Deep Translation and Subversive Formalism: The Case of Salomon De la Selva's Tropical Town, and Other Poems (1918)

By Colon, David A. | Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Deep Translation and Subversive Formalism: The Case of Salomon De la Selva's Tropical Town, and Other Poems (1918)


Colon, David A., Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry


Although better known in the world of Spanish letters, Salomon de la Selva is a shadowy figure in the history of U.S. poetry. He was born on March 20, 1893, to be the eldest of ten siblings, in Leon, Nicaragua--a rare fact in the dearth of information we have about his early life. (1) According to Edgardo Buitrago and Carlos Tunerman, de la Selva lived in Nicaragua until the age of eleven, when he left his family and took a scholarship to live and study in the Northeastern U.S. We don't know for sure where he lived in the U.S. from the age of eleven to twenty-one, when, in 1914, he served as Ruben Dario's translator in New York, and the record becomes clearer. In 1915, de la Selva collaborated, with the American poet Thomas Walsh, to publish a translation of Eleven Poems of Ruben Dario, and henceforth his reputation grew. He was mentored by his compatriot Dario and the Dominican poet Pedro Enriquez Urena, and in 1916 de la Selva was appointed to the faculty of Williams College, to teach Spanish and French. He soon befriended Edna St. Vincent Millay, at the time a senior at Vassar, and sowed the seed of a profound, if short-lived, relationship between the two poets. (2) Like Millay, de la Selva preferred formal verse in English (3)--especially the sonnet, iambic meter, and rhyme--which explains in part why contemporary Anglophone critics now place him as a marginal figure. By the measure of experimentation, his English poems seem flaccid compared to those of avant-garde contemporaries like Pound, Williams, or Cummings.

Today poets and scholars find it easy to regard formal verse from the early twentieth century as intellectually and stylistically retrograde, but to truly understand de la Selva's work we need to reconsider norms of artistic radicalism, and for two related reasons: he was far more aesthetically challenging when writing poems in Spanish, and English verse forms were alien to him. When dealing with a poet who endeavors to escape the restraints of "the Tradition"--and here nationality does play a part in the implicit sense of entitlement--we see the deconstruction of forms, and thus beauty fails the new aesthetic, replaced with what Eliot famously described as intensity. (4) But when that poet is entering "the Tradition," he swims against the wave of the avant-garde to do something quite different: to dialogue for the sake of establishing legitimacy. De la Selva, as a native Nicaraguan living and writing in the U.S., entered not only an alien literary tradition, but also an alien language, and given all the cultural spheres this process generates, de la Selva's achievement should be regarded with these political implications in mind.

Steven White, writing on de la Selva's work in both English and Spanish, considers de la Selva as "a Nicaraguan poet who wrote his first book, Tropical Town & Other Poems, in very traditional English verse forms, then rejected the English language entirely to produce, in Spanish, El soldado desconocido, an experimental, testimonial work that combines a variety of genres (the chronicle, the diary, the letter, and the ballad) to produce a multi-faceted description of a microcosmic experience of history that, ultimately, becomes universal." (5) In fact, Tropical Town (1918) is both de la Selva's first book of verse and his first book in English. Although it is rumored that he published a second book of English verse, A Soldier Sings (1919), in England, no extant copy of the book is known to exist. (6) Of A Soldier Sings, White has noted that its "alleged existence is the result of Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Mejia Sanchez sending the bibliographical information (London: The Bodley Head, 1919) to [Nicaraguan critic] Jorge Eduardo Arellano, who at the time was compiling an extensive bibliography of books and articles by and about de la Selva for the fundamental publication Homenaje a Salomon de la Selva: 1959-1969" and that Arellano himself believed A Soldier Sings is "a legend, one more myth in our literature rich in myths. …

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