Sponsored by Diane Kendig.
Sponsored by Adrianne Kalfopoulou.
Gabriela Mistral was the pen name for the Chilean poet who became most widely known to U.S. readers in 1945, when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Latin American to have done so. Today, she is one of nine women world-wide to have won the award.
Born Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga in a small Andean town in 1889, she began publishing her poetry in Chilean newspapers under her pen name by the time she was 16 while at the same time she worked to become a professional teacher . Throughout her life she remained a worldwide leader in the two cultural areas of education and literature, employed as professor, lecturer, administrator, poet and writer in Chile, Mexico, the U.S., and several European countries. All the while, she continued to write poetry that was moving, well-crafted, and visionary. She died in 1957 in the U.S., where she was living at the time.
When she was 20, she suffered the loss of her beloved, Romelio Ureta, to suicide, and out of that loss wrote, Sonetos a la Muerte (Sonnets of Death), which won the Chilean poetry prize in 1914. It established her reputation in her native Chile and throughout Latin America, where still today she is referred to as Gabriela. Later books such as Desolacion (Despair) in 1922, Ternura (Tenderness) in 1924, and Tala in 1938 reached a wider audience. Their strong emotion and themes of children and childhood and womens personal, mythical and public concerns, all continued into her later poetry and are revealed in titles such as Mujer Fuerte (Strong Woman) and Antigona (Antigone). Her complete poetry was published in 1958. Today, much of her poetry and prose work, including prose poems, correspondence, and articles, continues to be translated and published, in books and online, enabling readers of many languages to realize the width and depth of her passionate talent.
I have chosen to sponsor Gabriela Mistral because I think she is one of several Latin American poets from Alfonsina Storni to Daisy Zamora whose lives and poetry are relatively under-represented to U.S. readers and writers. Mistrals work was a lamp to my feet twice early on in my quest to be a lover and writer of poetry. First, when I was an undergraduate, I found three Mistral poems in one of my textbooks and felt undone by their strong, direct emotion that I wasnt finding then in a lot of the modernist poetry assigned in my English classes. I suppose I was also relieved to find that she had been a schoolteacher, because that was the road I was being sent down, having been told by a faculty member that girls did not belong in grad school.
Four years later, despite being a girl, I managed to wend my way to graduate school and looked Mistral up for the second time, when I talked a faculty member in the Spanish Department (where I was not a student) into directing an independent study for me in the translation of women writing in Spanish. Again, I was blown away by the strong expression of emotion in the poems, the strong expression of womanhood as an issue of universal strength, not an apology or an aside in her writing. Working from the inside, I saw how well-crafted her poems were, how deceptively simple.
These past few months, I turned to Mistral again and found more of her writing available. Her range as a poet looms wider and deeper than I ever realized twenty years ago. In addition to the tight, formal verse and free verse, I found a new bilingual translation of her wild prose poems, and much of her correspondence, articles, and recent criticism available online.
Still, recently, I was standing in the Harvard Bookstore, where a young clerk named Liz was helping me find books by and about Mistral. She printed out a long list of titles and expressed amazement she had never heard of Mistral. Hey, are you a poet? I asked her. I am trying to be, she said, And I never heard of Mistral. I really want to read her now. And buy one of these books for my friend, who is leaving for Chile. I am sponsoring Mistral for all the Lizzes out there who have never read Mistral and need to.
I'm drawn to Gabriela Mistral's work for its uncompromising nature, for how unflinchingly she grapples with pain and the stoicism of her vision, so reflective of the tough, isolated landscape of her origin (in the valley of Elqui, high in the Andes mountains of Chile). While there is an almost Biblical austerity to her vision, it is also (like the Bible) nurturing. The recurring images of serpents, blood, wine, oil, resin and fire construct elemental narratives of grief and difficult survival as well as unconditional tenderness for children and the disadvantaged. Being, in part, of a culture where the landscape so often reflects the disposition of a people (Greece has often been romanticized for its beauty, and yet its beauty is as harsh as it is overwhelming), Gabriela's poems resonated for me, seemed familiar. Her world of alum stone, river women, quicklime and sorcerer owls and thorn trees echoed the twisted olives and tough village women and histories of hardship that also make up Greek rural history. In a more contemporary vein, I also respond to the sheer necessity of emotion out of which her poems are made. Her hard-earned grace is as satisfying as it is brutal.