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Juan Gelman, Argentine poet who fought against a military junta, dies at 83

January 24, 2014 at 1:57 PM EDT
Argentine poet Juan Gelman knew that words could be more powerful than guns. He used poetry to connect with his compatriots while Argentina suffered at the hands of a brutal military junta. Gelman died on Jan. 14 at the age of 83. Jeffrey Brown spoke to Ilan Stavans, a writer and professor of Latino culture at Amherst College.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: remembering a poet who challenged his country’s military dictators.  
Jeff is back with that.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Juan Gelman was an Argentine poet who became a major literary figure throughout Latin America and in Spain.  He was also known for his fight against the military junta that ruled Argentina in the 1970s and ’80s, and for the personal tragedy that came from that.  

His daughter was kidnapped and tortured.  His son and daughter-in-law were killed.  And their child, Gelman’s granddaughter, was taken and given away for adoption.  Gelman finally located her in 2000.  

Juan Gelman died at age 83 at his home in Mexico City this week.  

Here to tell us more is Ilan Stavans, a writer and professor of Latin American culture at Amherst College.  He’s editor of “The FSG Book of Twentieth Century Latin-American Poetry.”

First, tell us a little bit about Juan Gelman the poet.  What accounted for his prominence in the Spanish-speaking world?  What was his poetry like?  

ILAN STAVANS, Professor of Latin American Culture, Amherst College:  Juan Gelman belonged to a tradition in Latin American poetry that connected the people with the word, the spoken word, the written word, the tradition best represented by Pablo Neruda.

In his case, Juan Gelman’s case, he understood that the role of poetry was to speak truth to power.  And throughout the Dirty War, the Guerra Sucia, in Argentina, he took very seriously the role that, 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, the disappearances that were taking place. 

He was very shrewd.  He knew that a poem is more powerful, ultimately, than a gun or a hand grenade, in that a poem can change people’s minds.  And that is what his poetry ended up doing.  

JEFFREY BROWN:  And the themes that he addressed went to that?  Or — I saw in one — the end of one poem that you translated called “End”: “Poetry is a way of living.  Look at the people at your side.  Do they eat, suffer, sing, cry?”

He was really looking at common people.  

ILAN STAVANS:  He was looking at common people.  Jeff, he was looking at common things.  He was looking at our environment, at nature in general, and trying to give those objects that surround us the place that they have, recognizing them, birds, the ocean, a city, a car.  

They are part of our daily life, and we barely notice them.  And through his poetry, 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 as a way to explain what the DNA of an entire civilization was about.  The beauty of his poetry is that he found a style that connected the entire Argentine people with the continent of Latin America and the world entire by allowing him to speak about the very daily, very mundane, very common happenings that make a life, and that as a poet he wanted to bear witness to them.  

He understood that poetry and politics go hand in hand.  And the moment he died in Argentina, the entire country came to a halt.  It understood that a part of its soul had left.  And yet the poetry that Juan Gelman left us with in a beautiful style, a style that often breaks the sentences, that uses or doesn’t use punctuation depending on the circumstance, also often inventing new words, lasts — will last him and will squarely integrate him into a tradition that I think will be read for generations to come.  

JEFFREY BROWN:  Well, let me ask you to finish then with one of his poems.  And you chose a short one called “Epitaph.”

I will ask you to read in the English translation for us.  

ILAN STAVANS:  My pleasure.  

“A bird lived in me.  A flower traveled in my blood.  My heart was a violin.  I loved and didn’t love.  But sometimes I was loved.  I also was happy: about the spring, the hands together, what is happy.  I say man has to be!  Herein lies a bird, a flower, a violin.”

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, Ilan Stavans on the life and work of Juan Gelman, thank you so much.  

ILAN STAVANS:  My pleasure.  Thank you for giving poetry a space.