Remembering Argentine poet Juan Gelman

BY Victoria Fleischer  January 24, 2014 at 6:19 PM EDT


To remember the Argentine poet Juan Gelman, who died Jan. 14 at the age of 83, writer and professor of Latin American culture Ilan Stavans read his translation of Gelman’s poem “End.”

Juan Gelman was a major literary figure throughout Latin America and Spain. A poet born in Argentina, Gelman is known for fighting against the military junta that ruled Argentina in the 1970s and ’80s. He died early this week at his home in Mexico City at the age of 83.

“The moment he died in Argentina, the entire country came to a halt. It understood that part of its soul had left,” Ilan Stavans told chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown. Stevens is a writer and a professor of Latin American culture at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Argentinian poet Juan Gelman as seen Oct 26, 2005 in Madrid. Photo by Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images

Argentinian poet Juan Gelman as seen Oct 26, 2005 in Madrid. Photo by Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images

Gelman was part of the Latin American literary tradition that Ilan said is best represented by Pablo Neruda. He would look at common, everyday experiences.

“He wanted to connect us with the environment. He wanted to connect us with the emotions that we feel and he wanted to use poetry to explain what the DNA of an entire civilization was about. The beauty of his poetry was that he found a style that connected the entire Argentine people with the continent of Latin America and the world,” Stavans said.

During Argentina’s “Dirty War,” Gelman felt his poetry needed to reflect that world as well.

“He understood that the role of poetry was to speak truth to power … he took [that] very seriously as a poet, he needed to bear witness to the situation that the country was going through and to allow his poetry to last beyond the daily massacres.”

According to Stavans, that made Gelman influential.

“He knew that ultimately a poem is more powerful than a gun or a hand grenade and that a poem can change people’s minds and that is what his poetry ended up doing.”