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Poetry in Pieces: Cesar Vallejo and Lyric Modernity

Poetry in Pieces: Cesar Vallejo and Lyric Modernity

by Michelle Clayton

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Set against the cultural and political backdrop of interwar Europe and the Americas, Poetry in Pieces is the first major study of the Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892–1938) to appear in English in more than thirty years. Vallejo lived and wrote in two distinct settings—Peru and Paris—which were continually crisscrossed by new


Set against the cultural and political backdrop of interwar Europe and the Americas, Poetry in Pieces is the first major study of the Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892–1938) to appear in English in more than thirty years. Vallejo lived and wrote in two distinct settings—Peru and Paris—which were continually crisscrossed by new developments in aesthetics, politics, and practices of everyday life; his poetry and prose therefore need to be read in connection with modernity in all its forms and spaces. Michelle Clayton combines close readings of Vallejo’s writings with cultural, historical, and theoretical analysis, connecting Vallejo—and Latin American poetry—to the broader panorama of international modernism and the avant-garde, and to writers and artists such as Rainer Maria Rilke, James Joyce, Georges Bataille, and Charlie Chaplin. Poetry in Pieces sheds new light on one of the key figures in twentieth-century Latin American literature, while exploring ways of rethinking the parameters of international lyric modernity.

Editorial Reviews


“This excellent study abounds with insights on an intriguing author.”
Modern Language Review - Stephen M. Hart

"Ground-breaking. . . . Combines a highly attuned sense of the cultural milieu in which Vallejo lived with a set of original readings of his poems."

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University of California Press
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FlashPoints Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

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Poetry in Pieces

César Vallejo and Lyric Modernity

By Michelle Clayton


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-26229-4


Pachyderms in Poetry and Prose

¡Paquidermos en prosa cuando pasan, y en verso cuando páranse!

Pachyderms in prose when passing by, and in verse when standing still! —Vallejo, "Telúrica y magnética"


Vallejo's poetry, from the earliest to the latest, contains unflinching portraits of an artist: struggling with his own body and language, with his responsibility to the figures and landscapes that surround him, and with the history of poetry. Yet for all this self-figuration, we have very little sense of what Vallejo the man was like. There is, as yet, no authoritative biography. Accounts by Juan Espejo Asturrizaga and Antenor Orrego focus only on Vallejo's Peruvian years (1892–1923). Juan Domingo Córdoba Vargas, Ernesto More, and Armando Bazán offer glimpses of Vallejo during their short associations with him in Paris, but their narratives suffer from the blindnesses of hindsight, and they frequently contradict one another as regards dates. Vallejo's widow Georgette's voluble account of his later years in Paris—written expressly to underline his political commitment but more covertly to contradict other versions—is riddled with errors, overstatements, and omissions. And Vallejo rarely appears in memoirs by or about better-known figures he associated with in France and Spain, such as Pablo Neruda, Rafael Alberti, or Federico García Lorca. Meanwhile, Vallejo's own utterances in poetry and prose are so shifty and fragmentary as to give us only very momentary glimpses of biographical facts behind the writing—intermittent references to real names and places, often attached to unlikely details (such as the claim, in Trilce XIV, that his salary as teacher in Lima earned him the absurdly small salary of five soles).

Nor do we have any defining statement of poetics. Vallejo's few prose statements on his procedure and principles work in the direction of negation or complication rather than clarification; in a 1925 chronicle, for instance, he tantalizingly disavows any connection between his work and Harlem Renaissance aesthetics, although he of course opens this as a possibility simply by mentioning it (ACC I: 170). Vallejo's self-positioning is often available only as a negative impression: in his reticence with regard to his own poetics, his silence in certain debates, and his refusal to provide a definitive statement of the relation between his poetry and political questions. Nicola Miller's brief portrait of Vallejo speaks volumes in this respect. Commenting that "Vallejo must have been an interviewer's nightmare," she notes that "he was cursory or enigmatic even in response to unexceptionable questions," coming across in his prose statements as "irascible," "curmudgeonly," and occasionally even "cadaverous" ("To Interpret" 174). Yet his poetry, by contrast, repeatedly stages intensely self-critical self-reflections, and it is in the poems that we find a performance—if never quite an explicit elucidation—of the relationship between the lyric and history.

Vallejo frequently insisted that his statements could not be separated from the contexts in which they were uttered—that the full meaning of statements and contents alike might only be fully discerned in hindsight. Quoting, for example, his declaration to an interviewer that he had no desire to align himself with any modern aesthetic movement, Vallejo remarked, "Siempre gusté de no discutirme ni explicarme, pues creo que hay cosas o momentos en la vida de las cosas que únicamente el tiempo revela y define" (I have always preferred not to discuss or explain myself, because I think that there are things or moments in the life of things which only time will reveal and define) (ACC I: 170). This comment condenses two central modes of Vallejo's poetry. On the one hand, a belief in the historical situatedness of any statement, mirrored in the relentless present tense of a poetics that reassesses itself and starts afresh with every new poem, knowing itself to be fully comprehensible only in the future (ACC II: 734–36); on the other, an evasion of direct statement. As he argued in the 1926 essay, "Poesía nueva" (New Poetry) (ACC I: 300–301), the attempt to render a contemporary context simply by naming its elements amounted to a false reification of the experience of history, which should appear as form rather than content. These two modes can be gathered under the concept of historical indirection.

What is central to Vallejo's poetics, as I suggest throughout this book, is an evolving sense of the critical importance of spontaneity, of adaptation to a situation, which makes his poetry the scene of constant movement—for the writer but also for the reader. Vallejo's writings eschew anything that looks like fixity, anything that would allow himself or his reader to settle into complacency. In part this is a corollary of his own constant movement: from the sierra to the cities of Peru, and later to Paris, Russia, and Madrid; from readings in Spanish Golden Age poetry through Romanticism to the international avant-gardes and into the plastic and visual arts; from poetry into prose and back out again. But it is more closely connected to his refusal to offer a comfortingly coherent poetics. Vallejo instead presents his own work as a "horizontalizing" aesthetic (ACC I: 46) that attempts to connect lyric poetry and the modern subject with their momentary backdrops, exploring the effects of the latter on the former. And those backdrops, as Vallejo's poetry and prose insistently register, were themselves undergoing processes of constant change. It is not only plants that grow in the spaces of Vallejo's writing (such as the mosses collecting around a lover's refusals in Trilce LXII), but machines, economics, and political ideologies, all of which bear witness to the inroads and the traumas of modernity, in Peru as much as in Paris.

I hope to preserve some sense of this contradictoriness in the chapters that follow, reading Vallejo's apparent lack of coherence as the result of a shifting attachment to various local contexts while remaining always alive to the changes of modernity. As I map out in this opening chapter, Vallejo's writing emerges at the crossroads of different aesthetic possibilities—the waning of a cosmopolitanist and symbolism-inflected modernismo in Latin America, the development of new ways to articulate local concerns while engaging with the contemporary international avant-gardes—and of warring political ideologies in the context of shifting geopolitical configurations. His concern at each one of these junctures is with the possible reach of poetry, understanding the lyric not as a solipsistic aesthetic form providing a refuge from history, but as a mode of processing the most pressing contemporary problems, and subject to constant self-critique. By putting poetry on trial—to paraphrase an expression by his contemporary José Carlos Mariátegui—Vallejo offers us a critical example of the ways in which the modern lyric can submit itself to history and survive the encounter.


Poetry can seem a profoundly paradoxical genre: at once a mask and a voice, a momentary outburst and a durable document, pure subjective expression and the most convention-bound utterance. And as a genre that theoretically speaks for the individual and exhausts itself in its enunciation, poetry has often been deemed incapable of engaging with a collectivity and generating either immediate or lingering effects. Academic literary studies have for the most part clung to the relation between nation and narration—not nation and lyric—as the place where reflection on history happens. And as Auden famously put it in his "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," "poetry makes nothing happen." But as he less famously continued, "it survives, / a way of happening, a mouth."

That mouth has too often been viewed as ahistorical and disembodied. To paraphrase Yeats's poem "Byzantium," poetry in theory remains "a mouth which has no moisture and no breath," contorted in the gesture of its voicing, with no capacity to summon equally "breathless mouths" or to be summoned by them. In Anglophone criticism, poetry has had its strongest defenders among New Criticism–trained critics, who have tended to present it as an utterance set outside history, insulated from real-world reference. Politically inflected Anglophone literary criticism has also been disinclined to press poetry for its connection to history but for a different reason: a sense that the lyric fails to render a significant image of the individual's relation to a multidimensional sociopolitical environment. Marxist criticism, in its commitment to a critique of aesthetic ideology, has viewed the lyric with enormous suspicion—as Robert Kaufman has repeatedly signaled—despite ostensibly building on Adorno's and Benjamin's probings of poetry's relation to specific political questions and to a broader historical environment. And the historicist turn in Americanist literary studies has generally continued to sideline poetry in its focus on prose, as Joseph Harrington points out (159–60). Meanwhile, postcolonial criticism—as Jahan Ramazani and Brent Edwards ("Genres") have both recently argued—shows a marked reluctance to engage with the lyric. Ramazani's analyses of postcolonial poetry are an important contribution to the debate; yet in their restriction to Anglophone poetry, they raise a second question, involving hierarchies not of genres but of languages. Hispanophone or Lusophone poets present the extra obstacle of speaking a language that is not-quite European but also not-quite indigenous, and in their engagement with foreign models they moreover tend to write back to the wrong empire—the French symbolist rather than the Spanish colonialist (Molloy 372).

Recent criticism, however, has begun to connect poetry in more productive ways to broader historical and theoretical contexts. A 2008 PMLA section, "New Lyric Studies," took issue with the compartmentalization of the genre, reassessing the question of the lyric voice, of poetry's connection to prose in periods of historical duress, and of the lyric's contribution to understandings of transnationalism. Meanwhile, a new anthology of critical and theoretical writings, Poetry and Cultural Studies (2009), which foregrounds the sidelining of poetry in studies of national literatures, further aims to undo any notion that poetry is necessarily trapped in the domain of high culture. Approaching poetry from diverse angles—ethnicity, mass culture, Frankfurt school critical theory—it attempts to recover the historical role of the lyric in processing various forms of culture: national, regional, popular, socioeconomic, ethnic.

But we need also to retain a sense of the tensed relation between poetry and history, which we can trace in its forms and tones even more than in its contents. Texts are necessarily worldly, as Edward Said relentlessly reminded us, enmeshed in the conditions from which they spring. But a lyric voice is constitutively caught between the public and the private, between an utterance that captures the internal or intimate and one that reaches out to a community; the challenge of the lyric, as Kaufman glosses Adorno's "Lyric Poetry and Society," is therefore to think subjectivity and objectivity simultaneously (363). Poetry's codes are structured in large measure by the possibilities of a historical moment, inflected by a sense of local urgencies; but the lyric also aims to reach beyond them, opening itself up to interpretations that go beyond the purely local or contemporary, unfurling through history.

Over the course of this book, I follow this call to hear poetry as a voice for history by reconnecting Vallejo's writing to its diverse contexts: Peruvian political and artistic debates, a generational shift in Latin American poetics, the broader panorama of the international avant-gardes, and interwar Europe. These contexts naturally involve their own questions and circuits, although they frequently overlap; each one is structured and striated by new local political imperatives and changing understandings of culture's relation to the social, to economics, and to geopolitics. I am equally concerned to trace the ways in which poetry harnesses contemporary voices precisely in order to move beyond them; as the next chapter examines, Vallejo's Peruvian poetry sets its own voice alongside and in competition with past and present voices—literary, political, popular. But I want to begin by dwelling on Vallejo's initial contexts to give a sense of the background of his first collections. This chapter therefore tracks the dominant modes of poetry in postindependence Latin America, its specific modulations and shifting place in turn-of-the-century Peru, and its gradual enmeshment with local political-cultural debates, against the backdrop of the avant-garde's circulation through the continent. This condensed and crisscrossed panorama prepares for the appearance of Vallejo's two Peruvian poetry collections, Los heraldos negros and Trilce.


In the aftermath of military defeat by Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879–83), Peru faced an acute representational crisis that unsettled both its politics and its literature. Forging a newly solid image of the nation entailed radically rethinking its relation to its pre-Columbian and colonial pasts, while also confronting the present-day imbalance between the capital and the provinces. After independence in the early 1820s, the country's power base had remained in Lima, its virtually feudal supporting structures spreading like tentacles through the countryside, which continued to funnel funds to the capital. Meanwhile, expanded neocolonial arrangements handed over control of road-building projects, mining, and commerce to Britain and subsequently to the United States. All these conditions solidified a situation that Vallejo himself referred to as "semicolonial" (ACC II: 904), and that Adam Sharman has recast as "colonial postcolonial" ("Semicolonial" 192). In Sharman's blunt assessment, "Decolonization did not take place, post-colonialism never happened, and Quechua never became the official language of any of those new nation-states. Indigenous groups continued both in the nineteenth century and in Vallejo's day to be colonized subjects of a political, economic, and cultural order that was manifestly not their own" (194).

Peru's postindependence fault lines ran between creoles, mestizos, and indigenous groups, between the ruling and working classes, and within those groups themselves, split along lines of ethnicity and economic interest and allegiances, all of which were complicated by the importation of black and Chinese forced labor and by new neocolonial alliances throughout the modern period. Many intellectuals pointed to this rampant fragmentation as a major factor in Peru's military defeat: the inability to foster a strong sense of patriotism, it was argued, had resulted in an undermotivated army comprising largely mestizo and indigenous soldiers, whose union easily crumbled under the Chilean onslaught. The immediate postwar issue, then, which remained at the center of national debate over the next forty years, was the following: how to create and sustain a representative image of the nation that would incorporate all its inhabitants and earn their allegiance.

The early twentieth century therefore witnessed a series of struggles over forms and contents of national representation, as both politics and aesthetics began to grapple with past and present omissions and repressions. This period saw a striking increase in the number of newspapers produced, linked to the mass migration of representatives of the provincial and Andean middle and working classes—often of mestizo origin—into the cities. These new journalists set themselves against a university system dominated by the oligarchy; the prose they forged in their newspaper articles served to elaborate a polemical critical nationalism, taking as its target a conservative nationalism with its roots sunk deep in colonial structures. At stake in these broad debates were not only internal issues of regionalism and nationalism but also Peru's representation before the world: the concern of the area's major writers in this period was to bring local politics and literature up to date with the international scene. The aim of Peru's most radical intellectuals, however, was not simply to emulate Western-shaped forms of the modern, but to map out the country's own options, setting its productions alongside Western forms rather than following after them. This was less a question of projected modernity than of willed contemporaneity. 12 Images of contemporaneity, when projected from a space that saw itself as both peripheral and suffering from time lag, risked reifying hierarchies of global culture; but they could also highlight alternative options that dismantled those hierarchies. Forms of the modern that drew upon European models—such as the literary bohemia that developed in Peru's major cities in the early 1910s—could themselves seem outdated alongside modes of everyday life in parts of the country less overtly inflected by modernity.


Excerpted from Poetry in Pieces by Michelle Clayton. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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"This excellent study abounds with insights on an intriguing author."—Choice

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Michelle Clayton is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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