- The Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures by Harris Feinsod
In his introduction Harris Feinsod recalls a frequent question put to him when he was writing this book:
How to envisage the enlarged collection of poets who pertain to the poetry of the Americas? Describing my topic in conversation, I am inevitably asked: ‘so which poets do you write about?’ This natural question causes me more consternation than it should, for I often want to give the quick answer ‘lots of them,’ an answer I know my conversation partner will find unsatisfactory. The invocation of breadth is not an evasion but a desire to attenuate authorial status in the structure of literary history…(15)
This recollection is helpful because it indicates to the reader very early on what this book will not be, that is, an analysis of a set number of North American and Latin American poets whose work demonstrates inter-American links and connections. It is also, I might add, not a study of the “cultural diplomacy” objectives promoted by a group of U.S. organizations in their dealings with Latin America nor does it focus on whether or not they succeeded in their aims. Nor, indeed, is this book a study of the ways in which the “soft power” of poetry has over time superseded the “hard power” of military might and commerce in the U.S.’s dealings with Latin America. But, in its meandering way (which I do not intend as a critique), this book crisscrosses and overlaps with all of these subjects. [End Page 502]
Feinsod’s introduction (pp. 1–25) takes its springboard from (who else?) the Cuban poet and patriot, José Martí, and then moves on to discuss issues such as genealogy, literary history and cultural diplomacy before providing a foretaste of the book’s six chapters as follows: “The six chapters that follow each tell their own story, stories that are inflected by distinct methodological and formal concerns, distinct affiliations and alignments, and distinct groups of poets. Each chapter therefore asks for its own patient absorption” (24). This is, to my mind, a fair characterization of the style of the book for, indeed, each chapter does not deliver up its secret easily.
The six chapters chart the following territory. Chapter 1, “Hemispheric Solidarities: Wartime Poetry and the Limits of the Good Neighbor”, describes the encounter and links established between North American and Latin American poets that occurred during the period 1938–1945. It mentions the role played by U.S. governmental agencies such as the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, the Office of War information, the Voice of America, the Hispanic Foundation at the Library of Congress and the Pan American Union as well as non-governmental agencies such as the Committee on Cultural Relations with Latin America and the Council for Pan-American Democracy, and balances this with an analysis of inter-American themes in the work of poets such as Jorge Carrera Andrade, Borges, Mistral, Neruda and Paz in Latin America, and Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, MacLeish and William Carlos Williams in the U.S. Of particular interest is the ambiguous relationship sketched out here that William Carlos Williams had with his Puerto-Rican heritage (pp. 71–87). Chapter 2, “A Xenoglossary for the Americas” focuses on three poets—Wallace Stevens, José Lezama Lima and Borges —and their rejection of cultural diplomacy, while indicating the thematic and metaphorical affinities between their respective poetic works. Chapter 3, “The Ruins of Inter-Americanism”, set during the period 1945–1959, analyzes the ways in which a number of poets—from Neruda in Alturas de Macchu Picchu (1946) to Paz in Piedra de sol (1955), from Charles Olson’s “The Kingfishers” (1949) to Allen Ginsberg’s “Siesta in Xbalba and Return to the States” (1956)—recast the pre-Columbian ruin “as a site for performances of cultural inter-Americanism” (p. 138). Chapter 4, “The New Inter-American Poetry” homes in on the “leftist poetic hemispherism” that occurred throughout the period 1959–1973, mainly as a...