Oliverio Girondo: Advocating the Avant-Garde

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Following on from Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentina Independent continues the Beyond Borges series with an author who, if Borges had not existed, would almost certainly have become a more widely known advocate of the Spanish American avant-garde. The Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo was, for many, the best Argentine poet of the 20th century and today remains one of the most treasured.

Portrait of Oliverio Girondo

A Rival for Borges

Born in 1890, both Girondo and his wife, the contemporary poet Norah Lange, mysteriously shifted their dates of birth back one year to 1891.

The son of wealthy parents, he experienced a privileged upbringing and a solid education was secured for him in prestigious schools in England and France. A deal struck between Girondo and his parents meant that even when he returned to Argentina to complete a law degree, he would still be able to return to Europe every year.

Like Borges, he encountered the exponents of the European avant-garde at an impressionable age. Both authors played an active part in introducing the first of the vanguardist movements to settle in Argentina, both became high profile writers competing for the literary crown of Buenos Aires, and both fell in love with the same woman.

The feud which ensued over Borges’ unrequited love for Girondo’s wife has somewhat stolen the spotlight away from Girondo’s writing. But, an irreverent and provocative author, a fierce observer of society, and a demonstrable deep understanding of what it means to be human reveal Girondo as a fit rival for Borges in many respects.

Advocating the Avant-Garde

Besides a brief attempt at theatre in 1915, and a unique narrative effort named ‘Interlunio’ 1937, Girondo remained first and foremost a poet. His three act play, ‘La Madrastra’ was an infectious melodrama, afterwhich he says he “tore papers”, discarding his writing in cities as far flung as Edinburgh, Seville, Bruges and Dakar, before eventually compiling new writings with those he had saved into his first collection of poetry.

Revealing the obvious influence of French writer Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Veinte poemas para ser leidos en el tranvia’ was published in France in 1922; the same year that Borges’ early poetry, ‘Fervor de Buenos Aires’, was published in Argentina.

Together, they are regarded as the major initiators of the avant-garde in Argentina, though rather than focusing on Argentine content, Girondo’s work was inspired by a frenzy of foreign cities and more international in its outlook. Having met with rave reviews in France and Spain, it received more critical attention on home soil following the publishing of its second edition.

Girondo's poetry on the cover of Proa Magazine

Back in Buenos Aires, Girondo became heavily involved in the avant-garde magazine ‘Martin Fierro’. Founded by Evar Méndez and named after José Hernández‘s influential gauchesque poem, the magazine brought Girondo into contact not only with Borges, but also with the great philosophical thinker Macedonio Fernandez and the gauchesque novelist Ricardo Güiraldes, with whom he would go on to found Sociedad Editorial Proa.

Méndez later described Girondo as the great animator of the movement, and it was he who had authored the ‘Manifesto de Martin Fierro’, published in the fourth edition of the magazine on 15th May 1924.

As an advocate of the avant-garde, Girondo travelled to the countries of Chile, Peru, Cuba, Mexico and the United States of America, returning to France and then to Spain, where he published his second volume of poetry, ‘Calcomanías’, inside the Madrid editorial ‘Calpe’, in 1925.

The book was well received on both sides of the Atlantic and reviewed by Borges, who described Girondo as “a violent man who looks at something for a time and then suddenly slaps it in the face, crumples it up and holds on to it for safekeeping”.

Regardless, Girondo returned to Argentina with an increased presence. Appearing on radio broadcasts alongside Güiraldes and other exponents of the vanguardist movement, he concentrated his efforts on a major overhaul of Martin Fierro, ensuring the success of the magazine for almost another 25 years.

A Man of Words

Having travelled once again to Paris, Italy, Egypt and the Basque region, Girondo returned to Buenos Aires for the launch of this third book in 1932.

Probably the most talked about of Girondo’s six poetry collections, ‘Espantapájaros’ is both provocative and memorable. Opening with a formal tribute to Apollinaire, the book of around two dozen poems revels in refreshing humour. Launched in Buenos Aires alongside a bizarre and unprecedented publicity campaign, its first edition of 5,000 copies sold out in only 15 days.

Described as so “spectacularly original that even with advanced warning you are still going to be more surprised by it than by anything else you have ever read in your life”, ‘Espantapájaros’ comes packed with expressions of double meaning where innuendo runs rife.

The poem 'Yo No Se Nada' arranged in the shape of a man

In Girondo’s hands, words acquire new and unexpected meanings so that reading him rarely leaves you as you found him, leading to several of his works being labelled untranslatable.

Like Borges, he also moved away from ultraist trends to explore more elaborate metaphoric language. He was increasingly described as a humourist poet and, where his earlier poetry had tended to center on the image, the writing that followed began to reveal a love of linguistic experimentation that bordered on dangerous.

With a title that already hints at its maturity, ‘Persuasíon de los días’, published in 1942, is considered his most important work. Including as many as 54 poems it is also his most extensive, and reveals the playful sarcasm of ‘Espantapájaros’ to have been left far behind.

In a final irreducible gesture, ‘En la masmédula’ was unleashed like a carefully planned whirlwind in 1954. A dark summation of his work and a showcase of revolutionary syntax, it included poems such as ‘La Mezcla’ and ‘Mi Lumía’, a poem that inspired authors such as Julio Cortázar.

Described by his protege, Enrique Molina, as “one of the most daring adventures of modern poetry”, Girondo’s final book of 16 poems left readers and critics so stunned that the publishing house, Losada, chose to extend the volume on two separate occasions. ‘En la masmédula’ was republished once in 1956 with 26 poems, and again in 1963 as a collection of 37.

A lifelong poet and truly revolutionary man of words, Oliverio Girondo renewed and revived Argentine poetry over a period of 40 years. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, as well as the Argentine poet Leopoldo Marechal have composed poems in his name, and musicians such as Fito Páez have also dedicated songs to him; a testament not only to his own importance in Argentine writing but also to his lasting influence.

'El lado oscuro del corazón', a 1992 film based on the poetry of Oliverio Girondo and has boosted his popularity among younger Argentine readers. In it, a similarly named bohemian poet, Olviero, falls in love with a prostitute named Ana and sets about earning enough money to buy three days of love with her. A trailer for the movie can be found here on Vimeo.

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One Response to “Oliverio Girondo: Advocating the Avant-Garde”

  1. Tom Sutherland says:

    Another wonderful article, there is so much to discover about Argentine literature. This series is a great overview and introduction. Many thanks!

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