Altazor, or A Voyage in a Parachute
Reading Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor is a jarring experience in false simultaneity: You can easily get the impression that Huidobro lives to this very day, that each of the seven cantos of the book-length poem represent the poet’s experience of the modernist impulse as it rippled outward from its approximate genesis between the two World Wars. A false impression, of course: Huidobro began his masterwork in 1919 and published it in 1931. What astonishes still about the poem is the way it both crystallizes and makes molten the standard obsessions of modernismo, many of which we’ve inherited and some of which we’ve forgotten.
Altazor, the poem’s eponymous narrator, refers to himself as the “antipoet,” and what descendant of modernism doesn’t recognize in this bold negation a combination of the romance of poetic possibility muddied with the reality of poetry as mere varnish? To call yourself not just an antipoet but the antipoet is to toss a gauntlet that becomes impossible not to pick up: who, given those terms, would choose to describe rather than transform? The impatience the claim registers with poetry is a modernist disease for which there is (thankfully, I think) no cure. Such frustration comes when what the poet imagines should be godlike in its generative force yet finds its most common expression in the mere reification of that which most desperately begs for necessary transformation: You see it in dada, and in Situationism, and even in the surrealism Huidobro abhorred—”the violin of psychoanalysis,” as translator Eliot Weinberger tells us the poet judged the movement. If that is the function of the poet, then the modernist sympathizer cannot help but to become the antipoet, even if that identity is less clear than the identity it perforce opposes.
Despite his disaffection for surrealism, Huidobro’s own one-man crusade (“Creationism,” he called it, in one of those sad, sweet ironies of history) shares with it and the whole range of inter-war —isms a now-quaint obsession with the future. Nothing really ages quite as poorly as imaginings of the future: It’s strange still to investigate the modernist canon and find such astonishing formal breaches side-by-side with such colossally na