In his ‘Conjectures on World Literature’, Franco Moretti makes the bold suggestion, which he treats as if it were a law of literary evolution, that the literatures of the periphery arise ‘from the encounter of Western form and a local reality’.footnote1 In what amounts to a literary manifesto, Moretti proposes a programme in which world literature should essentially be studied as a set of variations on a Western theme: economic pressures of the centre on the periphery are, by and large, homologous to those in the literary field, and the response to these by writers in the periphery can only be a range of compromises with them. In a companion essay, ‘The Slaughterhouse of Literature’, Moretti explains why he gives pride of place to the novel in the study of world literature: ‘my model of canon formation is based on novels for the simple reason that they have been the most widespread literary form of the past two or three centuries and are therefore crucial to any social account of literature (which is the point of the canon controversy, or should be)’.footnote2 Moretti distinguishes an ‘academic canon’, which he dismisses as inconsequential, from the ‘social canon’ that he seeks to explain according to objective laws of literary evolution.footnote3 Academics, he maintains, can determine their own canon when the literary phenomena they study cease to matter in the social arena. Hence English professors and the like have a greater say in determining which poets survive, because the study of poetry is no longer of any moment.footnote4 Moretti is open to the possibility that in the future the novel may not matter much either, but in the meantime, this is the genre around which he sets out to organize the study of world literature for the last two or three hundred years.

Moretti’s focus on the novel as crucial to any account of world literature is certainly well taken, and his hypotheses about it are both innovative and illuminating. But his dismissal of the social significance of other genres is less persuasive. Why doesn’t poetry follow the laws of the novel, as Moretti proposes them? After all, does it really make sense to argue that T. S. Eliot’s poetry had less of a cultural impact than Joyce’s narrative fiction, or that it was any less read? Would it be possible to tell the story of the Russian contribution to world literature without Pushkin, Mayakovsky or Akhmatova? Even if, for the sake of argument, one were to accept that poetry is socially insignificant in Western Europe in the 20th century, Moretti would still need to explain why prior to this fatal date poetry does not appear to fit his model.

In what follows I would like to test Moretti’s conjectures against the case of Spanish American literature, where poetry does matter.footnote5 In Spanish America poetry was the dominant literary genre, and the essay or sociological treatise was of far greater significance than the novel until at least the 1920s, if not later. It is emblematic that Sarmiento’s Facundo (1845)—a sociological treatise about a caudillo—had a greater bearing on the history of the novel of the Latin American dictator than any straightforward work of narrative fiction written in the 19th century; or that Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude was more influential than any Mexican novel until the publication of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo in 1955. And it is not a coincidence that José Carlos Mariátegui—the first Latin American Marxist philosopher and literary critic—does not cite a single novel of significance in his essay on Peruvian literature, published in 1927.footnote6 The early Spanish American novel is certainly of historical interest, as symptomatic of cultural and political processes worthy of scholarly attention. But it would be misleading to pretend that it was the most widespread literary genre, or that it had many practitioners or readers. One would be hard-pressed to point to a single literary work, other than María (1867) by the Colombian Jorge Isaacs, as an example of a 19th-century Spanish American novel that was widely read within and beyond the national borders in which it was produced. The early Spanish American novel has mattered most to literary critics seeking to establish national canons, to literary historians of Spanish American literature in the second half of the twentieth century, and to academic specialists in the last two decades.footnote7 Its relative marginality as a social phenomenon may help to explain why Latin American literature, from Ricardo Palma to Jorge Luis Borges, was especially open to mixed genres.

In Spanish America, poetry was not only the dominant literary genre until the 1960s. Its practitioners and critics actually set the expectations and parameters—in effect, the course—of the practice of literature. The story of Spanish American narrative, most notably the influential novel of the 1960s—García Márquez, Cortázar, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa and others—cannot be told if one does not understand the story of the poets. Many Spanish American novels could serve as good illustrations of Moretti’s thesis that the periphery has made instructive compromises with forms conceived in the centre. An atlas of the novel in Spanish America along the lines Moretti has traced for the European case would surely be of great interest (an atlas of the reception of Latin American literature around the globe would also be highly instructive).footnote8 But it would be inaccurate to think that the early Spanish American novel was other than the most marginal of all literary genres, or that there was a significant internal market for it until very recently. In short, any discussion of Spanish American literature that neglects poetry, the hegemonic genre, must go astray.

The first major Spanish American literary manifesto was ‘Alocución a la Poesía’ (1823), a widely read poem by the Venezuelan Andrés Bello, which called for the autonomy of Spanish American literature in the aftermath of political independence from Spain. But it was the poetic movement called modernismo that was the first literary expression to transcend national boundaries, making it possible for histories of Spanish American literature to be envisaged by Spanish Americans themselves; and which set the tone for future developments in several genres, including the novel. To understand the significance of modernismo and of Rubén Darío—the poet most closely associated with it—a few words are necessary about the history of poetic form in the Spanish language.

The lyrical conventions of modern Spanish poetry were developed in the 16th century by Boscán and Garcilaso de la Vega, who fashioned the Spanish hendecasyllable, and other canonical forms which have been used in Spanish poetry ever since; even the most experimental of Baroque poets, including Góngora, wrote according to the parameters established by Garcilaso and Boscán.footnote9 The first signs of a reaction against the strictest conventions of Spanish prosody did not take place in Spain but in Spanish America in the 1830s, in the work of poets such as Esteban Echeverría in Argentina, and José María Heredia in Cuba.footnote10 The fact that Spanish Americans anticipated the rise of Romantic poetry in Spain, however, was only a prelude to the most significant development in the literary history of Spanish poetry in the last three hundred years: the appearance of the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío in the late 19th century. Darío was as far away in the periphery as it was possible to be: he was born an illegitimate child in a Nicaraguan village. Yet he had a transforming effect on the poetry of the Spanish language. Before Darío, Spanish prosody was so codified and petrified that even the most daring of the Romantics in Spain and Spanish America were limited to a handful of poetic forms. Darío was acutely conscious of these limitations, and single-handedly expanded the possibilities of Spanish prosody by writing in a myriad unprecedented poetic forms. But he did more than enlarge the possibilities of Hispanic poetry. He undermined the widespread assumption, in both Spain and Spanish America, that the study of Spanish prosody was the study of appropriate norms.footnote11

With Darío, Spanish prosody ceases to be normative and becomes descriptive, as poets assume responsibility for inventing the forms as well as themes of their works. It has been argued that Darío’s poetic revolution involved the transfer of French trends, such as symbolism, to Spanish America. But this is a deceptive claim, for Darío’s poetic innovations bred new forms that are unique to the Spanish language. Darío found harmonies and dissonances in his poetic lines that revolutionized the way in which poetry could be written in the idiom. His impact was felt far and wide in Spanish America: it gave rise to the first literary movement generated locally, yet diffused widely throughout the Spanish speaking world. After Darío, Spanish American poets such as Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriela Mistral, Octavio Paz and many others shared the Nicaraguan writer’s confidence that European literature could no longer fix the parameters of their creativity. One consequence of this ‘wave’—to use a helpful metaphor from Moretti—was that Spanish poetry itself entered a rich period of renewal, in which poets such as Juan Ramón Jiménez, Pedro Salinas, Jorge Guillén or Federico García Lorca acknowledged their debt to developments in Spanish America.