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Death in Poems

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By now you are certainly on the verge of a Halloween/Día de los Muertos overdose, but I will go on and force-feed you one last piece of information. There is a literary tradition attached to the Day of the Dead celebration called the calaveras literarias (the literary skulls) which is often overlooked, at least on this side of the Rio Grande. “Calavera” isn’t just the Spanish term for “skull” it is also the name given to a type of short poems written for the Mexican celebration.

Gran Calavera Eléctrica - José Guadalupe Posada

Gran Calavera Eléctrica – José Guadalupe Posada

Originating in the 19th century, Calaveras are satirical and burlesque verse compositions which used to be published in periodicals and other street literature at the beginning of November. Because of their critique of both noble and political figures, calaveras were often censored. Most of them were accompanied with prints and drawing by artists such as José Guadalupe Posada.

The rules of Calavera writing are relatively flexible. The creation is to be composed of verses, preferably incorporating assonance or consonance, and strophes of four lines each. Most calaveras are only made of one to three strophes although longer calaveras also exist.

La Calavera Oaxaqueña - José Guadalupe Posada

La Calavera Oaxaqueña – José Guadalupe Posada

In the Calavera, the chosen subject who is usually a politician, a famous figure, or simply a friend or a relative, is presented as dead or close to dying, and meeting with La Muerte (Death). The Calavera is a humoristic take on the traditional epitaph, meant to highlight the personal characteristics of their subject.

This year CONACULTA (the National Council for Arts and Culture in Mexico) and the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera Museum launched a Calavera competition. The best ones will be presented in the museum alongside an exhibition dedicated to the Day of the Dead tradition.

 

Here is an example of a Calavera, which I have translated for you:

 

 

Estaba la maestra Marta fumándose un cigarillo

llegó la muerte y le dijo te acompaño con el humillo

pues yo ya no puedo fumar y si sigue así

le pasará lo mismo que a mí.

 

Teacher Marta was smoking a cigarette

Death came along and told her I will accompany you

for I can no longer smoke and if you keep up like this

the same thing will happen to you

(from http://www.calaveras-literarias.com )

 

If you are feeling creative, send us your calaveras by email or in the comment box below.

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