Introductions: The War, The Poetry, These Translations
[About the War]
When Lincoln Steffens died in August 1936, in his typewriter was an unfinished page, warning: "The Spanish Civil War is the opening battle in mankind's struggle against Fascism ..." The Civil War, then a month old, indeed turned out to be the first act of World War II, of Fascism's international assault on democracy and human decency -- a luminous tragedy that ever since has played around the globe, adapting always the same themes, as the assault and its resistance continue to develop.
In Spain, a mildly-revolutionary Popular Front government came to power in the 1931 general elections. The young Republican regime gathered itself to embark on the basic program: feed the people, give them land, teach them to read, build hospitals, schools, peel back the cruel grasp of the Church, the Civil Guard, the entrenched elite, to release a Spain finally energized to escape the dull cruel slumber of its past.
How familiar that brave agenda now seems, and the themes of its betrayal, after Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua, with El Salvador, the Phillipines, South Africa, etc. in the wings! And how unique and lonely it was at the time, despite the Soviet example, so near and yet so far -- for the Republican government was born of a popular ferment that was Red in part, to its credit, but also far broader, many-hued, and democratic; and Stalin's regime at best abandoned it in its distress.
The military revolt began on 18 July 1936, led by Franco and other generals of an army that got its training by crushing revolts of colonized blacks in Africa and elsewhere. In surprise and terror, Spain ripped apart, and the two halves clashed in terrible valor, betrayal, and anguish. Relying on support and mercenaries from Germany and Italy, who used this field to rehearse the great war coming, the Fascists broke the initial stalemate. They began an inexorable advance, which split the Republic's defenders into isolated pockets, holding out with few resources besides desperate bravery.
The luminous example of the Second Republic was too compelling and too isolated for the Great Powers, from left to right, to permit or defend. Russia promised but didn't deliver, America stood by in a posture of non-involvement. With 21 other nations, they joined Hitler and Mussolini in an unreal Non-Intervention Agreement, and waited for the tragedy to play out. On 29 March 1939, Madrid fell, and with her, Free Spain. Half a million filed into exile, leaving behind as many dead, and three times that in the prisons and forced labor camps. For the next forty years, Spain stagnated under the yoke of Franco's Fascism, supported as a U.S. NATO ally, while the pulse of liberty revived and rose around the globe. When it finally recovered in Spain, some of the prisoners were still alive.
[About the Poetry]
When Spain tore, the Muses chose a side. This century's most vital and varied poetry has been written in Spanish, and an entire poetic generation gave its heart to the popular revolution. Spain's finest poets fought the Fascists in verse and in person, publishing militant literary reviews in the beseiged cities and celebrating brave death in evening romanceros on the front lines. They were joined from afar and in person by their Latin American brothers, and by a great wave of popular poetry, recited and sung, that flowered spontaneously in the factories, fields, and trenches.
The Spanish tongue had been magical for verse, sonorous and rich with metaphor, since its Golden Age centuries before. A second golden flowering budded as this century began, through all the tongue's lands, and blossomed in the late 1920s. Federico García Lorca was its leading figure internationally, and more, its vital heart, as the elegies here suggest -- not only for his grace and power, but because he led the move to restore the Spanish folk to their own tongue's power, through the catalytic wonders of drama. The cultural ferment stirred and fed by the poets helped to bring the Second Republic into being, and as progressive reforms got underway, the winds of song rose higher among the people.
The revolution's humane and joyous tasks were hardly begun; their poetry is gone. Only echoes remain in the poems in this volume, wistful threads among the anguish. Yet the poems here testify, as clearly as can be, to the breadth and depth of the energies released by that brief promise, among a people who could sing so during its terrible betrayal. By the end of the war, Spain's poetic landscape was barren as a battlefield. The notes at the end, on the poets, hint at the story: so many dead, imprisoned, scattered in exile. Someone who can grasp what happened should write about it. Meanwhile their poetry remains, as the petrified wind of their people alive.
[About These Translations]
We came together to work with poetry, after the winter of the McCarthy era and before spring had really begun, in a fertile campus literary scene in Berkeley. In a country where the verbal coin had been debased by inflation and multiple drivel, in the Academy where they taught us to pick apart poems with our minds alone. In a time when America seemed a flat tundra of powerlessness, with only the few first greens of struggle and hope sprouting; in a state where no one took song seriously, save a few freak maniacs screaming the heart out in lonely defiance.
Poets, Plato saw, endanger the State. It's cheaper than exile to render them impotent; my homeland led the way. Guided by the critical eye of T.S. Eliot and his value-free academic fawners, in the inexorable culture mill of her liberal class society, the lyric word became restricted to the expression of the most private perceptions, sensations, and passions. Was it a torch to inflame, a voice to echo the heart of the people? Don't be absurd. We had a bit of Sandburg, safely embalmed, for populist romantics, and this new fellow Ginsberg, raving brilliantly, also arch Ferlinghetti -- all outside the respectable domain, in the province of Cult. Poetry meant essentially zilch to almost everyone, except a few aesthetes, having been neutered enough to be honored as a Requirement for the mass.
We were young and aching with longing for life and love for words, in those years when our own people were just beginning to wake into motion and recognize each other. We had no models of our own, for a poetry we wouldn't feel embarrassed to confess had a positive social function and intent. Torn between the Academy and our changing hearts, we struggled to understand what allegiance to our own Muses meant, in a time when the picket lines were quickening, and how to make our words real.
The first wave of New Left activism swelled outside the gates of San Quentin, washed down the steps of San Francisco's City Hall during the 1960 anti-HUAC demonstrations; at our victory parties we sang songs that the Lincoln Battalion had brought back from La Guerra Civila. Richard and I walked the lines together, sat in meetings; wrote selfconscious prophetic lyrics about what was brewing, held them mostly private.
I dropped out of school, dug ditches; Richard worked towards his doctoral orals. We translated poems like crazy for years, nourished by this intimate connection with words that retained their potency in other cultures.
For poetry sang through a larger domain than we knew. In Mexico City, in exile from Chile, Pablo Neruda wrote "Song to Stalingrad" during that city's seige in 1942. It was printed on handbills, posted all around the city; in a week he was called to read it in public, the loudspeakers reaching 20,000 in the streets outside the great hall. During the Spanish Civil War, the Republican militias printed César Vallejo's great last poems under battle conditions; the entire edition was destroyed when their position was overrun. Paul Éluard's tight Resistance poems fluttered from the night sky of France to eager hands during the German occupation. The illiterate farmers of Andalucía carried copies of García Lorca's romanceros to have neighbors read aloud, into memory and tatters; then they passed into anonymous folksong.
These were the poets from whom we tried to learn craft, and whose love we rendered in translation: for in them passion and art did not degrade each other, as we had been taught was necessary. And surely a spring was coming upon us too, a spring of struggle and joy. If we could not ourselves sing sufficiently what was coming, we could still bring spirited words to our comrades from sympathetic struggles and awakenings.
So we decided to bring some things together. The first year, we translated Éluard's brave little Poèsie et Vèrité. The next, we spent in making a 90 minute dramatic documentary of the Spanish Civil War's poetry, to commemorate its twenty-fifth anniversary. I worked on and off to translate more of that work, putting together this anthology, which was to have been published by yet another little press that failed. These translations have lain dormant since.
The poems in this brief collection are simply among those I met and cared for, in an unguided wandering. They make no pretense to being representative, though they include some of the finest poetry stimulated by the conflict, from a remarkable nexus of talent. The romanceros -- ballads, roughly speaking -- are the true popular poetry of the Civil War. But they're so topical, and depend so on assonance, that they tend to translate poorly. With them and in general, these translations are as literal as I could make them. I've tried to keep the places where I have left the word, to try for song, as infrequent as my longing would permit; and hope that in straying I've made only the sounds, and not the poems, into my own. I regret that it has not been possible to reproduce the originals here.