Argentine poet Juan Gelman dies, age 83
Juan Gelman, one of Argentina’s best known poets and certainly one of the most loved by readers, died yesterday in Mexico City where he lived after going into exile just before the last military dictatorship seized power in 1976. He was 83.
The state news agency Télam said last night the news was confirmed by Macarena Gelman, the poet’s granddaughter, who lives in Uruguay. Gelman, born to working-class Jewish immigrants from Ukraine in the Buenos Aires City neighbourhood of Villa Crespo in 1930 and heavily influenced by the tango mood of the city, collected major awards for his poems including the Cervantes Prize in 2007, the highest award for Spanish letters.
Gelman was also a journalist and had also been a prominent activist who eventually embraced leftwing Peronism during Argentina’s most turbulent political years.
Gelman made an immediate impact on Argentina’s literary scene with his first book of poems Violín y otra cuestiones published in 1956 that carried a foreword by Raúl González Tuñón, a leading avant-garde poet at the time, who embraced his work. González Tuñón saw in the young poet’s verse a “rich and vivacious lyricism” and “social content.”
At the time, Gelman was a member of a group of rebel poets and communist acitivists, El Pan Duro, that also included poet Juana Bignozzi, now considered another major Argentine poet.
“He was a hugely important person in my youth, that’s all I can say right now” Juana Bignozzi told the Herald last night. “We were very young back then,” said Bignozzi, 76, clearly moved by the news. “He was the one who introduced me to the group... He was the best of that bunch,” she added. “My youth goes with him,” she said.
A major influence for Gelman’s brooding poems was the city’s tango tradition to the point that his 1962 book of poems carried the title Gotán (the local slang for tango). “Gotán” is also the title of a Gelman poem with an oft-quoted line: “Esa mujer se parecía a la palabra nunca” (that woman looked so much like the word never.)
Yet Gelman was also considered a major international voice and in Los poemas de Sidney West (1969) he was influenced by US poets, including Edgar Lee Masters, and he lampooned their style with humour.
As a journalist Gelman was editor of the magazine Crisis and also worked for the short-lived Peronist leftwing newspaper Noticias in the 1970s. Gelman was also more recently a columnist for the leftwing newspaper Página/12.
His awards include the National Poetry Prize (Argentina, 1997), the Juan Rulfo Prize in Latin American and Caribbean Literature (Mexico, 2000), the Pablo Neruda Prize (Chile, 2005), and the Queen Sofia Prize in Ibero-American Poetry (Spain, 2005). He was many times considered a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Culture Secretary Jorge Coscia told the news channel CN23 that Gelman is an example of the best Argentine “literary tradition.” He added: “His whole life was a committed poem.”
Born Juan Gelman Burichson on May 3, the future poet studied at the prestigious Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. In 1954 he became a journalist with the magazine Nuestra palabra and with the communist newspaper La Hora. He was also a correspondent for the Xin Hua Chinese news agency. As a young man involved in politics, Gelman was part of the group of youngsters who put together the magazine Muchachos.
A poet, translator and journalist, Gelman is considered the most important poet of his generation.
Gelman’s poetry books include El juego en que andamos, Velorio del solo, Gotán, Sefiní and Cólera Buey, Los poemas de Sidney West, Traducciones, Fábulas, Relaciones, Hechos y relaciones, and Si tan dulcemente. He wrote Exilio in collaboration with Argentine journalist Osvaldo Bayer. Other important works include Citas y comentarios, Hacia el sur, Composiciones, Carta a mi madre and País que fue será.
His poetry collection Pesar received the coveted José Lezama Lima prize from Cuba’s Casa de las Américas. Other distinctions included the Premio Nacional de Poesía in 1997, and the Premio Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana in 2005. That same year, he was named Illustrious Citizen of Buenos Aires.
It was also in 2005 that Gelman published a new anthology, Oficio ardiente, gathering poems published during five decades plus some new works.
In the field of music, Gelman penned two operas, La trampera general and La bicicleta de la muerte, and two cantatas, El gallo cantor and Suertes. He also recorded several LPs with his poetry.
Adhering to the critical realism movement, Gelman’s poetry was intimate but also touched on social issues. Indeed, Gelman’s works deal with everyday life, politics, and injustice in general.
Due to his work as journalist and his political activism, he lived in exile between 1975 and 1988. He lived in Rome, Madrid, Managua, Paris, New York and Mexico. During his absence from Argentina, the ruling military junta (1976-1983) sentenced him to death. Gelman’s son and daughter in law disappeared during the military dictatorship.
In this sense, Gelman’s poetry and life cannot be separated: according to writer Julio Cortázar, “Maybe the most admirable thing about his poetry is his almost unthinkable capacity for tenderness where rejection and denunciation would be rightly justified, (the fact that) he conjures up so many shadows with a soothing, calming voice, a constant verbal caress on unknown tombs.”