Why? No, seriously. Ever wondered why there is suffering in the world? Why bad things happen to good people? Why things are just so hard sometimes? Well, so have many people throughout history, but very few of them could put that wondering into words just as powerfully as Peruvian poet César Vallejo did in his poem "The Black Heralds."
The poem was written in 1918 and published in 1919 on the heels of the First World War. Now, we know you weren't around, but really—take it from us. First World War = bad times. Many people were wondering how things had gone so terribly wrong in civilization to allow such carnage.
This poem is a 17-line lamentation that starts and ends with some of the most hopeless words to ever tickle the ears of a person in the middle of an existential crisis: "I don't know." In between the not-knowing are a bunch of religious images that describe all the violence and suffering of life. It's pretty heavy, really.
That's nothing new for ol' César, though. Vallejo only published three books of poetry in his short lifetime, and they were all real doozies. Some consider him to be the greatest twentieth-century poet in any language. He was also an avant-garde poet, an artist way ahead of his time in the way he played with language.
"The Black Heralds" was the first poem in Vallejo's first book of poetry, also called The Black Heralds and is famous for its universal themes and simple beauty. The poem's first line is among the most memorized in all of the Spanish language—maybe because it reflects how powerfully bummed-out people can actually feel.
If you've ever experienced injustice—an undeserved bad grade, a ruined friendship over a misunderstanding, or losing a loved one when it just didn't seem right—then you can put yourself in this poetic speaker's shoes.
The poem puts that universal, yet oh-so-painfully-personal, experience of suffering unfairly into words, and in a way builds a connection between all of us poor devils who've ever wondered Why me? Now, the speaker doesn't have an answer—in fact, it repeats "I don't know!" three times. But that puts the poem at a human level: we can all not-know together.
It'll be hard to find a poem that boils down a universal human experience into such beautiful and accessible language. After listing a few religious and historical images that describe human disappointment and suffering, the last stanza describes a perfect loaf of bread that burns on its way out of the oven—this is what it feels like to be disappointed by life and its unfairness.
In fact, you'll probably feel like you could have written the poem yourself, because it captures your feelings so perfectly.