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Prerevolution and Revolution

The Forties and Fifties: Cultural and National Readings of Lezama

The forties and fifties are the period when Origenes developed and became an object of critical interest. Cintio Vitier, then part of the group, invented Origenes and canonized it at the end of the forties: “Este caracter de grupo referido a Origenes ha sido recientemente defendido. . . . Y ya estaba dicho en la pagina inicial del prologo a la primera de las dos antologias, de 1948 y 1952, en que Cintio Vitier fijo el canon de lo que en cuanto a poesia, raiz de su tarea, iba a ser conocido como grupo Origenes [This group known as Origenes has recently been championed. . . . And the group was mentioned on the first page of the prologue of the first of two excellent anthologies, published in 1948 and 1952, in which Cintio Vitier set forth the canon of the poetry of what became known as the ‘Grupo Origenes,’ the core of his work]” (Fernandez Retamar 1994, 294). Although Vitier created Origenes, Roberto Fernandez Retamar was actually the first scholar who, in 1954, systematized the peculiarities of the Origenes style, and more specifically Lezama style. For Lezama, poetry was an ethos, as well as a hermeneutic key to the world of aesthetics and knowledge. The abstract and highly allegorical nature of Lezama’s poetics led Fernandez Retamar to argue in 1954 that his poetry was “transcendental . . . in that it does not limit itself to verbal pleasures, or to considering the poem as an affective-conceptual exposition. Rather, it sees the poem as the possible capture of reality” (ibid., 86-87). If Fernandez Retamar celebrated Lezama’s poetry for its ontological qualities, Vitier praised its potential to express the essence of Cuban cultural and historical identity. In other words, Vitier believed that Cuba’s future was predetermined and inscribed in Lezama’s vision of history. His well-known analysis of Lezama’s work comes out of a commissioned series of lectures on Cuban poetry delivered in 1957 and published in 1958 as Lo cubano en la poesia. As the title indicates, this study sought to construct a history of Cuban canonical poetry as a cultural compensation of Cuban national identity.

Vitier’s narrative of national identity begins with “Espejo de paciencia” (“Mirror of Patience,” the 1608 poem by Silvestre de Balboa) and culminates with Grupo Origenes. The ideological metaphor that articulates the text posits that throughout history, the search for a poetic voice has been driven by the quest for a national identity informed by the singularities of ethnicity and land. The pinnacle of this quest is Lezama’s work, and most specifically his “insular teleology”: “Poetry does have its own finality, but this finality is all-encompassing. The devouring substance is necessarily teleological. This is how . . . Lezama attempts to conjure the absence of finality against which our republican poetry has struggled” (Vitier 1986, 396). For Vitier, poetry and history narrate the nation through a progress toward a parallel telos informed by the idea of an essential “Cubanness.” Accordingly, Lezama’s poetry is seen as the culmination of the nation’s identity. Although Lezama coined the term “teleologia insular,” he never actually used it to characterize the goal of his work. Instead, Vitier reappropriated it to suit his nationalistic reading of Lezama. As Vitier recounts in an essay written for an international conference about Lezama held in Poitiers, France, he borrowed the term in 1939 from a letter Lezama wrote to him. Origenes did not exist then, but it was beginning to develop at the poetry readings Vitier organized in his home. Lezama enthusiastically and ironically responded to one of those invitations by vowing to create a poetic mission: “Ya va siendo hora de que todos nos empenemos en una Economia Astronomica, en una Meterologia habanera para uso de descarriados y poetas, en una Teleologia Insular, en algo de veras grande y nutridor [It is high time that we all set to work on an Astronomical Economy, on a Havana Meteorology to be used by wayward people and poets, on an Insular Teleology, on something truly grand and sustaining]” (Vitier 1984, 27). Although Lezama’s proposal was obviously ironic, Vitier took it seriously and adopted it.

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