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Cannibalizing Modern Poetry in the Americas

Brazilian Modernist Oswald De Andrade adapts a line from Shakespeare, “Tupi or not Tupi, that is the question,” in his 1928 “Cannibalist Manifesto.”[1] The rest of the manifesto is in Brazilian Portuguese. Is this recycling of Shakespeare part of the search for cultural identity—a sign of the fraught relationship of the indigenous to the nation—or is it just wordplay? I asked this question in my seminar “Law of the Cannibal: Trans-American Poetics” to launch a discussion about poetic origin, authorship, and intertextuality. My course title borrows from De Andrade’s “Cannibalist Manifesto,” which reclaims the figure of the New World barbarian (extolling the “savage,” without Montaigne’s modifying “noble”) and sets out an aggressive program for a national poetics that draws at will from the world’s cultural heritage. By “devouring” other cultural forms, the colonial culture takes an active role, transforming both self and other.[2]

I asked my students to consider the same question about poems that rewrite canonical Modernist texts, such as Jamaican poet Olive Senior’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird (after Wallace Stevens),” which reimagines the blackbird as an enslaved African arriving in the Americas. Senior’s rewriting inscribes the violent history of slavery into Stevens’s poetic structure, writing into the blanks or racial exclusions of history and literature. I wanted to show my students that poetry is not impartial, and can tell the history of national culture. I also asked them how they would characterize poems such as Senior’s. Are they citational or “writings through”?[3]  Where does the border lie between “allusive” and its denigrating cousin terms, “derivative” and “imitative”? In posing these questions, my aim was to convey the complexity of the relationships that exist between poems and how our understanding of those relationships is determined by power asymmetries—and in particular, how the legacy of colonialism affects our understanding of certain texts’ primacy.[4] I wanted my students to consider the “adjacency” between poems, as Edward Said calls it: a nonlinear alternative to imagining sequentiality or dynastic linkages between texts.[5] My larger point was that a non-dualist model, such as that offered by a cannibalistic poetics, can propose that poems are unstable, growing organisms, which respond to the touch of writers and readers alike, in a shifting web of interactions.

It would seem that for literature of the Americas to be original, it must be true to its own particularity. Ralph Waldo Emerson made an appeal in his 1844 essay “The Poet” for a “representative” poet of genius, who would “chaunt our own times and social circumstance,” cleaving closely to nature and society by “singing” America (just as Walt Whitman claimed to do).[6] Since the wars of independence, authenticity has often been imagined as existing in mimetic relation to land and autochthonous culture throughout the Americas. By problematizing this idea, I wanted to invite students to consider some fundamental questions about literary composition, with an eye to history: Where do poems come from? What does inspiration consist of and how have poets understood it? Is it possible for a text to reflect or embody “authentic” culture? What are the socio-economic factors involved in a given region’s idea of “authenticity”? Exploring these questions encouraged my students to examine the method of literary inquiry we were engaged in, at the same time as we read texts closely and discussed international circuits of literary exchange.

Even though we may study national literatures, there is no reason to be bound by the jurisdictional borders of nations, Wai Chee Dimock suggests, and in this spirit, my goal was to teach poetry of the modern period from a comparative perspective.[7] This approach naturally affected how I organized my syllabus.[8] I planned my seminar as an investigation into how twentieth-century poets throughout the American Hemisphere have shaped national literary traditions and poetic forms as part of their thinking about race, ethnicity, language, and decolonization. Rather than build the course around authorial figures or coteries, I structured it around questions about the relation between new poems and older poems, and how and why poets have sought to draw from and/or revise earlier poems. The course began with Brazilian cannibalism and ended with contemporary strategies of textual resistance in the United States and Canada (M. NourbeSe Philip’s fractured language; Tan Lin’s plagiarism). Along the way, we surveyed poetry of the Americas from the modern period onward. We studied the reception of the “Cannibalist Manifesto” at mid-century by Noigandres, a group of Brazilian concrete poets, as well as by the musician Caetano Veloso and the Tropicália movement; and compared theories about race and language from the Harlem Renaissance, negrismo, and négritude. In the process, we traced themes, tropes, and figures of socio-political resistance: the cannibal, Caliban, heteroglossia, hybridity, the voyage, the rhizome. We read Caribbean poems problematizing the relation between language and identity (Aimé Césaire, Édouard Glissant, Derek Walcott, Nancy Morejón, Louise Bennett, Lorna Goodison), with a focus on Brathwaite’s “nation language,” oral forms, and the vernacular (Claude McKay, Luis Palés Matos). We debated theories of the Neo-Baroque, a trans-American poetic mode of “superabundance and overflow” and “extreme artificialization” (proliferation, condensation, permutation, parody, intertextuality, and intratextuality) that links the work of poets writing in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and the U.S.[9]

The Neo-Baroque was a conceptual bridge between two sections of the course, linking earlier theories of appropriation to the poetry of the last thirty years, particularly multilingual work by French-Canadian and Latina/o poets. My students read Dominican-American Julia Álvarez’s “Bilingual Sestina,” in which she combines a traditional (and highly constrained) poetic form with concerns about the contemporary socio-economic implications of diglossia. Álvarez’s poem stresses problems of translation both thematically and formally. It takes as its end-words “say,” “closed,” “words,” “nombre,” “Spanish,” and “English” (which becomes, in the last line, “inglés”). I also gave my students a set of poems that explicitly announce trans-American affinities, such as Walcott’s “Names (for Edward Brathwaite)” and “For Pablo Neruda” and Rafael Campo’s “A Poet’s Education (for Derek Walcott),” to explore not only the poems’ formal properties, but also how the inscription of selected predecessors can be a commentary on the cultural capital inherent in literary reference. I sought to show my students that just as new poems may be crafted by looking back to earlier texts, earlier poems are modified through later compositions, as Jorge Luis Borges observes in “Kafka and His Precursors.” Each may be transformed through the other. Stevens’s “Blackbird” poem, for example, is inflected by later texts by Senior, Thylias Moss, and Terrance Hayes; and Shakespeare’s Hamlet is no longer the same after the Brazilian modernists have had at it.

One benefit of teaching poetry in this fashion is that it emphasizes trans-American circuits of poetic making, while introducing translation as vital practice for writers as they formulate their own poetics; and it makes visible the translator’s role in transforming texts. Throughout the semester, I taught from facing-page translations and encouraged students who could to read the original. My class quarreled enthusiastically and productively with the translations. Examining the translators’ word choice led them to a closer and more dynamic reading of the primary and translated texts. To highlight the role of translation in Modernist poetry, I designed a lesson plan that situated a close comparison of Langston Hughes’s translation of Nicolás Guillén within a broader discussion of modernist translation (e.g. Ezra Pound), multilingualism (e.g. Vicente Huidobro), and multi-directional travel and migration (e.g. José Martí). We read two poems about racial and cultural identity in the Americas, Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén’s “Ballad of the Two Grandfathers” (1934) and Walcott’s “A Far Cry from Africa” (1962). In both, the speaker addresses his mixed racial heritage, describing it as a result of colonial history. Walcott links the violence of the contemporary Mau Mau uprising in Kenya to anti-colonialism in the Caribbean, asking, “I who am poisoned with the blood of both,/ Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?”[10]

Portrait of Langston Hughes, 3/4 profile
Portrait of Langston Hughes, 3/4 profile by Carl Van Vechten

In contrast to Walcott’s poem, in Guillén’s poem, the speaker’s two grandfathers (one Spanish and one African) “embrace” in a vivid depiction of mestizaje that corresponds to Guillén’s view of cubanidad, or a Cuban identity that merges both elements harmoniously: “Both throw back their strong heads. / Both the same size, / beneath the distant stars. / Both the same size / black longing and white longing” (translation by Hughes).[11] Reading these poems together allowed my students to compare poetic visions of hybrid identity that were composed in different socio-political contexts. This led us to discuss Hughes’s decision to translate Guillén within the broader, multilingual circuits between writers of the Harlem Renaissance and the Caribbean.  

Zooming in on one translation decision sparked a larger conversation about how the poem addresses the relationship between the speaker and his grandfathers of different races. We considered two other translations beyond Hughes’s, both of which treat the idea differently. In Guillén’s original, the lines “Sombras que sólo yo veo, / me escoltan mis dos abuelos” open the poem and are repeated near the end.[12] Hughes renders these lines as “Shadows I alone can see / Shadow two grandfathers following me.” But the verb “escoltar,” which means to escort or to accompany—crucial for its intimation of hierarchy yet ultimate solidarity between the speaker and his ancestors—receives divergent treatment by other translators. Salvador Ortiz-Carboneres translates them as “Shadows that only I can see, / guarded by my two grandfathers,” and Jill Netchinsky offers “Shadows I alone can see, / my two grandfathers go with me.”[13] My students pointed out that the idea of the grandfathers “following” the speaker is quite different from “guarding” or “going with” the speaker, since it implies that the grandfathers take a secondary or subordinate position in the poem’s tracing of genealogy. Hughes’s translation creates more intricate sound patterns and introduces several new repetitions. It depicts the grandfathers as following instead of escorting the poetic speaker, so that he takes the lead, ahead of his relatives and the legacy of colonialism. In effect, Hughes rewrote the poem and instilled it with his own vision. His changes led my students to rethink the modes of insistence in Guillén’s original. They were in agreement that although Hughes’s version departs from the original, they preferred it, and argued that he had created a new poem alongside Guillén’s: the Spanish poem gained a new incarnation.

In this way, a narrative about how history may be received and imagined, and how poets trope the legacy of colonialism, unfolded out of a poem’s micro properties. World histories can be located within word histories, as Emily Apter has suggested.[14] With this set of in-class exercises and debates, my aim was to model close reading for my students even as we explored the power that translators have—and to highlight the broader issue of poets’ investment in translation during the modern period, as they sought to renovate domestic poetics through engagement with exogenous sources. By teaching poetics comparatively, my goal was to make my students alert to poets’ cross-national reading, multilingual compositional processes, and pluri-national affiliations. I wanted to set my students thinking about translation as a metaphor: how language is always a translation from the world, and how the interpretation of linguistic artifacts is a form of translation, too. And to encourage them to examine the metaphors that structure literary scholarship itself.


  1. ^ Oswald De Andrade, “Cannibalist Manifesto,” trans. Leslie Bery, Latin American Literary Review 19, no. 38 (July-Dec. 1991), 38.
  2. ^ Sara Castro-Klarén, “A Genealogy for the ‘Manifesto antropófago,’ or the Struggle between Socrates and the Caraïbe,” Nepantla: Views from the South 1, no. 2 (2000): 297.
  3. ^ Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (2010, rpt., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 11.
  4. ^ I discuss these issues at length in Rachel Galvin, “Poetry Is Theft,” Comparative Literature Studies 51, no. 1 (2014): 18-54.
  5. ^ Edward W. Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 10.
  6. ^ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Collected Essays: Complete Original Second Series (Rockville, Maryland: Arc Manor, 2007), 26.
  7. ^ Wai Chee Dimock, “Internationalizing the Curriculum: Nations, Languages, Religions,” English Language Notes 47, no. 1 (2009): 59.
  8. ^ Such an approach dovetails with the recent “global” or “planetary” turn in Modernist Studies, which emphasizes “alternative geographies of modernism” that show how “modernism cuts across imperial and post-imperial, colonial and decolonizing cultures” (Andreas Huyssen, “Geographies of Modernism in a Globalizing World,” in Geographies of Modernism: Literatures, Cultures, Spaces, eds. Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 6. For a discussion of “global modernisms,” see Mark Wollaeger, “Introduction,” The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, eds. Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). On “planetary criticism,” see Wai Chee Dimock, “Literature for the Planet,” PMLA 116 (January 2001): 173-188; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Emily Apter, The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). 
  9. ^ Severo Sarduy, “The Baroque and the Neo-Baroque” (1972) in Latin America in Its Literature, eds. César Fernández Moreno, Julio Ortega, Ivan A. Schulman. Trans. Mary G. Berg. (New York and London: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1980), 129; 117.
  10. ^ Derek Walcott, “A Far Cry from Africa,” in Walcott, Collected Poems 1948-1984 (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986), 17-18.
  11. ^ Langston Hughes, trans. “Ballad of the Two Grandfathers” (1949), Collected Works Vol. 16: The Translations: Federico García Lorca, Nicolás Guillén, and Jacques Roumain ed. Arnold Rampersad (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001), 119-121.
  12. ^ Nicolás Guillén, “Ballad of the Two Grandfathers,” Yoruba From Cuba: Selected Poems (Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree, 2004), 26, 28.
  13. ^ Hughes, trans. “Ballad of the Two Grandfathers,” 119-121. Salvador Ortiz-Carboneres, trans. “Ballad of the Two Grandfathers,” Yoruba From Cuba: Selected Poems (Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree, 2004), 26-29. Jill Netichinsky, trans. “Ballad of the Two Grandfathers,” Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse ed. Stewart Brown and Mark McWatt (2005, rpt., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 19-20.
  14. ^ Apter, The Translation Zone, 64.