tendency of the Spanish and Latin American avantgardes in utilizing the imagen as a revised poetic form is onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia is the

–  –  –

ultimate vehicle to achieve (in Diego’s terms) the imagen múltiple, or poetry-as-music, in lyric poetics. Although mimetic in connotation, onomatopoeia is the very use of language to mean entirely in its sounds and not in a system of preordained codified understanding—precisely the mode Diego foretold when he said (of the musical poetics of the imagen múltiple) that ‘music wishes to say nothing.’ To articulate sounds which have little semantic function but rather conjure sense in the unconscious realm of familiarity, and to take the measure to transliterate them as such, is to practice a poetics that assumes the vanguardista aspiration to ‘invent that which does not exist’—onomatopoeia in its truest etymological sense: ‘name-making.’ Of the Spanish and Latin American avant-gardes, ultraísmo (from roughly 1918 to 1923) and negrismo (of the late 1920s until as far as the 1950s) were two movements that most extensively employed onomatopoetics to construct their idealized poetic worlds. However, it should be understood that the majority of the texts from these two movements do not exhibit onomatopoetic tendencies, especially in the instance of ultraísmo; onomatopoeia, in spite of being a fantastic vehicle for the imagen múltiple and its related conceits of para-semantic voice, is not fully developed in vanguardista lyric.

Yet, of that which was developed, the onomatopoetics of ultraísmo and negrismo appear to express and center around existentialist questions of identity, knowledge, and memory. The use of onomatopoeia in these movements of poetry generally gives voice to a mysterious other, be it a being familiar to our consciousness but commonly inarticulate, or else the poet’s voice itself. The onomatopoeia captures an aspect of the experience of the familiar that is unfamiliar to speech, thereby inscribing a poetry characteristically modern in its articulations of the negative capability of the present.

–  –  –

These articulations of the mysterious voices of the modern world tend to take two general forms. Although both are firmly grounded in the inquiry of the conditions of existence for modern humanity, the onomatopoeia of ultraísmo tends to voice the character of the machine, in all its forms of automobile, train, factory, or clock, whereas the onomatopoeia of negrismo voices the imagined culture and language of the Spanish Caribbean’s African ancestry, lost in the conquest of slavery and genocide but surviving in the complexion and lore of its progeny. These are two extremely different directions for the onomatopoetics of the vanguardistas, for the former addresses modernity in its context of mechanization and technology while the latter addresses modernity in its legacy of colonization and racism. One is about technological progress in the vein of futurism, the other humanism by means of primitivism. For precisely this duality, the juxtaposition of ultraísmo and negrismo yields a valuable comparison in exploring the objectives of onomatopoetics in Spanish-speaking avant-garde poetry.

Many of the earliest ultraísta poems that incorporate onomatopoeia in their verse do so only slightly. Take as an example the poem “Conjunción abismo” by the Spaniard Rafael Lasso de la Vega.1 It is a thirty-six line poem, composed in free verse, which depicts a solemn urban landscape. The poem oscillates within the contradiction of a vacant city, whereupon a ‘solitary street corner’ and ‘the great silence of a thousand ears’ play host to ‘mysterious things [that] have passed through here/horrible shadows, words in obscurity.’ The sense of mystery lies in the dark undertone of the emptiness of modern society—the new worlds of the twentieth-century city leave traces of hollow impersonality, putrid waste, and uncertain ruins.

The poem sustains the despair of this pessimistic view of the contemporary city yet

culminates in an insinuation of the utter stagnation of time:

–  –  –

Onomatopoesis appears once in this poem: the “cló cló” of the ‘large December gutter.’ Of all the fragmented images of inanimate objects and abject indifference in this poem, it is the drain of the gutter that articulates its onomatopoetic voice. This confinement is significant; the gutter alludes to the hidden receptacle of our waste, where the excrement of urban society is carried away and kept from infecting the populace. The gutter is the lowest monument of civilization, perhaps in this case a modern symbol of the passage to a literal underworld. To give voice to the gutter via onomatopoeia makes it the most salient speaking character in Vega’s muted world.

This is what onomatopoeia in ultraísta poetry often accomplishes; by ‘inventing that which does not exist,’ the recognizable voices of everyday life are replaced by the sounds of commonly ignored inanimate objects and background noise. These new voices serve as metonyms for the exalted new worlds of ultraísta creation. Another fine example of this reconfiguration of poetic voice through onomatopoeia is Francisco Vighi’s poem “Tertulia,” also published in Grecia in 1920. This forty-nine line poem depicts, from the perspective of ‘I—the ninth Spanish poet’—the sounds, smells, and overall tenor of a lively café, moving abruptly from sense to sense by means of shifting between descriptions and impressions.

Once again, as with “Conjunción abismo,” onomatopoetic expression is stayed until the final stanza:

–  –  –

There are two onomatopoetic moments in this stanza: the transliterated sound of the bell on the bar counter and the dissected expression patatín-patatán. The sounds “trin… trin” interrupt the scene—the conversation about the author Ramón del Valle-Inclán is shunted, as are all other conversations in the bar, apparently ended by the café’s last call. The chiming of the bell hints at the delirium of the café’s atmosphere; in the same way that speech can penetrate a roomful of silence, the “trin… trin” here penetrates a roomful of talk. The liveliness of the tertulia permeates the café to the point where people become a background substance, and the machine of the bell or clock reclaims the control of order and conscience. Ironically, in this poem, the commanding utterance of a mindless contraption restores the frolickers—lost in revelry and banter—to the human trait of discipline.

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