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"My Poetry Will Make Me Great": Behind the Words of Cesar Vallejo

Click on the
picture to visit
a website with
Vallejo's poetry
in Spanish and Quechua
The Peruvian poet, Cesar Vallejo
You may wonder how someone who never had a steady income, who moved from one residential hotel to another, and barely survived above the poverty line, could end up being called "one of the twentieth century's great poets"? (And could somebody please teach us poor trekkers this trick!?!)

Cesar Vallejo, who was born just over one hundred years ago in a small town in the Peruvian Andes, seemed to always know that he was destined for fame. His friends tell the story of how, at the age of twenty, Cesar returned to his home to town for a visit and went to see a play put on at his old high school. After the play was over, Cesar climbed up on to the stage and began to read some of his poems. When he saw how poorly his poetry was being received he announced "Since you don't applaud me, I don't give a damn for your applause... One day my poetry will make me great... and I will have the pleasure of seeing America prostrated before my feet" (We dare any of you aspiring poets to do the same thing!)

The Peruvian poet, Cesar Vallejo
Cesar's poetry is indeed famous - famous for its innovation, and its original and unique use of words. It is also known for its humanitarian themes - for his empathy with the suffering of others.

A critic of Vallejo's once asked him if he thought that "piling one absurdity on top of another is writing poetry?" Here are some samples of his writing. On a scale of 1-10, what would you give him?

height and hair

Who doesn't own a blue suit?
Who doesn't eat lunch and board the streetcar,
with his bargained-for cigarette and his pocket-sized pain?
I who was born so alone!
I who was born so alone!

Who doesn't write a letter?
Who doesn't talk about something very important,
dying from habit and crying by ear?
I who solely was born!
I who solely was born!

Who isn't called Carlos or any other thing?
Who to the kitty doesn't say kitty-kitty?
Ay! I who alone was solely born!
Ay! I who alone was solely born!

Today I Like Life (excerpt)

Today I like life much less,
but I like to live anyway; I have often said it.
I almost touched the part of my whole and restrained myself
with a shot in the tongue behind my word.

I would like to live always, even flat on my belly,
because, as I was saying and I say it again,
so much life and never! And so many years,
and always, much always, always, always!

Cesar's family background was pretty intense. He was the youngest of eleven children, and his grandparents on both sides were Chimu Indians and Catholic Spanish priests (this wasn't your average "Brady Bunch"). This created a deeply religious and spiritual household, an environment that could be strengthening and oppressive at the same time. In addition, it created within him a conflict between the spiritual and the worldly, a deep sense of good and evil, and sensitivity to the unfairness and inequality that greatly influenced his politics and poetry.

Another experience that had a major effect on him was a job that he held when he was 20, earning money for college. At that time, Cesar worked in the accounts department of a large sugar estate. During his year there, Cesar got to see first hand the inequality of the society in which he was living. He watched the workers laboring all day for a few cents and a bit of rice, all the while getting deeper and deeper into debt to their bosses (sound familiar?).

His personal and political idealism led him to become a Socialist, and many of his poems support the Socialist and Communist movements of the time. Cesar moved to Europe in his early 30's and was never able to return to Peru. He supported himself with various jobs in Paris, and also lived for a while in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. During his lifetime he wrote poems, novels and plays. He died in Paris in 1938, just as he said he would: I will die in Paris with a sudden shower, a day I can already remember.

The Team

Monica- The Land Down Under: The Silver Mines of the Cerro Rico
Abeja and Kevin- The Food of the Gods: Our Poetry in Peru
Kavitha- Get Political, Go to Jail!
Kavitha- An American in the Alcatraz of Peru
Making a Difference- Helping Political Prisoners in Peru
Meet the Team | Team Archive
The Team
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