Study Guide

Human Poems

by Cesar Vallejo

Human Poems Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Including a series of prose poems elsewhere titled Poemas en prosa (Prose Poems) and a riveting fifteen-poem sequence about the Spanish Civil War titled España, aparta de mí este cáliz (Spain, Take This Cup from Me), the poetry in Human Poems is more overtly political than in either of Vallejo’s previous collections. Consequently, Human Poems offers a new and significant form of political poetry. More specifically, this is achieved through his intimate fusion of private hope, fear, and apprehension with a flurry of feverish public ideology, large-scale death by warfare, and the biopoliticization of the body. Furthermore, Human Poems starkly and meticulously explores the perils of capitalistic cosmopolitanism, and this situates Vallejo thematically amid many contemporaneous modernist artists regardless of genre.

Thus Human Poems simultaneously individuates Vallejo for his poetic ingenuity while conjoining him to his contemporaries in the arts and politics. As a result, the book paradoxically positions Vallejo as both a timeless iconoclast and a representative of his times; he is a pioneering explorer of Otherness as both a specific historical contingency and an a priori ontological condition. In other words, while his poetry most often pivots emotionally upon notions of suffering, it derives from the incommensurate divide between self and Other, both in time and place and metaphysically. Moreover, throughout Human Poems Vallejo agonizes over this divide, which repeatedly illustrates in various manifestations his despair at his inability to integrate himself into the Other and the Other into himself. An example of this is the sonnet “Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca” (“Black Stone on a White Stone”), which is among his most famous poems. Interestingly, that poem also seems to foreshadow Vallejo’s death with prophetic vision.

Human Poems Bibliography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Hart, Stephen. Stumbling Between Forty-six Stars. London: Centre of César Vallejo Studies, 2007.

Higgins, James. César Vallejo: An Anthology of His Poetry. New York: Pergamon, 1970.

Sharman, Adam, ed. The Poetry and Poetics of Cesar Vallejo: The Fourth Angle of the Circle. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.

Vallejo, César. Selected Poems. Edited by Stephen Hart. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2000.

Vallejo, César. Selected Poems. Translated by Michael Smith and Valentino Gianuzzi. Exeter, England: Shearsman Books, 2006.