The Poetry of Jorge Carrera Andrade
This essay was published as the Preface to Jorge Carrera Andrade, Secret Country, translated by Muna Lee, New York: MacMillan Publishers, 1946.
John Peale Bishop (1882–1944, Charlestown, West Virginia), a classmate of F. Scott Fitzgerald at Princeton University, was the model for the character of Tom D’villiers, the aspiring poet in This Side of Paradise. After service in World War I Bishop was editor of Vanity Fair, worked for the New York offices of Paramount Pictures, and later served as chief poetry reviewer at The Nation. A member of the “lost generation” of American expatriate writers in Paris in the 1920s, he published four highly acclaimed books of poetry, including Collected Poems, edited by Allen Tate. “The Poetry Of Jorge Carrera Andrade” is reprinted with permission of the John Peale Bishop estate.
WHEN I WAS A CHILD and first went to school, I was taught that the Equator was an imaginary line encircling the globe midway between the poles. Later, in that book from which I first learned how the sensation of distance can be evoked by the strange names of far places, I was told of a country called Ecuador. Its name had been given it because it lay athwart that line which, first and last, is a convenience of the imagination. It was, nevertheless, a real country. On the maps, I drew and crudely colored it was bounded on one side by blue to describe a Pacific shore, while across the interior crawled lines, fuzzy as caterpillars, to indicate mountains, whose peaks bore remarkable names like Cotopaxi and Chimborazo.
More than once, in reading the poems of Jorge Carrera Andrade, I have recalled that ignorant time when, with a child’s possessiveness, I collected in my mind the names of far countries. His Secret Country has something of that remote and romantic attraction that a first book of geography has. The gull there opening its wings in flight over the sea becomes such a notebook as we used at school, which when opened spread into two curves of whiteness; but the message on the gull’s wings is unwritten and can only be read as movement over an unknown Pacific. The Pacific is here and so is Ecuador; the land, like the sea, has been summoned into being by the mere power of words. The mountains are high as clouds and often overcome by sudden storms; down from the drenched hills, into the villages, trudge Indian women, bearing baskets of vegetables bound to their foreheads.
The poems create their sense of abundance, precisely because they are so filled with the most commonplace details of everyday life. The lives of these laboring people are remote from us, but not their cares; so many of them are poor. Much that we encounter at first seems strange; but presently we recognize that the immediate strangeness of things is due less to their having been brought to us from a distant and equatorial climate than to their having been seen as though no one had looked at them before.
Corn hangs from the rafters of the barns in Ecuador as it does here; the husks have the same pale yellow color, the same shape. But who before had thought of telling us that the corn hangs by canary wings? Jorge Carrera Andrade uses his imagination as the first geographers did when on their charts they drew the Equator.
His purpose, no less than theirs, is that we should know and understand the world we live in. He has known more of the world than most of us have; but his knowledge began at home. His first discoveries were in the familiar.
Jorge Carrera Andrade was born in 1903 in the city of Quito, in the very shadow of that Hospital which had been founded, some three hundred years before, by Hernando de Santillán y Figueroa. His father, Don Abelardo Carrera Andrade, was distinguished in his profession no less for his liberal views than for the position, which he long held, Minister of the Supreme Court of Justice. His mother, Dona Carmela Baca Andrade, was descended from a colonel in the Ecuadorian army. The poet’s childhood was passed, however, not in the city, but on a country estate. The great house and the surrounding buildings, the gardens and orchards, the fields of alfalfa stretching endlessly in the sun, all were to remain in his memory and become — when the property was no longer his- a permanent possession. Even the pond, with its impartial reflection of geese and clouds, has been retained in his poetry:
The time has been most carefully defined in his poem Biografia para Uso de los Pajaros (Biography For The Use Of Birds). Quito had seen the last stagecoach roll by and disappear; the first streetcars had yet to run in the capital. Each morning the boy watched his father mount his horse and ride away toward the Court of Justice. His mother remained in charge of the household. Yet, though her care included eleven children she never failed to find time for reading and, from the moment when one of her sons manifested his inclination toward literature, encouraged his bent and urged him to follow it without faltering. It was she, too, who taught him to sing with her, to the accompaniment of her guitar, the sentimental folk songs of Ecuador. From other and older members of the family, the boy heard of his ancestors, conquistadores and men-at-arms, and in especial of the fabulous Diego Carrera who, in the midst of the Revolution of the Alcabalas in the XVIth century, was proclaimed King of Quito. His followers then condemned him to death and it was only the Spanish soldiers who saved him; he survived to be named Royal Ensign by the King of Madrid. The boy’s father laughed at these stories; so far as he knew, he said, the family was descended from Indians, and, in any event, he preferred the company of common people.
Jorge Carrera Andrade is something that in our time has become very rare, a natural poet. He began writing young — “The Perfect Life,” which is included in this volume, was written when he was eighteen –at a time when, not only in Ecuador, but throughout Spanish America, the influence of Rubén Darío was paramount. The very richness of the Nicaraguan had encouraged in his followers an excessive love of ornamentation. There was no question of the worth of what he had left behind him; but it was a heritage which the younger poet could not accept. The influence of the French symbolists, which was then almost as potent as that of Darío, and indeed was confused with it, had also to be rejected. It was enough to recognize that it was only with French aid that Darío had at last made valid his declaration of spiritual independence for the Americas from Spanish colonialism. Carrera Andrade’s poetry was a reaction in favor of simplicity. He sought, from the start, a return to the common speech.
Now, one of the most pressing problems which the poet of any age has to meet is how, out of those words which are employed every day by all sorts of people for the most trivial ends, to create the things he loves so that they will lose in the process nothing of their own beauty and luster. Or, to put it as one of the most talented of my contemporaries did in conversation, the writer’s problem is how to make the sky blue. And he must make it really blue, restoring vividness and depth to words which, no one knows better than he, have had all the color washed out of them as the result of long and careless use.
We may think Carrera Andrade fortunate in having been born and brought up in a country which had been so little explored poetically. All that he saw would seem to have been his for the taking. But a poet owns nothing until he has made it his own, and he can make it his only by perceiving it in a new relation, a relation which is not in the first instance verbal, but which must be made manifest in words, which themselves continually create new relationships of sound and movement. Unless he can control these, he is lost. The only way to write poetry is to begin by writing verse. The poet is, like the harpist in one of Carrera Andrade’s most precise images, a happy prisoner. He must look at the world forever through the strings of his instrument. And he cannot release their music without, at the same time, confining his vision.
This is why, strictly speaking, no poem can be translated. Once a vision which is essentially private has found its form, it is henceforth available to all who share the same speech. But the words of the poem are immutable.
This has been rendered into English:
No one can, I believe, make petty objections about the accuracy of the translation. The substance is there; but the translator has been obliged to put away the music.
The music of these poems remains in the Spanish; it cannot be conveyed in English. What Muna Lee has admirably conveyed are those other relationships, which are not completely dependent upon the sound and movement of the verse. With the original text before him, these can be recovered by the reader, even though his acquaintance with Spanish is slight. What the translation will do is to prevent his going astray in the interpretation of the metaphors, which provide the one difficulty in Carrera Andrade’s poetry, as they constitute its especial charm.
His comparisons constantly astonish us when we first come on them; we end, I think, always by accepting them as just. The words Chimborazo and Cotopaxi are poetic, as I recognized when as a boy I succumbed to their vague enchantment. But their only association in my mind was with ignorance. Poetry is something else again. It is a form of speech which continues to surprise us by its precision.
I have said that Carrera Andrade is a natural poet. This is, perhaps, only another way of saying that he is a poet who has never doubted his own nature. His mother early discovered his predilection for literature and encouraged it; the choice of a calling was inevitably his own. His first book of poems, Estanque Inefable, was published before he had finished at the University. His father confirmed him in his sympathies with the poor and humble; but it was with his own eyes that he had seen the destitute state of the despoiled Indians, the hard lot of the laborers on the land. It was natural that he should take their side, and that of workers everywhere. He became an advocate of social change so tireless and outspoken that, more than once, he won the persecution of the authorities. He himself dates his true beginning as a poet from his “Song to Russia” and the “Lament of the Death of Lenin.”
What is remarkable is not only the promptness of his response to the conditions of the world in which he found himself, but the complete integrity he opposed to the world. Carrera Andrade seems always to have known where his allegiances lay. Apparently he is unaffected by that conflict in loyalties which, among poets of this country, has been at once a source of public controversy and of private torment and frustration. The poet in South America is not cut off from the common life, as almost everywhere else in the West he has desperately been for a century or more. Carrera Andrade has been from his youth a polemical writer; in Spain, he took an active part in the proclamation of the Republic and for some years, being without other means, kept body and soul together by manual labor, often of the lowliest kind, all the while being engaged in the most intense intellectual activity; of late years he has been a diplomat.
“I am a man,” he has recently written, “to whom nothing extraordinary has happened and who has filled his life loving things and knowing the planet on which we chance to live; above all, in fighting without respite for the liberty of the oppressed and the overcoming of injustice in the world.” The need for justice has not lessened for him the immediate necessity for living. Nor has the political conscience of the man of good will ever made a coward of the poet.
It is possible to discern in his poetry three aspects. While they reflect the changing circumstances of his life, they do not strictly conform to them. Rather they lie like concentric circles, imposed one on another, about a common center. In this book, all three may be apparent at once.
In the first Carrera Andrade is concerned with Ecuador and with answering the demands made on him by his country to record it in all its particularity of climate and custom.
The second corresponds to a series of voyages, in which the circumference of the circle is increased until, like the imaginary line of the Equator, it includes the world. In 1928, at the age of twenty-five Carrera Andrade left Ecuador for Panama, on the first of those passages which were to carry him to Germany, Russia, France, Spain, the United States, China, and Japan. His second book of poems, Guirnalda del Silencio, had been published, before his departure, in Quito; his third, Boletines de Mar y Tierra, was brought out in Barcelona. Rol de la Manzana and El Tiempo Manual were both published in Madrid. A French translation of the later appeared in Paris and the same city saw the first edition of Biografia para Uso de los Pajaros, followed within the year by a French version in Brussels. Micogramas and Pais secreto came out in Tokio, while a selection of his most important poems was brought together and published as Registro del Mundo in Quito in 1940. His poems have been extensively translated into French, German, Russian and English.
The third is the smallest of all, for it contains only that domain which the poet has called his Secret Country. The book has in it poems which on the surface have to do, now with Ecuador, now with Japan. But the real subject is solitude. For there comes a time when the circle contracts and a man knows, even one who like Carrera Andrade has given himself so long and generously to breaking down the barriers of incomprehension between country and country, that there are limits to communion and that each man is irremediably alone with his knowledge and his fear. Though he has traversed the widest seas and entered into so many strange ports, each the entrance to another country, and set down all he has seen with love; though he has had his share in the struggle and exaltation of men everywhere and with them hoped to remake the world and everywhere seen the coming of dividing war and the world we know unmade, even then he must come back to himself and know that he is, beyond hope of struggle, to himself bound.
Escape is impossible from the Secret Country and to enter there would be equally impossible were it not that Carrrera Andrade is a poet. For with these poems he has provided us with passports.