Gabriela Mistral was the pen name for the Chilean poet who became most widely known to U.S. readers in 1945 when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first and only Latin American woman to have done so. Today, she is one of the fourteen women worldwide to have won the award.
Born Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga in a small Andean town far from the big city of Santiago in 1889, she began publishing her poetry in Chilean newspapers under her pen name by the time she was 16 while at the same time she worked to become a professional teacher. Throughout her life, she remained a worldwide leader in the two cultural areas of education and literature, employed as a professor, lecturer, administrator, poet and writer in Chile, Mexico, the U.S., and several European countries. All the while, she continued to write poetry that was moving, well-crafted, and visionary. She died in 1957 in the U.S., where she was living at the time.
When she was 20, she suffered the loss of her beloved, Romelio Ureta, to suicide, and out of that loss wrote, Sonetos a la Muerte (Sonnets of Death), which won the Chilean poetry prize in 1914. It established her reputation in her native Chile and throughout Latin America, where still today she is referred to as “Gabriela.” Later her books Desolacion (Despair) in 1922, Ternura (Tenderness) in 1924, and Tala in 1938 reached a wider audience. Their strong emotion and themes of children and childhood and women’s personal, mythical and public concerns, all continued into her later poetry and are revealed in titles such as “Mujer Fuerte” (“Strong Woman”) and “Antigona” (“Antigone”). Her complete poetry was published in 1958.
I believe that Gabriela Mistral is one of several Latin American poets— from Alfonsina Storni to Daisy Zamora— whose lives and poetry are relatively under-represented to U.S. readers and writers. The work of Zamora, who is still living, gained some traction in the 1990s when Bill Moyer featured her in his TV poetry Series, The Power of the Word. Storni’s and Mistral’s work was a lamp to my feet twice early on in my quest to be a lover and writer of poetry.
First, when I was an undergraduate in 1970, I found three poems by Storni and Mistral in one of my textbooks and felt undone by their strong, direct emotion that I wasn’t finding at that time in a lot of the modernist poetry assigned in my English classes. I suppose I was also relieved to find that Storni had been a schoolteacher, because that was the road I was being sent down, having been told by a faculty member that “girls” did “not belong in grad school.”
Four years later, despite being a girl, I managed to wend my way to graduate school and looked Mistral up for the second time, when I talked a faculty member in the Spanish Department (where I was not a student) into directing an independent study for me in the translation of women writing in Spanish. Again, I was blown away by the strong expression of emotion in the poems, the strong expression of womanhood as an issue of universal strength, not an apology or an aside in her writing. Working from the inside, I saw how well-crafted her poems were, how deceptively simple.
Now, over forty years later, I turned to Mistral again for the first time in a long time and found more of her writing available. Ursula Le Guin published Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral (University of New Mexico Press) in 2003. Her range as a poet looms wider and deeper than I ever realized in my youth. In addition to the tight, formal verse and free verse, that I knew then, Stephen Tapscott’s Gabriela Mistral: Selected Prose and Prose-Poems (University of Texas Press 2002) has some wild, exciting prose poems. Both of these collections are bilingual editions, as is the 1957 bilingual edition translated by Langston Hughes, Selected Poetry of Gabriela Mistral (University of Indiana Press), which is still available in some libraries. It provides some fascinating versions to compare to Le Guin’s.
In addition to these books, much of her correspondence, articles, and recent criticism available online. The University of Chile has a very full treatment of her life and works in Spanish at http://www.gabrielamistral.uchile.cl/ and an English website is available on her life and works at http://home.wlu.edu/~barnettj/Holding/99/cstovall/newmistral.htm
And yet, recently, I was standing in the Harvard Bookstore, where a young clerk named Liz was helping me find books by and about Mistral. She printed out a long list of titles and expressed amazement she had never heard of Mistral. “Hey, are you a poet?” I asked her. “I am trying to be,” she said, “And I never heard of Mistral. I really want to read her now. And buy one of these books for my friend, who is leaving for Chile.”
I offer this brief tribute to Mistral for all the Lizzes out there who have never read Mistral and need to read her.
Notes by The Literary Nest Staff
Here are some poems by Gabriela Mistral. Source of translation is not known for some poems.
A hundred and sixty-three of Mistral’s poems, in Spanish and English.
Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin