Alfonsina Storni: The Poetess that Broke from the Pack

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Rarely left out of anthologies of Argentine writing or directories of modern female poets of South America, the next author in our Beyond Borges series is a writer who also finds herself among the stranger-sounding titles ‘Argentine people of Swiss descent’ and ‘Suicides of Argentina’.

A widely-known poet, lesser-known playwrite and unfaltering feminist, Alfonsina Storni was one of few women to move in the male dominated arenas of literature and theatre, and as such, developed a unique and valuable voice that holds particular relevance in Latin American women’s poetry.

Talk to me about Alfonsina Storni

Perhaps better known among the current generation for the way she chose to end her life than for her literature; her supposedly serene suicide, by walking out to sea at Mar del Plata, has rendered her an almost mythical figure.

The author of poetry that is at once painful, disturbing, and rewarding, her razor-sharp writing has been described as “poetry of fatal beauty that leads to an unavoidable death”. But to appreciate the significance of her work, she must be looked at in the context of early 20th century Argentina.

Portrat of Alfosina Storni. (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The daughter of an amateur actress and a beer industrialist, she was born in Sala Capriasca, Switzerland, in 1892, and moved to Argentina when she was only four years old. After living for some time in San Juan, her family settled in Santa Fe, where her life unravelled a course of constant obstacles that would inevitably become themes in her literature.

Having toured for little under a year with an amateur dramatics company, she returned to Rosario to graduate as a teacher in 1910. Sustaining herself with teaching and newspaper journalism, she moved to Buenos Aires in 1913 where the social and economical difficulties faced by Argentina’s growing middle classes were inspiring an emerging body of women’s rights activists.

Herself an unmarried mother, Storni turned to poetry to boldly confront the repression and denial she recognised, employing paradoxical verse that was rich in eroticism and passion while harbouring strongly feminist notes.

A Voice of Modern Feminism

Winner of the first Municipal Poetry Prize and the second National Literature Prize for her book ‘Languidez’, Storni wrote in several phases: the first from 1916-1920, a second from 1925-1926 and a third from 1934 until her death in 1938.

Belonging neither to modernism or the avant-garde, her writing did not align itself with either movement until they’d each begun to fade. Criticised for not slotting in to a style typical of the time, she comes bundled under the ill-defined label of postmodernism, whereas in truth she simply stood alone.

Writing on humanist thoughts and her responses to nature, as well as on the alienation of urban life and the pervasive presence of death, her poems return again and again to themes of family, sorrow and women’s issues, occasionally overshadowed by the spectre of violence.

Her first book of poetry, ‘La inquietud del rosal’, was published three years after her move to Buenos Aires and introduced the themes of love and feminism that although in their infancy, would come to dominate much of her work.

Developed along openly erotic lines, two further books were each divided in to two parts. At first amorous and passionate, then bitter and tempestuous, they showcased well Storni’s increasing preoccupation with the collective concerns of women. One of her most talked about poems, ‘Tú me quieres blanca’, famously denounced double standards and served as a literary indictment against male macho character.

By 1919 she seemed an unstoppable voice – authoring six short stories, two short novels, and a series of essays in a year of remarkable productivity. But with the publication of ‘Languidez’ the following year, she effectively closed the door on one creative period and opened a new one.

The arrival of ‘Ocre’, five years later, essentially heralded in a new phase without making much of a departure from the form and content of her earlier work. Described as a transitional text, it shifted in tone and ushered in the irony that would characterise her work from then on.

Whilst her early poetry might have been the most striking, it was marred with immaturity and the signs of a beginner. The ardent feminism and eroticism of her work at one time opened her up to accusations of publically ‘undressing’ herself, but as time passed she learned to temper her voice, which for critics, meant her writing matured.

After a book of love poems that slipped away unspoken of, and an almost eight-year absence from poetry, Storni returned with two books that together mark the height of her poetic maturity.

‘Mundo de siete pozos’, written in 1934 at a time when cancer had taken hold of her, and ‘Mascarill y trebol’, written in the year of her suicide, represented the most definite diversion from where she’d begun. In 52 unrhymed and sometimes obscure sonnets, Storni finally proved herself a ‘poetess’ as good as any poet of her time.

A Lone Woman in Theatre

Far from stepping down; during her apparent eight-year absence, Storni actually stepped up to the literary stage.

More human and restless in her writing than her contemporaries, what distinguished her from other female and even feminist authors in Chile and Uruguay was her foray in to theatre.

In four plays for adults and several more for children, her writing demonstrated the obvious yearning she felt for an alternative outlet of expression, and verged on dramatic poetry in terms of intensity and rhythm.

The Cervantes Theatre, where 'El amo del mundo' opened briefly in 1927 (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Following much the same path as her poetry, her plays progressed from the confessional autobiographical to the more experimental, but despite combining political clarity with social subtlety, most never saw a stage.

Despite the passing of a legislation that matched women’s civil status with men’s, her first play, ‘El amo del mundo’, was withdrawn from the Cervantes theatre in 1927 having come under fire for its feminist themes.

With it, Storni became the first playwrite to present a general view of her gender in line with her own personal experience and values, setting a precedent for future female playwrights in Latin America.

The plays often pinpointed as marking the period where Storni achieved distance and a more accomplished technique, were written after the same visit to Europe that is said to have so heavily influenced her poetry.

Inspired by her encounters with Spain’s post-war artistic movements, ‘Dos farsas pirotécnicas’, brought together the genres of tragedy and farce in two plays that were especially acute in revealing the conflict between women’s public and private lives. Focusing squarely on the same themes of class and gender tensions as modern drama elsewhere, they contrasted sharply with the traditional repertoire of Argentine theatre at that time.

Straddling the breakthrough aesthetics of the avant-garde and the early activism for women’s rights, Storni stood as one of the most radical playwrights of the period, and had the absence of women playwrites and an unfavourable climate not sided against her, she would surely have developed in to one of the most important.

Honoured during her lifetime as Argentina’s foremost female poet and one of the three most prominent in South America, she is credited with authoring work that was not only of great value and originality, but which established the foundations of feminist discourse in Latin American literature.

Alfonsina Storni’s mythical status inspired Ariel Ramírez and Félix Luna to compose ‘Alfonsina y El Mar’. Besides vocal versions by Argentine artists such as Mercedes Sosa and Andrés Calamaro, you can find several acoustic instrumental versions such as this one by Robert Dyens, or this alternative zamba version by Castiñeyra Novo Trío

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5 Responses to “Alfonsina Storni: The Poetess that Broke from the Pack”

  1. Tom Sutherland says:

    The bust of Storni in Rosadal is one of my favorites, and now I understand her much better. Thanks to Kate for giving an extra dimension to a fascinating poet

  2. Lara Stone says:

    As one of only a few female poets to get noticed here, Alfonsina has a kind of cult following. She reminds me of Sylvia Plath, every one knows her name but not everyone reads her.

  3. erika says:

    The photograph you have is not Alfonsina Storni, is Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos.

  4. Hi Erika, thank you for the correction – we have sourced a correct portrait.

  5. Mutswenje says:

    Good poetry i admit

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