Si no me encuentras al principio no te descorazones,
si no estoy en un lugar me hallarás en otro,
en alguna parte te espero.
When I came into English and became a reader, my first fervent literary love was poetry. Among my favorites was an unlikely sort, Walt Whitman. He reminded me of my effusive tíos, noisy, hard-drinking, hard-loving men, full of extravagant gestures, big appetites and larger-than-life affections.
This poet of the margins, self-exiled from the parlors and parlance of elites, celebrated the diversity that he knew gave the United States its vibrancy and its voices. It was comforting to me, a young immigrant amid the taunts and slurs of classmates that the Americans considered him the beloved quintessential American poet. So there was hope for us marginalized “aliens” who talked using our hands and sang our English.
The repetitions, the rococo elaborations of syntax, the declamatory style, the Latinate diction, he was nuestro Whitman. Not just the language, the rhythms, and floridness of the lines, but also the sensibilities: the physical touching, the abrazos, the effusiveness and expressiveness often triggering his exclamatory O!—spelled the Spanish way without an h.
No wonder so many Latin American poets of the late 19th and 20th century felt Whitman’s influence (José Martí, Rubén Darío, Pedro Mir, among others). In his “Oda a Walt Whitman,” Neruda claims Whitman taught him to be Americano by celebrating a hemispheric America large enough to include everybody. There was something simpatico—a word Whitman himself uses—between the poet and Hispanic ways of seeing and saying and moving through the world. In fact, when I encountered Jorge Luis Borges’s translation of Leaves of Grass into Spanish (Hojas de Hierba), the poem didn’t sound translated—it flowed beautifully in Spanish, as if that had been its origin language.
But let him speak for himself about his celebration of “The Spanish Element in Our Nationality.” In that essay, Whitman claims that
the Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts. . . in the composite American identity of the future. . . . It is certain that we do not begin to appreciate the splendor and sterling value of its race element. Who knows but that element, like the course of some subterranean river, dipping invisibly for a hundred or two years, is now to emerge in broadest flow and permanent action?
Two hundred year later, Whitman’s hope seems uncannily relevant. ¡O, may his words prove prescient! May they bring down all the walls!
No te descorazones, Borges translates the ending of “Song of Myself.” Do not lose heart. Keep encouraged.