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This item is taken from PN Review 38, Volume 10 Number 6, May - June 1984.

JORGE GUILLEN is dead. He died in February at the age of 91. Now only Rafael Alberti and Vicente Aleixandre are left alive of the major poets of that remarkable Spanish 'Generation of 1927' which the Civil War divided and dispersed. Alberti has become part of the restored Spanish Communist Party's communion of saints. It is not easy to read him without sadness for what history did to his wonderful, Miroesque imagination. And the success of Aleixandre (who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1977) is political quite as much as it is literary. His are the rewards of a survivor, he is a symbolic laureate who outlived Franco's rule. The Nobel selectors seemed in him to welcome the literature of Spain back into the fold and to suggest a tradition restored.

Of that generation, Lorca is the best-known and best-loved, Antonio Machado the most verbally memorable and heart-breaking, Luis Cernuda the greatest radical. But Guillen is the most complete, the one from whom younger Spanish poets stand to learn a great deal about the potentiality of their language and traditions in a European (and American) context, and about the nature of the poetic vocation itself. He lived a very long time-almost half a century after the Civil War, and he was already a fully-fledged poet when it began. Unlike Lorca and Machado, he must be read with a tearless eye. As his American translator Reginald Gibbons has written, 'At every stage his poetry has shown the careful, deliberate hand of the craftsman who would not be hurried into a poetic career, but who by his very meticulousness won himself a wide and admiring audience in the Spanish-speaking world.'

Would that he, Cernuda and Machado had such an audience in Britain. The problem is partly one of translation, but Guillen is the most translatable of the poets of his generation because he was a European in quite as developed a sense as Eliot, Seferis or Ungaretti were. His Castilian eyes opened on France and then beyond. In 1929 he translated Valéry's great poem, 'Le Cimetière Marin', superbly into Spanish. He was very familiar with Classical, Italian and English literature as well.

For us the poets of the 'Generation of 1927', and he with them, have somehow remained stuck in their historical tragedy-the Civil War-a Spanish crisis which the British continue to appropriate to the history of their own Left to such an extent that a couple of years ago Penguin were able to produce an anthology of Poetry of the Spanish Civil War which almost entirely excluded the Spanish witness. Spanish literature has fared so ill in Britain partly because of what happened to the vicarious desires of the British intelligentsia in 1936 and after. The Republican cause aroused a rather belated British interest in Spanish culture. Its defeat seems effectively to have quelled that interest. The Iberian peninsula as a whole has suffered neglect, though work from its one-time colonies has found wide readership here. The extent to which ideological nostalgia determines what is served up via translation to the general reader could hardly be better illustrated than by the treatment of these major writers-those of them, at least, who did not have the misfortune actually to die at the hands of, or in the time of, the Fascists. Some have been translated, but in Britain only in scant selection, and the books that include them soon go out of print or are remaindered. Yet they represent the finest flowering of Spanish literature since the Golden Age. In the United States their importance is recognised, their works translated, their lessons available to English-language writers.

Guillen suffered from what he called 'ill-formed readers, dully politicized', who read his poems, as it were, from general to particular. Poetry-even political poetry of any moment- goes in the other direction and is proof against political sentimentalism. Octavio Paz wrote that Guillen's reality 'is what we touch and see: the faith of the senses is the true faith of every poet'. In Language and Poetry, his 1957-8 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard, Guillen himself begins: 'Let's not set out from the word "poetry", an undefinable term. Let us rather say "poem" as we would say "picture" or "statue". They have a quality which begins by putting us at our ease; they are objects, objects in the here and now, within reach of our hands, our ears, our eyes.'

This item is taken from PN Review 38, Volume 10 Number 6, May - June 1984.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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