One hundred years of boring shit

I was reading a conversation about poetry in translation in which the critic Adam Kirsch makes the following assertion:

“It sometimes felt to me that twentieth-century poetry gravitates toward two poles, which might be called, in honor of those poets, the Romance and the Slavic. The Romance poet tends to be romantic (appropriately enough), expansive, egoistic, at times bombastic; the Slavic poet tends to be ironic, understated, compassionate, at times prosaic. This is a broad brush, of course, and there are lots of exceptions—Montale would be Slavic in my scheme, and Mayakovsky Romance. But still, think of Apollinaire, Breton, Lorca, Vallejo, versus Akhmatova, Zbigniew Herbert, Vasko Popa, Adam Zagajewski. Now that I make the list, an overlapping distinction occurs to me: the former tended to be Communists, the latter anti-Communists.”

I think there is something in the Communist/anti-Communist distinction, but I don’t buy the implication that the great Russian writers of the 20th century didn’t write in the florid, puerile romantic style of Neruda or García Marquez just because their culture lacked the passion of Latin America. There were plenty of bombastic writers in the Soviet Union who wrote abject paeons to Communist dictators: they were the Socialist Realists bought and paid for by the State, like Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Sholokhov. Many of them had real talent and they are not exactly forgotten today, but they are not viewed as the the great writers of their times, probably because the experience of actually living under the dictatorship that those writers sold themselves to helped readers in their native land see through their infantile dogmatism and hypocritical opportunism. Had the Spanish reading public had a similar experience my guess is that the literary canon of Latin America would look somewhat different, let’s put it that way. It’s not just a question of political views, because those are a symptom, not the cause: the preening superficiality that leads one to become an ideological hack for the Communist Party is also what makes reading One Hundred Years of Solitude or anything by Eduardo Galeano so freaking tedious. Of course by the same token, that is what probably ensures they will always be more popular in 10th grade English classes than Francisco de Quevedo or Juan Ramón Jiménez.

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