Storni, Alfonsina (1892–1938)

views updated

Storni, Alfonsina (1892–1938)

Argentine writer and social activist who was one of her nation's most celebrated poets. Name variations: (pseudonyms)Tao-Lao and Alfonsina. Pronunciation: Ahlfon-SEE-na STOR-nee. Born Alfonsina Storni on May 29, 1892, in Sala Capriasca, Canton Ticino, Switzerland; died a suicide in Mar del Plata, Argentina, on October 25, 1938; daughter of Alfonso Storni (a smalltime businessman) and Paulina Martignoni de Storni (a teacher); attended Escuela Normal of San Juan (San Juan Normal School); Escuela Normal Mixta de Maestros Rurales (Mixed Normal School for Rural Teachers) in Coronda, Santa Fe, teaching certificate, 1910; never married; children: one son, Alejandro.

Moved to Buenos Aires (1911), after becoming pregnant; worked several jobs while composing poetry and won a prize for her work (1917); became a poet and journalist of some note (1920s); composed some of her best work (1930s), but under the shadow of breast cancer.

Major works:

La inquietud del rosal (The Restlessness of the Rose Bush, 1916); El dulce daño (Sweet Mischief, 1918); Irremediablemente (Irremediably, 1919); Languidez (Languor, 1920); Ocre (Ochre, 1925); El mundo de siete pozos (The World of Seven Wells, 1934); Mascarilla y trébol (Mask and Trefoil, 1938).

The song "Alfonsina y el mar" (Alfonsina and the Sea), written by Argentine historian Félix Luna, relates the sad story of the death of Alfonsina Storni, one of Argentina's most celebrated poets. Suffering from a recurrence of breast cancer, she penned one last poem, "Voy a dormir" ("I Am Going to Sleep"), and under a cloudless sky walked into the ocean at the seaside resort of Mar del Plata. Her body washed up on the beach several hours later. The tragic death brought to termination a trying and tumultuous existence.

Alfonsina Storni's life had never been easy. Before her birth her father Alfonso Storni had gradually withdrawn from the family business, a small brewery; inclined to periods of moodiness, he vanished for weeks at a time. Alcoholism might have been part of his problem. On the advice of a doctor, the family traveled to Switzerland—homeland of the Storni clan—in the hopes that he would find a renewed purpose in life. It was here, in Sala Capriasca, Switzerland, on May 29, 1892, that Paulina Martignoni de Storni gave birth to Alfonsina. Four years later, in 1896, the family returned to the Province of San Juan, located in the western part of Argentina, cradled by the Andes. At age five, Alfonsina attended a local kindergarten in the Normal School of San Juan. Unable to make a living in San Juan, in 1900 the family traveled to Rosario, a large port city in the Province of Santa Fe. To tide the family over, Paulina, certified as a teacher, opened a private school in her home. It was closed when the family found new lodgings across from the Sunchales Railway station and, on the first floor, opened the Café Suizo. The income generated by the café, which was never profitable, was supplemented by money earned by Paulina, Alfonsina, and her sister as seamstresses and dressmakers.

Alfonso, once again a failure at business, closed the café in 1904, the same year that Alfonsina wrote her first poem. Death claimed her father in 1906, and Alfonsina, to help the family, took employment in a hat factory. Despite, or perhaps because of, a difficult childhood, Storni in a speech delivered in 1938 remembered those years as ones in which fantasy colored and romanticized her life to an "exaggerated degree." Those fantasies led her to the theater, and in 1907 she acted in the play La pasión (The Passion) and shortly thereafter joined the company of José Tallaví and toured Argentina for nearly a year.

By 1908, her "career" in the theater was over, and she returned home. Paulina had remarried and lived in Bustinza, Santa Fe, where she had opened another private school in her house. Storni helped her mother and became a member of Comité Feminista de Santa Fe (Feminist Committee of Santa Fe), the first indication of the path the rest of her life would take. Intent on a career as a teacher, one of the few vocations open to women, Storni at age 17 enrolled in the Escuela Normal Mixta de Maestros Rurales in Coronda. She was described by her teachers as hard working and able, and graduated in 1910 with the title of rural teacher. Graduation ceremonies included a recitation by kindergarten children of one of Alfonsina's poems, "Un viaje a la luna" ("A Trip to the Moon").

Within the year, she had begun her teaching career at the Escuela Elemental No. 65 (Elementary School Number 65) in Rosario and published her first poems in the local literary press, Mundo Rosarino (The Rosario World) and Monos y monadas (Clowns and Monkeyshines). It was also in Rosario that she had an affair, an "outlaw" love she later called it, and became pregnant. At the end of the school year, she resigned her position and, like many young women, determined to move to Buenos Aires, Argentina's vibrant capital city, to seek her fortune.

Buenos Aires was not kind to Storni, and she barely made enough money to survive. In her words, written in 1938:

At 19 I am enclosed in an office: a song of keys taps out a lullaby, wood screens rise up like dikes above my head; blocks of ice chill the air at my back; the sun shines through the roof but I can't see it. … Rooted to my chair … I write my first book of verses, an awful book of verses. May God spare you, my friend, from La inquietud del rosal (The Restlessness of the Rose Bush)! … I wrote it to survive.

She gave birth to a son, Alejandro, on April 21, 1912, and, in addition to her office work, contributed items to the magazine Caras y Caretas (Faces and Masks). In 1913 and 1914, she moved from job to job—as a cashier in a pharmacy and a shop, and in the import firm of Freixas Brothers. In the words of biographer Rachel Phillips , Storni showed great courage and self-discipline in difficult times. "In Argentina there was a general work shortage, an absence of protective labor laws, and considerable prejudice against women who were forced to earn a living." That she had to work outside the home and was an unwed mother was not unusual, for about 22% of the children born in Argentina between 1914 and 1919, according to historian Sandra McGee , were illegitimate. What was important was that "it was not common in the circles in which Storni would eventually move."

Our hypocrisy destroys us. … It is the falsity separating what we are and what we pretend to be. It is our feminine cowardice that has not learned to shout the truth from the rooftops.

—Alfonsina Storni

Despite the demands of the single mother and work, Storni made the time to participate in feminist activities and gave recitals of her poetry in Rosario and Buenos Aires at meetings sponsored by the Socialist Party, a party dedicated, among other things, to equal rights for women. Gwen Kirkpatrick , who has written the best account of Storni's journalism, noted that it was "during the period 1914–1930, when debates raged over the legal rights of women, that Storni established herself as a poet and wrote the journalistic pieces in favor of women's rights."

Alfonsina Storni established her reputation as a poet with the publication of La inquietud del rosal in 1916 and, within a year, found a new occupation as director of teachers in the Colegio Marcos Paz. The National Council of Women awarded Storni their annual prize for Canto a los niños (Song for Children) in 1917. In 1918, El dulce daño (Sweet Mischief) appeared; she also wrote for the magazine Atlántida, volunteered in the school for Niños Débiles (Impaired Children), and was a member of the Argentine Committee to find homes for Belgian war orphans. Having experienced pay discrimination firsthand, Storni promoted equality in jobs and salaries through her work as one of the leaders of the Asociación pro Derechos de la Mujer (Association for the Rights of the Woman). Yet her growing image as a social activist and nonconformist contrasts sharply with her poetry, which was typical of a woman poet in the Argentina of the 1910s, i.e., the themes dealt with love and nature and were of the confessional variety. Storni herself was highly critical of her early work. Of the collection entitled Irrediablemente (Irremediably), published in 1919, she said that it was as bad as Inquietud del rosal. Both Phillips and Kirkpatrick agree that her early poems were dictated by the expectations of the market and Storni's need for money.

Alfonsina's real concerns were reflected in her public activities. While her poetry spoke of love and nature and the shortcomings of men in affairs of the heart, her journalism addressed the critical issues of women's suffrage and civil rights. World War I, she observed, was a watershed for women for it demonstrated the bankruptcy of patriarchy and opened the doors to radical changes in culture and society. A few of her poems were revealing as to her inner turmoil, however. In one, there is an identification with her mother, who had suffered mightily and silently, and stored up years of hurt in her heart. Storni wrote that "without wanting to, I think I've liberated it." And in Hombre pequeño (Little Man), she lashes out at those men who wanted to keep her in a cage.

The two Alfonsinas coexisted throughout the 1920s. Languidez (Languor) was published in 1920, for which she won several prizes. Later, she traveled across the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo to speak at the city's university and became a regular correspondent for the prestigious Buenos Aires daily newspaper La Nación. She wrote under the pen-names Tao-Lao and Alfonsina. Argentine citizenship was granted to her in 1920, and she continued a teaching career in public and private schools; in 1923, she was named professor at the Escuela Normal de Lenguas Vivas (Normal School of Living Languages). Kirkpatrick's review of Storni's journalistic activity demonstrates tremendous breadth. She wrote on the following themes: working women, the place of women in the national and cultural tradition, the role of the church, single mothers, marriage, good and bad models of motherhood, female poverty, migration to the city, and the "innate" characteristics of females. The dictates of high fashion were repeatedly attacked by Storni, and she equated the wearing of high heels with an urge to commit suicide. In one article on women's fashions, noted Kirkpatrick, she decried the excesses and "pathetic and ludicrous lengths to which women will go to serve this master."

It was with the publication of Ocre (Ochre) in 1925 that the two Alfonsinas began to move toward one another. Phillips sees a turning inward and a revealing self-exploration. "Here Storni is less the woman, loved or rejected, grieving or rejoicing, and more the human being concerned with the workings of her own psychic machine." In Ocre, Storni assesses the forces that limit people, male and female, and there is little of the hostility toward men that typified much of her earlier poetry. Chile's great poet, Gabriela Mistral , in 1926 found in Storni's work an "active intelligence" more compelling than her emotional side. Storni herself recognized the change in focus of her poetry in a 1927 interview reported by Kirkpatrick. "I am not a totally unconstrained erotic," she said. "Passionate, yes, [but] I am a soul that governs a body, not a body that yanks around my soul." When queried about how she spent her time, she replied: "I work, I go back to work, I work again. What fun!" Kirkpatrick feels that she said this to remove the image of the poet from the ivory tower and to place her in the proper context of her links with working people.

Poetry was set aside by Storni in 1927, and she turned her attention to playwriting. Her first effort, El amo del mundo (The Master of the World), failed after only one performance, but its production spoke volumes about the constraints imposed on women artists. While the play was originally titled Dos mujeres (Two Women) "to reflect the competing courses and ideologies available to its heroines," writes Francine Masiello , the producers altered both title and text to remove the possibility of differences of opinion among women and stressed their identity within the context of masculine power. The producers argued that the changes were in anticipation of audience demand. Storni was furious, but the changes remained.

The poems, or anti-sonnets as she called them, collected by Storni in El mundo de siete pozos (The World of Seven Wells) and published in 1934, mark a critical breakthrough. Alejandro, her son, said that this was the happiest period in his mother's life. Her reputation and prestige were high, and she had a loyal following. Phillips notes that the new poetry showed a freedom of expression and affirmation of self that

left the eroticism of earlier years behind. The critics were uniformly displeased, however. Granted, the poet broke with rhyme and metrical pattern, but the critics assailed her not for this, but for addressing themes not written about by women. In short, they attacked her as a rebel who had dared to transgress the "confessional" role reserved for women writers. It was with El mundo de siete pozos and her posthumously published Mascarilla y trébol (Mask and Trefoil) that the two Alfonsinas finally spoke with one voice. The liberated woman was joined by the liberated poet.

During a vacation on the marvelous beaches of Uruguay in 1935, Storni discovered a lump in her left breast. In May, she underwent surgery and the breast was removed. There followed a period of withdrawal from her friends and a renewed focus on her work, sharpened by worries that the cancer might recur. In January 1938, Alfonsina Storni, Gabriela Mistral and Juana de Ibarbourou were brought together at the University of Montevideo to discuss their style and creativity. Storni also confessed to friends her fears that her cancer had recurred and that she wanted no further surgery. This fear was compounded by the suicide, a year earlier, of her dear friend and supporter, the Argentine writer Horacio Quiroga. He had been suffering from prostate cancer. Then, in February 1938, the writer and friend Leopoldo Lugones committed suicide, followed a few months later by the suicide of Horacio Quiroga's daughter, Eglé .

When Alfonsina Storni walked into the sea at Mar del Plata it was not because of the critics. Her cancer and the suicides of her friends, who showed her the way, were the compelling reasons that she did not resist the temptation of death as an escape.


Anderson-Imbert, Enrique. Spanish-American Literature: A History. 2 vols. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1969.

Díaz-Diocaretz, Myriam. "'I will be a scandal in your boat': Women poets and the tradition," in Susan Bassnett, ed., Knives and Angels: Women Writers in Latin America. London: Zed, 1990.

Kirkpatrick, Gwen. "The Journalism of Alfonsina Storni: A New Approach to Women's History in Argentina," in Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America: Seminar on Feminism and Culture in Latin America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990.

Lindstrom, Naomi. "Argentina," in David William Foster, comp., Handbook of Latin American Literature. NY: Garland, 1987.

Masiello, Francine. Between Civilization & Barbarism: Women, Nation, and Literary Culture in Modern Argentina. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Nalé Roxlo, Conrado. Genio y figura de Alfonsina Storni. Buenos Aires: Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires, 1964.

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

suggested reading:

Storni, Alfonsina. Selected Poems. Trans. by Marion Freeman, Mary Crow, Jim Normington and Kay Short. Freedonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1987.

Paul B. Goodwin , Jr. , Professor of History, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut