Poetic Forms

There were three main genres of verbal art in late fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century Central Mexico: speeches, songs, and prayers. Written records of all of these genres survive. Significantly, all of them made use of the same basic poetic structures. In some ways, this is not surprising, because those same poetic forms are found throughout Mesoamerica, used by speakers of many different languages.10

In order to discuss poetic structures in Central Mexico, we will begin by looking at four alphabetic texts in Nahuatl. Two are from the sixteenth century, and two are from the twentieth century. The two sixteenth-century examples are brief metaphoric speeches written down around 1547.11 The two twentieth-century examples are prayer-songs to gods with prehispanic names (Tlaloc, 7 Flower, 7 Maize). Although these two pairs of texts are examples of different genres, and were written down centuries apart, all make use of the same poetic forms: couplets, triplets, lists, and prose. Having introduced these basic forms, we will then look at images from the Matrícula de Tributos and the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. The organization of their painted images shares the same repertoire of poetic forms found in verbal art: couplets, triplets, lists, and prose.

Our first example, from around 1547, is a metaphoric speech that describes a ruler as someone who carries a burden:

His packing bag Quexane
his carrying frame mamalhuace
:horiz: :horiz:
He extends it, tlaçoua
he aligns it. tlavipana
:horiz: :horiz:
He is a sage, tlamattzin
he is in place. yuiatzin inic
:horiz: :horiz:
He carries it, tlatqui
he bears it, tlamama
he carries it in his arms. tlanapaloua
:horiz: :horiz:
His back, cuitlapane
his shoulders. tepotzeh
:horiz: :horiz:
He carries it well, hue tlauica
he sows dried maize. tlaotlatoctia
:horiz: :horiz:
He rules someone, tepachoa
he governs someone teyacana12


Thematically, this speech begins with an image of the ruler preparing his burden in the form of bag or a “carrying frame” (a sort of prehispanic backpack). After extending and aligning his burden, the ruler sets off, carrying and bearing the weight of rulership. His whole body is dedicated to the task: arms, back, and shoulders. The metaphors end with images of distribution. The burdened ruler plants maize kernels and spreads out his authority to rule and govern other people.

Poetically, most of this speech is composed of couplets, paired thematic units.13 The first two lines, for example, pair two kinds of burdens: a bag and a carrying frame. The tenth and eleventh lines pair two parts of the body: back and shoulders. Ideally, the poetic force of a couplet is derived from the associations generated by bringing the first and second units together. Lines 5 and 6, for example, express the idea that a wise person is “in place”— is someone “centered,” we might say in English, or centrado in Spanish. Similarly, lines 12 and 13 are about the aesthetics of labor: like a skilled farmer, the ruler gracefully carries the burden of rulership like a seed bag as he plants a field to provide food for his subjects. Finally, note that some of these couplets are strongly parallel, while others are slightly irregular. The final couplet, for example, is highly parallel. In translation only one word is different in the two lines; in the Nahuatl, both lines begin with te- and end with -a. In contrast, the second to last couplet is irregular.

While this oration begins and ends with three couplets, in the middle is a triplet, a poetic grouping of three phrases:14

He carries it, tlatqui
he bears it, tlamama
he carries it in his arms. tlanapaloua


All three lines use different verbs to express slightly different ways of carrying things.

The poetic forms offered by couplets and triplets also seem to shape this metaphoric speech as a whole. For example, it can be divided, as we have just seen, into three sections: a first section of three paired couplets, a second section of one triplet, and a final section of three paired couplets. In addition, the triplet serves to divide the speech into two equal halves. This “mirrored” structure, linking a number of smaller poetic forms together, is something we will see repeatedly in the following examples.

Our second sixteenth-century example is more complex. This is a metaphorical address about the accession of a ruler to the throne:

He had revealed himself on the mat Moyollotica ïpetlatl
__there on the throne __ ücpalli
:horiz: :horiz:
He makes himself head of the atlepetl in altepetl motzö tecötia
:horiz: :horiz:
He blazes xotla
he shines cueponi
__on the water __ ynatl
__on the hill __ yn tepetl15


The first two lines form an irregular couplet united by the idea of being “on the mat” and “on the throne.” Both of these objects (woven mats of palm fiber and thrones) were important Mesoamerican symbols of rulership.

This initial couplet is followed by a stand-alone phrase. Such irregular prose statements are important for contrast. They break up poetic rhythms dominated by twos and threes. Lines of prose can serve as introductions, climaxes, and—as in this case—transition points or bridges between different images.16

This prose statement is followed by a pair of perfectly parallel couplets: he blazes, he shines, on the water, on the hill. When brought together, however, these two couplets create a longer sentence. This pair of couplets could have been fused to create a single couplet: “he blazes on the water, he shines on the hill.” But in their current form, the two couplets form a horizontal couplet. The first couplet pair begins an idea that is completed by the second couplet pair. This horizontal structure has been indicated in the translation by indenting the second couplet below the first.17

In terms of metaphor, the solar associations of a ruler blazing and shining are not accidental. As Emily Umberger demonstrates, the connections made between rulership and the sun were prominent in Central Mexico. This solar imagery also relates to ideas about First Sunrises and different Ages of Creation (see the Counting: Tomorrow, The Day After Tomorrow Nahua tutorial).18 The final pairing of water (atl) and hill (tepetl) is meant to recall the word altepetl, the basic political unit of Central Mexico (see the Landscapes: Water, Mountain Nahua tutorial).19

For the third and fourth examples, we travel four hundred years into the future to look at sung prayers recorded in the late twentieth century. The first is an agricultural petition to the gods of rain and wind. It was performed in the early 1960s by Lino Balderas, a resident of the town of Hueyapan in Morelos (to the south of Mexico City).20

Come inside the cave Anhuiloa itech in oztotl,
come with many flowers and songs anhuiloa, cuica miac xochitl,
make petitions to all the winds amontlahtlauhtilo quexquich ehecame,
inside the cave itech in oztotl.
:horiz: :horiz:
Here enter all venerated winds. Ompa huilaloque ehecatzitzintin.
:horiz: :horiz:
Before the face of the winds Mixpantzin ehecatzitzintin
here on the earth nican tlalpan
__we come, __ tihualoque,
__we kneel __ totlanquaquetza,
:horiz: :horiz:
We bring one, two torches, ticualica ce, ome tlahtlanexti,
with one, two bouquets of flowers ica ce, ome mapichtli xochitl,
:horiz: :horiz:
We all come to make petitions: tihualto tinochintin, tlahtlauhtico:
That Tlaloc our god ica toteotzin Tlaloc
give rain to the mountains manquimoyahuitili
and to the little children of the people tepetl ihuan tepilhuantzitzihuan
:horiz: :horiz:
O all our esteemed lords ¡anquexquich tlacatzitzintin,
O all our venerated winds! anquexquich ehecatzitzintin!


The first four lines are complex. On the one hand, the first three lines form a triplet, each beginning with a command. But the first and fourth lines repeat the phrase “inside the cave” ( itech in oztotl ), and so it is almost as though one couplet (Come inside the cave / inside the cave) were split down the middle by a second couplet, creating a mirrored ABBA structure. Remember that the overall pattern of lines in the first example on rulership had a similar mirrored structure: two halves divided in the middle.

The fifth line is a simple prose statement: “Here enter all venerated winds.” It is followed by a horizontal couplet. The first two lines talk about location (Before the face of the winds, here on the earth), and the second two lines describe deferential action (we come, we kneel). The next two lines form a couplet about offerings of torches and flowers. This is followed by a long prose statement that forms the climax of the prayer: the god Tlaloc is beseeched to provide rain. (This statement has been broken up into smaller segments here for reasons of space). The prayer ends with a perfectly parallel coda, in which the pairing of “lords” and “winds” highlights the wind as a personified force. This coupleted linking of lords and winds also suggests deep connections to prehispanic beliefs about the role of the nobility in performing sacrifices and maintaining cosmic balances. Remember that in the first speech the ruler was likened to a farmer planting seeds, and that in the second the ruler was compared to the sun.

Our fourth and final example introduces three additional poetic forms: the split couplet, another type of irregular triplet, and the list. This prayer for agricultural fertility was performed in 1967 by Juan Bautista Reyes, a resident of the town of Yupiltitla, Veracruz.21 It was a prayer offered to the earth before planting maize. The original text is quite long, so we focus here on the opening lines and on a section near the end.

You, surface of the earth tu-atl titlaltikpaktle
__are father __ titatah
You, surface of the earth titlaltikpaktle
__are mother __ nanah
:horiz: :horiz:
With divine copal ika se teska kopal-i
With a divine celebration ika se teska iwitl
__here I will speak to you __ nikan tu-atl nimitskamawes
__I will call you here __ tu-atl nikan nimitsonotsas
__I will give you here __ tu-atl nikan nimitsonmakas
__ __divine copal __ __ se teska kopal-i
__ __divine light __ __ se teska tlawil-i
:horiz: :horiz:
You will see waters of 7 Flower here tikonit-as in chikome xochiatl inka nikan
You tu-atl
__who are the great father __ weyi titata
__who are the great mother __ weyi tinana
You inka tu-atl
__should not become sad __ amo kanah tu-atl timokwehsos
__should not become worried __ amo kanah tu-atl timotekipachos
We will offer you a brilliant light ika se teska tlawil-i22


The prayer begins with a poetic form we have not seen before: the split couplet.23 Split couplets have an ABAC format, in which the first and third lines are repeated, and the second and fourth lines offer horizontal-couplet-style continuations of the repeated phrase.

The next section of the prayer, lines 5 to 11, has a complex structure. Overall, these lines show a horizontal progression of ideas. The first two lines form a couplet that names two types of offerings to the gods (copal incense, and a celebration). This couplet is then extended by an irregular triplet. In these three lines, the prayermaker promises to speak, call, and make offerings. Those offerings are specified in the final couplet: copal incense (again), and light. In some ways, this section of the prayer shows the mirrored symmetrical structuring we have seen above. It begins and ends with couplets making reference to “divine” offerings presented to the gods (copal is mentioned twice, celebration and light once). Sandwiched between these couplets about offerings is a triplet focused on the actions of the prayermaker.

The next section begins with a prose statement (“You will see waters of 7 Flower here”). It is followed by two irregular triplets, both in a form we have not yet seen.24 In this style of triplet, an irregular introductory phrase is followed by a couplet:

You tu-atl
__who are the great father weyi titata
__should not become sad __ amo kanah tu-atl timokwehsos
__should not become worried __ amo kanah tu-atl timotekipachos


Both of these triplets reassure the earth, because offerings are about to be made. This is the subject of the final line of prose in this excerpt: “We will offer you a brilliant light.”

A final poetic form common to Mesoamerican verbal art is the list, in which a series of objects or persons are named.25 There are several lists in this planting-prayer. One example, featuring the names of agricultural deities, appears at the end of this excerpt:

To you, wherever you find yourself tu-atl kampa tieltikah
__great father __ tiweyi titata
you who are the great mother tu-atl tiweyi tinana
__do not become sad, __ amo timokwehsos
__do not become distressed __ amo timotekipachos
You should not cast off, amo tikmahkawsas
You should not throw amo tiktlawisos
__the agricultural father 7 Flower __ in chikome xochitlatoktata
__the agricultural mother 7 Flower __ chikome xochitlatoknana
__the boy 7 Flower __ chikome xochiokichpil
__the girl 7 Flower __ chikome xochisiwapil
__the father 7 Maize __ chikome sintektata
__the mother 7 Maize __ chikome sinteknana


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10 The division of speeches, songs, and prayers is adapted from Bierhorst 2009, 25-27. Studies of speeches can be found in Karttunen and Lockhart 1987 and Maxwell and Hanson 1992. Studies of songs can be found in Bierhorst 1985, León-Portilla 1992, and Bierhorst 2009. The translations of Nahuatl songs is extremely difficult and controversial, as discussed in Lockhart 1991, 141-157 and Lockhart 1992, 392-401. Studies of prayers from the seventeenth century can be found in Coe and Whittaker 1982, and Andrews and Hassig 1984. Prayers from twentieth century are published in Reyes García 1976, Segre 1987, and Muñoz Cruz and Podestá Siri 1994. Additional examples of twentieth-century poetry, prayers, and popular songs can be found in León-Portilla 1988, 1989, and 1990. The journal Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl, published by the Universidad Autónoma de México in Mexico City, frequently includes contemporary poems and stories in Nahuatl.

11 Maxwell and Hanson 1992; Burkhart 1989, 102 argues that these metaphors were extracted from longer speeches.

12 Adapted from Maxwell and Hanson 1992, 77-78, 170.

fn13.On couplets in Central Mexican verbal art, see Maxwell and Hanson 1992, 21-24; on couplets in other Mesoamerican poetic traditions, see Tedlock 1987, 148-150; Monaghan 1990, 136.

14 On triplets in Mesoamerican poetics, see Tedlock 1987, 158-160; Monaghan 1990, 138.

15 Adapted from Maxwell and Hanson 1992, 119, 132.

16 Maxwell and Hanson 1992; 22; see also Tedlock 1987, 168 and Monaghan 1990, 137-138.

fn17.Tedlock 1987, 150-151.

18 Umberger 1987, 424-427

19 Maxwell and Hanson 1992, 160; Lockhart 1992, 14-58.

20 León-Portilla 1989, 384-385, 394-395. Indentations have been added to highlight the poetic structure of the text.

21 Reyes García 1976, 50-60.

22 The prayer begins in Spanish with a long prose invocation of Christian supernaturals; this has been deleted here (Reyes García 1976, 50). Minor adaptations to the translation have been made, and indentations have been added to highlight the poetic features of the text. Reyes García offers the text in Nahuatl and translated into Spanish and German; a partial, slightly different translation into Spanish (one that reduces some of the parallelisms in the Nahuatl original) is found in León-Portilla 1989, 395-399.

23 Monaghan 1990, 136.

24 Monaghan 1990, 136.

25 Monaghan 1990, 136.