The Modern Period

The Modern Period

Episodes from Modern Poetry & Politics: César Vallejo in International Dialogue
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Robert Kaufman
254 Dwinelle

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 with marxian theory and activism). 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 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).

In sustained readings of Vallejo’s poetry and criticism, this course will consider various aspects of Vallejo’s art, while highlighting the ways his poetry approaches the relations of aesthetic form to the sociopolitical realm.  Along the way, we’ll look briefly at some of the poetry that preceded Vallejo, most notably, that of the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío.  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, and José Carlos Mariátegui). In the second portion of the course, we’ll read later poetry from across the Americas and Europe that has been influenced by Vallejo.

  [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].