POETRY MONTH 30/30/30: Inspiration, Community, Tradition: DAY 22 :: Tony Hoffman on Vicente Huidobro
I don’t recall where I first encountered the works of Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948)—most likely in the introduction to a collection by one of his contemporaries who came to overshadow him (Neruda or Borges). In America, at least among English-speaking poets, his work is largely forgotten; I don’t remember his name ever coming up in a conversation I didn’t initiate. But he is still well loved by people with an interest in Spanish-language poetry.
A century ago, he initiated a literary movement known as Creationism (no relation to the term’s current religious context), which holds that a poem is something new, created by the author for its own sake, not to act as commentary or to please either author or audience. He wrote of the created poem, “Nothing in the external world resembles it; it makes real what does not exist, that is to say, it turns itself into reality. It creates the wonderful and gives it a life of its own. It creates extraordinary situations that can never exist in the objective world, that they will have to exist in the poem so that they exist somewhere.”
In 1916 he moved to Europe; after a stay in Spain, he and his wife settled in Paris, where he started writing in French as well as Spanish, and met up with the avant garde scene there, allying himself with the Cubists. Although impressed with Apollinaire and Reverdy, he didn’t think that most poets (particularly the Futurists) went far enough. He wrote “While others are making oval skylights, I was making square horizons. As all skylights are oval, poetry continues to be realist. As horizons are not square, the author offers something created by himself. He even titled a book Horizon Carré (Square Horizon); in its introduction, he wrote that his intent was “To create a poem by taking the elements of life and transforming them to give them a new and independent life of their own…Nothing descriptive or anecdotal. Emotion must be born from the creative strength along…Make a POEM like nature makes a tree.”
In 1933, Huidobro returned to Chile, where he ceased to write in French. He and Neruda became bitter rivals. Although both were leftist and politically active, they had totally different styles, with Huidobro in his speeches eschewing political rhetoric and sticking to the poetic.
Huidobro’s masterwork is Altazor —subtitled El Viaje in Paracaídas (The Parachute Journey)—an epic poem in seven Cantos that he started in 1919 and finally published in 1931. It is a surreal work, one rooted in its time, the world emerging from the horrors of World War I into the golden age of aviation, with the airplane’s ability to open up the far reaches of the world but haunted by the specter of militarism. Though informed by the technology of its time, the poem is ultimately transcendent. In it, the protagonist (Altazor) ostensibly takes a journey via parachute, but it goes far astray and it’s ultimately a voyage into the heart of language itself: “…Y el avión trae un language diferente/por la boca del cielos de siempre…” (And the airplane carries a different language / to the mouth of the eternal skies).
As the poem proceeds, Huidobro starts inventing compound words by combining existing roots, and adding wordless sounds. For example, Canto IV ends
El pájaro tralalí en las ramas de mi cerebro
Porque encontró la clave del eterfinifrete
Rotundo como el unipacio y el espaverso
Aia ai ai aaia ii
Rough translation of the first 3 lines: “The bird sings [tralalí] in the branches of my brain / Because I’ve found the key to the [eternifinity] / round like the [unispace] and [spaceiverse]” The last 3 lines are birdsong/the song of the poet’s own brain.
The final Canto (VII) of Altazor is in no known language—there are fragments of Spanish words melded into compounds, but most of it seems to be the poet playing with sounds and stringing together syllables. A taste of it:
Aí ai mareciente y eternauta
Redontella tallerendo lucenario
Ai i a
Part of Huidobro’s credo is that poetry should be universal and universally translatable. It’s reminiscent of the Russian Futurists’ (whom he disassociated himself from for being too old-fashioned) attempts to create Zaum, a universal language. There’s a beauty in Huidobro’s construction and in the sounds he employs, though if it’s translatable I fear we may have lost the key.
I am reminded of the Armenian singer and avant-garde folk musician Arto Tuncboyaciyan, who I’ve heard perform many times with the Paul Winter Consort. His vocals are haunting and beautiful; though I’d assumed at first that they were in Armenian, they’re in a language of his own invention. It also brings to mind my attempt as a young adult to create a new language. All I remember is its name: Valparilla Sooznik. I don’t know if it had any meaning; I just liked the sound.
Regardless of the intent of the poet, whether the poem stands the test of time depends on its impact on the reader. Altazor is in turns prophetic, audacious, delightful, nonsensical, and transcendental, ultimately transcending the bounds of language itself.
A short additional selection of Huidobro’s poems in translation can be found here.
I wrote the following poem after writing this essay. Although not meant to imitate Huidobro’s work, it does share some thematic similarities.
No time like the time we inhabit
To cast off our frail and spindly craft
compelled as cartographers of night.
Fueled and provisioned,
slingshot on an intercept
with phantoms of quadrants of mind,
must craft a new navigation:
color, sound, and touch—
too many recursive loops
too at home in the wastelands
Take that guitar with a clock-face
out Into the prow, night green and calm
and streaked with meteors, night
to strum away decades, strum them back
Clock-faced guitar and moon-faced clock
The swallows bend home in eclipse half light.
We’ve recording utensils and video streams
time compressors, temperature inverters—
but try and get them all to work.
Lost to our own cartography,
we’ll turn antennas to the antipodes
prime the torch, consume these walls
the sky itself’s the map, its cryptic light
the key. Lest we shrink from its enormity
we have you, and you, and you, and you—
Tony Hoffman lives in Queens and is a longtime denizen of Poetry Project workshops. He is the author of two self-published chapbooks, Heliopolis and Dilapidated Epiphany.
[Editor’s note: Should you ever have the opportunity to meet Tony Hoffman, count yourself the better for it. He comes off shy at first, but should, for instance, you begin to know him by his voice as it reads one of his rich, incisive, yet infinitely human-comical poems — you should immediately become curious, as a child might, as to what lurks behind the facade. Someone who includes morse code in a poem. An amateur astronomer, a photographer, a HAM radio operator, someone who as a child created a language called Valparilla Sooznik … ? Yeah, that begins to give a sense of it.
There is magic in Tony, and it was today in reading that he has a chapbook titled Heliopolis — also the title of a piece just sent ina few days ago by ExSt contributor/my friend Andrew Breitenberg [SELAH], and of course the name of the Awesome Creators collective just profiled this week — that I was reminded of its common course within us… something he may just be more advanced in documenting and eking out. May he continue to gift us with his words, laughter, and vision.]