Pablo Neruda at 100

By Edward Hirsch © 2004 The Washington Post Company

Pablo Neruda, a magnificent poet of Chile, of Latin America and, finally, of the Americas, well may be, in the words of Gabriel Garc’a M‡rquez, "the greatest poet of the twentieth century -- in any language." Beloved by Chileans of all classes, he is known throughout the world -- an iconic figure comparable to, say, Pablo Picasso or Charlie Chaplin. He is one of the most widely read and cherished poets in history. Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of Neruda's birth, and no celebration would be more fitting than to go down to the shore and read aloud his poems. He loved the playful anarchy of the sea -- creative, destructive, ceaselessly moving. He loved the marriage of wind, water and sand, and found inspiration in the crashing fury and freedom of the waves, the seabirds on the coast, the endlessness of blue sky. "I need the sea because it teaches me," he wrote. "I move in the university of the waves." He loved how the sea forever renewed itself, a renewal echoed in his work as well as in his life. He felt that creating poetry was like constantly being born. So let us head for the sea to recite his poems -- "Let us uncork all our bottled up happiness," as he put it in "Celebration" -- and come back refreshed, deepened and enlarged.

Neruda was born Neftal’ Ricardo Reyes y Basualto in 1904 in Parral, central Chile. His father was a railroad worker, his mother a primary school teacher. The first heartbreak of his life was that he never knew his mother, who died less than two months after he was born. As he wrote in "The Birth":

And that's where I'm from, that
Parral of the trembling earth,
a land laden with grapes
which came to life
out of my dead mother.
(tr. Alastair Reid)

All his life, Neruda linked womanhood to the regeneration of earth and the cyclical processes of nature. It was one of his most emotionally motivated, earnestly held associations.

The family moved to the frontier town of Temuco in southern Chile, where Neruda was raised in a land of powerful solitude, luxuriant nature and endless rain. "My father is buried in one of the rainiest cemeteries in the world," he wrote sadly. He adored his stepmother, whom he called la mamadre (the more-mother), and when he was 14 wrote his first lyric for her. "And it was at that age," he wrote later, "poetry arrived in search of me." As a teenager, he took the pseudonym "Pablo Neruda" to conceal the publication of his first poems from his disapproving father, and later adopted the name legally. But he quickly found approval elsewhere. He brought his work to the new principal of the local girls' school, the famed poet Gabriela Mistral, who told him: "I was sick, but I began to read your poems and I've gotten better, because I am sure that here there is indeed a true poet."

Neruda's professional life began early. He moved to the capital city of Santiago and published his first collection, Book of Twilight, in 1923. He followed it a year later with the astounding Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which instantly catapulted him to fame and is still loved throughout Latin America. It is the first poetry in Spanish that unabashedly celebrates erotic love in sensuous, earthly terms. "Love poems were breaking out all over my body," he later recalled.

I read these poems in W.S. Merwin's stimulating translation when I was 19 and immediately recognized the adolescent lover, at once a child and an adult, being schooled in the art of longing and obsession. "Tonight I can write the saddest lines," he declared in the 20th love poem. "I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her./ Love is so short, forgetting is so long." I still think of the first poem in this collection as an initiation, an introductory text to the poetry of desire:

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant's body digs in you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.
I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
and night swamped me with its crushing invasion.
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,
like an arrow in my bow, a stone in my sling.
But the hour of vengeance falls, and I love you.
Body of skin, of moss, of eager and firm milk.
Oh the goblets of the breast! Oh the eyes of absence!
Oh the roses of the pubis! Oh your voice, slow and sad!
Body of my woman, I will persist in your grace.
My thirst, my boundless desire, my shifting road!
Dark river-beds where the eternal thirst flows
and weariness follows, and the infinite ache.
(tr. W.S. Merwin)

Neruda benefited from a tradition among Latin American governments of subsidizing authors through appointments to the foreign service. He served in cities around the world, an experience that profoundly shaped his vision; but he always returned to Chile with a renewed sense of wonder and called himself "a Chilean ever and always."

Neruda's first post, which he chose at random, was in Rangoon, Burma, where he was cut off from his language, his culture and his history. Profoundly estranged from everything around him ("Really, don't you find yourself surrounded by destructions, deaths, ruined things . . . blocked by difficulties and impossibilities?" he wrote to a friend), he began to write the harsh, ferociously surreal poems that would bloom into the three disconsolate volumes of Residence on Earth (1925-1945). These poems reflect ancient terrors and modern anxieties, and his near-religious desolation: He once called them "a mass of almost ritualistic verses . . . with mystery and suffering, like those created by the poets of old." These poems reflect ancient terrors and modern anxieties, his near-religious desolation. "It so happens I am sick of being a man," he confesses in "Walking Around":

I don't want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.
I don't want so much misery.
I don't want to go on as a root and a tomb,
alone under the ground, a warehouse with corpses,
half frozen, dying of grief.
(tr. Robert Bly)

"Life led me through the world's farthest regions," Neruda once said, "before I reached what should have been my point of departure: Spain." He married twice during the years he served in various consular positions in Ceylon, Java and Singapore, in Buenos Aires, where he became friends with Federico Garc’a Lorca, then in Barcelona and Madrid, where he also became friends with Rafael Alberti and Miguel Hern‡ndez.

This remarkable poetic fraternity was blown apart by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, and Neruda spent the next few years shuttling between Madrid, Paris and Santiago. He was a passionate supporter of the Republican cause and wrote fiery poems denouncing the fascists and, eventually, raging against their victory. "So you ask why his poems/ don't tell us of dreams, and leaves,/ and great volcanoes in his native land?" he asked in "I Explain Some Things": "Come see the blood in the streets,/ come see/ the blood in the streets,/ come see the blood/ in the streets!"

Neruda had slowly developed a vision of un-alienated man, of justice and equality. "The world has changed and my poetry has changed," he said in 1939. On the night of his father's death in 1938, he began Canto general (General Song), which by the time it was published in 1950 had grown into 340 poems arranged in 15 sections. The heart of the epic is "The Heights of Macchu Picchu," his meditation on the Inca fortress hidden for centuries in the Andes Mountains. He said it marked "a new stage in my style and a new direction in my concerns." As he stood on the hallowed ground, Neruda vowed to make the stones speak on behalf of those who had built and labored on it. "Rise to be born with me, brother," he called out:

I come to speak through your dead mouth.
All through the earth join all
the silent wasted lips
and speak from the depths to me all this long night
as if I were anchored here with you,
tell me everything, chain by chain,
link by link, and step by step,
file the knives you kept by you,
drive them into my chest and my hand
like a river of riving yellow light,
like a river where buried jaguars lie,
And let me weep, hours, days, years,
blind ages, stellar centuries.
Give me silence, water, hope.
Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.
Fasten your bodies to me like magnets.
Hasten to my veins to my mouth.
Speak through my words and my blood.
(Tr. John Felstiner)

What had begun as a poem about Chile turned into one that delineated the full geological, biological and political history of South America. It became a comprehensive song, a general chant, a Whitmanian epic of the New World, a mythification of America.

By this time, Neruda had become an ardent communist. Over the years he wrote a lot of sincerely felt, but otherwise weak, didactic poems denouncing Western imperialism. His strident praise for the Communist Party seems at best naive, and his admiration for Stalin, whom he never disavowed, can be hard to stomach. Such figures as Octavio Paz and Czeslaw Milosz broke with him over communism. In his Memoirs, completed just a few days before his death, he called himself "an anarchoid," and that seems closer to the truth. "I do whatever I like," he said.

Nonetheless, Neruda's social and political commitments were crucial to his life and work. He was elected senator for the Communist Party in Chile in 1945. He campaigned for Gabriel Gonz‡lez Videla, who became president the next year -- and whose government then outlawed the Communist Party. Neruda denounced him, and in 1948 he was accused of disloyalty and declared a dangerous agitator. After a warrant for his arrest was issued, he went into hiding in Chile, then fled to Argentina and traveled to Italy, France, the Soviet Union and Asia. (His brief stay on the island of Capri during his exile was fictionalized in the touching film "Il Postino.") Throughout this period he was writing love poems for Matilde Urrutia -- "Ah great love, small beloved!" -- who became his third wife. These blossomed into The Captain's Verses (1952), which was published anonymously, and 100 Love Sonnets (1959).

Neruda returned to Chile in the mid-1950s, and his productivity continued unabated until the end of his life. When he was invited by the editor of a Caracas newspaper to contribute weekly pieces, he accepted on the condition that the work appear in the news section and not in the literary supplement. The paper agreed. "This is how I published a long history of time, things, artisans, people, fruit, flowers, and life," Neruda recalled in his Memoirs. The three books that then came out in rapid succession -- Elemental Odes, New Elemental Odes and Third Book of Odes (1952-1957) -- were truly meant to be elemental, even elementary, to carry news of things from their birth onward, to accord material objects a life of their own, to estrange the familiar.

The list of their subjects is dizzying. Nothing ordinary was alien to Neruda, or, for that matter, ordinary -- everything was magical. He wrote separate odes to tomatoes and wine, to an artichoke and a dead carob tree, to conger chowder, to a large tuna in the market, to his socks and his suit, to his native birds, to light on the sea, to the dictionary, to a village movie theater. He wrote an ode to time and another to the Earth, an "Ode for Everything." "Nothing was to be omitted from my field of action," Neruda commented. The first poem, "The Invisible Man," is explicit in its sense of the poet's urgency: "what can I do,/everything asks me/to speak,/everything asks me/to sing, sing forever." These three rapturous collections present an affirmative alternative to the three despairing books of Residence on Earth, which Neruda came to feel were too negative. The odes are funny, fiery and exultant, savagely new and profoundly ancient.

Neruda became a faculty member at the University of Chile in 1962, worked intensively on the 1964 and 1970 presidential campaigns for the socialist Salvador Allende, and served as the Chilean ambassador to France. He received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971. "There is no unassailable solitude," he said in his acceptance speech. "All roads lead to the same point: to the communication of who we are." He concluded:

"I come from a dark province, from a country separated from others by a severe geography. I was the most abandoned of poets, and my poetry was regional, sorrowful, steeped in rain. But I always had confidence in man. I never lost hope. That may be why I am here with my poetry, and with my flag."

Ill with cancer, Neruda retired to his beloved house in Isla Negra, Chile, where he had written Isla Negra, A Notebook (1964), a kind of autobiography in verse that explores his landscape, his roots, his formative experiences. This is supplemented by his splendid Memoirs, as well as by seven books of poems published posthumously. He wrote of entering "the silence into which everything falls/and, finally, we fall." Heartbroken over the coup that ousted Allende and the dark hour enveloping his country, Neruda died of cancer 11 days later -- on Sept. 23, 1973 -- in Santiago.

Neruda remains an immense presence in poetry. His work contained multitudes, like his beloved predecessor Walt Whitman. He was a poet of freedom and the sea, a wondrous love poet, the singer of an endlessly proliferating nature, a necessary voice of social consciousness. His work is radiantly impure and obstinately humane. In his Memoirs, Neruda asserts:

"Poetry is a deep inner calling in man; from it came liturgy, the psalms, and also the content of religions. The poet confronted nature's phenomena and in the early ages called himself a priest, to safeguard his vocation . . . . Today's social poet is still a member of the earliest order of priests. In the old days he made his pact with the darkness, and now he must interpret the light."

Edward Hirsch, one of five North American recipients of Chile's Presidential Medal of Honor for his contributions to understanding the work of Neruda, writes the weekly "Poet's Choice" column for Book World.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company     Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page BW08

Fotos gracias a la Universidad de Chile
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