tlamatine: In Náhuatl, the language of the Aztec world, one key word for poet was tlamatine, meaning “the one who knows,” or “he who knows something.” Poets were considered “sages of the word,” who meditated on human enigmas and explored the beyond, the realm of the gods. The Aztec poets of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, who were perhaps the first known poets of the Americas, had all been instructed in the calmecac, or priestly schools, where, as Miguel León-Portilla puts it, “They had mastered the science of the calendar, the divine wisdom, the books of the annals, the ancient songs, and the discourses.” Their indigenous texts were painted in what are now lost pictoglyphic codices. These were later recited to ethnographer-friars, who in turn transcribed them in Roman letters. The “ancient word” of the Náhuatl texts was preserved in a few sixteenth-century manuscripts. My favorite poet from this period is Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin, who lived in the second half of the fifteenth century in what is now Puebla. He seems to have been a teohua, or priest, a “White Eagle.” He was a seeker after heights who recognized “friendship is a shower of precious flowers” and “Earth is the region of the fleeting moment.” From a lapidary statement in a poem sometimes called “Let the Earth Remain Forever,” I have an image of him walking and chanting his songs on ancient roads. The Aztec poets had a keen sense of transience and sang often of cahuitl, “that which leaves us.”
Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.