A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Translator’s note: One of the great things about Martí is his ability to invest one word with a multitude of meanings. This is a tricky thing for the translator. I have made the choices that seem natural to me, and hoped for the best.
Yo soy un hombre sincero
De donde crece la palma,
Y antes de morirme quiero
Echar mis versos del alma.
I am an honest man/From where the palm tree grows/And before I die, I want/To pour the verses from my soul.
These are the opening lines of the Cuban poet José Martí’s Versos sencillos (Simple Verses). They are also, usually, the opening lines of the song Guantanamera, composed or at least promoted in Cuba by Joseito Fernandez in the 1920s or thereabouts (the dates are somewhat hazy as is the authorship).
Everybody knows Guantanamera in some form, and there are many forms. The “classical” version has lyrics entirely pulled from Martí (except for the refrain, which does not appear in the poet’s work), but even this is fluid. You can hear the famous melody, with a range of lyrical variations, from concert halls to busking corners, from ballrooms to salsotecas, from Havana to Miami and – of course – on the football terraces, where the lyrics are most definitely not from Martí. The song has been performed/interpreted/adapted by too many people to mention, but a few names leap to mind: Celia Cruz, La Lupe, Tito Puente, Pete Seeger, Die Toten Hosen, Demis Roussos, Joe Dassin.
I am ashamed to say that, until recently, Guantanamera was my primary contact with Martí’s poetry. It was not that I did not know Martí. Of course I knew Martí; you can’t get away from Martí. Not only is he rightly regarded as an outstanding member of the Latin American intellectual canon, he was also a committed actor in the fight for Cuban national self-determination. Like Toussaint Louverture, even the manner of his death – in a hopeless, impulsive dash against the Spanish at Dos Ríos in 1895, at the age of 42 – carries a visceral symbolic charge. These days Martí is the subject of a fierce and longstanding custody battle between those (including Fidel Castro) who claim him for the Revolution and those who see him as a figure of opposition, while those who fall in the vast spectrum of opinion in between doubtless construct their own Martí or perhaps none at all.
Perhaps strangely for someone who spends so much time listening to songs, I am not a natural reader of poetry and will rarely reach for it unless prompted. In this case, the prompt was Castro. Not because I’m in the habit of looking to elderly Communists for my literary recommendations, but because I study Castro, who is fond of calling himself “martiano” (“Martí-an”, rather than “Martian”, which would be “marciano”). A claim like that should never go un-investigated. With an eye to Poetry Week, I started with what I knew best: Guantanamera, which led me to Versos sencillos. I think I shall never look back.
Even this first, cautious exploration of Martí has left two strong and abiding impressions. One is that the heat (and sometimes light) generated by the current battle for Martí is not in the least surprising. Not only is he a tremendous poet and a rare cultural asset, but he is also inherently political, in the sense that his poems consistently invoke social, ethical and national themes. This is not a case of posthumously politicising an author. He is part of the current debate, although it is another thing to presume that he would naturally come down on one side or the other.
However – and this is the second impression – it would be a shame to consider Martí as solely a Cuban or even Latin American cultural asset. I say this not in the interests of denying his cultural identity, which was central to his life and thought and a defining force in his politics, but in the interests of considering Martí as a figure of global importance. Because even from the little I have seen, it is clear to me that Martí’s poetry, his ethos and his thought hold a great deal that would enrich the life of any reader, whatever their cultural or political identity.
I would like to end this article with an illustration in the form of my favourite (so far) of the Versos sencillos: Cultivo una rosa blanca, which sometimes appears in the lyrics of Guantanamera.
Cultivo una rosa blanca,
En julio como en enero,
Para el amigo sincero
Que me da su mano franca.
Y para el cruel que me arranca
El corazón con que vivo,
Cardo ni ortiga’ cultivo:
Cultivo la rosa blanca.
I tend a white rose/In July as in January/For the honest friend/Who freely gives me his hand.
And for the cruel one who tears out/The heart that gives me life/I tend neither thistle nor nettle/I tend a white rose.
You can read the rest of Versos sencillos, in the original Spanish, here. I am unable to comment on the various translations currently in print; recommendations are welcome in the comments.
This photograph of the José Martí monument in San Luís, Pinar del Río, Cuba by Yerandy1990 has been released into the public domain by its author.