• Writing Ideas
    1. Pierre Reverdy described surrealist images as bringing together “two distant realities.” Create a sequence of surrealist images in the style of Vallejo. On slips of paper, write down nouns, phrases, adjectives, clauses, colors—whatever you can think of. Then jumble the slips together and begin selecting pairs at random. Attempt to use your phrases to create, in Andre Breton’s words, “the light of the image.”
    2. Automatic writing was another Surrealist writing practice. Follow André Breton’s directions: “Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can. Forget about your genius, your talent, and the talents of everyone else. Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roots that leads to everything. Write quickly, without any preconceived subject, fast enough so that you will not remember what you’re writing and be tempted to reread what you have written.”
  • Discussion Questions
    1. What kinds of sense operate in “Under the Poplars”? Think, for example, about registers of language, tone or mood, and sensory details. If not literal, what “sense” can you make of Vallejo’s poem?
    2. David Biespiel notes in his guide that in surrealism, “images are all-important, and often placed in extreme juxtapositions.” Take different colored pencils and mark where such juxtapositions occur. What do you notice? How frequent are they? What kinds of language or description are being juxtaposed?
  • Teaching Tips
    1. Have your students research some Surrealist writing techniques. Discuss approaches to composition and inspiration: why did Surrealist writers rely on constraint-based practices, dreams, and automatic writing? How does their writing differ from other kinds of poetry you may have read together as a class? Use Vallejo’s poem to ground your discussion. Perhaps read David Biespiel’s poem guide together and mull over his assertion that “A poem like this isn’t built on a preconceived understanding of craftsmanship, artistic decorum, or reality. Instead, it’s ripped through with brute gestures of super- or hyper-reality.” As a concluding exercise, have students try out Surrealist writing practices: you might have them make a cut-up poem (cutting up phrases from newspapers or other source texts, throwing them in a bag, and writing a poem based on phrases as they’re yanked out) or an exquisite corpse (each student writes a line of a poem on a piece of paper, folding the paper and passing it to the next person, who then writes a line without seeing the previous line). Discuss what felt different writing this way as opposed to students’ “normal” process? What is the “normal” way to write a poem?
    2. Use Vallejo’s poem to talk about poetry in translation. If you can find “Under the Poplars” in the original Spanish, project it alongside Rebecca Seiferle’s translation. Can students see what choices were made in rendering Vallejo’s Spanish into English? Have them consult a Spanish-English dictionary, or if your students speak Spanish, ask someone to read the original aloud. Ask students to think about the difficulties poetry might pose to translators. You could have them read about various approaches to translations in “Various Tongues: An Exchange” or one poet’s thoughts on translation in “Sharp Biscuit.” You might discuss the difference between translations, versions, and imitations. As a final exercise, have students find another poem by Vallejo and translate it into English. Individual students or pairs could choose different poems; or the class could choose a single poem and attempt to translate it together or in groups. If they chose the same poem, have students compare their translations.
Under the Poplars

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for José Eulogio Garrido

      Like priestly imprisoned poets,         
the poplars of blood have fallen asleep.
On the hills, the flocks of Bethlehem                  
chew arias of grass at sunset.                  

      The ancient shepherd, who shivers         
at the last martyrdoms of light,                  
in his Easter eyes has caught                           
a purebred flock of stars.                           

      Formed in orphanhood, he goes down         
with rumors of burial to the praying field,         
and the sheep bells are seasoned with shadow.

      It survives, the blue warped         
in iron, and on it, pupils shrouded,                  
a dog etches its pastoral howl.
"Under the Poplars," from The Black Heralds (2003) by César Vallejo and translated by Rebecca Seiferle, appears courtesy of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.
Source: The Black Heralds (2003)
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Cesar Vallejo: “Under the Poplars”

Poem Guide

The ambassador of South American surrealism.

The Peruvian poet César Vallejo was born in Santiago de Chuco in 1892, the last of eleven children. Disapproving of the Catholic orthodoxy of his youth, he became a Marxist and an anti-Fascist, and he actively supported the revolution in Spain. An irony of his death in March 1938—he’d been living in Paris, poorer than a beggar and bouncing around in fleabag hotels with his wife—is that it occurred not only on Good Friday, but also the day Franco’s army marched into Madrid.

His poetry was widely read and imitated in this country in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks to translations by Robert Bly, James Wright, and others. These poets internalized Vallejo’s vigorous style into their own poems and brought a new, South American (rather than French) brand of surrealism into American poetry. There was a fad quality to this new embrace of surrealism, but it opened American poetry to a fresh resource and a renewed appreciation for the inventive and the imaginative.

For a poet, surrealism offers liberation from received literary habits and conventions. Images are all-important, and often placed in extreme juxtapositions. The language can be elevated and absurd at once. Meaning is ambiguous, ironic, mysterious, and psychological. With its associative, convulsive leaps in rhythm and imagination, with its swirling exploration of dreams, hallucinations, and the subconscious, the surrealist poem revolts against the limitations of logic and parades against reason.

“Under the Poplars” comes from Vallejo’s influential, 1919 book The Black Heralds, translated last year by Rebecca Seiferle. Sometimes blasphemous, other times merely irreverent, The Black Heralds surrealistic imagery, tone, diction, and themes confront pastoral traditions, colonialism, and religious conformity.

“Under the Poplars” glistens with explosive, religious metaphor: “poplars of blood,” “flocks of Bethlehem,” “arias of grass,” “martyrdoms of light,” “Easter eyes,” “seasoned with shadow,” “pastoral howl.” The juxtapositions inflame the differences between religious and naturalistic impulses. For instance, “pastoral howl” combines the simple and idyllic “pastoral” with the violent and despairing “howl”. A poem like this isn’t built on a preconceived understanding of craftsmanship, artistic decorum, or reality. Instead, it’s ripped through with brute gestures of super- or hyper-reality.

At its best, Vallejo’s poetry can release you from narrow expectations of the censoring, rational parts of your psyche. “Under the Poplars” urges the exploration of what Andre Breton calls the “hidden places” of the psyche, where contradictions (past and future, real and imaginary) are wiped out. What remains is a perilous, thrilling, and surreal confluence of language and imagination.

Reprinted from David Biespiel's monthly column on poetry for the Sunday
Book Review of The Oregonian.

Under the Poplars

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