The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

“The Nine Monsters” is a seventy-line poem, divided into four stanzas of varying lengths. The poem is written loosely in the form of an address, perhaps a speech, in which the poet discourses on the subjects of pain and misfortune to an audience of “human men” and “brother men.” It would appear that the poem begins somewhere in the middle of the speech, since the opening line of the poem implies continued speech.

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After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, César Vallejo was active as a vocal defender of the Spanish Republic. In Paris, where he had lived since 1923, he attended meetings and assemblies and helped in the effort to raise money for the Republican cause. While autobiographical information is not necessary to study “The Nine Monsters,” it is helpful to know that at the time Vallejo wrote the poem (it is dated November 3, 1937), he was out canvassing the streets and speaking to crowds about the war. The speechlike nature of the poem is more apparent in this context.

In the first stanza, the poet or speaker notes the rapid and ceaseless spread of pain in the world. Pain has become the dominant fact of life, so much so that those who suffer are virtually martyrs to it. Pain is so great that it constantly redoubles itself.

The speaker then turns his attention, in the second stanza, to the historical moment. It is the age of pain, he says. There has never been a time more vulnerable to its debilitating attack. Even affection has been marred by pain. Health, paradoxically, means death. Everything conceals pain, and the speaker wishes to draw everyone’s attention to the fact—even the government (the secretary of health) must hear his appeal.

The third stanza shifts attention to pain’s cousins: misfortune, evil, and suffering; they, too, are spreading rapidly, flooding the world and overturning the established order. At this point, the speaker elaborates on the “nine monsters” of the title. Six times in six lines he repeats the number nine, each time using it to enumerate another aspect of what, presumably, constitutes the monsters mentioned in the title. One thing is sure: The “monsters” are closely connected to sound, primarily apocalyptic sound.

The fourth stanza is the poem’s longest. Whereas in the previous stanzas the speaker has commented on the extent of pain in the world and on the places where it is active, in stanza 4, the reader’s attention is directed to the activity of pain. Pain is seen as an active force. It grabs people, drives them wild, nails them, denails them. In effect, pain is personified; it comes alive and stalks human beings. It is associated with creative and destructive principles: Life and death occur “as a result/ of the pain.”

The poem ends with the speaker’s personal agony, the sadness he feels at witnessing this enormous suffering. It is all too much for him; there is nothing to be done about it; the extent of the suffering is too vast.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

The distinguishing characteristic of Vallejo’s poetic technique is his extraordinary ability to shatter language—the very thing poetry depends on—and through its deconstruction, to create a new (albeit esoteric and unnatural) medium to communicate the chaos he sees all around. In essence, Vallejo conveys his message by destroying the traditional means by which a message can be communicated. Syntax, grammar, and even vocabulary come apart in his poetry. From the rubble, he re-creates the text, in completely new combinations, so that meaning is reconstituted in a way never before possible. Vallejo uses words the way a Cubist such as Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque uses shape. Cubism forces one to view an image simultaneously from a multiplicity of new angles, so that “normal” perception of that image is no longer valid. Similarly, Vallejo requires language to be read in an entirely new way: The traditional logic of grammar is discarded, and readers are forced to reconstruct it themselves so that the “normal” interpretation of the words is no longer valid. As the syntax is wrenched apart in a Vallejo poem, so, too, is meaning wrenched apart. Readers are often left with irrational, private, and ultimately ambiguous images that parallel the ambiguous nature of contemporary experience.

The first stanza of “The Nine Monsters” is a good example of this technique. The stanza appears to be a single, medium-length sentence—at least it is punctuated that way—however, this sentence has no beginning and no conclusion. Although a subject and a verb are provided (“pain grows”), the sentence soon loses all grammatical sense. The phrase “the pain twice” is repeated several times as though the speaker has lost the train of thought and must return to what he has already said. The broken syntax of the first stanza is reminiscent of other modernist poems, such as T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” in which a sequence of fragments is spliced together. The resulting jumble falls short of effective communication. This device may baffle the reader, but there is a point to the confusion: Many of Vallejo’s poems are meditations on the modern human’s inability to discover meaning in his or her experiences. In “The Nine Monsters,” moreover, the broken phrasing gives the impression that someone in excruciating pain is trying to speak. The manner of the speech thus reflects the theme of the speech. The poet finds the pain of life so unbearable that his ability to deliver coherent discourse is impaired.

Vallejo is also a great poet of swift association, a device that allows the poet to leap from one image to another, thus bringing together ideas and images that superficially seem to have little in common. He is willing to take risks in these associations. For example, few other poets would dare to associate cabinet drawers with the heart and wall lizards. Such seemingly implausible connections are jarring and disturbing. The reader is forced to account for the contradictions in these connections. Perhaps in doing so, the reader can glimpse deeper, hidden realities.

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Themes