09/11/2014 06:08 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

The Unrecognized Greatness of the Mexican National Poet

Millions of Mexicans know Ramón López Velarde as the author of Suave Patría, the national poem of Mexico and a modernist masterpiece, but few inside or outside Mexico know about the extraordinarily high opinion of López Velarde held by his fellow greats of Latin American poetry. There's no better time to let the world know than now, during the present Hispanic Heritage Month and near the approaching Mexican Independence Day.

Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda called López Velarde, "the essential and supreme poet of our extensive Americas... [He] gave to the poetry of the Americas a flavor and a fragrance that will last forever." Neruda published his own selection of López Velarde's poems and even rented rooms in a former residence of López Velarde's where Neruda "began to live in the full atmosphere of López Velarde whose poetry began to penetrate me." Compatriot and Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz said López Velarde is "the most admired and most carefully studied poet in Mexico...[he] left us a few poems ... so perfect that it is foolish to lament those that death prevented him from writing." Jorge Luis Borges called him "a wonder." Indeed, there has been an ongoing controversy, reignited recently by the multi-award winning Mexican poet Mario Bojórquez, as to whether Borges plagiarized from López Velarde.

Yet López Velarde's Wikipedia entry correctly states: "Despite his importance, he remains a virtual unknown outside his own country." As an example of how unknown, all the other major Mexican poets (and even some minor ones) are in The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, but not López Velarde. There are a number of possible contributing factors to his being so ignored: very difficult imagery, obscure references, excessive religiosity and romanticism, a disturbing emotional rawness and political conservatism. These factors also beg the question: is López Velarde worth the effort? Neruda, Borges and Paz would resoundingly say yes. As Paz put it in a book-length study, "The essential novelty of his imagination is more powerful than the mistakes of his taste."

Those same factors contributing to López Velarde being so ignored may also explain the dearth of English translations. There have been short selections in anthologies. The dean of English-language translators of Latin American poetry, H.R. Hays, made López Velarde the first poet in the seminal anthology 12 Spanish American Poets, first published in 1943. Samuel Beckett translated a selection with variable success for an anthology edited by Octavio Paz. A small selected poems came out in the mid-1990s that apparently was commissioned because the translator simply could not connect with the poet, as the afterward nearly admits. The afterward does admit to substantive changes made to the poems by right of the "license" owed the translator "in the midst of long hours of frustration." López Velarde's status as "a virtual unknown outside his own country" is a comment on the quality of that translation.

This is not to suggest that translating López Velarde is anything but extremely difficult. I know because I just spent two years off-and-on working with a group of Mexican intellectuals in Oaxaca translating a selection of López Velarde's verse. Poems, Ramón López Velarde, a joint publication of Berkeley and Floricanto Presses (, is now available on Amazon and in bookstores.

López Velarde died at age 33 in 1921. He was a lawyer and a "Carrancista," the most conservative wing of the Mexican Revolution. He may have backed the losers of the Revolution, but he got over it soon enough to write a national poem full of the infectious patriotism that follows a successful revolution. It is essentially a love poem written not to a woman but a country.

The disturbing emotional rawness mentioned above included extreme sexual frustration, yet there is not even a hint of misogyny in López Velarde, quite the opposite. He loved women in every way a man can love a woman: as mother, sister, friend, lover obviously and also as symbol of his country. (He shared this latter trait with the eminent Mexican sculptor Francisco Zúñiga who specialized in monumental stoical indigenous women.) López Velarde wrote: "I can neither understand nor feel except through the woman. . . Therefore I deal with . . . abstract issues with an erotic temperament." There have been persistent rumors, though no conclusive evidence, that the actual cause of López Velarde's death was syphilis and not bronchial pneumonia as stated on the death certificate.

If you ask a random Mexican about López Velarde, you will usually get a sour grimace. As the national poet, he's the guy they had to memorize in school, and those who might have explored further would have run into that wall of inscrutability. A biography didn't appear until nearly seventy years after López Velarde's death and that was commissioned. Ironically, a movie about him, El vals sin fin (The Endless Waltz), came out in 1972, seventeen years before the biography, but it has long been unavailable.

While I hope this new translation earns recognition among Anglophones for this ignored modernist master, even more I hope it helps Mexicans appreciate this great artist who may be too close to be seen clearly.