Genre: Lyric Poetry
César Vallejo & His Legacies in 20th-21st Century Poetry, Poetics, & Critique: Form, Commitment (Engagement, Compromiso), & Critical Aesthetic Autonomy
The Peruvian César Vallejo (1892-1938) is one of international modernism’s greatest and—at least posthumously—most influential poets, known for twinned radical commitments: to artistic-aesthetic experimentation with lyric form; and to progressive and Left politics (a political commitment that eventuated in Vallejo’s intense, complex involvement during the last 15 years of his life with marxian theory, along with his connected activism in three "fraternally aligned" communist parties: those of France, Spain, and--albeit from the distance of his exile in Europe--his homeland, Perú). He's known too as a fascinating, important instance of tensions--seen by some as generative, by others, as worrisome or problematic--between theories of "committed art" on one hand, and the art itself actually made by some of the very artists apparently advocating theories of "commitment." The clearly-evident tensions between Vallejo's partisan writing as a journalist-critic (often arguing in favor of "commitment" theory), and his own poetry--a poetry which manifests profound sociopolitical motivations, involvements, materials, and so forth, but which nonetheless almost constantly exceeds or even shreds the established concepts or tenets that comprise "commitment theory"--have made his art, criticism, and life stand out as being among the richest and most generative in longstanding debates and criss-crossed lines of art and influence in 20th and 21-st century poetry, poetics, politics (not least, about precisely the historical and still ongoing "aesthetics and politics" or "culture and politics" debates).
Like many artists who came of age early in the twentieth century, Vallejo began his career with the previous century’s romantic and symbolist poetics all but second nature to him. He then adapted and extended "advanced" formal and thematic experimentation as itself a critique, radicalization, and modernization of romanticism and symbolism, and as an intended contribution towards the development of modern poetry's capacities dynamically to engage, from the Left, a dramatically altered social landscape. While becoming a key figure in modern poetry, Vallejo was also actively involved in the political life of his native Perú, as well as that of Spain (whose 1936-39 Civil War became one of the last great causes of his life), and France (his primary country of residence after he left Perú). He also made three decisive trips to the Soviet Union (the book of social and aesthetic-cultural commentary that he wrote about aspects of those visits to the USSR became the one "bestseller" of Vallejo's writing published during his lifetime).
In sustained readings of Vallejo’s poetry and criticism, we'll consider various aspects of Vallejo’s art, while highlighting the ways his poetry approaches the relation of aesthetic form to the sociopolitical realm. Along the way, we’ll look briefly at some of the poetry that preceded Vallejo and that he deemed of supreme importance, most notably, that of the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío--and likewise the French line of modern lyric that begins with Baudelaire, as well as poets of the Americas besides Darío whose work he found crucial (perhaps most notably, Walt Whitman and José Martí). We’ll also pause to ask what seems or doesn't seem particularly marxian—or even, for that matter, particularly Left—in Vallejo’s poetic art, but "simply," so to speak, "artistic" or "aesthetic." Vallejo’s formidable imaginative energies and intellectual reach; his terrific feel for how to work with and stretch inherited poetic forms and genres; his singular formal-technical innovations at the level of line, syntax, phrase, syllable, accent, and even phoneme; his virtuosic abilities with traditional and novel orchestrations of lyric musicality; and just his sheer overall poetic talent and ambition will allow us to see, among other things, how his rigorous investigations and enactments, in verse and criticism, of the compound question "what is poetry, what is aesthetic experience, what is modernism, what is political commitment, what might—or should, or should not—bring them all together?" will yield intriguing, often unexpected results. Among those unexpected results are novel ways of grasping the relations obtaining in modern poetry among pleasure, estrangement, judgment, form, structure, genre, aesthetic autonomy, sociohistorical content, and ethical-political engagement.
We’ll spend somewhere between the first half to the first two-thirds of the course reading Vallejo’s poetry and criticism, as well as some philosophy, literary criticism and theory that will help illuminate and contextualize the poetry (including work by Kant, Marx, Marx and Engels, José Carlos Mariátegui, Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, Stephen Hart, Doris Sommer, Beatriz Sarlo, and others). In the second portion of the course, we’ll read later poetry and criticism--as well as work from adjacent art forms--from across the world that has been influenced by Vallejo. Those other poets and artists (we'll read their poetry, and in some cases, also their criticism, or watch/listen to their work) will likely include: Federico García Lorca; Hans Magnus Enzensberger; Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber); Octavio Paz; Mahmoud Darwish; Nathaniel Tarn; Roque Dalton; Susana Baca; Noel Nicola; Nicanor Parra; Coral Bracho; Ernesto Cardenal; Juan Gelman; Raúl Zurita; Emmy Pérez; Michael Palmer; Barbara Guest; Roberto Bolaño; and others.
[Note: Our basic text for reading Vallejo's collected poetry will be a bilingual edition with the original Spanish-language text, and the English translation of each poem, appearing on the book's facing pages. Our shared language of discussion, analysis, and engagement will be English, and we’ll spend most of our time reading the English translations of the poetry. But we’ll also be looking at and discussing the original Spanish texts (though when we do so, we'll still be speaking together in English, and we'll be looking at certain aspects of the original Spanish versions without the assumption or requirement that students know Spanish). In short, while knowledge of Spanish will of course be helpful to those students enrolled in the course who wish to read, appreciate, and write about the original Spanish versions of the poem--and while those students who do know Spanish will have the option of writing their papers on the original Spanish versions of the poems--nonetheless, knowledge of Spanish is NOT a course requirement, and students wishing to work only with the English translations will be at no disadvantage].