Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1835
Vallejo ranks among the most important writers of Latin America and certainly among the world’s major twentieth century poets. Remarkably, he published only two full-length collections of poetry during his lifetime, his debut collection, The Black Heralds, and Trilce. Vallejo’s third major collection of poetry, Human Poems ,...
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- Critical Essays
Vallejo ranks among the most important writers of Latin America and certainly among the world’s major twentieth century poets. Remarkably, he published only two full-length collections of poetry during his lifetime, his debut collection, The Black Heralds, and Trilce. Vallejo’s third major collection of poetry, Human Poems, appeared posthumously in 1939, and it is generally considered his most important book of poetry.
Vallejo also wrote prose prolifically, though much of it went unpublished during his lifetime. Those works include his 1915 thesis, El romanticismo en la poesía castellana (1954); a collection of short stories, Escalas melografiadas (1923); a Social Realist novel, Tungsten; a travelogue, Rusia en 1931: Reflexiones al pie del Kremlin (1931); a follow-up to that travelogue, Rusia ante el segundo plan quinquenal (1965); five plays; many freelance newspaper articles and essays; and copious letters to friends.
One of the dominant motifs of Vallejo’s poetry is absence, rendering him a poet of suffering. This emanates from his focus upon despair, loss, and rupture in both the human condition, in particular, and the universe in general. Paradoxically, then, absence produces Vallejo’s distinctly present, iconoclastic voice, which derives from a unique fusion of Catholic rhetoric, personal strife, ontological wonder, cultural comparison, and intricate wordplay. That admixture structures and sustains Vallejo’s oeuvre throughout its radical formal and political transformations, thereby connecting his life in provincial Peru to that in cosmopolitan Paris.
Moreover, throughout Vallejo’s poetry his deepest private struggles and changes transcend their personal concerns, erupting into a new matrix of expression of universal themes of the human condition. In other words, despite the subjective anxieties and details of his poems, they are neither narcissistic nor insular. Instead, they surpass the personal and become pluralistic, if not universal. Thus, when Vallejo grieves in a poem, he is grieving for the entirety of humankind, and even all of existence. As a result his poetry strikingly elucidates the private lives of his readers, thereby earning him a substantial, international readership, despite the specificity of time, place, and language in Vallejo’s poetry, not to mention its relative difficulty.
Despite the difficulty of Vallejo’s most complex poetry, careful readers will note its purposefulness. For even in the most seemingly hermetic moments, Vallejo’s poetry is rife with signification and resonance. More specifically, while Vallejo’s most difficult poetry might initially seem incomprehensible, the reader can gain insights into it through assiduous reading and rereading. In essence, that reading will lead to a growing, cumulative awareness of the importance of disjunction to the poetry. That disjunction produces Vallejo’s unique, inexplicable, and profound forms of nonlinear and nonlogical communication, as well as his diverse voices, perspectives, and aesthetic concerns. Moreover, disjunction most profoundly manifests itself through Vallejo’s intricate explorations of language itself. Consequently, Vallejo can be considered a torchbearer of such fundamental modernist motifs as the protean and/or masked self, the flawed referentiality of language to reality, and the heterogeneity of voices composing the self.
Heterogeneity is particularly important to understanding Vallejo’s avant-garde status in the Americas and beyond, for he masterfully uses diverse registers of voice, often within the same poem, and even within the same line of a poem. In doing so, he is struggling painfully to locate and define the meaning of his personal ontological suffering, which paradoxically materializes through his poetic oeuvre as a multifaceted, protean, and vigorous language seeking always to confront the “Other” in an effort to minimize isolation and suffering. Consequently, he writes in a richly layered language, blending colloquial, religious, medical, economic, linguistic, and/or cultural valences.
Significantly, heterogeneity is also evident in the diversity of poetry influencing Vallejo’s verse. In particular, one can note the prominent importance to Vallejo of Modernismo, French Surrealism, the Spanish Golden Age, and Romanticismo, among others. Through those antecedent poetics, Vallejo stretches Spanish, both syntactically and verbally by creating powerful transhistorical and transcultural neologisms and phrases, which always serve to augment the consciousness of his poetry and never to celebrate any sort of personal verbal cleverness.
True to Vallejo’s motif of suffering, the neologisms also help him to reckon the ontological significance and insignificance of human suffering in previously unimaginable ways. Consequently, Vallejo’s impact upon his readers is tremendous. His disjunctive voices illuminate fractures in culture, time, place, and language, thereby leading to new, more problematic but also generative means of thinking about existence and the human condition. In other words, Vallejo yet again proves himself to be a torchbearer of modernist concerns.
In short, Vallejo is a bundle of contradictions. They chafe within and between themselves, producing the friction to spark the avant-garde fires of his poetic oeuvre. Poem by poem, one witnesses Vallejo grappling to reconcile the irreconcilable, whether struggling to conflate his Roman Catholic genealogy with his indigenous spirituality, his personal politics with public policy, his infatuation with language with his resentment of its failures, his eroticism with social mores, and so much more. Thus he is always writing from a schism between such incommensurable forces, and that generates a poetry that remains both radically new aesthetically and desperately conservative personally.
The Black Heralds
First published: Los heraldos negros, 1918 (English translation, 1990)
Type of work: Poetry
With this collection, Vallejo announced himself as a poet of intense emotional immediacy and iconoclastic metaphysical vision.
The release of The Black Heralds earned Vallejo a good deal of positive critical attention, much more so than his second book, Trilce, would initially garner with its 1922 release. Much of the critical interest in The Black Heralds derives from the book’s fervent, unique exploration of the intersections of Catholic rhetoric, indigenous Peruvian culture, personal loss, and Vallejo’s perceptions of the world as brimming with erotic energy and an absurd excess of existential agony. This is exemplified by poems such as “El pan nuestro” (“Our Daily Bread”), “Oración del camino” (“Prayer of the Road’), and “Espergesia” (“Epexegesis”), which transform Catholic motifs and icons into metaphors for the framing of intimate, pained questions about an individual human being’s ontological insignificance. Similarly, the book’s title poem, “Los heraldos negros” (“The Black Heralds”), is a furious defiance of God in His most violent moments, which render one speechless yet vigorously innervated in that silence. “The Black Heralds” is one of the most renowned individual poems in the Spanish-speaking world.
After “The Black Heralds,” the introductory poem in the collection, the book comprises six sections. Most of those sections include at least a few sentimental and/or melodramatic lyrical poems, which is typical of many young poets. After all, Vallejo had written most of these poems in his early to mid-twenties. However, throughout the book readers can spot the emergence of Vallejo’s voice, which sounds itself most audibly in poems like “La araña” (“The Spider”) and “Los dados eternos” (“The Eternal Dice”). There he works with a swift pace, both intellectually and rhythmically, building a narrative sequence disjointed by iconoclastic juxtapositions of Catholic liturgy, natural metaphor, and a perspective on the cosmos as indifferent to individual suffering on Earth.
The book’s fourth section, “Nostalgias imperiales” (“Imperial Nostalgias”), intensifies that mix by adding Vallejo’s impassioned, political interest in exploited laborers, cultures, and resources, particularly in relation to the colonial sacking of Peruvian Incan land for its minerals and precious metals. Tangentially, one also should note the book’s consistent theme of longing for family, which manifests itself, for example, through the poem “Enereida,” honoring his father’s dissolution through the aging process, and the poem “A mi hermano Miguel” (“To My Brother Miguel”), eulogizing César’s deceased older brother, who died in 1915.
First published: 1922 (English translation, 1973)
Type of work: Poetry
With this collection, Vallejo offered the world what some consider to be the definitive avant-garde work of Latin American poetry in the twentieth century.
With its intricate neological wordplay, radically juxtaposed images, and fluttering emotional registers, Trilce might initially appear a daunting, if not impregnable, book to read. Nevertheless, through patient attention, readers can begin to witness the text cohering its disparities and disjunctions into a comprehensible verbal mosaic of new, nonlogical but purposeful relationships between language and lived experience. In fact, it is precisely in such moments that Trilce begins to reveal its majesty, which arises from Vallejo’s complex and innovative network of verbal, ideological, cultural, and imagistic considerations. For example, the poem “LXV” tenderly eulogizes Vallejo’s mother by transforming his agony over her death into a calm tone of seemingly unflappable compassion. Simultaneously, the poem also fetishizes architectural language invoking incestuous echoes, and it inverts the mother-son relationship until the son serves as the mother’s nurturer.
Certainly the poetry in Trilce is Vallejo’s most dense and disjunctive writing, and it defies easy intellectual interpretation. However, the poems are also tightly crafted, and patient readers will recognize that Trilce’s poems are as emotionally layered and aesthetically purposeful as they are metaphorically, tonally, and culturally unpredictable and unstable. Consequently, if one refrains from initially reading the book for linear, word-by-word transparency and comprehension, then one can learn to absorb the book’s unprecedented poetic communication, however challengingly schismatic and multivalent it may be at times.
First published: Poemas humanos, 1939 (English translation, 1968)
Type of work: Poetry
This collection enjoys critical praise as Vallejo’s greatest contribution to global letters.
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.