From love to revolution. From culture to community, joy, and pain. There have been a variety of themes that have made their way into stanza form.
Poetry has played an important role in distilling and translating complex emotions stemming from shared human experiences. Impossible to determine precisely when the first poem came into existence. However, the first recorded instance of poetry was an anonymous work known as the Epic of Gilgamesh, a series of Sumerian works that centers around the story of Gilgamesh. Known as one-third man, and two-thirds God, the series follows Gilgamesh on his quest for immortality. Which as usual, doesn’t end well.
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While the topics, writers, and formats have changed, grown, or evolved over the years, the art of writing poetry has withstood thousands of years, one that is found in every part of the world – telling the tales of ancestors' past, and lessons learned.
When it comes to the tales of the ancestors, Latino writers have continually made significant contributions to the poetic lexicon of our lifetime. Let’s look at just a few of the many who have played major roles in distilling this experience we call life.
A couple of Latino poets behind some of our favorite stanzas
Neruda is one of the most infamous poets. Not of our generation, or lifetime, but of life in general. His prose was prolific, and though his topics ranged, he was probably most well known for his epic lamentations about love. Love lost. Love found. Love that consumes, quells, and at one point or another, engulfs us all in its fiery grasp.
Through his work, Neruda found ways to find beauty in the most mundane of places, in the most unattached of concepts, as long as that beauty was attached to whoever he loved. In his way, Neruda spoke to the idea of a love that was unconditional, a love found buried in the flaws, the parts normally tucked into the shadows of the self – as evidenced in one of his more famous works, Love Sonnet XI:
I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair
Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets
Bread does not nourish me, dawn disrupts me, all day
I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps.
I hunger for your sleek laugh,
Your hands the color of a savage harvest,
Hunger for the pale stones of your fingernails
I want to eat your skin whole, like an almond.
I want to eat the sunbeam flaring in your lovely body,
The sovereign nose of your arrogant face,
I want to eat the fleeting shade of your lashes.
And I pace around hungry, sniffing the twilight,
Hunting for your, for your hot heart,
Like a puma in the barrens of Quitratue.
Perhaps no Latina has been more prolific in poetry than the Nobel prize-winning writer and poet, Gabriela Mistral. Born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga in a small town near the Chilean Andes, she lived a happy childhood, despite her father and mother separating when she was only three. When she left her hometown at the age of eleven to attend school in a nearby town, her somewhat idyllic childhood took a sharp turn. She was condemned by teachers as a troublemaker, as well as for not believing in religion.
Her first love committed suicide, leaving her to deal with complicated grief at an early age. Through her writing, she found an outlet to process those emotions and began writing not only about her experiences but about the experiences she observed in others.
On top of her poetry, she was also a fierce advocate for the people of her country, especially women and children, who she often saw left without a voice to speak out, or a protector to care for them – and perhaps by extension, herself.
La Flor del Aire:
Yo la encontré por mi destino,
de pie a mitad de la pradera,
gobernadora del que pase,
del que le hable y que la vea.
Y ella me dijo “Sube al monte.
Yo nunca dejo la pradera,
y me cortas las flores blancas
como nieves, duras y tiernas."
Me subí a la ácida montaña,
busqué las flores donde albean,
entre las rocas existiendo
medio dormidas y despiertas.
Cuando bajé, con carga mía,
la hallé a mitad de la pradera,
y fui cubriéndola frenética,
con un torrente de azucenas.
Y sin mirarse la blancura,
ella me dijo: "Tú acarrea
ahora sólo flores rojas.
Yo no puedo pasar la pradera."
Trepe las penas con el venado,
y busqué flores de demencia,
las que rojean y parecen
que de rojez vivan y mueran.
In dedication to her work, the epitaph inscribed on La Tumba de Mistral reads “what the soul does to its body is what the artist does for his country.”