Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2022
Kerschen is an educator and freelance writer. In this essay, she compares the differences found in various translations of the Vallejo poem “The Black Heralds” and comments on the possible changes in tone and meaning that these differences can make.
It is said that every Peruvian knows the opening line of “Los Heraldos Negros,” the title poem to César Vallejo’s first book, published in 1919 in Lima: “Hay golpes en la vida tan fuertes . . . Yono sé!” Translated into English, this line from “The Black Heralds” is: “There are blows in life so hard . . . I just don’t know!” Or is it? The book was, of course, written and published in Spanish, so English readers have to rely upon the quality of the translation to be able to discern the tone and meaning of Vallejo’s poetry. Depending on the interpretation of the translator, any given word could appear in two, three, or more variations, and some of the variations could convey quite different connotations.
The point is that translators come into the job with different agendas as well as knowledge, and critics are likely to find fault with their efforts one way or another.
Poetry is very subjective, intentionally so. The poet may have one thing in mind when writing the poem, but the reader gets something else out of it—and that is okay. Everyone does some interpreting while reading prose or poetry, according to each person’s own schema, that is, the individual’s own world view based on that person’s individual knowledge and experience. Within reason, and following certain basic rules of language, the poem nonetheless means whatever it means to each person, including the translator. The definition of a word, its literal meaning, is the first consideration, but then the connotations come into play and can change the entire meaning of a line. “No act shows the provisional nature of reading and writing as does translation, a series of decisions and revisions themselves subject to infinite questioning and revising,” states Alfred J. MacAdam in a 1980 review of Clayton Eshleman’s translation of Cesar Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry.
Critics often comment on the difficulties of the translator’s job. Julio Ortega, writing for Latin American Writers, states: “Vallejo is perhaps the most complicated poet of the Spanish language. . . . the hermetic [airtight] work of Vallejo is nearly impossible to translate.” However, Efrain Kristal, writing a critique of Eshleman’s 2006 book, The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, for American Poetry Review says that Eshleman has shown that “impossible to translate” is not the same as “impossible to paraphrase,” and he “renders Vallejo’s paradoxes with ease, and his linguistic unconventionalities with instinctual acumen.”
In the introduction to her translation of The Black Heralds, Rebecca Seiferle asserts: “Reading and translating Vallejo has been a long process of trying to meet him on his own terms, to discover what those terms were within the contexts of his particular time and, finally, taking his word for it.” How well Seiferle succeeds is questioned by Christopher Maurer in an article for New Republic about her translation of Vallejo’s Trilce, and one can assume that these remarks could apply to The Black Heralds as well. Maurer complains that Seiferle has only a “tenuous hold on the Spanish language.” In addition, Seiferle appears to be trying to excise from Vallejo the colonization that she sees in other translations. Despite the many critics who find evidence of Vallejo’s indigenous background in his poetry, which is fairly evident from his use of some native language terms, Seiferle finds these allusions to be parodies of Indian culture rather than romantic nostalgia about rural and native life. In the same article, Maurer reviews Eshleman’s translation of Trilce and finds it to be a high risk for accuracy, calling Eshleman a “verbal stunt man.” The point is that translators come into the job with different agendas as well as knowledge, and critics are likely to find fault with their efforts one way or another.
The translation provided by Kathleen Ross and Richard Schaaf in their 1990 publication of The Black Heralds was reviewed by Asunción Horno-Delgado for American Book Review. Her comments touch on several of the issues involved in translation that could apply to any work:
The Spanish-speaking reader will feel compelled to quibble with some of the translations . . . for the English translations sometimes render a Romantic overtone totally absent in Vallejo’s poetry. Several other subtleties of the original Spanish are lost, as inevitably happens in translations of poetry. The translation loses some gender-based shades of meaning that are virtually impossible to translate from Spanish into English, and also those wonderful diminutive forms of Spanish that do not exist in English. Still, the magic of this poetry does survive in English, despite such absences. In general, this translation is well done and an invitation to enjoy the pleasure of the text.
For example, regarding the first line of “The Black Heralds,” is it that the “blows in life” are hard, powerful, strong, violent, or heavy? In the 1990 translation of the book by Kathleen Ross and Richard Schaaf, the choice is “hard.” In the 2006 edition of Clayton Eshleman’s The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, it is “powerful.” In Eshleman’s 1979 book, Cesar Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry, the choice is “strong.” In a 1995 article by Vallejo scholar Edward Hirsch, it is “violent.” In Cesar Vallejo: Selected Poems translated by H. R. Hays in 1989, it is “heavy.”
From this list, it is obvious that Eshleman changed his mind between 1979 and 2006 from “strong” to “powerful.” Since Eshleman has spent four decades studying Vallejo and won the National Book Award for his 1979 translation of The Complete Posthumous Poetry (in partnership with Jose Rubio Barcia), it would seem that he has the expertise in Spanish and on Vallejo to make an accurate choice. So, is the 2006 version more correct simply because more years of study have passed since the first translation and Eshleman has a better understanding of Vallejo’s intent? Does the mood of the translator have an effect on the interpretation just as the mood of the reader does?
Complicating matters for the translator of poetry is the difficulty of choosing a word that not only conveys the original meaning but also the rhythm and meter of the poem. Perhaps the three-syllable word “powerful” was considered too long for the line by one of the translators who chose the one-syllable “hard” or “strong” or the two-syllable “heavy.” Line two presents another issues of interpretation: Hays uses “Blows like God’s hatred,” while Eshleman uses “Blows as from the hatred of God.” The latter is less of a comparison of the blows to God’s hatred and more of a connection between the blows and God’s hatred—the blows are not “like” God’s hatred, they actually come from God’s hatred. Eshleman’s translation seems more powerful and sinister.
There are some translations that even an English-only reader or an amateur reader of poetry may question. For example, an essay for The Dictionary of Literary Biography, by Linda S. Maier, cites a translation of “Yo no sé!” as “I can’t answer!” instead of “I don’t know!” or “I just don’t know!” Even a first-semester Spanish student knows that “No sé” is the expression for “I don’t know” because that is the reply used often by students in answer to the teacher’s questions. Although the phrase certainly could be interpreted to mean “I can’t answer,” the more common usage is simply “I don’t know.” Since “I can’t answer” is more formal, few people cry out in frustrated anguish: “I can’t answer!” Rather, they will shout “I don’t know!” to express their loss of words for an explanation of their desperate situation, or as Ross and Schaaf translated the phrase “I just don’t know” using “just” for further emphasis. Nonetheless, Edward Hirsch, a frequent writer on Vallejo, uses a translation in a 1995 article that has “I can’t answer!” This translation uses “violent” for “hard” in the first line, but calls the poem “The Black Riders,” which is totally different from all the other references. Here again, it is hard to understand how anyone could get “riders” out of “heraldos,” unless one focuses on Attila’s steeds. Some translations use “messengers” for “heralds.” At least that is closer, but “messenger” carries less the connotation of bringing an announcement than “heralds” conveys. Is Death more likely to send a message or a pronouncement?
The Maier article also translates the third and fourth lines of “The Black Heralds” as “the deep waters of everything lived through were backed up in the soul.” The better translations use “undertow” for “deep waters,” which has more of a sense of danger and being pulled down. Preferred translations also use “suffering” for “lived through,” which again carries more a sense of pain; things “lived through” could be joyous occasions, too. Eshleman in 1979 uses the stronger “undertow” but follows that with “flowed into our souls,” which seems too gentle a phrase for an undertow. A worse choice, though, is using “backed up” instead of “welled up,” which sounds more like a backed up sewer system than the rising of repressed emotions. Are the emotions backing up in the soul to places where they could hide more deeply, or are they welling up to the point of being released in an explosion of reaction? Depending on the translation, it is hard to tell if the flood of emotions is flowing forward or backward. Ross and Schaaf use the similar term “backwash,” and Hays uses “dammed up.” These two choices carry the same idea of being held or pushed back as the translation in Maier’s article, but “dammed up” carries the meaning of being forcibly held back by structures that humans tend to build around their emotions and is, therefore, more powerful than merely being “backed up,” as in a traffic jam or backwashed like water at a marina.
The questions that a critic could ask about a translator are numerous: Did the translator lean too heavily on dictionaries and literary sources? Was the translator sensitive to the everyday subtleties of the language? Did the translator take into account idiomatic usage? How well does the translator know the poet, his life, his idiosyncrasies, the emotions he would have put into his poetry? With Vallejo, was his Spanish really mixed with the Quechua language, or did his experimentation with the Spanish confuse translators about the source of his words and phrases? In addition, did he use words that were mispronounced by the rural, uneducated people of his village and thus may appear to be something different from what they are? Did Vallejo have in his language words from his indigenous, backwater upbringing that appear archaic to translators but were in popular usage where he lived? Since Vallejo experimented with language, is a word choice a neologism—a made-up word—for which there is no match in English?
With all these variables, it is no wonder that the seventh line of “The Black Heralds” might have the barbarians of Attila the Hun’s army riding ponies, colts, or steeds, although it is frankly hard to imagine warriors riding ponies or colts. Steeds are noble, spirited horses bred for war and thus would seem to be the best word choice. Even plain “horses” would be better than ponies or colts whose size and youth make them unsuited for battle. However, MacAdam quotes Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinean writer as saying, in a commentary on the various translations of Homer, that “No translation is, in the last analysis, better than any other. Even the worst translation may succeed in communicating to the reader some aspect of the original absent in the ‘better’ translation.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder because beauty is subjective, poetry is subjective, and translation, besides the language skills required, is ultimately subjective, too.
Source: Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on “The Black Heralds,” in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5961
Linda S. Maier
In the following essay,Maier gives a critical analysis of Vallejo’s work.
Although he published relatively little during his lifetime and received scant critical acclaim, César Vallejo has come to be recognized as one of the most important and complex poets of the Spanish language, one of the foremost poets of Spanish America, and the greatest Peruvian poet of all time. His literary production includes essays, novels, short stories, plays, and a screenplay; but his reputation rests primarily on his poetry, much of which appeared posthumously. Vallejo’s chief contribution to poetry is his innovative use of language to communicate intense, authentic emotion and to convey both personal and existential anguish. His verse is marked by a strong sense of compassion and filled with Christian imagery that in his later works is fused with Marxist ideology. Vallejo’s poetry has influenced generations of Peruvian and other Spanish American poets to undertake further experiments with poetic language and technique.
The youngest of seven boys and four girls, César Abraham Vallejo was born on 16 March 1892 in Santiago de Chuco, a small town in an agricultural region of the Andes Mountains in northern Peru, to Francisco de Paula Vallejo Benites, a notary public and district official, and María de los Santos Mendoza Gurrionero. Both of Vallejo’s grandfathers were Spanish Jesuit priests, and his grandmothers were Chimú Indians. Vallejo received a traditional Catholic upbringing and was encouraged by his parents to consider the priesthood. After attending primary school in his hometown, he began secondary school in 1905 at the Colegio Nacional de San Nicolás (St. Nicholas National High School)—known as the ‘‘Athens of the Andes’’—in Huamachuco, where he first began writing poetry.
Vallejo graduated from high school in 1908 and took a job as a clerk in his father’s notary public office. Later he worked in the office of a mining company in Quiruvilca, between Santiago de Chuco and Huamachuco; as a tutor on a country estate; and as an assistant cashier in the accounting office of a sugar plantation near Trujillo, the capital of the department of La Libertad on the northern Peruvian coast. He was forced to abandon college plans twice during this period because he could not afford the cost of university study.
In 1913 Vallejo enrolled at the Universidad Nacional de La Libertad (La Libertad National University) in Trujillo. He completed a humanities degree in 1915 with a thesis titled El Romanticismo en la poesía castellana (Romanticism in Castilian Poetry). The thesis, which was published in 1954, is divided into a description of the origins of Spanish Romanticism and a review of typical Romantic traits of Spanish poets, including Manuel José Quintana, José de Espronceda, and José Zorrilla. Vallejo studied law at the university from 1915 to 1917 but did not complete work for a degree. To support himself as a student he taught botany and anatomy at the Centro Escolar de Varones No. 241 (Middle Boys’ School No. 241), where he contributed scientific explanations in verse to the school magazine, Cultura Infantil (Children’s Culture), and later at the Colegio Nacional de San Juan (St. John National School), where one of his pupils was the future novelist Ciro Alegría.
In Trujillo, Vallejo had failed romances with two women, María Rosa Sandoval and Zoila Rosa Cuadra, who merged into the figure of ‘‘Mirtho’’ in his early verse. He belonged to a progressive circle of writers and intellectuals known as the bohemios (bohemians) or ‘‘Trujillo group,’’ which also included artist and journalist José Eulogio Garrido; politician Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre; philosopher and journalist Antenor Orrego; poets Óscar Imaña, Francisco Sandoval, and Alcides Spelucín; and painter Macedonio de la Torre. His reading expanded from medieval and Golden Age Spanish literature to embrace the works of Americans Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, Spaniard Miguel de Unamuno, Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó, French symbolists, and Modernista poets such as Rubén Darío of Nicaragua, Julio Herrera y Reissig of Uruguay, Juan Ramón Jiménez of Spain, Amado Nervo of Mexico, and José Santos Chocano of Peru. Vallejo began to publish his poetry in La Industria (Industry) and La Reforma (Reform), local newspapers edited by Garrido and Orrego, and to recite it publicly. La Industria said of one of his readings in a 13 October 1916 review: ‘‘Es aún novicio casi, pero en él se apunta una preciosa promesa’’ (Though still a novice, he promises bright hopes for the future).
In 1917 Vallejo moved to Lima, where he conducted newspaper interviews with the prominent Peruvian literary figures Abraham Valdelomar (whose pseudonym was ‘‘El Conde de Lemos’’ [Count Lemos]), José María Eguren, and Manuel Gonzá lez Prada and came into contact with the city’s two leading groups of writers and intellectuals: one led by Valdelomar, the editor of the experimental magazine Colónida, and the other by essayist and political activist José Carlos Mariátegui. In 1918 he began teaching at the Colegio Barrós (Barrós High School), one of the city’s finest private schools. That year his mother, who is lovingly portrayed in his early verse, died, but Vallejo was unable to return home for her funeral. Also in 1918 Valdelomar wrote of Vallejo in the Lima journal Sud- América: ‘‘Hay en tu espíritu la chispa divina de los elegidos. Eres un gran artista, un hombre sincero y bueno, un niño lleno de dolor, de tristeza, de inquietud, de sombra y de esperanza. . . . tu espíritu, donde anida la chispa de Dios, será inmortal, fecundará otras almas y vivirá radiante en la Gloria por los siglos de los siglos. Amén’’ (The divine light of the chosen is in your spirit. You are a great artist, a good and sincere man, a child filled with pain, sadness, and anxiety, with both pessimism and hope. . . . your spirit, where God’s inspiration dwells, will be immortal and enrich others and blaze in Glory forever and ever. Amen).
When the founder of the Colegio Barrós died in September 1918, Vallejo became principal and led the reorganization of the school as the Instituto Nacional (National Institute); but an unhappy romantic involvement with a woman named Otilia, the sister-in-law of one of his colleagues, cost him his job. Subsequently, he held a short-lived post as an elementary teacher at the Colegio Nacional de Guadalupe (Guadalupe National School).
Vallejo’s first collection of poetry, Los heraldos negros (translated as The Black Heralds, 1990), was printed in mid 1918 but not distributed until the following year. The title conveys the melancholy tone of the volume and announces a bleak worldview in which life heralds inevitable death. The sixty-nine poems are divided into an introductory text and six unequal sections, of which only two form thematic units: ‘‘Nostalgias imperiales’’ (Imperial Nostalgia), on the Peruvian countryside, and ‘‘Canciones de hogar’’ (Songs of Home), on the connection between happiness and family. The other poems are grouped arbitrarily and treat personal, social, and existential themes, and many incorporate Christian symbolism and allusions. Los heraldos negros is a transitional work that marks both a continuation of Spanish American Modernismo and the emergence of Vallejo’s original poetic voice. Like the Modernista masters Darío, Herrera y Reissig, and Leopoldo Lugones of Argentina, Vallejo employs traditional forms, including sonnets as well as heptasyllabic (seven-syllable) and hendecasyllabic (eleven-syllable) verses, which lend musicality to his work. Moreover, he assimilates common Modernista motifs, such as idyllic landscape description and blending of mysticism and eroticism. On the other hand, Vallejo’s poems exhibit greater social awareness and a more extensive use of ordinary language than most Modernista verse.
The title poem sets the pessimistic tone of the book:
Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes . . . Yo no sé! Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante ellos, la resaca de todo lo sufrido se empozara en el alma . . . Yo no sé!
(There are blows in life so violent . . . I can’t answer! Blows as if from the hatred of God; as if before them, the deep waters of everything lived through were backed up in the soul . . . I can’t answer!).
The pastoral compositions are also imbued with sadness; and while Vallejo equates happiness with home and family, the loss of his brother, commemorated in the elegy ‘‘A mi hermano Miguel’’ (To My Brother Miguel), represents the dissolution of the family unit. Similarly, Vallejo’s love poems, such as ‘‘Setiembre’’ (September) and ‘‘Heces’’ (Down to the Dregs), depict painful personal experiences.
In Los heraldos negros Vallejo often cloaks social and existential themes in religious imagery; he continued to do so throughout his career. For example, in ‘‘El pan nuestro’’ (Our Daily Bread) he expresses concern for the underprivileged but is incapable of taking action to help them; in his imagination he distributes bread to them like the priest giving out the Host during the Eucharist. Bread is both the physical and the spiritual staff of life:
Se quisiera tocar todas las puertas, y preguntar por no sé quién; y luego ver a los pobres, y, llorando quedos, dar pedacitos de pan fresco a todos. Y saquear a los ricos sus viñedos con las dos manos santas que a un golpe de luz volaron desclavadas de la Cruz!
(I wish I could beat on all the doors, and ask for somebody; and then look at the poor, and, while they wept softly, give bits of fresh bread to them. And plunder the rich of their vineyards with those two blessed hands which blasted the nails with one blow of light, and flew away from the Cross!).
Vallejo compares human existence to a game of chance in which humanity, alone and defenseless, must struggle for survival in a hostile universe. In ‘‘Los dados eternos’’ (The Eternal Dice) God is a gamester incapable of managing the world:
Dios mío, y esta noche sorda, oscura, ya no podrás jugar, porque la Tierra es un dado roído y ya redondo a fuerza de rodar a la aventura, que no puede parar si no en un hueco, en el hueco de inmensa sepultura
(My God, in this muffled, dark night, you can’t play anymore, because the Earth is already a die nicked and rounded from rolling by chance; and it can stop only in a hollow place, in the hollow of the enormous grave).
Vallejo’s first poetry collection characterizes life as meaningless anguish and God as impotent, indifferent, and, possibly, even nonexistent.
Having lost two teaching jobs and published an unnoticed volume of poetry during his two and a half years in Lima, Vallejo decided in mid 1920 to return to his hometown. Stopping along the way in Huamachuco, he publicly recited several poems that were not well received and defiantly predicted ‘‘Llegaré a ser más grande que Rubén Darío y tendré el orgullo de ver a la América prosternada a mis pies’’ (One day my poetry will make me greater than even Rubén Darío, and I will have the pleasure of seeing America prostrated before my feet). He arrived in Santiago de Chuco during festivities in honor of the town’s patron saint. Vallejo and nearly twenty other individuals were accused of instigating a riot on the final day of the celebration that resulted in one death, the looting and burning of the town’s largest business, and an assault on the municipal telephone and telegraph offices. Vallejo went into hiding but was arrested three months later, in early November, and spent 112 days in prison in Trujillo. Although he was allowed to have books and visitors and to write, his prison experience embittered him and led to his later stories and poems exposing the world’s arbitrary cruelty. During his incarceration his poem ‘‘Fabla de gesta (Elogio del Marqués)’’ (Heroic Fable [in Praise of the Marquis]) was awarded second prize in a municipal competition commemorating the centennial of Peru’s declaration of independence.
Released in late February 1921, Vallejo returned to Lima and resumed teaching at the Colegio Nacional de Guadalupe. In late 1921 his story ‘‘Más allá de la vida y la muerte’’ (Beyond Life and Death) won first prize in a literary contest; it was published in the Lima magazine Variedades (Variety), along with a photograph of the author and three illustrations, the following year.
Also in 1922 Vallejo published Trilce (translated, 1973), his second book of poetry and the last to appear during his lifetime. Comprising poems written between 1918 and 1922 and including a preface by Orrego, Trilce signals a radical break with tradition and has come to be viewed as one of the major texts of avant-garde poetry in Spanish. Vallejo’s knowledge of the international avant-garde movements that were occurring at the time the volume was published was derived principally from his reading of literary journals from Spain such as Cervantes, La Esfera (The Sphere), España (Spain), and Ultra; his relative lack of familiarity with the European avant-garde makes his achievement all the more notable.
Vallejo had originally intended to publish the volume as ‘‘Cráneos de bronce’’ (Bronze Skulls) under the pseudonym César Perú; the title he used, Trilce, is a neologism that is generally interpreted as a combination of tres (three) or triple (triple) and dulce (sweet). The volume consists of seventy-seven poems designated by Roman numerals rather than by titles. As in Los heraldos negros, Vallejo explores personal and universal existential issues; but this time he does so in a raw, idiosyncratic style. Past happiness is juxtaposed with present anguish as the family unit disintegrates with the deaths of its members. The poet’s mother embodies this lost paradise in poem XXIII: ‘‘Tahona estuosa de aquellos mis bizcochos / pura yema infantil innumerable, madre’’ (Radiant bakery of those my sweet rolls / pure infantile innumerable yolk, mother). In poem LXI a visit to his family home produces nostalgia when the poet encounters only an empty house:
Esta noche desciendo del caballo, ante la puerta de la casa, donde me despedí con el cantar del gallo. Está cerrada y nadie responde
(Tonight I get down from my horse, before the door of the house, where I said farewell with the cock’s crowing. It is shut and no one responds).
In poem XVIII Vallejo’s prison experience becomes a metaphor of the human struggle against all limitations:
Oh las cuatro paredes de la celda. Ah las cuatro paredes albicantes que sin remedio dan al mismo número
(Oh the four walls of the cell. Ah the four bleaching walls that inevitably face the same number).
Vallejo blends conventional techniques such as antithesis, oxymoron, paradox, and free verse with neologisms; awkward alliterations; harsh sounds; linguistic and syntactic distortions; reiterations; enumerations; innovative capitalization, punctuation, and spacing; reverse writing; archaisms; idiomatic and regional expressions; and slang. In poem XXXII he invents words and uses numbers and discordant sounds to describe a sweltering afternoon in which heat and noise block human activity:
999 calorías. Rumbb. . . . . . Trrraprrr rrach. . . . . chaz Serpentínica u del bizcochero enjirafada al tímpano. Quién como los hielos. Pero nó. Quién como lo que va ni más ni menos. Quién como el justo medio
(999 calories. Roombbb. . . . . . Hulllablll llust. . . . . ster Serpenteenice of the sweet roll vendor girafted to the eardrum. Lucky are the ices. But no. Lucky that which moves neither more nor less. Lucky the golden mean).
Because of its difficult and hermetic nature, Trilce was generally ignored by critics and was despised by those who did notice it. In his October 1922 review in the Lima weekly Mundial (Universal) Luis Alberto Sánchez called the book ‘‘incomprensible y estrambótico’’ (incomprehensible and outlandish) and wondered, ‘‘¿Por qué habrá escrito Trilce Vallejo?’’ (Why did Vallejo ever write Trilce?).
In 1923 Vallejo published a collection of short stories and a novella. Escalas melografiadas (Melographic Scales) is divided into two parts, ‘‘Cuneiformes’’ (Cuneiforms) and ‘‘Coro de los vientos’’ (Choir of Winds). The stories in the first section, several of which Vallejo composed in prison, may be considered prose versions of poems in Trilce. The macabre stories in the second section reflect the influence of Edgar Allan Poe. The short novel Fabla salvaje (Savage Fable) also shows Poe’s influence: set in the Andes, it explores the psyche of an Indian peasant who imagines his wife’s infidelity.
After losing his teaching job because of a reduction in staff, Vallejo moved to Paris in June 1923. Not fluent in French and having, at first, neither regular employment nor permanent living quarters, Vallejo began to suffer the ill health that endured for the rest of his life. His father’s death in 1924 added to his woes.
From 1925 to 1927 Vallejo was employed as a secretary at the newly created Ibero-American Press Agency and served as a correspondent for various Spanish and Spanish American periodicals, including Amauta (Inca Elder), Bolívar, El Comercio (Commerce), Cromos, Estampa (Print), Mundial, La Razón (Reason), Revista de Avance (Advance Review), Variedades, and La Voz (The Voice). His journalistic pieces generally report on European political, social, and cultural life. One of his essays, ‘‘Contra el secreto profesional’’ (Against Professional Secrets), published in Variedades in 1927, deals with the deficiencies of contemporary Spanish American writing; it was republished in book form in 1973. He also earned money from literary translations and Spanish-language tutoring and received a scholarship to continue his legal studies.
In Paris, Vallejo met Costa Rican sculptor Max Jiménez, Spanish painter Juan Gris, Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, and Spanish poet and literary critic Juan Larrea, who became one of the foremost experts on his work. Vallejo and Larrea started a literary magazine, Favorables- Paris-Poema; only two issues appeared, in July and October 1926. Contributors included Gris, Huidobro, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, French Creationist poet Pierre Reverdy, and the founder of the Dada movement, Tristan Tzara. Also in 1926 Vallejo was listed in the Índice de la nueva poesía americana (Index of New Spanish American Poetry), edited by Huidobro, Peruvian poet Alberto Hidalgo, and Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.
In 1926 Vallejo began writing a novel about the Incas, ‘‘Hacia el reino de los Sciris’’ (Toward the Kingdom of the Sciris), but never completed it. In the following year he published in the Lima journal Amauta a prose piece, ‘‘Sabiduría’’ (Wisdom), that he later included in his protest novel, El tungsteno: La novela proletaria (Tungsten: The Proletarian Novel, 1931; translated as Tungsten, 1988). Vallejo also tried his hand at drama, though he destroyed the manuscript for his first play, originally titled Mampar and retitled Cancerbero (Goalkeeper). He composed two other plays: Moscú contra Moscú (Moscow vs. Moscow), retitled Entre las dos orillas corre el río (Between the Two Shores Runs the River), about a Russian princess whose daughter is a communist activist, and Lockout, on a labor-movement theme. Neither was published or produced during Vallejo’s lifetime, but both are included in a two-volume edition of his dramatic works that appeared in 1979—more than forty years after his death.
From 1926 to 1928 Vallejo lived with Henriette Maisse. He had begun attending communist workshops and lectures, and in 1928 he traveled to Moscow with the intention of relocating there; but he changed his mind and returned to Paris. In 1929 he moved in with a neighbor, Georgette Phillipart, with whom he returned to the Soviet Union that year. During this second trip Vallejo interviewed the poet Vladimir Maiakovsky, who committed suicide the following year. Vallejo’s leftist activities resulted in his expulsion from France in December 1930, and he and Phillipart moved to Madrid.
Shortly after his arrival in the Spanish capital, Vallejo joined the Communist Party and witnessed the proclamation of the Spanish Republic. He continued to earn a living from translation and contributions to Spanish and Spanish American magazines, though his sentimental short story about an Indian boy, ‘‘Paco Yunque,’’ was rejected as too sad for young readers and remained unpublished until after his death. A series of articles chronicling his travels in the Soviet Union, ‘‘Un reportaje en Rusia’’ (A Report on Russia), appeared in the Madrid magazine Bolívar in 1930 and served as the basis of his Rusia en 1931: Reflexiones al pie del Kremlin (Russia in 1931: Reflections at the Foot of the Kremlin), published the following year. In the book Vallejo describes the new social order emerging in the Soviet Union and sets out his own manifesto for the future. Recommended by the Asociación del Mejor Libro del Mes (Book of the Month Club), whose selection committee included such prominent Spanish writers and literary critics as Azorín (pseudonym of José Martínez Ruiz), Ricardo Baeza, Enrique Díez- Canedo, and Ramón Pérez de Ayala, Rusia en 1931 went through three printings in four months and became the second-best-selling book in Spain after Sin novedad en el frente (1929), the Spanish translation of Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts neues (1928; translated as All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929). Vallejo began writing Rusia ante el segundo plan quinquenal (Russia in the Face of the Second Five-Year Plan) after a third trip to the Soviet Union in October 1931 to participate in the International Congress of Writers, but the work remained unpublished until 1965.
In 1931 the Spanish writers José Bergamín and Gerardo Diego brought out a second edition of Trilce that led the Paris reviewer Pierre Lagarde to claim that Vallejo had invented Surrealism before the Surrealists. His greatest literary success during his lifetime, however, came that same year with the publication of his best-selling proletarian protest novel El tungsteno. Written in a realistic style and set in the fictional Andean village of Quivilca, the novel is based on Vallejo’s firsthand observations of the deplorable conditions in the mines of Quiruvilca. The two main characters are the heroic Indian miner Servando Huanca and the intellectual mine accountant Leonidas Benites. The plot, designed to incite outrage, includes the gang rape of an Indian woman who subsequently dies, the perversions of two wealthy brothers, the conscription of workers for the mines, and a labor revolt that ends in bloodshed.
In early 1932 Vallejo received permission to return to Paris on the condition that he refrain from political activity. With no fixed residence or steady employment, Vallejo was reduced to poverty; nevertheless, he and Phillipart were married in 1934. Between 1932 and 1936 he unsuccessfully submitted for publication three works in three genres: a collection of essays, El arte y la revolución (Art and Revolution), which was finally published in 1973; a satirical play about Peruvian political life, Colacho hermanos o Presidentes de América (The Colacho Brothers; or, Presidents of America), which was included in the 1979 edition of his plays; and a volume of poetry, ‘‘Nó mina de huesos’’ (Payroll of Bones), which was incorporated into his posthumous Poemas humanos: 1923-1938 (1939; translated as Poemas humanos: Human Poems, 1968). Some of his other poetry was included in the Antología de la poesía española e hispano-americana, 1882-1932 (Anthology of Spanish and Spanish American Poetry, 1882-1932), edited by Federico de Onís in 1934.
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 prompted Vallejo to resume his political activity. He solicited money in the street to support the Republican forces, was one of the founders of the Spanish American Committee for the Defense of the Spanish Republic, and worked on the committee’s bulletin Nuestra España (Our Spain). He went to Spain twice during the war; on the second trip he attended sessions of the International Congress of Anti- Fascist Writers in Barcelona, Valencia, and Madrid and visited the battlefront.
In hopes of making money, Vallejo drafted a screenplay titled Charlot contra Chaplin (Charles against Chaplin); it was never produced. He also completed a tragedy set in Incan Peru, La piedra cansada (The Tired Stone); despite strong support from the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, however, it was not produced during his lifetime and was first published in the 1979 edition of his theatrical works. Between September and December 1937 Vallejo composed the poems that were published in 1940 as España, aparta de mí este cáliz: 15 poemas (Spain, Take This Cup from Me: 15 Poems; translated as Spain, Let This Cup Pass from Me, 1972). He also devoted a significant amount of time to correcting, revising, and editing his unpublished poetry.
Vallejo became bedridden on 13 March 1938. The Peruvian embassy paid to have him placed in a clinic, where, after suffering from delirium and losing consciousness, he died on the morning of 15 April 1938. The International Association of Writers in Defense of Culture organized and financed Vallejo’s funeral and burial in the Montrouge cemetery in south Paris; among the eulogists was French avant-garde writer Louis Aragon. In the 1960s Vallejo’s widow purchased a new tombstone and had his remains transferred to Montparnasse cemetery.
Georgette de Vallejo and her friend, historian Raúl Porras Barrenechea, brought out Vallejo's unpublished poetry the year after his death under the title Poemas humanos. The volume includes 108 poems, some dated and others undated; they are in no chronological or thematic order with the exception of the last fifteen, the poems that were republished separately in 1940 as España, aparta de mí este cáliz. Critical opinion on the organization and interpretation of Vallejo's posthumous poetry varies. Some critics believe that his entire European production should be considered as a unit. Others divide it into the poems written between 1923 and 1937 and the fifteen poems of España, aparta de mí este cáliz. Still others suggest a three-part division, comprising the undated poems, which are assumed to have been written between 1923 and 1936, the dated poems from 1936 to 1938, and the poems of España, aparta de mí este cáliz.
The texts of Poemas humanos further expand Vallejo’s fusion of personal and existential themes and also reflect his heightened political commitment: as in much of his previous poetry, human beings are depicted as weak, defenseless orphans, alone in a hostile universe; and political issues are addressed in poems about hunger, homelessness, and unemployment. He contrasts the absurd, chaotic present, filled with problems and class conflicts, with an ideal future based on human solidarity.
In ‘‘Palmas y guitarra’’ (Palms and Guitars) love offers a temporary refuge in the midst of war:
Ahora, entre nosotros, aquí, ven conmigo, trae por la mano a tu cuerpo y cenemos juntos y pasemos un instante la vida a dos vidas y dando una parte a nuestra muerte. Ahora, ven contigo, hazme el favor de quejarte en mi nombre y a la luz de la noche teneblosa en que traes a tu alma de la mano y huímos en puntillas de nosotros
(Now, between ourselves, right here, come with me, bring your body by the hand and let’s dine together and spend our life for a moment in two lives, giving a part to our death. Now, come with yourself, do me the favor of complaining in my name and by the light of the teneblous night in which you bring your soul by the hand and we flee on tiptoes from ourselves).
All the same, death is inevitable; and Vallejo predicts his own death in ‘‘Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca’’ (Black Stone on a White Stone):
Me moriré en París con aguacero, un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo. Me moriré en París—y no me corro— talvez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño
(I will die in Paris with a sudden shower, a day I can already remember. I will die in Paris—and I don’t budge— maybe a Thursday, like today is, in autumn).
In ‘‘Intensidad y altura’’ (Intensity and Height) Vallejo describes the challenges of aesthetic creation:
Quiero escribir, pero me sale espuma, quiero decir muchísimo y me atollo; no hay cifra hablada que no sea suma, no hay pirámide escrita, sin cogollo. Quiero escribir, pero me siento puma; quiero laurearme, pero me encebollo. No hay toz hablada, que no llegue a bruma, no hay dios ni hijo de dios, sin desarrollo
(I want to write, but out comes foam, I want to say so much and I freeze; there is no spoken cipher which is not a sum, there is no written pyramid, without a core. I want to write, but I feel like a puma; I want to laurel myself, but I stew in onions. There is no spoken cough, which doesn’t end in mist, there is no god nor son of god, without unfolding).
But in the face of poverty and adversity, Vallejo says in ‘‘Un hombre pasa con un pan al hombro’’ (A Man Walks by with a Stick of Bread), art is inconsequential:
Un hombre pasa con un pan al hombro. ¿Voy a escribir, después, sobre mi doble?
Otro se sienta, ráscase, extrae un piojo de su axial, mátalo. ¿Con qué valor hablar de psicoanálisis?
Otro ha entrado a mi pecho con un palo en la mano.
¿Hablar luego de Sócrates al médico?
Un cojo pasa dando el brazo a un niño. ¿Voy, después, a leer a André Breton?
Otro tiembla de frío, tose, escupe sangre. ¿Cabrá aludir jamás al Yo profundo?
(A man walks by with a stick of bread on his shoulder. Am I going to write, after that, about my double?
Another sits, scratches, extracts a louse from his armpit, kills it. How dare one speak about psychoanalysis?
Another has entered my chest with a stick in hand. To talk then about Socrates with the doctor?
Alame man passes by holding a child’s hand. After that am I going to read André Breton?
Another trembles from cold, coughs, spits blood. Will it ever be possible to allude to the profound I?).
On another level, Poemas humanos alludes to the ordeals of existence in general and proposes a collective solution to personal and human problems. In ‘‘Hoy me gusta la vida mucho menos’’ (Today I Like Life Much Less) and ‘‘Los nueve monstruos’’ (The Nine Monsters) Vallejo describes modern humanity’s existential anguish, as he writes in the latter:
I, desgraciadamente, el dolor crece en el mundo a cada rato, crece a treinta minutos por segundo, paso a paso, y la naturaleza del dolor, es el dolor dos veces y la condición del martirio, carnívoro, voraz, es el dolor, dos veces y la función de la yerba purísima, el dolor dos veces y el bien de sér, dolernos doblemente.
¡Jamás, hombres humanos, hubo tánto dolor en el pecho, en la solapa, en la cartera, en el vaso, en la carnicería, en la aritmética!
(AND, unfortunately, pain grows in the world every moment, grows thirty minutes a second, step by step, and the nature of the pain, is the pain twice and the condition of the martyrdom, carnivorous, voracious, is the pain, twice and the function of the purest grass, the pain twice and the good of Being, to hurt us doubly.
Never, human men, was there so much pain in the chest, in the lapel, in the wallet, in the glass, in the butcher shop, in arithmetic!).
Vallejo reveals his increasing exaltation of the proletariat in ‘‘Los mineros salieron de la mina’’ (The Miners Came out of the Mine): ‘‘¡Salud, oh creadores de la profundidad! . . . (Es formidable)’’ (Hail, oh creators of the profundity! . . . [Tremendous]).
España, aparta de mí este cáliz is generally regarded as the best and most important literary text to emerge from the Spanish Civil War. The fifteen poems had first been printed in the Republican- controlled part of Spain in September 1938, but all copies were destroyed before distribution. After Vallejo’s death the texts were included at the end of Poemas humanos; the following year, in Mexico, exiled Spanish poet Emilio Prados edited España, aparta de mí este cáliz, prior to its publication in 1940. Vallejo’s friend Larrea wrote the preface, ‘‘Profecía de América’’ (American Prophecy), and Pablo Picasso contributed an ink portrait of Vallejo. The title echoes Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to be released from his imminent sacrifice and conveys the hope that the Spanish Republicmay be spared the ravages of war. Incorporating biblical discourse and imagery, the volume glorifies the Spanish Republic and presents a Christian vision of Marxism. The Spanish Civil War symbolizes human suffering and the struggle to create an ideal world, or New Jerusalem. Though the Spanish Republic is compared to a mother offering love and protection, the Republican militiaman endures Christ-like agony and personifies and redeems humanity. In ‘‘Himno a los voluntarios de la República’’ (Hymn to the Volunteers for the Republic) Vallejo describes Republican volunteers as humanity’s heroic saviors:
Voluntarios, por la vida, por los buenos ¡matad a la muerte, matad a los malos! Hacedlo por la libertad de todos, del explotado y del explotador, por la paz indolora—la sospecho cuando duermo al pie de mi frente y más cuando circulo dando voces y hacedlo, voy diciendo, por el analfabeto a quien escribo, por el genio descalzo y su cordero, por los camaradas caídos, sus cenizas abrazadas al cadaver de un camino!
(Volunteers, for life, for the good ones, kill death, kill the bad ones! Do it for the freedom of everyone, of the exploited and of the exploiter, for a peace without pain—I glimpse it when I sleep at the foot of my forehead and even more when I travel around shouting— and do it, I keep saying, for the illiterate to whom I write, for the barefoot genius and his lamb, for the fallen comrades, their ashes hugging the corpse of a road!).
In ‘‘Masa’’ (Mass) international solidarity on behalf of the Spanish Republic brings about resurrection:
Al fin de la batalla, y muerto el combatiente, vino hacia él un hombre y le dijo: ‘‘¡No mueras; te amo tanto!’’ Pero el cadá ver ¡ay! siguió muriendo. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Entonces todos los hombres de la tierra le rodearon; les vió el cadá ver triste, emocionado; incorporó se lentamente, abrazó al primer hombre; echó se a andar . . .
(At the end of the battle, the combatant dead, a man came toward him and said: ‘‘Don’t die; I love you so much!’’ But oh God the corpse kept on dying. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Then all the inhabitants of the earth surrounded him; the corpse looked at them sadly, moved: he sat up slowly, embraced the first man; began to walk . . .).
Despite his declaration of faith in the Republic, Vallejo hints in the title poem at the possibility of its fall:
si la madre España cae—digo, es un decir— salid, niños del mundo; id a buscarla!
(if mother Spain falls—I mean, it’s just a thought— Out, children of the world, go and look for her!).
In contrast to the avant-garde poems of Trilce, Vallejo’s posthumous poetry uses moretraditional forms and techniques. Employing free verse as well as standard verse forms, such as heptasyllabic and hendecasyllabic lines, these poems are longer and make use of reiteration and enumeration. Vallejo reclaims the religious tone of his first poetry collection and instills it with political connotations.
Though he published little and was critically underestimated during his lifetime, César Vallejo is regarded today as one of the great poets of the twentieth century and one of Spanish America’s most original poetic voices. His poetry, much of which appeared after his death, conveys his deepseated compassion and treats general themes relating to human existence in a fresh way. His remarkable combination of individuality and universality has resulted in his posthumous elevation to canonical status.
Source: Linda S. Maier, ‘‘César Vallejo,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 290, Modern Spanish American Poets, Second Series, edited by María A. Salgado, Thomson Gale, 2004, pp. 331–45.
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In the following essay excerpt, Sharman asserts that traditional indigenous Andean Culture influenced Vallejo’s first book Los Heraldos Negros, particularly in the concept of time, even though Vallejo was positioned in the modern world.
Vallejo’s first collection of poetry, Los heraldos negros, makes space consciously, indeed self-consciously, for traditional indigenous Andean culture, though only by confining it largely to a discrete section revealingly named ‘‘Nostalgias imperiales.’’ Broadly speaking, indigenous Andean temporality is here figured as something predominantly past, something remote, or as that which stands outside time, something eternal. Thematically, the modernista exoticization of the pre-Colombian is unmistakable in this section; technically, so too, the preference for synaesthesia. Despite the incorporation of an Andean thematics and lexicon, there is a preciousness that jars. I shall comment on just a selection of Vallejo’s poems that have the narrow remit mentioned above.
In the second of the four sonnets that comprise the poem ‘‘Nostalgias imperiales,’’ the ‘‘anciana pensativa’’ ponders the past in a manner redolent of the way in which the aged mariner of Darío’s ‘‘Sinfonía en gris mayor’’ contemplates distant lands. Whereas he meditates through a haze of tobacco smoke, she, cipher for pre-Colombian Andean cultures, muses while spinning, that is to say, while practicing one of the culture’s great crafts. Vallejo depicts the anciana pensativa as active in elaborating a thread of continuity with the cultures, but also as in a state of petrification—‘‘cual relieve / de un bloque pre-incaico’’—as though she were a fossilized relic-detail of another, celebrated Andean technological past. In the third sonnet, the oxen are compared to kings weeping over defunct domains. The atmosphere is melancholic, senescent, decadent; in the oxen’s ‘‘widowed pupils’’ the dreams have no memory of the time they are supposed to revivify, not because they are supposed to revivify, not because they are gloriously timeless, but because the past is so remote . . .
The three sonnets that comprise ‘‘Terceto autóctono’’ strike a different note, that of festival time. They process the festival’s sights through the sound of the traditional song form, the yaraví, and process both the sights and sounds through the conventional visual and rhythmic form of the modernista sonnet. The féte galante of Darío’s ‘‘Era un aire suave’’ becomes an autochthonous festival. The second line of the Darío poem, ‘‘el hada Harmonía ritmaba sus vuelos,’’ is syllabically reworked in the third line of Vallejo’s opening sonnet such that the source of music is not Greek harmony, but the humble, telluric plough: ‘‘Es fiesta! El ritmo del arado vuela.’’ The synaesthesia continues in a conceit that binds together color and music, sight and sound in the idea of an ancestral connection (blood) to the Incan worship of the sun (sacrifice) . . . The conceit is taken up in the last line of a final stanza that gives full recognition to the processing of Christian materials by pre-Colombian beliefs . . .
The stanza acknowledges the temporality that dominates the hybridization (it is a modern sun-god) and takes its distance from the traditional (the modern sun-god is for the other, . . . ) The second sonnet abounds in couleur locale raised to epic proportions (the shepherdess’s traditional clothing wraps her in a ‘‘humildad de lana heroica y triste’’); while the last one depicts a river as drunk as the festival-goers as it simultaneously celebrates and mourns a time before time . . . The three poems attempt a species of indigenization of symbolist topoi, or ‘‘aquenando hondos suspiros’’ as Vallejo puts it in the first sonnet in a stanza that sounds like a distorted echo of the opening verse of ‘‘Era un aire suave,’’ replacing the violins with Indian quenas. Ultimately, however, the poems clothe the indigenous in a symbolist aesthetic, such that the quotidian quechua words require italicization while the high-literary tropes of personification and hyperbaton remain the norm. . .
The poem ‘‘Aldeana’’ continues the use of synaesthesia, mimicking the mournful monotony of the yaraví. In it the time of the Indian is again figured alternately as the non-time of eternity or the time of death and the past, of ‘‘idilios muertos.’’ But in ‘‘Los arrieros,’’ from the section ‘‘Truenos,’’ is where we find the most explicit and most revealing statement of cultural difference expressed as temporal disjuncture. There the poetic persona watches an Indian arriero heading slowly for the sierra with his donkey. As the indigenous subject distances himself in space, the ‘‘I’’ distances him in time . . . The two characters may live in the same place, the poem seems to suggest, but they do not live in the same time. I take seriously the expression ‘‘desde un siglo de duda’’ that Vallejo uses to position himself discursively as one removed from the representative of traditional Andean culture. Vallejo is conscious of his own modernity, of the legacy of doubt bequeathed by the death of God. Caution should attend efforts to make him into a prophet of multitemporal heterogeneity. For temporality is just what is denied to the arriero. The poem ends by making the place of the Indian into the locus of an altogether different time, the non-time of eternity . . . The neologism highlights the temporal difference (the Iron Age versus the Modern Age) at the same time as it suggests, speaking strictly against the idea of eternity, the deterioration (the rusting, the oxidization) of the latter.
The obvious conclusion at this point, namely, that Vallejo is a modern, cut off from tradition and uncontaminated by it, is the one to be avoided. It is untenable to draw a clear distinction in the case of Vallejo’s production between a subject matter that would be ancient (that is, pre-Colombian culture) and an aesthetic form that would be modern (symbolism). Not only is the ‘‘ancient’’ culture resignified in the modern era, as we saw in ‘‘Terceto autótono’’; symbolism itself, as Raymond Williams observes, is at once symptomatic of its own historical time and expressive of an ancient, traditional temporality. Synaesthesia may well have invoked the contemporary moment through its appeal to immediate sensory experience; it also sought to tap in to a timeless spiritual realm: ‘‘Characteristically, in the Symbolists, as clearly in Baudelaire and again in Apollinaire, [the] form of poetic revelation involved a fusion of present synaesthetic experience with the recovery of a nameable, tangible past which was yet ‘beyond’ or ‘outside’ time.’’ In other words, symbolism can only be erected as a representative of the modern to the extent that it bears witness to the differential character of modernity itself (which would precisely never quite be itself). Williams’s observation guards against the totalizing proclivities of the concept of temporalities, which we here use because of its explanatory value, but against which we must remain vigilant.
There is much more to be said about Los heraldos negros in what concerns its thematic and technical innovations and general poetic worth. I have dwelt on ‘‘Nostalgias imperiales’’ and certain contiguous poems for the specific, limited purpose of demonstrating that it is not enough to provide a taxonomy of the lexical and larger discursive elements of Vallejo’s poetry that appear to articulate a specifically Andean indigenous vision of things. The most hackneyed tourist guidebook can effortlessly accommodate such a lexicon, the presence of which may betoken not a speaker’s familiarity with the material but the distance from that reality with which he or she tries to populate the pages. It is noticeable in Vallejo’s later poetry just how often the cultural and topographical references to Andean things are accompanied by the presence of exclamation marks (see ‘‘Gleba,’’ ‘‘Los mineros salieron de la mina,’’ and ‘‘Telúrica y magnética’’), as though the author could not mention these things without an ironic voice. Not a dismissive irony, to be sure, but one that operates between a Marxist hyperbole celebrating the workers as Promethean force (such as that applied to non- Andean subjects in ‘‘Parado en una piedra’’) and a discourse that cannot quite have faith in them as realities rather than hyperboles . . .
Source: Adam Sharman, ‘‘Semicolonial Times: Vallejo and the Discourse of Modernity,’’ in Romance Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3, Summer 2002, pp. 198–201.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1806
In the following essay excerpt, Bary explains that Vallejo’s poetry is so difficult because of his experimentation with language and his unique use of established literary movements. His verse may appear simple but often has a message contrary to appearances.
The almost notoriously difficult poetry of César Vallejo (Peru, 1892–Paris, 1938) is often defined as political for what are in fact largely biographical reasons—the poet’s humble background and well-known militancy on the Left— which his writing refracts in themes such as the defense of the poor and solidarity with the Republican cause in Spain. A thematic understanding of the ‘‘political’’ in this poetry ascribes static, (classically) representational qualities to the work that tend to iron out Vallejo’s originality along with his difficulty—thus ignoring the depth of his own thought on the relationship between politics and aesthetics.
Literary histories commonly pair Vallejo with his contemporary Pablo Neruda because both are highly acclaimed, Left-oriented writers who first arose in the heyday of the avant-garde period. Yet the simple style and clear message of socially conscious poetry such as Neruda’s in Canto general, intended to make the poem available to an ill-educated public and unrecuperable to a bourgeois literary tradition, typify an esthetic very different from Vallejo’s, whose most politically committed poetry is, in a seeming paradox, also nearly unreadable by traditional standards. Vallejo, in his critical writings, which question both the human value of the avant-garde style in poetry and the poetic force of Maiakovski’s political verse, constantly ponders the question of how to restore the social content of words without creating a propagandistic literature. This question parallels a central problem in the contemporary critical debate: how can literature generate meaning without falling into the trap of representation or logocentric discourse? An examination of the political bases and implications of Vallejo’s stylistic difficulty is crucial, then, to any reading of his work not based on paraphrase or on the study of isolated images. In what follows, I want to suggest that Vallejo is difficult because meaning (and hence the ‘‘political’’) in his work is neither constituted, as it is for the more traditional ‘‘social’’ poets, as a task primarily of representation; nor is it conceived as a question of the ‘‘interruption’’ of representation, that indeterminacy of meaning which according to much post-structuralist theory is in itself politically subversive. Rather, Vallejo’s difficulty is that of a poetry which disturbs accepted configurations of thought, but also pushes us to participate in the creation of a new cognitive mode. Ever aware of the opacity of words, Vallejo stretches their ideological boundaries. Rather than claim to redeem language or lead us to a clear space beyond its turbulent surface, Vallejo strives within it to set in motion what he calls in one of his notebooks ‘‘el rigor dialéctico del mundo objetivo y subjetivo’’ (Vallejo 1977: 90).
The discovery of language as mediation is central to both modern poetry and contemporary literary theory. After the Romantics’ voyage towards the limits of language, summed up by Rubén Darío at the end of the nineteenth century . . . after the avant-garde’s emphasis on linguistic productivity at the level of the signifier over the referential function of art; and especially after the description of the world as text in so much recent literary and cultural theory, it has become commonplace to conclude that the apprehension of heterogeneous impulses and self-ironic stances in our literary and cultural texts are the last possible horizon of their reading, as well as the only possible ‘‘non-repressive’’ critical attitude. The self-positioning of this critical development specifically at the end of interpretation claims not to presuppose a former harmony among language, perception and ‘‘truth,’’ but it does seem to depend on a general belief in such a harmony—a belief which deconstruction, as it is most commonly practiced, undertakes to dispel.
Recent work by critics such as Djelal Kadir, Mary Layoun, and Kum Kum Sangari has shown that the current crisis of representation in Western literature and theory, along with its attendant demise of the subject and also the ‘‘recognition’’ of the links between literature and politics, are constitutive rather than culminating characteristics of ‘‘Third World’’ (or, perhaps more specifically, post-colonial) literatures. As the Inca Garcilaso, himself the product of a hybrid culture, suggested early in the seventeenth century, the duplicity of language is primordially evident in the colonial situation—a situation in which different languages correspond to radically different cultures, and the dominant language is an imported one. Postcolonial discourse inherits the consciousness of this duplicity: the status of language (as well as that of ‘‘meaning’’ and ‘‘truth’’) is always already in question.
Vallejo’s poetry dramatizes this situation. His disarticulation of ‘‘language’’ and ‘‘world’’ in all of his poetic production, and his declarations in his first collection of poems, Los heraldos negros (1919), that he doesn’t know the source of the ‘‘golpes en la vida’’ and that he was born ‘‘un día / que Dios estuvo enfermo,’’ even as they echo generalized modern sentiments like the death of God and the loss of connections with an origin, place these notions at the base of his poetics rather than as final realizations. Los heraldos negros does not merely register the decline of modernista ‘‘correspondances’’ and a supposed naturalness of linguistic representation. In fact, in this collection Vallejo does something quite different: situating himself, as Julio Ortega says, on the margins of these traditions (108), he shows the unities they presuppose to have been originally insubstantial. As it systematically empties images of plenitude or solace (such as ‘‘home,’’ ‘‘origin,’’ and ‘‘God’’), Vallejo’s writing also devalues the terms in which they have been constructed. What elsewhere are organizing images and allusions appear here (in Ortega’s words) as discursive residue (109).
The Los heraldos negros sonnet ‘‘Unidad’’ (1988) can, for example, be read as rather simple allegory of Christian hope for resurrection after death, if we focus on the final tercet as a resolution or redemption of the crisis evoked in the first three sections of the poem. Here the metaphorical . . . of the first tercet, which folds into itself the images of time and death presented in the quatrains, is superseded . . . Above the web of human structures and human doubt, the light infused hand holds up a bit of lead. This is the same lead that in the quatrains was a bloody bullet, now made divine ‘‘en forma azul de corazón.’’ Thus the problematic images of the first half of the poem are apparently transmuted; the ‘‘hand that limits’’ seems to be supplanted by the Hand that comforts, that resolves, that leads us beyond limits.
Yet the leap of faith this ending asks us to make also works to intensify the gap between its discourse and that of the first three stanzas, and the resolution asserted rings false at least as much as it rings true. Because the apparent resolution comes so close to the traditional ‘‘mysteries’’ of resurrection/redemption, it is hard to be sure that the blue heart and ‘‘great Hand’’ of the final tercet are not further forms of the ‘‘hostile idea’’ and reddened bullet that two stanzas earlier gave form to the ‘‘great Mystery’’. . . . In fact, the instability of the terms that structure the poem—among them the leaden (bullet-like) quality of the blue heart, the transformation in the second quatrain of the moon, traditionally an emblem of poetic inspiration and authority, into a gun-barrel, . . . and the questionable power of the admonition ‘‘cede y pasa’’ in the first tercet to banish the frightening images of the quatrains—seems to suggest that there is actually no secret behind the symbols and structures we use to interpret our experience, which could be revealed so as to unify and explain them.
The reading of ‘‘Unidad’’ I propose, then, is that in counterpoint to its title, the poem is more about disjunctions than about unity; or, to put it another way, that it is not about the sort of Symbolist or theological unity that its final images seem, at one level, to imply. The putative resolution of the poem’s paradoxes in the final tercet is actually only a kind of overlay. So the discourse of unity is not treated by the poem as a natural, organic thing but as an artificial construct, an imposed form.
Another Los heraldos negros poem, ‘‘Absoluta’’, very directly presents the idea of ‘‘unity’’ as an alien and alienating discourse. The ‘‘unidad excelsa’’ called for in the fourth stanza stands in sharp contrast to the failure of its attempted embodiment in the first three, and is invalidated, even as a principle, in the fifth and final one, where the ‘‘linderos,’’ the spatial and temporal boundaries that ‘‘God’’ and ‘‘Love’’ ought to be able to conquer, are themselves the ‘‘irreducibly disdainful’’ victors, and the ‘‘doncella plenitud del 1’’ is metaphorically host to serpents, wrinkled so that part of its surface is hidden, and crossed by a shadow. . .
As is even more clearly the case in the poem entitled ‘‘Comunión’’, the tenuously balanced thematics of love and religion used to evoke physical and spiritual plenitude here are actually seen from the perspective of the great distance between the speaker and the language he uses. In both poems, what attempt to be unifying (and comforting) metaphors are made to expose their own inadequacy. (In ‘‘Comunión’’ this gesture becomes painfully comical, when the speaker tries, and fails, to assuage his sexual guilt by comparing the body of his beloved to the river Jordan, and her open arms to a redemptory cross.) At the close of ‘‘Comunión,’’ furthermore, Vallejo’s speaker tells us he was born on Palm Sunday and not in Bethlehem: his origin does not coincide with that of the episteme that has given him his metaphors. He enters, so to speak, in the middle of an already-written story, and at the beginning of its crisis.
I am arguing that the gap in these poems between the speaker and his language is not the same as the gap between present fragmentation and ideal unity we can see in poets like Baudelaire and in part of the Spanish American modernista tradition. Although Vallejo here uses the readily available vocabulary of fragmentation and unity, or even spleen and ideal, he seems to do so precisely because this is the only available vocabulary in the place and time he is writing. He is, in other words, attempting to insert himself into a patently problematic discourse because he has as yet found no other. His simultaneous appropriation by and problematization of pre-existing literary and cultural discourses grows, in his later work, into a will to speak from their ruins.
Source: Leslie Bary, ‘‘Politics,Aesthetics, and the Question of Meaning in Vallejo,’’ in Hispania: A Teacher’s Journal, Vol. 75, No. 5, December 1992, pp. 1147–49.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901
Phyllis White Rodriguez
In the following essay excerpt, Rodriguez examines Vallejo’s collection Los Heraldos Negros, including the title poem, in terms of the types of messages the poet expressed. Vallejo, she says, combined the cry of the peasant, the shout of the modern reformer, and the voice of Everyman in this first work.
Who is César Vallejo? One could answer: He is the authentic interpretation of the ‘‘pueblo peruano’’ in its agonizing thirst for fulfillment; or: His poetry is the shout of contemporary tragedy; or: He is the expression of the anguish in the destiny of man. However we choose to describe him, he remains the same. César Vallejo is a poet, a Peruvian poet, who, through the beauty he created, has left us an artistry both simple and magnificent, and who has pointed the way to the rebirth of Peruvian expression.
He was born in 1892 or 1893 in Santiago de Chuco, a provincial Andean town in northern Peru. This is a land of mountain solitude, of cosmic sadness, of bleak crags and peaks and sultry valleys. Santiago stands at 10,500 feet. It is a town of steeply inclined, deserted streets, of patios, of cackling hens and musical brays, where the sparrows roost in the discolored tile roofs, and the aroma of the fields greets the women washing clothes in the river, the workers arriving with their yoked oxen and burros, the scratching, ragged Indians mingling with the yelping dogs. Of such things is the poetry of César Vallejo during his first epoch.
Leaving this isolated mountain corner, where his days had been full of the sweetness of family life, Vallejo began his studies in Trujillo, later making an abrupt change to the capital. In the same year, 1918, he published Los heraldos negros, his first book of poetry. It was greeted with coldness and indifference. Lima, still resounding with the brilliant modernism of Chocano and addicted to Valdelomar and the symbolist Eguren, could not receive this poetry so full of social emotion and human content, with a tenderness neither forced nor intellectual. Los Heraldos Negros is a tremendous shout of sadness and grief, of contradiction and protest. The years have increased its importance until, in Peru at least, there is a consuming interest in anything written by Vallejo . . .
If we should classify this book, we would say it is postmodernistic, with attendant symbolism, faint echoes of Darío and Herrera y Reissig emanating from the verses. But it is an independent modernist, as seen by the absence of rhetoric and ornamentation, and a more human and pathetic approach.
We are in the presence of an independent poet, whose subjective grief is identified with that of the Indian race. In this rests its Peruvian essence, for the true mestizo is a product of two bloods, and to deny one is to take away from the whole. We have the Indian’s nostalgic attitude, his subjective tenderness of evocation. How well the symbolist cycle lends itself to interpreting the spirit of the Indian, who tends to express himself in symbols and images. This melancholic nostalgia is a sentimental thing, the nostalgia of the exile, of absence. We can see the tragedy of the Indian faced with four centuries of oppression. We sense his resignation, his mystic fatalism. Vallejo’s indigenism flows as naturally as the Quechuan words he sometimes uses . . .
This is the nostalgia of the countryside he knew and loved. This is the silent somber Indian in the brooding sadness of the little towns of Peru. Only once, in ‘‘Terceto autóctono,’’ is the Indian momentarily happy in his own way . . .
The odor of sadness, the feeling of age and decay and solitude that belong to the Peruvian landscape are notes Vallejo strikes again and again. Here is the breath of Peru. Here is the bitter-sweet poignancy of vain regret. Of what? Only Vallejo knows, and the vast somberness of Peru. . . .
Certainly Vallejo is greatly troubled with the reason for life, and the cold breath of the tomb is ever reaching out toward him. He is by turns questioning and pessimistic, seeing life as a continual march toward the grave . . . The reader may find that his greatness shines out more clearly when he is expressing universal grief than when he confines himself to gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands over his own grave. In the typical Vallejoesque manner is the vivid ‘‘La cena miserable.’’ We are all shown seated at a table, waiting, waiting, with the bitterness of a child who wakes up at midnight crying from hunger . . .
Then the pendulum swings the other way and he is given over to the suffering of others in his poem ‘‘El pan nuestro’’ that ends . . .
Vallejo often talks to God, shifting from almost blasphemous imprecations to speaking gently, as to any suffering person. . . .
But always Vallejo was on his feet, speaking as one person to another.
The last portion of his book is called ‘‘Canciones de hogar.’’ These are portraits of his family, lovingly drawn. They are beautiful in their simplicity and sincerity, in their obvious loving devotion to parents, to brothers and sisters. Through all his life, the wrinkles smooth out when Vallejo thinks of his family, his childhood. He is at his happiest then, expressing himself with tremulous emotion. He is at home. . . .
Source: Phyllis White Rodriguez, ‘‘Cesar Vallejo,’’ in Hispania: A Teacher’s Journal, Vol. 35, No. 2, May 1952, pp. 195–97.