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That Gentle Epic: Writing and Elegy in the Heroic Poetry of Cecilia Meireles

From: MLN
Volume 112, Number 2, March 1997 (Hispanic Issue)
pp. 201-218 | 10.1353/mln.1997.0013

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MLN 112.2 (1997) 201-218

When measured against the best poets of the Modernist legacy of the 1920s in Brazil, some critics today still continue to perceive Cecília Meireles as a facile, unimaginative, and accommodated writer. A more careful examination of her poetry, however, demonstrates that she worked against the grain to maintain her poetic belief in an era when Modernism in Brazil repudiated traditional forms. She disturbed some of her contemporary literati with the intimate tone and religious view communicated by her poetry. She also vocalized very clearly and concisely ideas about poetry in general, and consistently adhered to the artistic creeds so eloquently expressed in her lectures, her own verses, and her crônicas.

That she is unjustly regarded as a secondary poet by some major Brazilian critics is not surprising. In their criticism, Meireles passes inconspicuously before a gallery of giants such as Manuel Bandeira, Mário de Andrade, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Murilo Mendes, and João Cabral de Melo Neto. The exclusion of female names on the list is neither accidental nor intentional; rather, it explains a canonical situation that, despite its relevance, I will not discuss here. What I am concerned with is Meireles's epic or heroic collections of poems which strike me as an extraordinary poetic corpus, both in quality and scope, when compared to her other works. I am referring to two sets of poems, Romanceiro da Inconfidência [1953] and Crônica Trovada da Cidade de Sam Sebastiam do Rio de Janeiro [1965].

In Romanceiro, Meireles intends to articulate traditional epic materials in a new spirit, and by doing so, she redefines the past for her time, continuously negotiating a space between -- in T. S. Eliot's well known terms -- tradition and individual talent. As we move through the eighty-five poems of Romanceiro, it becomes quite obvious that there is a strong impetus behind this project: Meireles emulates Achilles' wrath to chastise the cruelties and injustices committed by Portugal against Vila Rica. Nevertheless, her wrath appears only in the poems and is absent from the metatextual, even-tempered lecture of "How I wrote Romanceiro da Inconfidência" [1955]. In much the same way, Pablo Neruda's unrestrained fury in Canto General [1950] toward González Videla helps sustain the indignation of the lyrical voice and sets the tone for the political protest launched by the Chilean poet. Hence, it is not by chance that in both Canto General and Romanceiro the choice of language is self- conscious and programmatic, reflecting a metalinguistic preoccupation vehemently expressed -- especially in Meireles's case -- in the opening section of the poem.

One could certainly speculate that the authoritarian regimes of González Videla and Getúlio Vargas fueled a poetic awareness combative of the growing North-American imperialist outlook in Latin America in the 1950s, an awareness that Neruda undoubtedly embraced and that might have inspired Meireles to write her poems. In Brazil, the creation of the Estado Novo, the industrial impulse generated by World War II, and the disintegration of the last Utopian movements in politics before the modern military dictatorships were felt as the end of an era of reconciliatory search for national identity. It would be no exaggeration to state that Neruda's Canto General and Meireles's Romanceiro da Inconfidência, even though for different reasons, orchestrated the swan-song of the epic tradition on the Latin American continent seen in Antonio Cisneros Comentarios reales (Peru, 1962), Ernesto Cardenal's El estrecho dudoso (Nicaragua, 1966), and Nicolás Guillén's El diario que a diario (Cuba, 1972).

Nonetheless, Meireles did not want Romanceiro to judge. It invites the reader only to reflection. She was careful at tuning its rhythm and tone, measuring the effect of its words to achieve a balance. The poetic composition responds perfectly to the poet's desire "to narrate what was heard in these airs of Minas, especially in this Ouro Preto, full of unlimited resonances -- and to point out in this endless confidence what makes [the poem] eternal, what is not only an occasional, local, circumstantial word, but a word of violent vigor, valid in all times, as long as it...


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