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  • Motivos of TranslationNicolás Guillén and Langston Hughes
  • William Scott (bio)

From almost the very beginning of their long friendship, Nicolás Guillén and Langston Hughes have often been taken together as representatives of a self-conscious Afro-Cuban/Afro-American poetico-political project.1 Both poets' careers span the same period of time, roughly from the 1920s to the 1960s; both poets were held up as the voice of "the people" by their respective communities; and both, albeit in different ways and for different reasons, were emphatically radical in their political convictions. In short, both poets, at various times in their lives, considered themselves to be revolutionary poets of the masses, and thus, like Vladimir Mayakovsky in the U.S.S.R., internationalists in the scope of their respective poetic visions.

Yet precisely because of these similarities, the nature of their relation to each other has remained the subject of a continuing controversy—one which, unfortunately, has not yet moved beyond the task of finally determining, once and for all, which poet influenced whom. Thus, one line of critics, including Arnold Rampersad and Ian Smart, maintains that Hughes's transformative impact on Guillén was "immediate" (Rampersad [End Page 35] 1986, 181) and "most transcendental" (Smart 1990, 23), pushing Guillén to the sudden poetic breakthrough he experienced with Motivos de Son and Songoro Cosongo. On the other hand, critics like Regino Boti have maintained that "there is nothing in common between a Yankee and a Cuban," and that furthermore, "Hughes's muse waits [while] Guillén's makes demands"(Boti cited in Ellis 1998, 131). Although Boti argued this point in 1932, Keith Ellis, as recently as 1998, has similarly insisted that "the limited variations of tone" of Hughes's poetry "reflect conditions that do not change and the absence of real belief that there will be change." In contrast to Hughes, Ellis claims that Guillén's poetry serves as "a model of harmony to which people may aspire in their social relations," and therefore, according to Ellis, Guillén's poetic achievement as a whole "gives way to harmony between happy music and the new achievements and possibilities in the period of the triumph of the revolution" (Ellis 1998, 156–57).

This essay seeks to reassess the relationship between Hughes and Guillén, focusing neither on the question of relative degrees of influence in one direction or the other, nor on the question of their respective revolutionary qualities and the degree to which these may or may not be present in their work (the latter question being nothing more, in fact, than a recasting of the former on the openly political, rather than strictly formal, level). Rather, the question I want to open up within the Guillén/Hughes friendship concerns the nature of that which one calls the "political" itself when this is seen as—necessarily—a question of poetry. The very fact of their friendship (Guillén: "Siempre fuimos muy buenos amigos" [We were always very good friends]) is enough to suggest a more complex, and perhaps even more productive, path of inquiry into their poetic achievement: namely, to see these writers as working in conversation with each other instead of as competitors, or as more or less revolutionary (i.e., successful) artists. By this, I do not mean to relegate politics to the margins of their friendship, but on the contrary, I want to ask what it would mean to think their specifically translational relationship toward each other as the very site of their politics. What is it, for example, about the relation—Hughes/Guillén—that allows one to imagine it as a site of linguistic "facilitation" (to use Gayatri Spivak's term)? In other words, could one speak of [End Page 36] the translational friendship between Hughes and Guillén in terms of them both "juggling the disruptive rhetoricity that breaks the surface [of two historical languages] in not necessarily connected ways, [such that] we feel the selvedges of the language-textile give way, fray into frayages or facilitations" (Spivak 1993, 180)? To this end, then, I want to read their poetry as staging various attempts at articulating...


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