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New voices from the Southern Cone:

Poetry of Chile and Argentina during the repression and after

by Susana Haydu

imageThe poetry of the Southern Cone of the Americas presents an enigma difficult to resolve: why two countries, Chile and Argentina, that do share language, geography and cultural roots, are so different in their poetic expression? Both countries have a rich literary tradition that in our century has given us poets like Neruda, Mistral, Huidobro and Parra in Chile, and Lugones, Borges, Molinari and Orozco in Argentina. Still, thi s tradition of great poetry has very different attributes: visionary, mythological, politically committed voices in Chile, and a more personal, intimate writing in Argentina.

The divergence is not new; it can be traced back to the experience of the European Avant Garde and how it was received by each country. The European literary movements were absorbed and incorporated into the national culture in Chile as in nowhere else in Latin American country. We should remark on the idea that the Vanguard invented a cultural space for Latin America. Chilean poets, such as Neruda in his Canto General, created a mythical vision of Latin America, separating it from the European tradition that had been dominant till then in their literature. So, it is fundamental to read the poetry of Chile in this historical context.

In Argentina, on the other hand, the Vanguard maintained the original European characteristics. Several literary generations from 1930 to 1960 were influenced mainly by André Breton and the tenets of the French surrealists. We cannot find a major poetical work inspired either by the concept of national identity or by a vision of Latin America. Culturally Argentina considered itself as belonging to Europe and America was hardly part of its poetic horizon.

This separation is further enhanced during the years of repression in the two countries. The military regimes that governed in Chile from 1973 to 1986 and in Argentina from 1976 to 1983 shared a common authoritarian ideology that endangered the lives and freedom of writers and intellectuals. The resistance from Chile is expressed in the traditionally confrontational forms practiced by Latin American poets in several countries and under many diverse historical circumstances. By contrast, in Argentina the poetry of the years of repression appears to be barren of voices of resistance. Thorpe Running in his excellent article on "Responses to the Politics of Oppression in Argentina and Chile" clearly establishes the difference between the abundance of politically committed texts written by poets of Chile and the very limited number of poems of resistance by Argentine writers. I will attempt to interpret some of the reasons for this divergence between abundance and scarcity, in each country.

One of the immediate results of the military coup in Chile was the disruption of communications between the different social and cultural groups, causing the fragmentation of literary movements. A large number of writers, like Gonzalo Millán and José María Memet went into exile and published in Europe and North America., while an important group of poets, like Nicanor Parra, Enrique Lihn, Raúl Zurita, Antonio Gil, Diego Maqueira and Gonzalo Muñoz stayed in the country. Still, the continuum of the common poetic identity which characterized Chile during the twentieth century did not break up, and the distinctive quality of the newer poets further enriched its literature. Contributing to this enrichment we have to mention especially the popular poetry and the poetry written in jail and detention camps, that must be included in any study of the Chilean poetry during the military regime. Most of these poems were published by the underground press, a circumstance that further added to the diffusion of poetry involving an extensive cross section of the population.

As I mentioned earlier, the poetry written in Argentina after the military coup of 1976 does not follow the standard forms of the poetry of confrontation. With very few exceptions of those poets choosing exile (like Juan Gelman and Horacio Salas), most of them remained in Argentina, in their own social and cultural environment. To survive, they lowered their voices and avoided the frontal engagement that could be found in Chile. The few publications that did attempt to voice resistance, did so by means of obliqueness and the use of metaphors that went beyond the understanding of the authorities. Silence and ambiguity were the main characteristics of the poetry in Argentina and I would like to focus on these two aspects of the poetic "Zeitgeist" pervading those years.

Before attempting this examination, one should remark on the excellent quality of the poetical output during that time. It was easier to elude censorship in poetry because the ambiguity of the poetic text welcomes veiled allusions, secret suggestions. One reads between the lines, one becomes a clever reader. To live under a regime of terror is unbearable, and in Argentina this experience of terror was suppressed by everyone. Poets renounced any context and refrained from allusions to their time, a practice that continues to this day, as if the memory of their private holocaust is still unthinkable and should remain buried. Therefore, by and large, poets concentrated on questions of form and language, as it has been noted by Andrés Avellaneda in his excellent article on Argentine poetry of the seventies.

Many schools with different poetics were at work and were producing outstanding poems. Surrealism continued full force in the magazines Poddema and Signo Ascendente. Other magazines such as La Danza del Ratón published a poetry that had great formal influence from the United States, and included examples of lesbian poetry, black poetry, the New York School, Ferlinghetti, Pound, etc. Another group, contending on the poetics that privileged a social change, and following on the steps of Juan Gelman published El Ladrillo, but it was soon dissolved. Finally, we should mention the presence of neo-romanticism, in the best tradition of Novalis in his Hymn to the Night. The word "night" was extensively used, as a metaphor for the times, as a place of oblivion and repose.

The use of ambiguity created a poetry rich in new resources, capable of using ordinary language and plain episodes to deliver a message of condemnation. A powerful example can be found in the works published in the periodical XUL in 1980, where several poets used a notorious murder case, the killing of a man (Schoklender) by his sons, much like the case of the Menendez brothers in the US, to represent the corruption at all levels of government and society.

Jorge Santiago Perednik uses the case, with its Oedipal and mythical overtones and its questioning of the status quo - which can only be maintained through a systematic repression - as a pretext to explore the psychological and political nature of authority. Beginning with its Spanish title -"El shock de los Lender"- the poem proposes a dialogue between Spanish and English, in which the English words lend a shock to an anesthetized language. In its form as well as in its themes, the poem interrogates itself about the possibility of wholeness and of meaning.

My good and merciful god, you know that I don't approve of this That I don't approve of anything that offends you

Yet you will approve it: habit and greed

but lord, the heart of an upright man... I mean, the

abominations... Leviticus VIII

Better sleep and dream


Because they can't connect the beginning with the end, observed

subinspector Alcmenon,

the schocklenders die

that's why so many die - so many - and we don't understand why

Nothing connects with nothing

These verses should be read also as a criticism of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Argentina, who kept its silence in spite of their knowledge of what was happening.

We find another example of implicit resistance in Néstor Perlongher's poem “The Circus”. He uses the circus as a methaphor for the danger of living without a safety net; after accounting for the decoys, highwires, cages, animals gilded, the fattest woman, the bearded lady, he leads us to the real victims of the circus, the "desaparecidos" tortured with electric shocks:

that which cut in two disappears,

and that which festooned with jack-knives

bleeds from the heart: that which vibrates without a net, (which


The absence of any expression of political involvement in the case of many poets is difficult to interpret. Was this silence due to indifference or fear? Can it be explained as a form of collusion between the victim and his tormentor? Or can silence be portrayed as a form of resistance to the terror? Each of these questions may have several answers, depending on the tools we apply to our analysis. From a psycho-political point of view, all four attitudes: fear, indifference, collusion and resistance may co-exist simultaneously in each individual, defining a personal way of coping with terror.

Examining it now from a historical point of view, we must remember that since the very origins of the national identity, a tradition of defiance to oppression was common to many writers. Poems praising courage and sacrifice were part of the popular culture from the years of independence of 1810 to the turn of the century. Only after the first military uprising of General Uriburu in 1930 against President Irigoyen - which interrupted the democratic process in Argentina - did poetics become inwards looking. The continued military coups re-enforced this attitude, and the silence of poets during the repression may have been only the final assertion of this continued process of disengagement and coolness that pervaded the Argentine society.

It appears that the divergence in the poetic expression of Chile and Argentina will persist even after the restoration of the liberty of expression, confirming the fundamental difference of the culture of the two countries. In Chile the repressive political experience is present in the work of many poets and can be seen as part of the national conscience. In the more recent works of Raúl Zurita and Diego Maquieira we perceive that the experience of the dictatorship of Pinochet has become part of a broad historic view of the universe along the lines of Canto general of Neruda or Huidobro's Altazor. An example of an epic poem that draws its metaphors from the European and American history, blending them with present episodes can be found in Maquieira's poem Los Sea Harrier. In this text the brave warriors, the pilots of the Harriers not only challenge the assassins in Chile, they defy two thousand years of Christian symbolism, to create a poem which has its roots in the cosmology of Huidobro.

Poetry with such an extensive vision of the past and the future has not yet emerged in Argentina and may never surface. Since the memories of the years of the "Proceso" are kept mostly on a personal level and appear only occasionally in the poems published after the end of the military regime, the experience of Argentina's only major holocaust may continue destitute of cathartic dimensions. If most poets remain silent about the memories of their private anguish and suffering, hiding them from poetic inquiry, we will be waiting forever for an answer to the distressing question asked by Bertold Brecht in his poem "Dark Times":

They won't say the times were dark

Rather: why were their poets silent?