Fifteen High Points of Twentieth-Century Peruvian Poetry
RICARDO GONZÁLEZ VIGIL
1911 José María Eguren. Simbólicas.
1922 César Vallejo. Trilce.
1939 César Vallejo. Poemas humanos.
1939 César Vallejo. España, aparta de mi este cáliz.
1950 Martín Adán. Travesía de extramares: Sonetos a Chopin.
1927 Carlos Oquendo de Amat. Cinco metros de poesía.
1933 Emilio Adolfo Westphalen. Las ínsulas extrañas.
1966-89 Javier Sologuren. Vida continua.
1968 Antonio Cisneros. Canto ceremonial contra un oso hormiguero.
1971 Rodolfo Hinostroza. Contra natura.
1976 Eduardo Eielson. Poesía escrita.
1986 Blanca Varela. Canto villano.
1989-90 Enrique Verástegui. Angelus Novus
1994 José Watanabe. Historia natural.
1998-2001 Carlos Germán Belli. En las hospitalarias estrofas.
It has never been easy to select the best of contemporary Peruvian poetry, especially due to its richness and diversity. Peru has produced one of the most notable manifestations of Latin American literature: the incredible results are written not only in Spanish but in Andean languages (Quechua, most notably) and those of the Amazon Basin. In fact, Peruvian poetry's most distinguished representative, César Vallejo, shines as one of the most compelling poets of the twentieth century in any language. Along with Pablo Neruda, Vallejo is one of the most revered and studied names in Latin American poetry.
Three Key Poets
We should begin our summary with the three most respected voices of Peruvian poetry: José María Eguren (Lima, 1874-1942), César Vallejo (Santiago de Chuco, 1892–Paris, 1938), and Martín Adán (pseudonym of Rafael de la Fuente Benavides; Lima, 1908-85). Among their works one finds the five most important verse collections in Peruvian literature, the highest expressions of creativity, originality, and aesthetic genius. They are, in chronological order:
José María Eguren, Simbólicas (1911; Symbolics). Thanks to Eguren, Peruvian poetry entered fully into the "modern" aesthetic. In his poems, one witnesses a model of lyrical intensity and subtlety of expression that resonates with advocates of what is known in Spanish as poesía pura or "pure poetry": surrealists, transcendentalists, and generally any poet absorbed in his or her inner world or obsessed with the search for the unknown. There are strong traces of Latin American modernism in Eguren: a Parnassian taste for a refined style and the view that there are "beautiful" or "poetic" words that rise above others that are "ugly" and "prosaic," as well as an abundance of the sensual images inspired by impressionism.1 However, Eguren leaps beyond all these phenomena in his exploration of the ambiguous nature of language and the dynamic quality of the imagination, adrift between dreams and the féerico. No other poet in the Spanish language is more profound and consummate a symbolist. This is not because of a timely imitation of French symbolists (Verlaine, Mallarmé, et al.) but rather the result of a genuine convergence with the artistic "modernism" of the German Romantics (Novalis, above all) as well as English Romanticism and French symbolism. The symbol in Eguren's poetry divorces itself from any precise reference point in a pathway to abstraction similar to the one encouraged by Mallarmé (and that later provides the basis for abstract painting and "pure poetry"): Eguren's suggestiveness reflects the ideal of an open work of literature, resistant to interpretation by any static or formally rational model.
César Vallejo, Trilce (1922; Eng. Trilce, 1973). Published in the anno mirabilis of twentieth-century literature--that of James Joyce's Ulysses, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Saint-John Perse's Anabasis, and the birth of Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus--Trilce represents the most daring and original odyssey of avant-garde literature written in Spanish. Vallejo remakes grammar, invents words starting with the very title of his book, undermines the logic of the absurd as being the only wellspring of "pure poetry," and longs for a new aesthetic that will contribute to a new concept of the human condition. His innovativeness earns Vallejo a place alongside the other authors mentioned here: owing little to cubist, dadaist, or ultraist influences, he crafts a satisfying language all his own that defies imitation. In fact, Trilce is the most compelling collection of avant-garde poetry written outside of the great centers of European culture. One is amazed at how, from remote Peru, Vallejo managed to learn in all its complexity the avant-garde obsession with discarding the traditional in favor of charting a pathway toward a new and entirely unique stage in art and, inevitably, the human condition. Vallejo's synthesis of indigenous Andean influences with Western culture, already present in the best poems of his first book, Los heraldos negros (1919; Black heralds), achieves a singular richness in Trilce and manages to introduce to Latin American poetry the language of an avant-garde rooted in Europe.
César Vallejo, Poemas humanos (1939; Eng. Human Poems, 1968). This is a posthumous collection that contains the poems written during Vallejo's trip to Europe in 1923. These verses are the crowning achievement of an original and unique poetic language that abandons the iconoclastic tenets of the avant-garde in favor of a more pronounced organization of meter, grammar, and the underlying themes of a poem. The Spanish poets of the Generation of 1927 (Federico García Lorca, Jorge Guillén, Luis Cernuda, et al.) and the Neruda of Residencia en la tierra (1929; Eng. Residence on Earth, 1946) thrived in this new climate that some critics were already characterizing as the "post" avant-garde. In the case of Vallejo, his Marxist vision comes alive in the verse and expressive devices of his writing and not solely in his choice of working-class and revolutionary themes. He rejects any subordination of poetry to political sloganeering based on the aesthetics of Soviet "socialist realism." He weaves together commentaries based on materialism (biological conditions, already prominent in Trilce, come to the fore: the centrality of the body, its inner workings, and its organic needs), history (the influence of social and political circumstances on the individual), and a groundbreaking use of the dialectic (Aristotelian-Cartesian logic gives way to the dialectic struggle of opposites, where the Andean concept of the world as duality--hanan-hurin, masculine-feminine, above and below--has a central role). This reflects a thrust similar to that of German expressionism, although it is completely independent of any external influences, in a portrait of the anguish and loneliness felt by anyone subject to the alienation of capitalism. Vallejo proposes as its solution a revolutionary liberation.
César Vallejo, España, aparta de mí este cáliz (1939; Eng. Spain, Take This Cup from Me, 1974). Inspired by the Spanish civil war (1936-39) and written between 1937 and the first months of 1938, Vallejo's collection transcends politics and offers an enduring and universal message. The defenders of the Spanish Republic are characterized as the Voluntarios de la Vida (Soldiers of Life), who struggle against the Voluntarios de la Muerte (soldiers of death [the Spanish fascists would yell, "¡Viva la Muerte!" a phrase that is striking in its contradictions]). Using imagery with a biblical flavor, Vallejo proclaims that "death will die" and that Life will finally conquer Death. In the poem "Masa" (Masses), the love of all human beings for one another, expressed in unconditional solidarity, brings about a miracle on Earth, a resurrection achieved by purely human efforts. No poet of the twentieth century has celebrated the triumph of love over pain, injustice, and death as much as Vallejo. These poems evoke the most sublime and profound moments ever expressed in Spanish. To a great extent, they are Picasso's Guernica transformed into words. España, aparta de mi este cáliz, along with Poemas humanos, had an enormous influence on poetry written in Spanish from the 1940s to the 1960s, especially in the case of those poets who considered themselves committed politically and socially to important historical events of their time.
Martín Adán, Travesía de extramares: Sonetos a Chopin (1950; Traversing the other shores: Sonnets to Chopin). Adán displayed a singular irreverence in his brief yet spectacular avant-garde phase in 1927 and 1928. In fact, his novel La casa de cartón (1928; Eng. The Cardboard House, 1990) represents its crowning achievement, a work of great poetic intensity that includes the "Poemas Underwood" (Underwood poems). After 1929, in accordance with the reevaluation of Góngora's poetry unleashed by the Spanish Generation of 1927, Adán adopted a post<n>avant-garde outlook manifested in various aspects of his poetry: a return to traditional meters (sonnets and décimas, or ten-syllable verses); a baroque texture (open to erudite references, the twisting of syntax, a tension resolved in a climax full of abrupt interruptions and contradictions); themes in part "pure" (a longing for the absolute Beauty sought by Poetry, with a capital P, and archetypes symbolized by a rose) and partly transcendentalist (a transfiguration with a mystic bent on the altar of the Absolute), with a dose of expressionist and even existential influences (similar to the existentialism of Heidegger rather than reflective of French models). Travesía de extramares is the highest artistic expression of this post<n>avant-garde tendency. However, although on a par with the aesthetics of poesía pura or "transcendentalism" practiced by such great names in Spanish poetry such as Juan Ramón Jiménez, José Lezama Lima, José Gorostiza, and Octavio Paz, this collection remains almost unknown outside Peru.
Ten Outstanding Verse Collections
We should add the following ten masterpieces that deserve to be included in the most exclusive anthologies of Latin American poetry:
Carlos Oquendo de Amat, Cinco metros de poesía (1927; Eng. Five Meters of Poems, 1986). Before he was twenty years old, Oquendo (b. 1905, Puno, Peru; d. 1936, Navacerrada, Spain) had already taken advantage of various paths offered by the avant-garde, including cubism, futurism, dadaism, creationism, ultraism, and surrealism, and also the legacy of Trilce and the indigenista poetry of his birthplace, Puno, in the Peruvian altiplano. These influences converge in one of the greatest avant-garde collections of poetry in the Spanish language. It is one of the best explorations of all the elements of a book in terms of content, visual arrangement of the verses, the size of font, and the design of the pages, all of which appeal to the nondogmatic sensibilities and aesthetic refinement of the reader, who should open the pages of Oquendo's volume as if he were "peeling a piece of fruit" (the pages resemble the shell of a piece of peeled fruit). Five Meters of Poems contains numerous references to film, especially in the poems "Réclame" (Commercial) and "Intermedio de diez minutos" (Ten-minute interlude). In fact, one of the meanings of the term metros is an allusion to the art of making movies. A Marxist sensibility leads Oquendo to satirize a dehumanizing sense of capitalism that sells poems by the meter, rents out a sunset, sells pills that give one the feeling of being on the high seas, and displays billboards that ban sadness.
Emilio Adolfo Westphalen, Las ínsulas extrañas (1933; The strange isles). Westphalen (Lima, 1911-2001) displays a brilliant and unique understanding of surrealism in Las ínsulas extrañas and in a second outstanding collection of poems, La abolición de la muerte (1935; The abolition of death). Westphalen was a close friend of the Peruvian surrealist poet César Moro, whom he accompanied in numerous surrealist activities. His work contains the hallmarks of surrealist aesthetics, including the trinity of poetry-rebellion-love and a dedication to free form and dream-consciousness; however, his writing does not confine itself entirely to the strictures of surrealist literature. Westphalen nurtures his work from German Romanticism (as well as that of Nerval), French symbolism (as well as the work of his compatriot Eguren), the mystics of Spanish Golden Age poetry, and the lyricism of medieval troubadour poets.
Javier Sologuren, Vida continua (1st ed. 1966, 2nd ed. 1971, 3rd ed. 1989; Life everlasting). This is a compilation of works by Sologuren (Lima, b. 1921) taken from more than ten different collections of poetry. Vida continua is a totalizing attempt in the art of poetry. The quality of Sologuren's verse never wavers, reaching moments of extraordinary brilliance in such books as Dédalo dormido (Daedalus sleeping), Recinto (Enclosure), Surcando el aire oscuro (Plowing the dark air), Folios de "El Enamorado y la Muerte" (Verses of "Death and the Lover"), La hora (The hour), and Tornaviaje (Return trip). Sologuren successfully absorbs the legacy of Western modernity, especially symbolism and surrealism, and enriches it with a measured but profound receptiveness of Japanese poetry and visual writing reminiscent of the poetry of Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Paz, and the Brazilian Cassiano Ricardo. A tendency toward "pure poetry," with traces of surrealism, dominates his early books; however, since the 1950s, owing to echoes of existentialism and very subtle and intricate references to culture and history, his poetry can no longer be limited to the rubric of "pure poetry." The best expression of this is the extended poem "La hora" (The hour), published in 1980.
Jorge Eduardo Eielson, Poesía escrita (1st ed. 1976, 2nd ed. 1998; Written poetry). Eielson's creative genius has expressed itself in numerous ways. In addition to being a noted poet, he is also a multimedia artist and talented novelist. Demonstrating that poetic expression is not limited to words, Eielson (Lima, b. 1924) named his anthology Poesía escrita, with the purpose of distinguishing his work from other collections written in Spanish during the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1976 edition, the reader advances from the verbal refinement of the poems of the 1940s (which resemble those of Rilke and the verses of Martín Adán in the 1930s and 1940s) to an increasingly cutthroat texture that lays bare the pitfalls of poetic composition and is in its own way "antipoetic," though one should not confuse this with a similar term coined by the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra. This relentlessness is antipoetic to the point of immolating the words in an exploration of the visual and the devastation of the word's physical underpinning: the paper on which it is written (a radicalism similar to the poetry known as concretismo in Brazil). The collections Reinos (Kingdoms), first published in 1945, and Una habitación en Roma (A room in Rome) are the best part of Eielson's work. In the 1998 edition, Eielson encourages the poem to develop stronger ties with daily life and other means of communication, including theater, the visual arts, and the novel. The most notable collection added to the new edition is Noche oscura del cuerpo (Dark night of the body), published in 1983. Two highly acclaimed collections were subsequently published: Sin Título (Untitled) in 2000 and Celebración (Celebration) in 2001.
Blanca Varela, Canto villano (1st ed. 1986, 2nd ed. 1996; Villainous chant). This work brings together the poetry of Blanca Varela (Lima, b. 1926), one of the most important voices of contemporary Latin American women's poetry. Displaying an unwavering aesthetic refinement since her initial offerings, Varela unleashes her expressive talent with an unaffected language characterized by verbal austerity and a rejection of rhetorical complacency. Her verses follow an "antipoetic" attitude that recalls Vallejo's rejection of artificiality, Westphalen's definition of the image as brittle and inconstant, and Eielson's demystification of the poetic experience. Few Latin American women poets have spoken with the acutely irreverent and nihilistic voice that one finds in Varela's "villainous" lyrical voice. Her writing is doggedly opposed to the sublime, the perfect, and the glorious and full of proudly unwholesome anguish.
Carlos Germán Belli, En las hospitalarias estrofas (published in installments between 1998 and 2001; In hospitable verse). After an initial interest in the avant-garde in the late 1950s, Belli (Lima, b. 1927) has produced one of the most unique and inimitable poetic universes ever seen in any language since the publication of the collection ¡Oh hada cibernética! (Oh, cybernetic fairy!) in 1961. It arises from an uncanny mixture of the poetic forms prevalent between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, especially those emanating from Spanish, Italian, and Provençal roots, along with the modern outlook of Romanticism, symbolism, surrealism, expressionism, and existentialism. Erudite and baroque expressiveness merges with doses of street jargon in a successful diction that is solemn and grotesque, tragicomic and funny. All his collections are outstanding examples of poetic virtuosity, the greatest being En las hospitalarias estrofas, which contains a thousand-verse poem entitled "¡Salve, Spes!" that rivals the best offerings of Neruda, Huidobro, Adán, Lezama Lima, Gorostiza, and Paz.
Antonio Cisneros, Canto ceremonial contra un oso hormiguero (1968; Ceremonial song against an anteater; Eng. The Spider Hangs Too Far from the Ground, 1970). Cisneros (Lima, b. 1942) won the highly prestigious Premio Casa de las Américas of Cuba for this work. It became one of the most admired and imitated books in the flourishing literary environment of the 1960s. For Peruvian poetry, the work of Cisneros represents the acceptance of contemporary trends in English-language poetry (Eliot, Pound, Dylan Thomas, and the Beats) along with the didactic example of Brecht: a fusion of the lyric--employing an ironic and antisentimental tone--with the narrative and dramatic. He also borrows from Brecht a discursive framework incorporating both erudition and street talk. In Cisneros's poetry, language is turned on its head to capture an innovative and revolutionary time, idealizing the Cuban Revolution and the rebellion of youth.
Rodolfo Hinostroza, Contra natura (1971; Against nature). For this work, Hinostroza (Lima, b. 1941) received the prestigious Maldoror international literary prize in poetry, sponsored by the Spanish publishing house Barral. Like a virtuoso, Hinostroza takes samples of writing from other poets and makes them his own--he complements the greatness of Pound and Eliot with the new horizons opened by Mallarmé's Un coup de dés, never eschewing a perpetual addiction to the dramatic intensity of Shakespearean verse. A craftsman of words--one of the finest in contemporary Latin American literature--Hinostroza has also displayed his talent as a novelist and playwright.
Enrique Verástegui, Angelus Novus (1989-90, 2 vols.). It is generally agreed that the first brief collection by Verástegui (Lima, b. 1950), En los extramuros del mundo (1971; Outside the world's walls), is the richest in terms of artistic excellence. Moreover, it has had the greatest impact as the summit of an irreverent and avant-garde soul, in this case that of a dyed-in-the-wool beatnik of the 1970s generation in Peru. Nevertheless, it is Angelus Novus, one of the most ambitious works in poetry written in Spanish in the twentieth century, that remains his most profound and compelling work. These seminal poems are enriched with references to the hallmarks of world poetry and to the most far-flung realms of art and science. Their goal is an integration of the aesthetic, the ethical, and the epistemological. Angelus Novus forms the third part of the four installments that comprise Verástegui's book Ética (1972-94; Ethics).
José Watanabe, Historia natural (1994; Natural history). Out of the five collections of poetry that characterize the most mature phase of Watanabe's verse, it is difficult to select the best one: Álbum de familia (1971; Family album), El huso de la palabra (1989; The spindle of the word), Historia natural (1994), Cosas del cuerpo (1999; Subjects of the body), or Habitó entre nosotros (2002; He dwelled among us). Historia natural may be the book that most accurately represents the creative universe of Watanabe (Laredo, b. 1946). The son of a Japanese father and a mother with indigenous roots, Watanabe's poetry achieves a compelling synthesis of Oriental (Japanese haikus, moral values, and visual arts) and Western culture (the European classics, symbolism, Italian hermetism, Eguren, Vallejo, and Eielson). However, his poetry in no way excludes the creole sensibilities of the Peruvian coast. Raised in the countryside of northern Peru, on the hacienda of Laredo, Watanabe allows the reader to sense the pulsating tension between the urban and rural world. This tension is also represented in the dichotomy between the body, which symbolizes nature, and the soul, which heralds civilization.
It is important to remember a few other collections of twentieth-century poetry in Peru:
Minúsculas (1901; Tidbits), by Manuel González Prada, the founder of Peruvian modernismo
Alma América (1906; Soul of the Andes), by José Santos Chocano, is the masterpiece of novomundismo, a poetic celebration of the New World in its geography and history and its flora and fauna, which exerted an enormous influence throughout Latin America, including on Neruda's Canto general (1950)
Urpi (1945), by Mario Florián, a work imbued in the traditions of Andean poetry
Poesía (1954; Poetry) and El movimiento y el sueño (1971; The movement and the dream), by Alejandro Romualdo, a pivotal voice of politically committed poetry and an exploration of the visual, reminiscent of Mallarmé
El río (1960; The river) and El viaje (1961; The voyage), by Javier Heraud, the launching point for the so-called Generation of 1960
Katatay y otros poemas (1971; Katatay and other poems), by José María Arguedas, the greatest collection ever of Quechua poetry
Kenacourt y Valium Diez (1971; Kenacourt and valium ten), by Jorge Pimentel, a work that launched the most noted movement in contemporary Peruvian poetry, Movimiento Hora Zero (the Zero-Hour Movement), in the 1970s
Vox horrísona (1st ed. 1978, 2nd ed. 1983), by Luis Hernández, a collection that had enormous influence on subsequent Peruvian poetry
Noches de adrenalina (1981; Nights with a buzz), by Carmen Ollé, which initiated the blossoming of women's poetry in Peru in the last few decades with a boisterous feminism and an unapologetic lewdness expressed both thematically and verbally.
In more recent years, besides the collections by Eielson, Belli, Varela, Verástegui, and Watanabe already mentioned, other notable works in chronological order include: La palabra de los muertos, o, Ayacucho hora nona (1991; The words of the dead, or Ayacucho ground zero), by Marcial Molina Richter; Falsos rituales y otras petrañas (1992; False rituals and other remains), by Emilio Adolfo Westphalen; Un trino en la ventana (1992; Chirping at the windowsill), by Javier Sologuren; Tromba de agosto (1992; A waterspout in August), by Jorge Pimentel; Hormas y averías (1995; Forms and aviaries), by Ana María García; Este es mi cuerpo (1996; This is my body), by Lizardo Cruzado; Aquí descansa nadie (1998; Nobody is resting here), by Carlos López Degregori; El libro de las señales (1999; The book of signals), by José Carlos Yrigoyen; El amor en los tiempos del cole (2000; Love in the time of school), by Lorenzo Helguero; and El mundo en una gota de rocío (2000; The world in a drop of mist), by Abelardo Sánchez León.
Finally, it must be pointed out that in reviewing the production of many Peruvian poets, it is not appropriate to focus on only one collection of their work. Oftentimes, their works offer poems worthy of an anthology and reflect an exciting literary adventure. Such poets include César "Atahualpa" Rodríguez; the avant-garde poets Alberto Hidalgo, the creator of simplismo, Alejandro Peralta, an indigenista poet of the Orkopata group, and the surrealist César Moro; the post<n>avant-garde poet Esther M. Allison; César Calvo, Juan Ojeda, and Arturo Corcuera of the Generation of 1960; and Tulio Mora, an advocate of the Movimiento Hora Zero of the 1970s.
Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú
Translation from the Spanish
By John J. Winters
One should not confuse Latin American modernismo with so-called modernism in English or Portuguese poetry, a tendency rooted more in the soil of the vanguard movement of the 1920s and 1930s; Latin American modernismo flourished between 1875 and 1916 and reflected Parnassian, impressionist, decadent, and symbolist influences.
Ricardo González Vigil is a member of the Academia Peruana de la Lengua and teaches at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. His book-length publications include Poesía peruana siglo XX (1999) and Intensidad y altura de César Vallejo (1993). John J. Winters is a master's student in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics at the University of Oklahoma.
“From the April-June 2003 issue of World Literature Today (3:1), pages 62-67. Copyright 2003 World Literature Today.”