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5— From Early Words to the Vernacular Inflection: Vanguard Tales of Linguistic Encounter
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The Poetics of Linguistic Beginnings

Huidobro's work constitutes the most overt and eloquent Latin American elaboration in the vanguard period of a quest for linguistic purity and a primeval, original language. Huidobro was also Latin America's most prolific manifesto writer and took great pains in cultivating his own theory of poetic creation, creacionismo . In oral presentations and written manifestos, Huidobro developed these ideas, which he reworked and sought to put into practice in Altazor and carlief poetry collections.

Poetry, Huidobro's manifestos affirm, is the "newborn word" developed in the "first dawn of the world." Only those who have not forgotten the "birth cries of the universal birth [or] the accents of the world in formation " are qualified to call themselves poets. Poetry possesses "no past and no future," and its words are to be found "before the beginning of man and after the end of man" (OC 1:654–55; my emphasis). Huidobro dramatized this verbal birth poetically in Altazor, though he evoked similar images in numerous earlier works. In "Nouvelle Chanson" from the 1917 Horizon Carré collection, for example, anonymous new words spring forth spontaneously in a silent, primal scene.

In Altazor itself, the poetic speaker who has heard his god recount the creation of language seeks paradoxically to duplicate that singular act by playing with words, rearranging and breaking them down into particles that resist semantic association. This speaker repeatedly con-


structs creation scenarios for new worlds and new words. Thus the poet's words spring from the vacuum of that inaugural space and silent moment: "The cradle of my tongue rocked in the void / Prior to all time / And will guard forever the first rhythm / The rhythm that gives birth to worlds" (OC 1:377).[4] As in the verses that provide an epigraph for this chapter, Altazor's probe for original words requires a return to a time before language—"We must return to silence / To the silence of the words that come from silence" (OC 1: 382; EW 49, 51)—and before the world itself—"I speak with a tongue moistened by unborn seas" (OC 1: 383; EW 53). Altazor's journey marks the death of conventional poets, the obliteration of their overused language, and a call for the revivification of words. This new acfivity—"the simple sport of words," the pursuit of "the pure word and nothing more"—leads back to and reemerges from a state of preverbal silence, the "spirit whisper of the wordless phrase" (OC 1: 394; EW 83). The untranslatable verbal fragments of Altazor 's final verses mark the culmination of this progressively disintegrating return to silence.

Ai i a
Ai ai aia
                   layu yu
                  ayu yu ( OC  1: 423)

And the work's closing primal sounds relinquish even the appearance of words on a page:

           io ia
i i i o
Ai a i ai a i i i i o ia ( OC  1: 423)[5]

Although Huidobro's seemingly endless tale of linguistic creation is the most all-encompassing, similar imagery permeates numerous vanguardist proclamations. The "Agú" manifesto, published in Chile by


contemporaries and friends of Pablo Neruda, calls for the reanimation of language through a return to verbal beginnings: "In the beginning the emotion was / Agú. The elemental. The alogical voice. / The first scream of the flesh" (MPP 81). Borges and other Argentine ultraístas defined the new metaphor they sought in "the game of linking words" as the "primordial element" (MPP 99). And a Puerto Rican euforismo manifesto conjured up a primitivist scenario for the "first word" of poetry: "I smash metrics and rhyme and pierce the future with my scream ... of the warrior who launched the first stone" (LHA 233). Similarly, Mexico's estridentistas called for stripping down words to the bone, and signers of the "Somos" manifesto in Venezuela's little magazine válvula celebrated the language of "silence or the scream" (MPP 279). In a lecture during Brazil's 1922 Week of Modern Art, Menotti del Picchia urged his generation of artists to seek "the fresh flesh of the word" in a "Procrustean bed" (GMT 291), and in the "Prefácio interessantíssimo" manifesto that introduces his Paulicéia desvairada poetry collection (1922), Brazil's Mário de Andrade sought a new lyricism from a preverbal unconscious (GMT 299).

As in Huidobro's Altazor, vanguardist poetry often dramatizes this imagery of origins more forcefully. The poetic speaker in Rosamel del Valle's "Velódromo," for example, boasts that he "give[s] birth to words like the sun and the rain" (INPA 73). Mexican Jaime Torres Bodet's poem "Música" yearns nostalgically for the "pure language" with which the speaker has learned to create with "notes of silence" (Obras escogidas 39). The Peruvian poet Carlos Oquendo de Amat prefaced his 5 metros de poemas (1927) with an epigraph that qualifies his verses as "insecure poetry like my first speaking" (n.p.). In "Poema del momento extrangero en la selva," by Nicaragua's Pablo Antonio Cuadra, the speaker pursues a moment of linguistic creation "prior to my song / Prior to myself" (50A 116). The Colombian poet León de Greiff, who experimented extensively with linguistic and musical forms, described the creative act ab ovo in one poem—"I have forged my new architecture of words ... clear, cerebral, pure" (OC 1: 353)—and elaborated in another—"And in the empty world / and in the impregnated sibylline world / one hears only the nude voice / the sober voice / the mute voice / the one that says words without known meanings" (OC 1: 367). A similar stress between new sounds and silence marks poem xliv in Trilce (1922) by Peru's César Vallejo in which the poetic speaker summons up the "unseen piano" of his expressive capacity with its "muteness which deafens" (210). Guatemalan Luis Cardoza y Aragón's


lengthy prose poem Pequeña sinfonía del nuevo mundo (1929–32) maps out repeated returns to primordial verbal newness. The poetic speaker rejects "impotent" words that do not create and have "led astray their genesic magic" (264). Instead he seeks out words that "don't dare to be born" (291) and constructs a world without names that prefigures the early days of García Márquez's Macondo when it was neccssary to name by pointing: "The light was fresh, humid, the world freshly painted.... The night wasn't called night nor was the day called day. The mountains, the masts, the constellations, the rivers, the cows did not have names" (325).[6] Paradoxically, one of the most striking features of this verbally profuse 100-page poetic composition is its sustained homage to "transparent silence" as the source of all poetry (346). Critics often ascribe images of origins to Pablo Neruda's early work, for example, Tentativa del hombre infinito (1926), a poetic voyage sometimes compared to Altazor . Neruda himself did not spell out a primal conception of language in this work, but these tropes of verbal beginnings emerge instead in the critical discourse. Saúl Yurkievich comments, for example, that the work's language takes the reader back to the "larval" and the "germinal" (196).

These diverse imaginings of unmediated verbal worlds posit a universe with no language at all as the site for linguistic creation. Verbal activity in these mute worlds ranges from a preverbal chaos of expression without form to absolute silence. In any case, language appears to emerge from nothingness, but the closer to this original void, the greater the language's power. These images also embody connections between personal and cosmic beginnings. A child learning to speak or a poet generating a new language is an event that takes place not in specific sociolinguistic contexts or historical worlds but in a mythical time-out-of-time and in the imaginary spaces of human and univers(e)al origins. The language thus born should maintain a proximity to its formless, often silent, birthplace through a premorphological and asemantic expressiveness, as in Huidobro's "spirit whisper of the wordless phrase," de Greiff's "mute voice," Vallejo's deafening "muteness," or, in the more chaotic mode, Agú's "first scream of the flesh" or válvula 's language of "silence or the scream."

The international avant-gardes execute this prelinguistic ideal in Dada's sound poems and vowel concerts, the futurists' parole in libertá, or the Russian futurists zaum or transrational language. Marjorie Perloff has demonstrated the relationship between the Russian experiments and Kasimir Malevich's goal of a "zero of form."[7] In Latin American


vanguardist practice, this pursuit of new languages produces a multitude of verbal experiments. These well-known verses from Altazor epitomize the wordplays, transpositions in morphology and sound, word chaining, and inventiveness typical of vanguardist language play:

Ya viene viene la golondrina
Ya viene viene la golonfina
Ya viene la golontrina
Ya viene la goloncima
Viene la golonchina
Viene la golonclima
Ya viene la golonrima
Ya viene la golonrisa
La golonniña
La golongira
La golonlira
La golonbrisa
La golonchilla                          ( OC  1: 398)

(Look here swoops the swooping swallow
Here swoops the whooping wallow
Here swoops the weeping wellow
Look here swoops the sweeping shrillow
Swoops the swamping shallow
Swoops the sheeping woolow
Swoops the slooping swellow
Look here swoops the sloping spillow
The scooping spellow
The souping smellow
The seeping swillow                       (EW 97)

In the poem "Verdehalago" (1928; Green Flattery, or Flattering Word), Cuba's Mariano Brull constructed comparable sound experiments, called jitanjáforas, by playing with the word verde (green): "Por el verde, verde / verdería de verde mar / erre con erre," or, in another section, "Verdor y verdín / verdumbre y verdura. / Verde, doble verde / de col y lechuga" (83).[8] The neologisms and grammatical transgressions of poems in Vallejo's Trilce (1922) constitute one of Latin American vanguardism's most radical invented languages, as in lines from poem xxxii: "999 calorías. / Rumbbb.... Trrraprrrr rrach ... chaz / Serpentínica u del bizcochero/enjirafada al tímpano" (163) (999 calories. / Rumbbb.... Trrraprrr rrach ... ssstop / Serpentine u of the biscuit vendor / giraffed into the eardrum [RS 71].[9] Other writers situated this linguistic inventiveness in explicit cultural contexts,


as in the alliterations, percussive elements, and Africanist linguistic allusions of the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén's "Canto negro" (1931), in which the black man sings, drums, and dances: "Acuememe serembó / aé; / yambó / aé. / Tamba, tamba, tamba, tamba, / tamba del negro que tumba" (OP 1: 122). Linguistic invention constitutes a major story line and the dominant expressive form in Mário de Andrade's Brazilian novel Macunaíma (1928). The work's language—a juxtaposition of regionalisms, including neologisms and Tupi derivations, that forms an original idiom that nobody actually speaks—epitomizes vanguardist verbal invention. The novel's antihero protagonist mimics the novel's linguistic resourcefulness when he makes up a language, incomprehensible to his companions, for hunting a tapir in São Paulo: "Tetápe, dzónanei pemonéite hêhê zeténe netaite" (97). Other vanguardist linguistic experiments include the tongue twisters, onomatopoeias, musical rhyme games, and echolalic effects in parts of Asturias's Leyendas, particularly in the play Cuculcán analyzed below; the radical punning in Brazilian Oswald de Andrade's poetry and manifestos; and the creation of musical languages by structuring literary compositions around musical metaphors in texts from varied genres by de Greiff, Coronel Urtecho and Pasos, Mário de Andrade, Cardoza y Aragón, and Puerto Rico's Luis Palés Matos.

Some of these experiments evolved (like the Leyendas de Guatemala or Guillén's poetry) in contexts of cultural specificity that contradicted, either implicitly or openly, vanguardist claims to linguistic purity. But on another level, all of them also manifested the quest for an invented, original language enacted in Altazor 's ill-fated odyssey. For all its eschewal of context and reference and the transgressiveness of the experiments that it generated, this imagined early verbal world embodied concrete positions on language and culture. In her brilliant analyses of the visual arts in the international avant-gardes, Rosalind Krauss has demonstrated that in vanguardist discourse, originality is equated with a literal origin, a "beginning from ground zero, a birth" (157). She has also shown how the artistic grid incarnates this goal in much of modern art. Although Krauss addresses the visual realm, her observations are useful for thinking about the vanguards' portrayal of linguistic originality. "Surfacing in pre-War cubist painting and subsequently becoming even more stringent and manifest," Krauss writes, "the grid announces, among other things, modern art's will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse." The grid shores up the visual arts, she adds, against "the intrusion of speech" (9; my emphasis), and its "abso-


lute stasis" embodies the posture of the avant-garde artist (158). The grid's modernity is also contained in its peculiar construction of space and time. Its flattened out, geometrical substance is "antinatural, antimimetic, antireal" (9). Temporally, the grid proclaims an artistic principle that has never existed before. Its apparent material quality notwithstanding, moreover, the grid provides many artists with a "staircase to the Universal" and a way to talk allegorically about "Being or Mind or Spirit" (10) and thus imbues the avant-garde concept of originality with a mythical air.

Although Krauss addresses an ideal of visual, not verbal, art that is insistently hostile to speech, her characterization of the grid points to analogous features in the avant-gardes' imagined primary language. Bakhtin's conception of poetic language provides a bridge from Krauss's visual "ground zero" to the literary vanguards' verbal void. In light of much twentieth-century poetry that deliberately exploits the heteroglossia of multiple nonartistic languages, Bakhtin's sweeping affirmation that poetic language is monologic (in contrast to the dialogic novel) seems problematic. But in constructing this dichotomy, Bakhtin is working with a circumscribed definition of poetic language in response precisely to the aestheticist impulse to empty language of history or meaning and to invent new languages. This particular view of poetic language is not universal but historically grounded, Bakhfin is quick to note.[10] Poetic language, in this view, resists the internal dialogization typical of prose and suspends any "mutual interaction with alien discourse" ("Discourse in the Novel" 285). Like the grid that shuts out history and speech (Krauss describes it as an artistic ghetto), poetic language as defined by Bakhtin is complete unto itself and manifests the individual artist's drive for absolute linguistic control.

In poetic genres, artistic consciousness—understood as a unity of all the author's semantic and expressive intentions—fully realizes itself within its own language; in them alone is such consciousness fully immanent, expressing itself in it directly and without mediation, without conditions and without distance. The language of the poet is his language, he is utterly immersed in it, inseparable from it, he makes use of each form, each word, each expression according to its unmediated power to assign meaning (as it were "without quotation marks ") that is, as a pure and direct expression of his own intention. (285; my emphasis; his emphasized in original)

Like Krauss's grid, this poetic language seeks its own kind of universality, unmediated by the contingencies of history and culture embodied in "alien speech," and harbors yearnings for metaphysical complete-


ness through an imagined "'language of the gods'" or a "'priestly language of poetry'" ("Discourse in the Novel" 287). In imagining this kind of unified expression, poetic language struggles to elide language's historical responsiveness to the "day" or the epoch. "At any given moment," Bakhtin observes, "languages of various epochs and periods of socio-ideological life cohabit with one another. Even languages of the day exist" (291). Poetry, in his view, "depersonalizes 'days' in language," that is, the markers of time and culture.

Bakhtin's characterization of this specific kind of poetic language is particularly pertinent to the vanguards' dream of a linguistically pure, original space. Like Krauss's grid, this imagined early world is hostile to the intrusion of historically inflected language, that is, language that anybody might have used. This model for verbal creation—hostility to known languages and the preference for fabricating new ones—is also analogous to the grid in its special relationships to space and time. The grid's flattened geometrical substance parallels the architectural impulse that underlies the vanguardist reconstruction of language "from scratch," replacing the syntactical and lexical building blocks (containing historical markers) with primal screams, sounds, disconnected syllables, rhythms, whispers, and sighs. Latin American vanguardists often construed their language work with spatial metaphors, as de Greiff's forging of a "new architecture of words." Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano, a participant in Mexico's Contemporáneos group, observed that the new poetry's play of words had been born from an "architectonic intervention" in language (HV 92), and ultraísta manifestos called for manipulating words like playing cards (MPP 98). Alberto Hidalgo, Peru's poet of simplismo, described in his manifesto "Pequeña retórica personal" the architectural strategy in his "many-sided" poetry: "I make a poem the same way that I would build a house; I place brick by brick" (MPP 221).

The peculiar relationship to time established by the vanguards' verbally pure creative space is even more comparable to Krauss's grid. This creative expression from the void announces its own first-time substance as language that aspires retroactively never to have been used before. Altazor's hyperbolic claim to being "the only singer of the century" epitomizes this stance (OC 1: 415; EW 143). But the imagined linguistic purity supposes its own time-out-of-time through the resistance, in Bakhtinian terms, to the "days" inscribed in the languages of narrative and speech. This ahistorical quality is implicit in ultraísmo 's conception of words "as ends in themselves" (HV 267), in the very


notion of a newborn word, and in the effort to make new poetic languages mean whatever poets intended them to mean or, more important, not to mean at all. There is also overt antipathy to notions of historical time, as in Huidobro's search for a poetry that had "no past and no future" (OC 1: 654), or Altazor's search for "a ritual of shadowless words" that emerge prior to all time (OC 1: 393; EW 83; my emphasis). This image reverberates in numerous manifestos, as in the Puerto Rican noísmo search for an art that refuses to recognize "the limits of time and space" (LHA 244).

The analogy with Krauss's grid of modern art extends further to aspirations for the infinite and the universal. Metaphysical quests for a unity of expression and experience unmediated by rational discourse often frame the vanguardist searches for newborn language. This desire for primal links with the universe so clearly evident in Altazor echoes throughout vanguardist poetry and manifestos in repeated allusions to cosmic chaos and the human anguish it generates. But the search for a language prior to all time intimates a universality of human experience and emotion somehow divested of the historical and cultural accretions that shape actual languages in real-life worlds. It also elides the complications and density of differences in experience and worldview (of the "alien," in Bakhtin's terms) inscribed in mutually unintelligible languages. This idealized pre-Babelic language behind history—the primal scream, the "spirit whisper of the wordless phrase," the "fresh scream of the flesh"—would somehow obliterate the differences among languages. This aim at linguistic universality was often spelled out. We should recall, for example, that Huidobro described the creation of new poetic language as a "universal" birth, and in the creacionismo manifesto he explained that the new poetry "becomes translatable and universal, for new events remain identical in all languages" (OC 1: 677). "A language," the "Granizada" proclamation of Venezuela affirms, "is the universe translated into that language" (MPP 161). Puerto Rico's euforistas proclaimed the unity of races and "the uselessness of frontiers and languages" (MPP 128). In Ecuador, José Antonio Falconí Villagómez (a collaborator with the vanguardist poet Hugo Mayo) produced a manifesto-style "Arte poética (No. 2)," directing artists toward a poetics of linguistic universality, "to speak the universal language / with all the sirens of the World" (MPP 117).

But this purist image of linguisric unity was simultaneously contested from within the vanguardist ranks. Amid the pursuit of a universal idiom behind and before all languages, groups and individual writers un-


dertook ambitious projects for recuperating what were portrayed as nationally or ethnically inflected expressive forms, for incorporating them into literary works, and for affirming their aesthetic worth and experiential validity. Some of these endeavors were expressed in precisely the same allegories of linguistic origins that framed the search for a universal language, but recast in vernacular modes, as writers claimed the imagined sites of early words as features of their own cultural formation. Because of its dialogue with Huidobro's work, the story of linguistic creation in the Leyendas de Guatemala with which I began this chapter presents a fitting example of this vernacular turn. Constructed from sources portrayed as Guatemala's cultural legacy, that story also embodies vanguardist inquiries into the problematic relationships between language and cultural identity formations.

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