5 + 5

The XUL Poetry Journal

by Kathryn A. Kopple


Origins, Introductions

In the 1980s, a group of poets residing in Buenos Aires launched the literary journal XUL: Signo Viejo y Nuevo. The journal's name refers to Alejandro Xul Solar, a painter and poet whose fantastical images and ideas made him a beloved figure in Argentine avant-garde circles during the 1920s. At the time, Buenos Aires was regarded as the center of Spanish American modernity.[1] Overall, there was a sense that the city offered a model of commerce, culture, and democracy -- all of which came to an abrupt end when pro-Hispanic nationalists handed power over to the military. Throughout the "infamous decade," as the 1930s were called, the conservative elites failed to institute reforms that would protect the country against the grim authoritarianism of the 1970s.[2] It would be many years before a renewed spirit of democracy began to take effect.

From its first issue to its last, XUL was a highly eclectic enterprise. The journal offered a mix of poetry, experimentation, and polemic during times of great difficulty. The darkest years of the repression – 1976 to 1978 – were, in the words of historian David Rock "terrifying:" the radical presses were destroyed, their materials confiscated, and laws were passed making it a crime to be found in possession of subversive literature of any sort. As a follow-up to these measures, martial law was declared, military patrols took control of the streets, and many thousands were abducted and murdered. That the missing had little connection to the guerrilla movement was beside the point; the repression was "arbitrary, uncoordinated, and indiscriminant" so as to eradicate any impulse to dissent that may have existed among the general populace.[3] By 1980, these practices had ceased and a certain measure of civilian order had been restored, but the situation was still precarious. In the arts, as elsewhere, there were few alternatives to the timidity of the surviving culture – a situation that seems unthinkable if we consider that the vanguard of Spanish American modernity had always thrived in Buenos Aires.

Launching XUL was therefore one of the most daring acts that a group of poets could have performed during those dismal years. Of course, the journal's founders weren't in a position to make such claims -- nor were they particularly interested in the sort of heroic discourse associated with the cult of Argentine nationalism. In his first editorial, Jorge Perednik speaks of a public forced to sustain itself on a cultural diet that was insipid and noxious: a point that is communicated through the not so oblique references to cultural critics who are caricatured as defending the kind of art that makes little difference to anyone. Although the tone is humorous, the editorial offers a clear declaration of XUL's commitment to poetry: where it comes from, where it is going, and what it means. Hence the lack of tolerance for the trivia cherished by the media and even less tolerance for the reduction of the arts to those little reviews and columns that prevent any serious reflection on the complex and often contradictory relation between culture and poetry. As the editorial states: " is our hypothesis that cultural life is a complex whole and that discussion is essential to it... Thus the name of the magazine, which encompasses various concepts".[4]

Among these various concepts, the XUL poets shared a common interest in the avant-garde. Throughout the 1920s, the avant-garde had taken on the modernistas who had established themselves in Buenos Aires at the turn of the century. Buenos Aires, we may recall, was one of the fabled cities of Spanish American modernismo. "In the history of Spanish American modernism, there was a man and a city of importance: the man was Rubén Dar’o and the city was Buenos Aires."[5] The quote, in translation, conveys the words but the translator admits that it does not have the impact of the original statement, at least not as it was originally articulated by Carlos Alberto Loprete. A more forceful statement would read: In the history of Spanish American modernismo, there was one man and one city that mattered: that man was Rubén Dar’o and that city was Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires could also boast of other famous poets, among them Leopoldo Lugones. But it so happened that, by the end of the 1900s, Dar’o was residing in Buenos Aires, the city where his books Prosas Profanas and Los Raros were first published. Dar’o's way had been paved somewhat earlier by another great exponent of Spanish American modernism, the Cuban poet and essayist José Mart’, whose work regularly appeared in La nación-- the same newspaper that published Dar’o when the poet had few other opportunities available to him.[6] The city thus made the man and the man the city: a modernist parable par excellence.

But the cultural ascendancy of Buenos Aires, its reputation as a center of modernity, goes back somewhat further, beginning with the romantics. In contrast to other Spanish American countries, the Argentine romantics were not only committed nationalists: they were moderns. More importantly, the Argentines understood the aesthetic sensibility that made European romanticism so modern. It has been said many times that Spanish America after independence was burdened by a lack of national culture. Forward-minded intellectuals viewed the region's lack of modernity as the central national issue of the latter half of the 19th century. Peace, industry, and cosmopolitanism were preached throughout Argentina with an intense commitment.  If modernity were good for society, it was good for art as well, not least because it involved a formidable critique of traditional values. In this atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that a newspaper such as La nación would promote the highly subjective, rarefied, and Parnassian aesthetic for which Dar’o, in 1888, coined the term modernismo.

Just prior to modernismo however, in the years leading up to that most important revolution in Spanish American letters, another style of poetry came into circulation, one that was more directly associated with the romantic legacy of the R’o de la Plata. It was a poetry that was inspired by the gauchos of the Pampas, and it was written in a direct and colloquial style that was seemingly free of rhetoric and other forms of artifice.  The most respected of these poets was José Hernández and it was this same poet who, in 1872, published a long ballad devoted to the adventures of a fighter of the Indian wars turned outlaw by the name of Mart’n Fierro. It is a poem the importance of which is difficult to grasp from the outside, a poem that is felt to be so deeply Argentine that Jorge Luis Borges referred to it as "our Bible."[7] And, in many ways, it was precisely that, as the Argentine cultural critic Beatriz Sarlo explains: "The gauchesque poem Mart’n Fierro [sic] used to be learnt by heart, and was taught in schools along with the official version of local history according to which gauchos had willingly given their lives in the Independence wars against Spain."[8] This historical myth and the prestige accorded to it by "Mart’n Fierro" was such that well into the 20th century it was a poem that was considered worthy of vigorous debate by cultural protagonists on all sides.

By the first quarter of the 1920s, the revolution in Spanish American letters that made Buenos Aires the center of the movement came under attack. Some of these criticisms were moral rather than aesthetic. Decadent was a term that was often used as a slight against modernism. But there were other criticisms and these came from young poets who disliked the modernista aesthetic for other reasons. According to Sarlo:

The Argentine avant-garde of the twenties and thirties, to which Borges belonged, had to offset the influence of some very important writers like Leopoldo Lugones, who occupied the center of the literary system. Lugones was not only the most important modernista, the national peer of Dar’o, but also a most visible and influential intellectual. As poet laureate, he represented what the literary avant-gardes, and Borges himself, loathed: rich rhymes, sumptuous images, highly wrought exoticism, decadent eroticism.[9]

These criticisms against style may have undermined the prestige of modernismo but were they sufficient to overturn an entire literary movement? At the turn of the century, Spanish American modernismo was a major poetic movement, a continental movement whose influence extended far and wide. The modernistas had broken decisively with the classical tradition. They had achieved an autonomy that was unprecedented in Spanish America, one that was of the same standard as the vanguard of European culture. According to the poet Octavio Paz: "The revolution in metrics brought about by the modernistas was no less radical and decisive than that of Garcilaso and the Italian school of the sixteenth century, although in an opposing sense."[10] Whereas the Renaissance poets insisted on regular metrics and unity in art, the modernists dedicated themselves to the "continuous experiments with rhythm and, above all, the resurrection of accentual verse."[11] But there is one troubling difference: modernismo did not have the same endurance as the Renaissance; nor did it manage to live out the century that it had so auspiciously inaugurated.  At most, it lasted a brief twenty years.

How was this possible? How was it possible that a poetic revolution positioned to have the same kind of influence as the Renaissance turn out to be a transitional movement? Some sought to explain this by focusing on the utopian mentality of the modernistas; others took them to task for imitating the French symbolists and for their cosmopolitan aestheticism; still others argued in favor of the epochal theory of Spanish American modernism and saw it as one example among many of a terrible crises in western culture. In addition, there were deeply conservative forces at work within Argentine society during the 1920s. David Rock writes:

On the extreme right was a "nationalist" faction led by General José F. Uriburu... Former leaders of the Patriotic League of 1919, they exemplified a nationalism that perpetuated the league's anti-communism and its cult of chauvinistic myths and values. During the 1920s, the nationalists had become increasingly antidemocratic and antiliberal. They subscribed to the clericalist doctine of hispanidad, which had developed in Primo de Rivera's Spain, and to some extent they were also influwnced by Italian fascism.[12]

The nationalists also had an influential cultural representative in, among others, Leopoldo Lugones, who in 1924 gave a speech praising the military regime and referring to its leaders as Argentina's aristocracy.[13] Additionally, he dedicated himself to promoting the nationalist "cult of chauvinistic myths and values" in his many lectures on Argentine literature and most famously in his interpretation of the poem "Mart’n Fierro." Opposition to Lugones and his peers came from the expected quarters – anarchists, communists, and a mixture of the two – but there was also opposition from a group of poets and intellectuals, among them Borges, who responded to the modernistas in specifically literary terms.

To return to XUL, there is no doubt that these developments were very much on the editor's mind when, in that October of 1980, the journal chose to publish "Balance y Perspectivas" [Balance and Perspectives], a long essay by Jorge Ricardo in which the author "analyzes 6 decades of Argentine poetry." Much of this history had been neglected, suppressed, or simply forgotten during the catastrophe but prior to that it was the object of considerable revision. Borges, for example, had increasingly come to be seen as the famous author of a singular universe, one of mirrors, labyrinths, and other improbabilities, but he was also portrayed as the most visible member of a small coterie of writers associated with the journal Sur, which had been founded by Victoria Ocampo. But Borges had not started his career as the author of Ficciones. Throughout the 1920s, he was best known as a leading avant-garde poet and one of the many who ran with a Buenos Aires group known as the Florida.  According to Ricardo:  "In the Florida group, that authentic provincial offspring of the European vanguards, dandyism went hand in hand with dada; the aristocratic sense of the land with the radicalism of the criollo and the porte–o; the poetic imaginary with the lasso; and laughter with dreams."[14] Many of Florida's regulars also worked on Mart’n Fierro, a literary journal that influenced an entire generation and whose writers were irreverent, merciless, and brilliant.

One of Florida's rivals was a group of writers called Boedo, which was associated with the struggles of the working class. Ricardo writes: "The Boedo-Florida conflict was not a joke as some of its protagonists have insisted, but neither was it a war between Content and Form either for or against aesthetic progress."[15] But, according to numerous sources, Florida had waged war against Boedo, and an extremely nasty one at that. The historical picture that emerges depicts a strangely unpleasant avant-garde: one that consisted of anti-democratic cosmopolitan aesthetes who preferred Paris to Buenos Aires and London to Madrid; who were racial and linguistic elitists who tolerated only the purest Castilian modalities; and who were far more interested in their own celebrity than in solving the problems of the poor and disenfranchised.

Ricardo's essay represents a rare gesture of reconciliation, particularly for those who have read the literature on the subject. In those books, the avant-garde deserves its reputation seeing as it had long antagonized progressive thinkers whose dream of making socialism the dominant idea left them little recourse but to reject aesthetics in favor of history, critique, and utopianism. But was this rejection really necessary? Didn't the avant-garde have anything to offer social progressives? Or were art and social progress to be eternally set in opposition to one another, the former to be relentlessly rejected by the later, which had come to depend on its object of negation with a tenacity that went hand in glove with a highly influential and often inflexible form of cultural criticism. After all, no less a social critic than Adorno had spent a lifetime rescuing the European avant-garde from the stranglehold of capitalist totalitarianism. And it seems reasonable to suggest that Ricardo's essay, and XUL in general, represented a similar venture: a whole-hearted effort to overturn prevailing opinions that made it difficult to recognize the aesthetics of the social realists and the social concerns of the aesthetes.

So without manifestos, without antics, and without insults, the XUL group announced itself to the world and laid down precisely what was at stake for itself, for poetry, and for the country. They wanted to make it clear that, if poetry were to survive totalitarianism, it would take considerable talent, imagination, and nerve. It would also be necessary to commit a few heresies if old questions were to yield new insights. The first step was to take a hard look at the kind of logic - and language - that led to polarization, along with the idea and the fixation that went with it that one was for art and against social progress or vise versa. The next move would involve mixing things up a bit by casting aside those restrictive dichotomies that oppose imitation to creation, content to form, poetry to language, language to life. All of this would require a certain amount of discipline: resisting the tendency to engage in the sort of idolatry that makes a cult of modernity while refusing to give Marx the last word. And last, but not least, the journal would provide a forum for poetic practices new and old, experimental and historical.

In 1980, all of this must have seemed extremely peculiar. Theoretical consciousness still hadn't fully absorbed the shock delivered by Deleuze and Guattari in their landmark L'Anti-Oedipe, and the companion volume to that memorable assault on the regimented mind, Mille Plateaux, had not been long off the presses. In those days, adventurous intellectuals turned to Lacan, whose star never burned brighter than in Buenos Aires. The finest of Spanish America's poets had already received their lifetime achievement awards and the celebrated writers of the Latin American Boom had become world famous. An eighty-year old Borges, who appeared regularly on Argentine television, had become something of a pop star to a generation that knew very little of his poetry. And far away, in the classrooms of the North American academy, a curriculum was in the process of being refined in which select writers from different regions and multiple literary traditions were canonized in the name of Latin American Culture – a category that referred primarily to Latin American prose and didn't seem to include Brazil. It was difficult to associate this version - at once sedate and elegant - of Rioplatense literary culture with actual existence. All in all, Jorge Perednik wrote at the time, it was a situation that was hardly conducive to any sustained or serious discussion of poetry.

From the journal's perspective, it was important to identify wherever possible those historical and social forces that hampered poetic production. In "La Poes’a en Argentina:  una cuestión de existencia" [Poetry in Argentina: A Question of Existence], Perednik's inaugural essay, he addresses the issue of the media in aesthetics terms and, more specifically, its impact on poetic language.

In Latin America, the cultural debate over language begins with colonialism. Whereas in the Anglo-American tradition, the critique of language advanced by, for example, the English romantics highlights the differences between cultivated speech and common English, in Latin America the legacy of colonialism greatly complicates the linguistic situation. There is, for example, the much-quoted anecdote concerning Antonio de Nebrija's Arte de lenguaje castellana, which is recognized as the first linguistic study of a European language. Upon being presented with Nebrija's grammar, Queen Isabel is said to have asked: "What do I want with a work such as this if I already know the language?" Nebrija replied: "Because, my lady, it is the instrument of the empire." The most tangible sign of Nebrija's equation of Castilian with the empire is seen in the names that the Spaniards used to designate the lands and the peoples of the Americas. The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, in the essay, "This is America," writes that America was not discovered but named. "The invention of America is indistinguishable from the naming of America... To discover is to invent is to name. No one dare stop and reflect whether the names being given to things real and imagined are intrinsic to the named, or merely conventional, not substantial to them."[16] While Fuentes' comments represent the double critique of utopianism and modern progress found in much 20th century Latin American writing, it would be more historically accurate to say that America was not invented but reinvented, not named but renamed.

The 16th century mestizo known as the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega provides us with an early example of this history of the renaming of the Americas, which is narrated to great effect in The Royal Commentaries of the Inca in the story of how Peru got its name: "This was the origin and beginning of the name Peru, so famous in the world, and rightly famous, since it has filled the whole world with gold and silver, pearls and precious stones. But because it was imposed by accident and is not one they themselves have given, the native Indians of Peru, though it is seventy-two years since it was conquered, have not taken this word into their mouths."[17] The fortuitous renaming of Tahuantinsuyu as Peru is of cultural and linguistic importance. Quite obviously, the Spaniards had no words in their own language for the kingdoms they conquered. Garcilaso, who was the son of an Inca princess and Spanish conquistador, was educated in Castilian and he was fully aware of the inadequacy of his father's native tongue with respect to the Inca civilization. Such limitations were not simply a matter of cultural differences and mistranslations: they speak to the translator's complex role as cultural intermediary, which Garcilaso himself aspired to in his writings. As historian Harold V. Livermore states, if Garcilaso's work continues to be of importance it is because he belongs to the first generations of Americans to recognize the profound need for "the Spanish language to transcend the limitations of European culture and offer itself as a vehicle to the peoples" for which Castilian had formerly known no proper name [18])."

Latin American writers confronted these contradictions in various ways: using informal language, revisiting historical sources, switching from one linguistic code to another, and other techniques associated with realism. In theory, the realists argued that their stylistic choices directly reflected their social concerns; in practice, it was a tradition that worked predominantly with stereotypes, established social patterns, and popular modes of speech. So while realist authors offered considerable insight into the systems of caste, patronage, and imperialism, they also risked repetition, stagnation, and, in the worst cases, overt regression. These latter concerns were taken up the by the avant-garde, which identified the poet as an innovator who made a direct social impact by disrupting traditional forms and awakening the public to the possibilities of literature.

In order to have an impact, however, one had to have access to the public and in the 1980s most poets in Argentina didn't have such access. Perednik describes this as a situation in which public discourse has gone the way of the popular media. He writes: "The poetic production that exists doesn't exist as Argentine poetry because outside of the poets who write these poems there is no one, or practically no one, who reads them."[19]. In this context, poetry isn't unpopular in the "elite" sense but in the more basic sense having little or no audience; nor is the public encouraged to read poetry when there persists a constant diversion of images, advertisements, and reality effects. Perednik writes: "A poem lacks the indispensable requisites to soar triumphant in this world: it doesn't offer itself up as a spectacle; it demands that the individual take an active role."[20]

Advertising, journalism, and other print organs of mass media also represented a barrier. Mass culture is profoundly resourceful in its ability to mimic and assimilate poetry, along with other literary forms. That process, formally known as kitsch, does not depend on poor taste as much as one might believe. Many experts in kitsch claim that popular art forms can be seen as subversive by virtue of their ability to parody "good taste." But mass culture hardly traffics in art in this way: the goal of mass culture is to erase any distinction between good and bad taste. But when the public is truly challenged by a work of art, it resists. Perednik writes:

It so happens that the rhythm of a poem fully expresses the rhythm of society. Understanding contemporary poetry, entering into it, implies the willingness to see through society's masks: it is to see in the poem the insanity of the times, the cracks in society's structures, society's lack of coherence, the limits of its reasoning, the weakness of its certainties, the lie in its words. What society sees, finally, is its alienation.[21]

As the survivor of a clearly embattled tradition, the poet works with whatever is available both past and present while resisting the temptation to regress psychologically. Hence the "old and new sign" affixed to the name of the journal. But retrospection must also be able to relate past achievements to the present in ways that are socially relevant, even in the context of a mass media culture.  Mass culture is paradoxical: it is technologically advanced but, from the perspective of modern art and literature, aesthetically behind the times. The cut and paste logic of today's television productions is dictated by brute commercial interests; the digital "flow" of images streaming across our computer screens is, in the worst cases, a "loop" of the already seen and already heard; and even Jean Baudrillard's well pointed criticisms regarding the "procession of Simulacra" seem cautious when considered in the context of prime time programming.[22] In an age of visual dogmatism, in which aesthetic possibilities are severely circumscribed and the media lords over the public like a dictator, it is of no small significance that, as XUL declared, there is poetry reminding us that "writing is done by different individuals" and a "poem does not deserve to be restricted by boundaries or classifications."[23]

Poetry is a Foreign Language

The tension in the experimental poetics we encounter in XUL expresses itself in two ways: nothing is foreign to poetry and poetry is a foreign language.  The idea that writing begins and ends with translation gained in popularity during the mid-20th century and, given its recent history, it is now being extended through appropriately modern metaphors – machine, network, matrix – to show how translation operates as a mechanism for intercultural exchanges and contexts. The translated text always comes to us from outside, as something foreign, although we may not necessarily be in a position to accept this. Walter Benjamin speaks of the resistance he experienced in reading the French translation of Nietzsche and how "the horizon and the world around the translated text had itself been substituted, had become French."[24] In "The Homeric Versions," Borges remarks that the Quixote is a Spanish institution, one that permits no linguistic "variations except those provided by the publisher, bookbinder, and the typesetter."[25] Familiar in one language, foreign in another, translation reminds us that the linguistic borders that we build around works of literature are never fixed in the ways we imagine. But translation also works to undo those borders, so that difference becomes available to us in our own language.

For the cultural polyglot, it is part of the pleasure of life to converse in foreign languages, to circulate among strangers, to move from one social plateau to another, to inhabit different locals. His circumstances may be limited, his historical inheritance difficult, and he may have never crossed the borders of his own city, his own nation, his own continent, but he has read far and wide, in many tongues, and without discrimination. Such an individual represents many things but insularity is never one of them – to ascribe a fixed identity to him represents an obstacle, a way of preventing us from imagining another life.

Translation, for XUL, serves this polyglot function, this process whereby we are already in dialogue with other languages and cultures. In 1887, Kinzo Makino arrives by boat in Argentina. His arrival is anticipated by Columbus who leaves Europe in 1492 search of the fabled gold of Xipangu and who imagines that the language spoken by the Hispanola natives is, in fact, Japanese. Makino, who is also a sailor, shipwrecks near Mar del Plata. He is officially documented as a Bolivian and given the name Coya. He finds a job with the circus caring for carpe and working with the high wire. Eventually, he makes his way to Cordoba, where he is baptized and takes the name Mike King. Historian Arthur M. Schelsinger, Jr. uses the term "polyglot immigrant" to refer to individuals like Makino – individuals whose new world identities are emblematic of the unsettling circumstances of Americanization. In Argentina, despite its predominately Spanish-speaking population, the translation of Japanese cultural forms that begins with Makino's arrival on the shores of Mar del Plata forms part of a vast American experiment that exceeds monolingual perspectives. M.M. Bakhtin coins the phrase "polyglot consciousness" to describe how translation and language variance offers ways of relating to the world that work against the insular tendencies of "verbal-ideological" linguistics.[26]

From the turn of the 20th century onward, modernista poets in Latin America looked to Japan and the Orient in search of new linguistic orientations. The Mexican José Juan Tablada, writes Araceli Tinajero, represents the first generation of poets to write extensively on Japanese art, poetry, and religion. He saw in the prints of Hiroshigu resemblances to Aztec hieroglyphs and hoped to publish a study based on the relationships between ancient Japanese and Mexican myths. He was among the first to experiment with classical haiku forms in Spanish and, in 1919, published Poemas Sintéticos (Synthetic Poems), which he dedicated to the poets Shiyo and Basho.[27] Haiku also held great appeal for Jorge Luis Borges, whose own literary style owes as much to eastern philosophy and aesthetics as it does to the western canon.

This literary dialogue with the east is again taken up by XUL in its first issue, which includes an introduction to modern Japanese poetry in Spanish translation. In conjunction with the essays on national Argentine literature, the Japanese poems offer concrete examples of the ability for poetry to traverse national boundaries while at the same time engaging minority cultures on the local level. From the very first, XUL uses translation to show that poetry is not an artificial and monological language, as Bakhtin rather curiously insisted, but a polyglot genre, one that is fully capable of relating to "alien languages, to the possibility of another vocabulary, another semantics, other syntactic forms" precisely because "other linguistic points of view" are not foreign to poetic style.[28] In the context of Latin America, the debate over whether it was possible to write haiku in Spanish reminds us of the dynamic cultural history that informs the poetics of modernistas and avant-gardists in the region. The singularity of the image and expressive immediacy of classical haiku, along with its associations with Zen Buddhism, appealed to poets who were dissatisfied with a Hispanic tradition that they regarded as rhetorical, imitative, and aesthetically shopworn. Haiku, on the other hand, presented Latin American poets with a form that, because it was born in dialogue with another culture and another social consciousness, was actively experimental.

In continuing this tradition of linguistic and cultural experimentation, XUL pays its respects to classical haiku while it showcases a younger generation of modern Japanese poets. Among these poets, Takuboku Ishikawa (1885-1912) is regarded in Japan as an important innovator who rejected the naturalist school to promote the new social poetry - as seen in the stark and disturbing poem in which a laborer returns at dusk carrying his dead son in his arms. A satirical poem by Iku Takenaka (1904) parodies the stereotype of the polite Japanese who bows and smiles in the face of capitalist opportunism. Other poems render traditional mood harmonies in the modern style by suffusing the landscape with feelings of anxiety, dismay, and restlessness. As a whole, the translations - which were done in the 1970s by the Ecuadorian Alfonso Barrera in conjunction with specialists from the University of Foreign Languages of Tokyo – scarcely represent the sort of self-congratulatory multiculturalism that seeks to provide a sense of the exotic while suppressing difficult questions.

In a deeply informed and meticulous article on haiku in the 20th century, çngel Rivero and Fernando Rodr’guez-Izquierdo provide XUL with yet another opportunity to brings its readers into contact with modern Japanese culture. The essay, which appears in issue three, follows a Spanish translation of Roland Barthes' famous discussion of haiku as an escape from signification and responds to various preconceptions regarding Zen Buddhism in Barthes' essay, among them a tendency to render haiku in the manner of an eastern monadology. According to Rivero and Rodr’guez-Izquierdo, haiku is not only regarded as a descriptive form but an immensely popular one that is practiced across the spectrum of Japanese society. That Shiki, who is considered the father of contemporary haiku, was an agnostic who had little patience for religion contradicts prevailing notions of haiku as an exercise in Zen. "If it is true that haiku represents one path of Zen, we can be certain that Zen is for haiku one path out of many, only one of which leads us to Zen."[29]

This inclination to resist mythologizing foreign literatures speaks to XUL's commitment to increase awareness of the multiple linguistic situations and variations through which any given translation must pass. Translation becomes a vehicle for myths of all kinds – ethnic myths, national myths, world literary myths - when and where demands for language dominance undermine bilingual relations among translated texts. For the journal, the connection between myth and translation – the former a type of "verbal-ideological speech," as Bakhtin would say, and the latter a vehicle for "verbal-ideology" – needed to be addressed, not least because of the aggressively monolingual style that had become a feature of Argentine national politics. By consistently acknowledging the multi-cultural horizons around foreign genres and by presenting annotated bilingual versions – all of which requires time, energy, and extensive collaboration - the journal earned its reputation as one of the most challenging publications of its time.

As Walter Benjamin noted long ago, linguistic purists may find the idea of commentary unappealing but without it language myths simply run their course. How often do we read literature in a language that is not our own? Without considering where this language comes from? Or whether the signs and names we encounter are conventions suitable for some purposes and not for others? Poetic works in translation ask to be recognized as such, although the predominance of monolingual editions rarely gives readers an opportunity to respond to this invitation. There is something questionable about the assumption that the best writing requires no explanation, that commentary represents an unwelcome intrusion, and that every work deserving of the name literature transcends time and space. No doubt, translation is at odds with romantic concepts such as creativity, genius, and mystery. And yet what word – what poem - is not already a translation?

There was a time in European history when it was commonplace to speak of translation as an imitation – actually, as an imitation of an imitation, which led to all sorts of interesting paradoxes about originality, duplicity, faithfulness, and betrayal. Poets were said to imitate and translators copied what they imitated, so that the Platonic world of appearances seemed to extend ad infinitum. Poetry and knowledge, it was thought, were irreconcilable, except that the classical tradition was fully capable of coming up with many fine analogies that made it possible for poetry to reflect what it could not embody. Poetry triumphed. But translation didn't fare as well. Against this tradition – which in its Spanish version was as formidable as it was persistent – XUL asked the question: What if poetic texts were not immaculately conceived but produced in a process of "a free (that is, reformulating) translation others' works?"[30]

Bakhtin has written with great inventiveness on translation in this sense. He defines literary translation as a type of generalized discourse that wanders among languages and social forms, regardless of class or ideology, and is "sufficiently international."[31] For XUL, translation represents precisely this process of linguistic wandering, one that goes beyond the monolingual politics and calls for simplified, unitary, and socially circumscribed poetic forms. Hence the journal devoted significant page space to translations from languages living and dead, cultivated and popular, natural and invented. From the translation experiments of Alejandro Xul Solar – the inventor of universal Creole – to essays on medieval Galician-Portuguese – the original dialect of the Spanish romancero, XUL encouraged its readers to think about poetry as an "other" tongue.

In issue four, which is dedicated to translation, the editorial reads: "What passes from one tongue to another tongue is the work of translation... As far as XUL is concerned, our commitment to the real comes to us through our commitment to the tongues we call language, to again make legible that which has been used for coercion and deception. Everyone has a tongue and language belongs to everyone..." This interlingualism represents that irrepressible and loquacious aspect of discourse that prevents the mother tongue from becoming a self-identified grammar or institution. Irrepressible because poetry, like language, is born of the call and response, the dialogue, that takes place among peoples and cultures, among signs and texts. Xul Solar had spent his life working out elegant solutions to the problem of trans-cultural communication, which his close friend Borges explained as follows: "Xul created another language... It was a Spanish enriched with treasures from other languages, a language with Spanish roots though it contained words from other languages."[32] Many of Xul's choices were motivated by this dream of a universal language, one in which spoken and written language were united through phonetic innovations such as "xu" for "su," "yi" for "y," and "hai" for "hay." Nor was this search for a universal language peculiar to Xul Solar. The Chilean poet and father of the Latin American avant-gardes, Vicente Huidobro, also struggled to create phonetic poems that could be appreciated in any language. Interlingual experimentation of this sort was of great inspiration to XUL, which throughout its publishing life operated as free-form laboratory for translation.

Ever attentive to the many ways in which the Argentine media betrayed public trust during the 1980s, the journal sought to undermine the verbal ones-sidedness of the official culture. The poem "Mart’n Fierro," as previously mentioned, had since the turn of the 20th century functioned as the reference of choice in the debate over Argentine national identity. The gauchesque style exemplified in José Hernández's poem was regarded throughout the culture as the wellspring for Argentine literature, which was said to originate in the popular songs of the payadores. The wild frontier and man's need to assert his dominance over the land was symbolized in the figure of the gaucho: the folk hero of Argentina whose poetic manner of expression abounded in criollismos – native words – associated with the pampas. The gaucho was Argentina and Argentina was the gaucho, or so it was argued. Even Borges - who had written a famous essay in which he outlined the European literary sources of the gauchesque - had warned translators against trying to imitate so Argentine a poem. The gaucho, he said, worked with rope and knife, while the North American cowboy was a gunslinger.

Of course, the gaucho, like all patriotic symbols, has meant different things to Argentines depending on the circumstances. From the journal's perspective, these transformations and appropriations of a national icon could be pressed further by publishing "Martín Fierro" – or rather a fragment of it – in Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek (see issue four). The translations, which were done by Ricardo Montiel, offer a linguistically demythologized version of the poem, one in which the foregrounding of gaucho poetry as one language among many repudiates verbal-ideologies that privilege the hegemony of myth over language.[33] Myth making was anathema to the publication, which was among the first to publish the work of neo-gauchesque writers such as Emeterio Cerro and Jorge Lepore - writers who used cut ups and other innovations to overturn the linguistic pieties that had become an institutional feature of the genre.

The use of translation to promote new styles in Spanish was a strategy consistent with XUL's theoretically experimental poetics. The encounter between disciplines, languages, and genres orchestrated by the journal in the name of poetry creates an impression of anarchy of the highest order. And so it was. One of the greatest triumphs in asserting the radical heterogeneity of language came with the publication, in Spanish, of Gilles Deleuze's "Schizologie," which appears in issue nine alongside translations of Byron, Goethe, Sei Shonagon, Philip Sollers, and others. Deleuze's essay on Louis Wolfson, "the student of schizophrenic languages," is a spectacularly rendered inquiry into the literal – hence untenable - relations between maternal and foreign languages: "Against the maternal language, which is the cry of life, he has to unite every foreign language in a total and continuous idiom, as the knowledge of language or philology."[34] Foreignness offers Wolfson an escape from the torturous phonemes and scathing consonants uttered by his mother, whom he loves and detests in equal and unbearable measure. Although it is difficult to use this unique case as the basis for broader comparisons, the material is powerfully suggestive: Wolfson conceives his continuous and unutterable translations as an assault on the mother tongue. For Deleuze, this assault is analogous to poetry, which he, following Proust, defines as "the foreign language within language."

In celebrating the most outré linguistic behaviors, there is no doubt that the journal made its assault on verbal boundaries, preferences, and attitudes. Throughout the sixteen years that it was published, XUL encouraged readers to recognize the foreign language within our own language, and in doing so the journal brought together poets, translators, and writers from across the continent and from afar. Hence it seems only appropriate to privilege the role of translation in XUL and to highlight the essays it published by, among others, César Aira, Rodolfo Modern, and Raul G. Aguirre.[35] It must be said that, for XUL, the individual statement is never the goal but belongs to translation practice in the widest possible sense: as the polyglot linguistic activity to which every poem owes its existence.


The many quotes, references, and subjects assembled here are meant as an introduction to XUL.  This introduction is offered by a translator who has drawn up a map of different sites – poetic, linguistic, historical, and personal – that convey the content of what she has read and heard and discussed throughout the many years that she has worked on this project. What she has hoped to convey is that XUL, the journal, was an event that might be explained but never contained, at least not entirely, not least because it is beyond any single individual to map out the entire range of linguistic energies and gestures that made XUL so incomparably eclectic.

Walter Benjamin once wrote that the expressive side of language is as inexhaustible as its representational side. What is notable about aesthetic thinkers like Benjamin (or Bakhtin, for that matter) is not that they were social progressives but that they were social progressives who worked to salvage all that was accomplished, unique, and valuable in a culture that they believed was dying. For Benjamin, salvaging the past – what is called "redemptive critique" - was dialectical and necessary.

XUL too participated in this tradition of redemptive critique. As a vehicle for poetic practices "new and old," it set a different tone from the nihilistic ultra modernistic avant-gardes that plotted the destruction of the masterwork atelier school of literary arts – never mind that Salvador Dal’ saw himself as the savior of western painting. As for cubism, that too went into the mix, as seen in XUL issue ten, which is dedicated to visual poetry.  Formidable in many ways, the experimentalist polyglot aesthetics promoted by XUL, which did so much for literature in its day, should remind us that poetry is often a high wire act between the tried and the untried, the already seen and the never saw it before. It is my sincere hope that the commentary and notes provided in this introduction will be taken as encouragement to readers to see for themselves what it is that makes XUL so remarkable.

[1] Beatriz Sarlo uses the phrase "peripheral modernity" to describe Argentina given that the center of modernity originates in Europe, which sets the agenda for international relations until the advent of "post-modernity," when the United States becomes the center for global relations. See Una modernidad periférica: Buenos Aires 1920 y 1930 (Buenos Aires: Nueva Vision, 1988).

[2] David Rock, Argentina 1516-1987 (Berkeley: Univ. of Cal. Press, 1987) 214.

[3] Rock 368.

[4] All translations of texts from Spanish into English are mine unless otherwise noted. Editorial.  XUL: Signo Viejo y Nuevo, Oct. 1980: 2.

[5] As quoted by Mireya Camurati. See Mireya Camurati, "Dos cantos al centenario en el marco histórico-social del Modernismo en la Argentina," Revista Iberoamericana 146-147 (1989): 103.

[6] Camurati 103.

[7] Jorge Luis Borges, "The Argentine Writer and Tradition," Labyrinths, trans. James E. Irby (New York: New Directions, 1964) 177.

[8] "Borges: tradition and the avant-garde," Borges Studies on Line. J.L. Borges Center for Studies and Documentation. Internet: (

[9] "Borges, a Writer on the Edge," ch. 3. Borges Studies on Line.

[10] Octavio Paz, "La metáfora y la traducción," La casa de la presencia: poes’a e historia (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1993) 413.

[11] Paz 413.

[12] Rock 215-216.

[13] Camurati 124.

[14] Jorge Ricardo, "Balance y perspectivas," XUL, Oct. 1980: 12

[15] Ricardo 12.

[16] Carlos Fuentes, "This is America," The Discovery of America and Other Myths, ed. Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992) 97.

[17] Garcilaso de la Vega, el Inca, Royal Commentaries of the Inca and General History of Peru, trans. Harold V. Livermore (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1989) 19.

[18] Harold V. Livermore, Introduction, Royal Commentaries of the Inca and General History of Peru, trans. Harold V. Livermore (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1989) xxxi.

[19] Perednik, "La poes’a en Argentina; una cuestión de existencia," XUL, Oct. 1980, 25.

[20] Perednik 25.

[21] Perednik 25.

[22] See Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983).

[23] Jorge Perednik, "XUL: Variations on the Name of a Magazine," trans. Molly Weigel, The XUL Reader: An Anthology of Argentine Poetry 1980-1996, ed. Ernesto Grosman (New York: Roof Books, 1997) xxii

[24] Walter Benjamin, "Translation – For and Against," Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 3, ed. Michael W. Jennings (Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Havard Univ., 2002) 249.

[25] "The Homeric Versions," Voice-Overs, ed. Daniel Balderston and Marcy E. Schwartz (New York: State Univ. of New York Press, 2002) 16.

[26] M.M. Bakhtin, "Discourse in the Novel," The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981) 272-275.

[27] Araceli Tinajero. "Haiku in Twentieth Century Latin America." Internet: (

[28] See Bakhtin on poetic discourse 285.

[29] "El haiku en el siglo XX," 23.

[30] See Bakhtin on translation 378.

[31] Bakhtin 379.

[32] Conference on the work of Xul Solar dictated by Borges in 1980. Internet: (

[33] See Bakhtin on myth 370.

[34] Gilles Deleuze, Louis Wolfson; or, The Procedure," Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1997) 34.

[35] See issue four.