Posted: January 26, 2007
In January, the University of Massachusetts Press published Puerto Rican Poetry: An Anthology from Aboriginal to Contemporary Times, edited and translated by Roberto Márquez, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies. It offers the most wide-ranging and comprehensive collection of Puerto Rican poetry available in English and includes the work of 64 poets, many of the poems appearing for the first time in English. It also includes previously inaccessible selections from Puerto Rico's tradition of popular verse forms--coplas, décimas, and bombas--produced by anonymous writers.
Márquez will read from his book February 7 at South Hadley's Odyssey Bookshop at 7 pm.
"What I really wanted to do," Márquez said, "was to give a much more comprehensive backward glance to English speakers than what up to now has been available."
The motivation behind Márquez's recent volume came in no small part from his students. In the course of initially preparing and then regularly teaching his class Puerto Rican Literature and Society: Borinquen to El Barrio, Márquez found that the material available to English speakers was at best "uneven."
As he writes in his acknowledgements: "… it was my students, not least among them my Latina/o students at Mount Holyoke and within the Five Colleges, who--with their informal inquiries, regular probings, and ongoing dissatisfactions with the scant material available to them in English--revealed to me the real urgency of the need and the possibilities for a project that I had for some time already vaguely contemplated …"
Márquez hoped to offer an improved collection of poems by addressing his concerns with previously available material. For one, Márquez explained, the poems were restricted to the contemporary era, with no sense of a historical context and only partially explained. And the material that was available tended to be less than poetic, ignoring form and lyrical expression.
In his volume, Márquez divides the works into four historical periods, beginning with the early fifteenth century. He also made sure to stay true to the poems' formal inflection, artistic character, linguistic register, and lyrical personality. If the original poem was a sonnet, Márquez wrote the translation in sonnet form. If the original rhymed, the translation also rhymes.
"Translating poetry is different than prose in that there is often a greater economy than prose allows, and it usually restricts you to a certain form. It might have to be in AB BA form with eight syllables per line and still read as if it were ordinary speech--with an edge of music."
As Márquez writes in his introduction, "Effectively achieved, translation--or what the Brazilian writer Haroldo Campos so much more aptly and appropriately called transcreation--is first of all an obsessive reader's discipline, an active collaborator's art."
In addition to a general introduction and concise biographical profiles of each poet, Márquez provides a detailed "Chronology" of the history of the island that has shaped the poets and informed their work.
Among those commenting on the work, cultural critic Juan Flores, author of From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity, observed: "I cannot emphasize enough what an important book this is, and how admirable and noble Roberto Márquez has been to dedicate himself with such perseverance and intelligence to this important task. He has built a forceful cultural bridge just where and when one is needed, and gratitude will surely be due him for generations to come."