The Poem

Trilce is a collection of seventy-seven poems brought together in a poetic sequence. The poems do not have titles; instead, each poem is headed by a Roman numeral. Although Trilce was virtually ignored upon its publication, it was later understood to be one of the principal poetic texts of the twentieth century. Its opaque and intentionally contradictory use of language baffled early readers. It remains a difficult, but by no means impossible, work. An awareness of César Vallejo’s struggle to create an entirely new poetic language helps the reader to address the difficulty and to begin to make some sense of it. Many critics have noted, however, that Trilce is a kaleidoscopic work. It constantly yields new configurations and new possibilities. It is a profound poetic work whose depths are not easily sounded, but whose multiplicity of meanings always yields some treasure to diligent readers.

The book’s title serves as a good introduction to the difficulties and possibilities of Trilce’s poetic techniques. The word “trilce” has no exact meaning. It is a neologism, a new word invented by Vallejo, that for English-language readers will recall the invented vocabulary of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Numerous interpretations of Vallejo’s title have been suggested. It is possible that the word is a blend of the Spanish words triste (sad) and dulce (sweet). Many commentators, however, believe that some suggestion of tres (three) is also intended by the title. Since Vallejo generally chose words with multiple layers of meaning, it is likely that he intended his neologistic title to resonate with any and all possible interpretations; the word “trilce” is probably meant to suggest all these ideas—sadness, sweetness, and the number three. The latter probably implies the trinity, a concept to which Vallejo alludes and with which he tinkers throughout his poetry.

Trilce does not easily lend itself to outlining. There are no precise thematic divisions in the work....

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Forms and Devices

Trilce is a formally intricate work; many of its complexities, however, are readily grouped together under the heading “linguistic distortion.” One of Vallejo’s preoccupations in the poems is to free language from the accepted poetic rhetoric of the early twentieth century, particularly that of the Spanish Modernismo movement, a movement that deeply affected the young Vallejo. Trilce reveals Vallejo dramatically breaking away from his former influences. In Trilce, his second book, Vallejo abandoned the ornamental aspects of Modernismo poetics and sought to strip language of its conventions.

Vallejo’s rejection of poetic norms is so absolute that even the appearance of the poem is altered. Thus, grammatical parody is evident throughout Trilce. One finds, for example, such simple devices as garbled spelling, unusual typography, and interchangeable parts of speech. In this respect, Vallejo resembles the American poet E. E. Cummings, who always played with the visual surface of the poem.

Vallejo, however, extends his challenge to the reader to deeper levels as well. One of the notable features of Vallejo’s poetics in Trilce is his flair for neologisms. From the first poem on, Vallejo invents words and phrases that disturb the reader’s faith in ultimate meaning. He seems to reject the possibility of ascertainable meanings.

Similarly, Vallejo challenges the reader over and over with recondite phrases in which words are put into seemingly impossible combinations. Vallejo’s technique is related to catachresis, the rhetorical device which defamiliarizes objects by attributing to them qualities not normally associated with them. Vallejo’s version of the device is surrealistic in that he gives voice to the language of the unconscious. Intense emotions and unforeseen relationships are perceived, even when the complete meaning of a phrase is obscure.


(The entire section is 799 words.)