SURI: Unlocking the Links Between Spanish Poetry and Culture

LEXINGTON, Va. Aug. 4, 2023 — Caitria Catania ’24 has been studying Spanish for eight years, but after taking a Spanish literature class  with Col. John Cerkey this past spring, her love of analyzing Spanish poets grew. During her 3rd Class year after taking the 300 level literature class “Nobel Laureates,” she decided to declare a double major in international studies and modern languages and culture and a minor in writing and rhetoric. 

“My professor approached me asking if I would be interested in a research project with him on Spanish literature and I thought it would be a great way to enrich my knowledge of poetry and the Spanish language,” she said.  A student doing undergraduate research for VMI's SURI program

As part of Virginia Military Institute’s Summer Undergraduate Research Institute (SURI) program, Catania researched and analyzed two Spanish poets — Vicente Aleixandre and Federico García Lorca — to show their impact on Spanish literature in 1927 and how it impacted modern-day Spanish literature in her project entitled “Revolution in the Poetic Language of the Generation of 1927.”  

“These poets were very critical to this literary movement as they focused on the surrealism of the visual arts and animated their words to capture the very marginalized elements of their society to create pieces of art,” she said.  

She said she focused a good portion of her research on Lorca, saying she was immediately drawn to him and his way of bringing surrealism to life, and how he was inspired by the 1898 generation of poets. She said both poets utilize the techniques used in older poetry mixing in modern techniques in a special blend. 

“I choose Aleixandre and Lorca not only because they were born in 1898 and both come from the southern region of Spain known as Andalucía, but also because their poetic development parallels one another very closely,” she said. “I say ‘parallels,’ but they are completely distinct geniuses whose contributions liberated new directions — as per the title of this project — and allowed their fellow members to explore vastly different poetic registers, from metaphysics to existentialism, to gay thematics — though this latter, somewhat veiled.” 

SURI is offered by the VMI Center for Undergraduate Research (VCUR) and provides cadets with a unique opportunity to delve into high-level research that relates to their degree path. It consists of cadet-led research under the direction of a faculty advisor.  

Catania devoted six hours on the weekdays to research over the summer and met with Cerkey two to three times a week. 

Researching and reading literature in another language did pose some problems. The Spanish to English translations she had weren’t exact. Combining Cerkey’s translations and other English translations allowed Catania to read them and have the poems still retain their original meaning.  

“If I were just to Google Translate a poem, it wouldn't be the meaning I actually want the poems to be,” she said. “It's been years and years of people researching these to get English translations for them.” 

Prior to starting her SURI project, Catania spent a month studying in Spain. This helped her with her research, she said, since she was staying close to the places that both poets touched on in their work. This was helpful in that Lorca used his surroundings and situation to express his pieces of art. 

“I went to the place where these two poets were born,” she said. “I could see that culture in a sense, and it's definitely given me a deeper appreciation for Spanish culture. And not only that, but I took a Spanish history course there, and their poems were published and written during the time of the Spanish Civil War. I've spent so much time researching and learning about the Spanish Civil War that I can really understand what they were going through.” 

A student doing undergraduate research for VMI's SURI programThese poets were protégés of Salvador Dalí, Catania said. One of the distinctive marks of Aleixandre is his ability to transform the surrealism of the visual arts into his unique verbal medium. 

“Lorca from his earliest ages, a lover of music and the visual arts, was sublimely in tune with nature and his lyric voice animates, with an organic reality, all of the world and universe that surrounds him,” she said. “He also is touched by surrealism in his later poetry, but his most distinctive milestone was to capture that very marginalized element of his society — the gypsy world, with the same sensibility with which his poetic voice touched all of nature and humanity.” 

Through SURI, she was able to gather more knowledge of Spanish culture and history. She said tackling a 21-page paper written entirely in Spanish was a huge feat.  

“I think SURI is a very important program at VMI because it gives cadets the ability to choose a topic of their interest and do thorough and intense research and analysis of the topic,” she said. “Not only does it teach research methods, but it also creates a strong and lasting relationship with a professor.” 

Cerkey, a professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, said Catania showed promising signs early on and has only grown in her skills as the project has progressed. His goal, as a professor, is for his students to learn Spanish and get better at the written and spoken word. 

“More than anything else, I want you to become good critical thinkers,” he said.  “Of all the skill sets that you'll most benefit from down the road, the most important is critical thinking,” he said. “You may forget your Spanish; you may be only a minor. Even if you're a major you may not end up using your Spanish down the road. But if I can help you sharpen your critical insight and critical thinking abilities … critical analysis is key.” 

Laura Peters Shapiro
Photos by Kelly Nye
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