World Literature

Alfonsina Storni

 

BORN: 1892, Sala Capriasca, Switzerland

DIED: 1938, Mar del Plata, Argentina

NATIONALITY: Argentine

GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

The Disquietude of the Rosebush (1916)

Irremediably (1919)

Ocre (1925)

World of Seven Wells (1934)

 

 

Alfonsina Storni (right). © Eduardo Longoni / Corbis

 

Overview

Argentine author Alfonsina Storni is one of Latin America’s most widely read poets. She gained early fame through the publication of her first books of poetry, partly through their explicitly confessional nature, but also because of her defiant posture regarding the status of women. Although primarily a lyric poet, she often revealed a quick turn of humor. Her dramatic suicide in 1938 added to her legendary status as a writer and public figure, and in subsequent decades both her poetry and her personal story have acquired almost mythic status.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

An Early Multitasker. Born in Sala Capriasca, Switzerland, on May 29, 1892, Storni was the daughter of Alfonso and Paula Martigoni Storni. Her father was a beer manufacturer. She immigrated at four years of age to the provinces of Argentina, first to San Juan, then to the province of Santa Fe, finally settling in Buenos Aires in 1912. In many ways, her personal history is symbolic of a new class of literary and professional women who emerged from modest beginnings and gained access to opportunities through the public education system in Argentina. In addition to her studies, she worked in the family cafe and then as a seamstress with her mother and older sister throughout childhood and adolescence.

After her father’s death in 1906, she began to work in a hat factory in Rosario to help make ends meet. Early on, she demonstrated her ability to engage in multiple activities while at the same time developing her literary and theatrical interests. At fifteen, she joined a traveling theater company and spent three years with them. In 1909 she entered a two-year teacher-training program in Coronda, ending her formal education in 1911 at nineteen years of age. She then took a teaching job at an elementary school in Rosario. Throughout most of her adult life, Storni continued to combine teaching and an active writing career.

Single Motherhood and Work. Storni’s life took a dramatic turn after her first year of full-time teaching. In Rosario, she became pregnant by a married man with high standing in the community. She made the move to Buenos Aires when she was expecting a child and, as an unmarried woman, needed to escape the reduced social and professional circles of the provinces where her condition as an unmarried mother would make a teaching position impossible. At the time, Argentina was becoming a modern nation and attracting thousands of European immigrants each year who were looking for a better life. Between 1851 and 1910, Buenos Aires’ population expanded from 90,000 to 1.3 million people. The city became known as the ‘‘Paris of South America.’’

Her son, Alejandro Alfonso Storni, was born there in 1912. In Buenos Aires, she worked at office and factory jobs for three years while writing The Disquietude of the Rosebush (1916). Despite the financial hardships of these early years, Storni moved quickly into the writing world and as early as 1913 began to publish in the popular magazine Faces and Masks.

By 1920, Storni began to work as a regular contributor to the Nation, one of the two major newspapers of the period. Her articles concerned almost all areas of women’s experience: working women and their occupations, the relationship of women to national and cultural traditions, the role of the church, single mothers, female poverty, migration to the city, and fashion. Many of her contributions were published under the pseudonym ‘‘Tao Lao.’’ These pieces were often impressionistic observations with highly personalized judgments. In a kind of urban adaptation of the travelogue, they recorded vignettes of daily life in Buenos Aires in a chatty tone with frequent asides to the reader.

Poetry. Storni’s lasting fame is as a poet, and she wrote and published poetry during this period. Much of her poetry reads like an inventory of the concerns of women, particularly nonconformist women, with its anger at male expectations, the seeming impossibility of equality in love, and the dissatisfaction at the traditional roles imposed on women. One of her most enduring types of poems is the pattern of a female persona addressing a male “tii’’ (you), often by a series of rhetorical questions. This pattern, often verging on stereotype, engages a wide variety of readers in echoing many of the joys and frustrations of erotic love and sentimental attachments within family and social structures. Undoubtedly, the most celebrated poem of this nature is ‘‘You Want Me White’’ from El dulce dano (1918), in which a woman insolently responds to male demands for female purity.

After Storni dabbled in playwriting for some years, in 1934 she published World of Seven Wells., which marked a significant change in her poetry. On the formal level, she leaves behind meter and rhyme and develops another style based on often idiosyncratic rhythms. Changed too are the topics she treats. The world viewed here is primarily the universe of the body, and the close-up visual focus, along with the altered rhythms, distance this poetry from the autobiographical vein of her earlier poetry.

Diagnosed with Cancer. In 1935, Storni was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery to have one breast removed. The next few years were marked by her struggle with cancer, a struggle that emerges in her poetry as a confrontation with the physicality of the world, a distancing from a personal focus. The illness and decline of the writer Horacio Quiroga, for whom Storni had felt great passion and affection, was a serious blow. Despite his fame as a writer, when Quiroga committed suicide in 1937, he was in such reduced economic circumstances that there were not enough funds for his burial.

As she became increasingly aware of her own mortality because of her cancer, Storni struggled to finish her most important works. Late in 1937, she turned in the manuscript of her last book (Mask and Clover) and in 1938 prepared an anthology of her poetry (Antologia poetica). In 1938, she was invited to Montevideo, Uruguay, to participate in a program with the Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou, and in late October of the same year, she made a trip to the seaside city of Mar del Plata. On October 25, 1938, she mailed to the major newspaper a farewell poem to her friends and readers, ‘‘I Am Going to Sleep.’’ She then walked into the sea and drowned.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Storni's famous contemporaries include:

Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937): This Argentinian writer and friend of Storni influenced the ''magical realism'' literary trend that became popular in Latin America. His poetry collections include Cuentos de amor, de locura, y de muerte (1917).

J. Paul Getty (1892-1976): This American businessman founded the Getty Oil Company. He wrote a memoir, My Life and Fortunes (1963).

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966): This American activist for women's rights founded what eventually became Planned Parenthood.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973): This British writer is best known for the fantasy fiction novels The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) trilogy.

Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957): A Chilean poet and fellow feminist, Mistral is often linked to Storni because of their similar careers. Mistral won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945. Her poetry collections include Desolacibn.

 

Works in Literary Context

Although Storni never consciously allied herself with any literary school, her early collections of poetry contain elements of Romanticism and reflect traces of the Hispanic modernist movement of Ruben Dario. Her early works focus on the themes of love, passion, and the suffering they often bring. In contrast, her last two collections marked the final stage in her poetic development and reflect the influence of the avant-garde movement, particularly that of Federico Garcia Lorca, whom she described in ‘‘Retrato de Garcia Lorca.’’ Storni’s break with traditional forms and the less subjective tone in her last two volumes can be seen because of her incorporation of techniques that had marked the poetry of the 1920s, especially with the ultraista movement led by Jorge Luis Borges.

Sentiment. Primarily autobiographical, Storni’s early poetry revolves around lyrical and sentimental themes, portraying the misunderstood, rebellious poet standing alone against the world. Her first collection, The Disquietude of the Rosebush, reflects the restlessness and emotional conflict that persisted throughout her life. Storni later renounced this volume, and critics generally agree that it is her least significant work. Storni’s next collections, El dulce dano (1918), Irremediablemente (1919), and Languidez (1920), express her disillusionment with love and her desire to renounce physical passion.

Much of the outrage and suffering evident in these verses resulted from her frustrations with contemporary stereotypes of women. In ‘‘You Want Me White,’’ for example, she indicts the Spanish American male for wanting women to be pure. Storni strove to articulate the collective concerns of women in these collections and pleaded for a more balanced and intellectual relationship between the sexes. Her fifth collection, Ocre (1925), demonstrates her increasing maturity as a poet and exhibits a new conciseness of style. Relying more on metaphors instead of similes, she steps outside herself to observe life more analytically. In contrast to the bitter resentment of her early confessional verse, these more cerebral, cynical, and ironic poems demonstrate her increasingly caustic attitude toward men.

Alienation and Death. The poems of Mundo de siete pozos (1934) depict a fragmented reality consisting of moods and dreams, surrealistic imagery, and abstract language. Abandoning the literary conventions of her previous collections, Storni used free verse to communicate her predominant themes, urban alienation and death, which she often associated with images of the sea. For Mascarilla y trebol (1938), published posthumously, she created a new, unrhymed verse form that she called the ‘‘anti-sonnet.’’ Here, Storni completely abandoned the preoccupation with love and passion that had characterized her earlier collections and instead devoted herself wholly to the craft of poetry. Exceptionally abstract and obscure, these poems, according to Storni, were ‘‘the individual results of moments of near loss of consciousness.’’ Combining images of the physical world, particularly the sea, with scenes from dreams, Storni expressed intense grief and explored the magical and metaphysical significance of such geometric forms as the circle.

Influence. Storni and Uruguayan poet Delmira Agustini are the two major figures credited with changing the nature of female eroticism in poetry in Spanish. They influenced many female poets who worked in this genre in succeeding generations as well as other feminist poets in general.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Storni's later poems deal extensively with imagery devoted to the sea in which she eventually drowned herself. In these poems, the sea is symbolically presented as an overwhelming natural force. Here are some other works that center around a preoccupation with the sea:

The Old Man and the Sea (1952), a novella by Ernest Hemingway. This short book tells the story of an old Cuban fisherman's fight with a huge marlin.

Moby-Dick (1851), a novel by Herman Melville. It is the story of one man's hunt for a legendary whale told by the pensive, wandering sailor Ishmael.

Farewell to the Sea (1987), poems by Reinaldo Arenas. In this collection, Arenas extensively describes the shores of a Cuban beach. Like Storni, Arenas wrote a letter to the public and committed suicide after finding himself in ill health.

Omeros (1990), an epic poem by Derek Walcott. Walcott retells the Odyssey but sets the epic in the Caribbean, on the island of Santa Lucia.

 

Works in Critical Context

During her lifetime, Storni was one of the most prominent female poets in Latin America, yet her works remained controversial due to their feminist themes and open expression of female passion. While Storni is included among the ranks of leading Latin American women writers, her work stands out as the most courageously and openly critical of male-dominated society. Critical response to her body of poetry has developed through two distinct phases. Her early works were popular with the reading public, while receiving mixed critical response, due to her feminist stance. Her later works were met with waning popularity as well as harsh criticism for their experimental forms and obscure meanings. Critics in the late twentieth century viewed her later work, most notably Mascarilla y trebol, as her most mature and important contribution to Latin American literature.

The Disquietude of the Rosebush. This collection established Storni as a new voice in Argentine culture. Shortly after publication, she became the first woman in the country to join a literary circle, from which she obtained critical comment and encouragement. Storni’s unconventional views, however, along with her status as an unmarried mother, sometimes resulted in critical censure of her work. Irritated at her frank, often resentful attacks on female stereotypes and on those who propagated them, some of her contemporary critics attributed her feminist ideas to personal dissatisfaction and dismissed her arguments for parity between the sexes as merely the complaints of an unhappy woman. Later in her career, Storni herself renounced the book in an interview quoted in Sonia Jones’s Alfonsina Storni: ‘‘My first book... today frankly embarrasses me. I would love to be able to destroy every single copy of that book until there was not a single trace of it left.’’

World of Seven Wells. After a trip to Europe in 1934, Storni published World of Seven Wells. In this, her sixth poetical work, Storni made a nearly total break from the subjective lyricism and inner conflict that characterizes most of her previous poetry. Centering instead on the external world, the free verse and traditional sonnets display Storni’s increased attention to imagery. Several critics considered Storni’s new cerebral, ironic tone as an indication of a growing despair and preoccupation with death. Citing the volume’s proliferation of sea imagery, for example, Sidonia Carmen Rosenbaum noted in her Modern Women Poets of Spanish America: The Precursors that never a poetess of joy and laughter, [Storni] sinks still deeper into the bitter waters of sadness and hopelessness. ...If in other books she spoke of the sea, it seemed to be in a somewhat casual manner.

Not so here where the sea and the thought of finding peace in its icy, turbulent depths, become almost an obsession.

 

Responses to Literature

1. In a paper, discuss which type of setting Storni most effectively describes: small or large. Look to Ocre for examples.

2. In Storni’s earlier works, she often negatively emphasizes sexual passion and love. Can you find evidence that her views on male-female relationships are not always negative? Write an essay that outlines your findings.

3. Create a presentation that addresses the following questions: How did Storni’s journalistic writings add to her poetry? How did they detract from it?

4. Make a list of descriptions of the sea that Storni uses in her later poems. What do you think the sea symbolizes for her? Discuss your conclusions in a small group.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Dauster, Frank. ‘‘Success and the Latin American Writer.’’ In Contemporary Women Authors of Latin America: Introductory Essays, edited by Doris Meyer and Margarite Fernandez Olmos. New York: Brooklyn College Press, 1983.

Delgado, Josefina. Alfonsina Storni: Una biografia esencial. Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1990.

Imbert, Enrique Anderson. ‘‘1910-1925.’’ In Spanish American Literature, translated by John B. Falconieri. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963.

Jones, Sonia. Alfonsina Storni. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Kirkpatrick, Gwen. ‘‘Alfonsina Storni as ‘Tao Lao’: Journalism’s Roving Eye and Poetry’s Confessional Eye.’’ In Reinterpreting the Spanish American Essay: Women Writers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, edited by Doris Meyer. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Phillips, Rachel. Alfonsina Storni: From Poetess to Poet. London: Tamesis, 1975.

Rosenbaum, Sidonia Carmen. Modern Women Poets of Spanish America: The Precursors; Delmira Agustini, Gabriel Mistral, Alfonsina Storni, Juana de Ibarbourou. New York: Hispanic Institute in the United States, 1945.

Sarlo, Beatriz. Una modernidad periferica: Buenos Aires, 1920 y 1930. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Nueva Vision, 1999.

Soto-Smith, Mark I. El arte de Alfonsina Storni. Bogota, Colombia: Tercer Mundo, 1986.