The book that came to mean a lot to me as a young poet was an anthology of Latin American poetry that I discovered in a used bookstore in New York in 1959. Originally published in 1942 by New Directions, it had long been out of print, so neither I nor any of my poet friends had an inkling of its existence. It introduced me to the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Jorge Carrera Andrade, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Vicente Huidobro, Nicolás Guillén, César Vallejo, and dozens of other wonderful poets I had never heard of until that moment. I remember turning its pages in the store, realizing what a valuable book it was, paying for it quickly, and rushing home to read all of its 666 pages that very night. It was like reading Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for the first time, seeing a Buster Keaton movie, hearing Thelonius Monk, and making other such exhilarating discoveries. I knew French Surrealist poetry, had already read Lorca, Mayakovsky, and Brecht, but I had never before encountered anything quite like this poem of Neruda’s:
It so happens I am tired of being a man.
It so happens, going into tailorshops and movies,
I am withered, impervious, like a swan of felt
navigating a water of beginning and ashes.
The smell of barbershops makes me weep aloud.
All I want is a rest from stones or wool,
all I want is to see no establishments or gardens,
no merchandise or goggles or elevators.
It so happens I am tired of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
It so happens I am tired of being a man.
Yet it would be delicious
to frighten a notary with a cut lily
or do a nun to death with a box on the ear.
It would be fine
to go through the streets with a green knife,
letting out yells until I died of cold.
I do not want to go on being a root in the darkness,
vacillating, spread out, shivering with sleep,
downwards, in the drenched guts of the earth,
absorbing and thinking, eating every day.
I do not want so many afflictions,
I do not want to go on being root and tomb,
being alone underground, being a vault for dead men,
numb with cold, dying of anguish.
That is why Monday blazes like petroleum
when it sees me coming with my jailbird face,
and it howls like a wounded wheel as it passes,
and takes hot-blooded steps towards night.
And it shoves me into certain corners, certain damp houses,
into hospitals where bones fly out of the window,
into certain shoeshops with a stench of vinegar,
into streets as frightful as chasms.
There are sulphur-coloured birds and horrible intestines
hanging from the doors of the houses that I hate,
there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors
that ought to have wept for shame and fear,
there are umbrellas all over, and poisons, and navels.
I walk with composure, with eyes, with shoes on,
with fury, with forgetfulness,
I pass, I cross by offices and orthopedic shoeshops
and patio with the washing hanging from wires:
underdrawers, towels and shirts that weep
slow filthy tears.1
There were four other poems by Neruda in the anthology. Like “Walking Around,” all but one of them came from Residence on Earth, the book that had made him famous in Spain and Latin America when it was published in 1935. The hero of the poems was a familiar figure—at least since the time of Whitman and Baudelaire, who invented the modern poem while walking in a city and recounting the marvelous and terrible things they encountered there. What astonished me about Neruda’s poems were the images. Wildly inventive, they came in quick succession so that a poem of his was primarily a narrative made up of startling comparisons. “Natural surrealism” is what the American poet David St. John called it in an essay on this same poem.
Neruda had a fearless disregard for logical continuity and conventional notions of propriety. He was like a man showing up at a funeral wearing a somber suit and a loud tie. While Breton and the Surrealists sought poetry in the unconscious, Neruda was after a style. The manner of these poems resembled what was years later to be called “magic realism” in South American prose. Its chief trait was a rejection of any distinction between what is imaginary and what is real. Consequently an image like bones flying out of hospital windows was to be taken in stride, as if the poet had said there are some pigeons on the roof.
I was, of course, anxious to read more of Neruda. It turned out there were other, older translations by Angel Flores, H.R. Hays, and Samuel Sillen, all out of print and difficult to locate even in libraries. Finally, in 1961, Grove Press published his Selected Poems translated by Ben Belitt. Since then, there have been fifty-one books of translations, the work of almost a hundred translators. This information undoubtedly belongs in the Guinness Book of World Records. Is there another foreign poet who has been as much translated into English? Perhaps Rilke or Lorca—but no! They don’t come close. So, what is the explanation? Is it that Neruda is a poet who is easy to read in a century in which some of its greatest poets are nearly impenetrable? The widely seen 1995 movie Il Postino, about Neruda befriending a village postman during his stay in Italy, may have also tempted the publishers, who usually expect to lose their shirts when it comes to poetry in translation.
Neruda was born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto on July 12, 1904, in the village of Parral in southern Chile. His father worked for the railroad and his mother, who was a schoolteacher, died of tuberculosis shortly after he was born. They were poor. The father remarried so they moved to a small town, Temuco, where Neruda spent his childhood and youth and got to know the poet Gabriela Mistral, who encouraged him to write. He started using the pen name Pablo Neruda in memory of the nineteenth-century Czech poet Jan Neruda to avoid conflict with his family who, like all parents, objected to their son’s becoming a poet. While still a student studying French at the University of Chile in Santiago, he published his first book of poems, Crepusculario, in 1923. Next came Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1923–1924), which gained him fame beyond the borders of Chile. In 1927, at the age of twenty-three, Neruda entered the diplomatic corps and was sent to Burma to be a consul in Rangoon. That assignment was followed by posts in Ceylon, Java, Singapore, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, and finally, in 1935, Madrid, where he met García Lorca, Rafael Alberti, Jorge Guillen, and the other Spanish poets who had already hailed his poetry.
The Spanish Civil War and the murder of Lorca radicalized his political views. “Come and see the blood in the streets,” he wrote in a poem. He sided with the Spanish Republicans and quit his post. Increasingly, the poetry he was writing concerned itself with issues of the day. After a change of government at home, he resumed his diplomatic career in Paris and Mexico City. In 1945, he joined the Communist Party and was elected to the Chilean Senate. Soon after, he got in trouble. In an article published in a newspaper in Caracas because of censorship at home, he attacked President Gonzáles Videla for his repressive policies, which included the outlawing of the Communist Party. Neruda had to go into hiding and eventually into exile. He traveled to the Soviet Union and other Communist countries where he was received as an honored guest by their governments. In his articles he spoke of the truth and justice he found there, of the unparalleled triumphs and achievements of the Soviet people, and while seemingly forgetting that the soul of poetry is rebellion, praised Mayakovsky for being the first one to incorporate the views of the Party into his poems.
Neruda’s travels beyond the Iron Curtain resulted in a book of poetic narratives, Grapes of the Wind, for which he was awarded the first Stalin Prize for Peace in 1953. I recall mentioning his name to Eastern European poets in the 1960s and being surprised by the violence of their reaction. They regarded him as another shameless opportunist and refused to entertain the possibility that he was also a great poet. As foolish and dishonest as Neruda was about Russia, his numerous pronouncements on the struggle for social justice in Chile and the rest of Latin America, of which he had firsthand experience, are an entirely different story. Here is what he wrote in 1952:
With few exceptions, those who govern have cruelly treated the people of Chile and have ferociously repressed popular movements. They have followed the decrees of caste or the mandates of foreign interests. From the slaughter of Iquique to the death camp Gonzáles Videla erected in Pisagua, ours is a long and cruel history. Continuous war has been waged against the people, that is to say, against our country. Police torture, the club and the sword, siege, the marines, the army, ships of war, planes and tanks: the leaders of Chile do not use these weapons to defend our nitrate and our copper against foreign pirates, no, these are the instruments of their bloody assault against Chile itself. Prison, exile, and death are measures used to maintain “order,” and the leaders who execute bloody acts against their countrymen are rewarded with trips to Washington, are honored in North American universities. This is in fact the politics of colonialism.2
Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He established a permanent home on the Isla Negra in Chile, but continued to travel widely. I went to a reading of his at the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York in June of 1966. The auditorium was packed. Neruda came onstage and read a poem by Whitman. The audience liked that very much, as I recall. His four American translators took turns reading his poems in English and he would follow in Spanish. Unlike the Russian poets who either shouted or chanted their verses, he had a sleepy way of saying his poems. My knowledge of the Spanish language is negligible, but since I knew in translation the poems he read, I found myself immensely moved. The next day I tagged along with some older poets who had a lunch date with him in the garden of a pizzeria in the Village. He charmed us all. Again the talk was of Whitman and how much he meant to him.
Neruda died of leukemia in Santiago on September 23, 1973. They say that his death was very likely accelerated by the murder of President Salvador Allende and the terror that followed the military coup under General Pinochet. He left behind almost four thousand pages of poetry. He once said that he wanted a “poetry as impure as a suit or a body, a poetry stained by food and shame, a poetry with wrinkles, observations, dreams, waking, prophesies, declarations of love and hatred, beasts, blows, idylls, manifestos, denials, doubts, affirmations, taxes.”3 He certainly did that. In his fine little book on the poet, René de Costa writes:
Neruda was a poet of many styles and many voices, one whose multitudinous work is central to almost every important development in twentieth-century Spanish and Spanish American poetry. He was once referred to as the Picasso of poetry, alluding to his protean ability to be always in the vanguard of change.4
Neruda recognized this himself, saying that he was the foremost adversary of Nerudism. Now that so much of his poetry is available in translation, it is possible to give the American reader a pretty good idea of what a major figure he was.
The Poetry of Pablo Neruda advertises itself as “the most comprehensive single volume available in English”—and it is certainly that. Nearly one thousand pages long, edited with an introduction and an ample bibliography and notes to individual volumes by Ilan Stavans, it contains some six hundred poems selected from almost all of his books in new and old translations by thirty-seven translators, some of whom are well-known American poets. A number of the poems are also given in the original, and in some instances the editor has presented more than one version of the same poem. Finally, in the last section of the book, the editor has invited fourteen poets to pick out one or more of their favorite poems and bring them afresh into English. Here then are two poems that illustrate the vast range of his work. The first one comes from Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair and is translated by W.S. Merwin:
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
Write, for example, “The night is starry
and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.”
The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.
Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.
She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.
To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.
What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is starry and she is not with me.
This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.
My sight tries to find her as though to bring her closer.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.
The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.
I no longer love her, that’s certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.
Another’s. She will be another’s. As she was before my kisses.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.
I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.
Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.
Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.
In the eighty years since its publication, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair has been translated into a great many languages and has sold millions of copies. At first, the readers and critics were scandalized. There was too much raw sex in the poems. Being sentimental about love, extolling it as an ideal was okay; there was ample precedent for that, but not glorifying what lovers did in bed. For Neruda—as for Octavio Paz—the poetic act and the sexual act are intertwined. There can be no erotic feeling without the participation of the imagination. Poetry and eroticism both make the phantoms of our desire palpable. In 1959, Neruda brought out a book of One Hundred Love Sonnets. He may not have believed in God, but he was an expert blasphemer in his poems. He spoke of the body of his beloved as if it were a soul and of her soul as if it were her body. A friend of his once said, “He could not conceive of human existence without the permanent state of being in love. Solitary people worried him; he found them incomprehensible.”5
This next poem comes from Canto General (1950), the epic cycle of three hundred and twenty poems which through multiple narrators and a variety of poetic styles from lyrical to dramatic retells the history of the conquest of South America, its liberators, dictators, oppressors, and betrayers. The heroes are ordinary men and women. As René da Costa shrewdly observes, this is a peculiarly American poem infused with messianic optimism in which the New World ends up by triumphing over the Old. Neruda, as he often did, has shed his previous poetic persona. He is now the poet of a larger community and the new consciousness that comes with the feeling of solidarity with all those who cannot speak:
THE CELESTIAL POETS
What did you do, you Gideans,
mystifiers, false existential
in the tomb, Europhile
cadavers in fashion,
pale worms in the capitalist
cheese, what did you do
confronted with the reign of anguish,
in the face of this dark human being,
this kicked-around dignity,
this head immersed
in manure, this essence
of coarse and trampled lives?
You did nothing but take flight:
sold a stack of debris,
searched for celestial hair,
cowardly plants, fingernail clippings,
“Pure Beauty,” “spells,”
works of the timid
good for averting the eyes,
for the confusion of delicate
on a plate of dirty leftovers
tossed at you by the masters,
not seeing the stone in agony,
no defense, no conquest,
more blind than wreaths
at the cemetery, when rain
falls on the flowers still
and rotten among the tombs.
(translated by Martin Espada)
“I have assumed the poet’s time-honored obligation to defend the people, the poor and the exploited,” he wrote in a preface to a Portuguese edition of his work. However admirable this may sound to our ears, historically there’s hardly any truth in what Neruda says. Still, this was undoubtedly the passion that drove many of his poems. On the other hand, the brooding poems of the first two sections of Residence on Earth, which he denounced after becoming a Party member and even prevented from being reprinted and translated, make it still one the most original collections of poems published in the last century. I would give the same unconditional praise to the twelve mystical poems “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” from Canto General, to the three books of Elemental Odes (1952–1957), and to poems in Extravagaria (1957–1958).
Neruda started writing odes for a daily newspaper, having in mind readers who ordinarily do not read or like poetry. Accordingly, the language is simple and so is the subject matter. There are odes to laziness, wine, an onion, salt, a tomato, a watermelon, a fallen chestnut, a humming bird, a seagull, a bicycle, a wristwatch at night, a pair of wool socks, and many other items one would not expect to have poems written about. Each ode is an immersion in the present moment, a lighthearted dialogue between what the poet sees and what he imagines. There’s even a moral at the end, a tongue-in-cheek piece of advice about the practical uses of the item being praised and a reminder of its beauty. Extravagaria, too, is a book of whimsical, occasional poems on every conceivable subject from watching a cat sleep to being told to exercise. In this book, Neruda broke his own rule that poetry must have a social function and instead left an intimate record of the events of his life.
As one would expect from an undertaking aiming to be so comprehensive in scope, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda is an uneven book. There are first-rate translations by John Felstiner, Margaret Sayers Peden, Jack Schmitt, Greg Simon, Alastair Reid, and a dozen others alongside many mediocre ones. I’m not competent to judge the accuracy of individual translations, but I can compare their quality as poems since there are previous renderings of the same poems which seem to me far superior to the ones we have here. For instance, neither of the two versions of “Walking Around” in this book are as good as the one I quoted by H.R. Hays, or the one W.S. Merwin did years ago. At their worst, the translations do not convey the stylistic range and verbal ingenuity of the original, making Neruda sound instead like a Chilean Carl Sandburg.
The choice of poems is also at times debatable. In order to make the book representative of all of Neruda’s work, Stavans has left out some well-known poems and included plenty of questionable ones. For example, the poems about the siege of Stalingrad and the arrival of the Red Army at the gates of Prussia may have documentary value, but they are otherwise worthless. The same is true of a number of poems in the cycle “Let the Woodcutter Awaken.” Reading lines like the following, one begins to understand why he was not universally loved:
In three rooms of the old Kremlin
lives a man named Joseph Stalin.
His bedroom light is turned off late.
The world and his country allow him no rest.
The problem with Neruda’s Communist poems is that they are nearly identical to countless other Communist poems that were written from China to Patagonia in those years. Rebellion may be one of poetry’s traditions, but so is eulogizing the goodwill and godlike wisdom of some murderer. At the same time, I don’t wish to leave the impression that I’m condemning all of his political poems. When he mocked and thundered against tyranny and injustice, he was a magnificent poet. While earlier editors rightly sought to include only his best work and ignored the rest, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda takes a different approach. Over three hundred pages in it, for instance, are devoted to the poems he wrote in the last decade of his life, when fifty pages would have been more than enough. I can imagine even the most devoted fan of the poet growing weary. The later poems are often repetitive and feel contrived as Neruda recycles the rhetoric and the imagery of his earlier poems. Understandably, no poet, no matter how great he or she is, can have a book this thick without a loss of quality. My problem is that I don’t see how doing it this way serves the poet.
Neruda had an extraordinary ability to write about almost any subject. For a variety of reasons, political or programmatic, he frequently persuaded himself that it was necessary to do so. Nevertheless, he is a far more original poet in my view when he had no plans in mind, when a poem came to him in the fish soup he was eating, as it were. Something close at hand, perfectly familiar, and yet somehow never fully noticed in its peculiarity set his imagination going. Can’t you see how interesting artichokes are? the poem about them says. For Neruda almost everything that exists deserves equal reverence and can become a subject of poetry. Many poets—including Whitman—have believed something like that. Ronsard wrote an ode to his bed and William Carlos Williams to a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. Still, I can’t think of another poet who consistently found poetry in so many unlikely places as Neruda did. This is what makes any book of his unpredictable. Just as one comes to think one has him pegged, he springs a surprise. Here, for example, is the opening of a poem entitled “Ode to a Village Movie Theater” in a translation by Margaret Sayers Peden:
Come, my love,
let’s go to the movies
in the village.
like a silent
mill, grinding out
We enter the
tiny theater, you and I,
a ferment of children
and the strong smell of apples.
The screen is the color
of stone, or rain.
The beautiful victim
of the villain
has eyes like pools
and a voice like a swan;
horses in the world
at breakneck speed
Swiss cheese of
the dangerous Arizona
If you find this as delightful as I do and want to read more, then perhaps The Poetry of Pablo Neruda is the book for you.
September 25, 2003
Anthology of Contemporary Latin-American Poetry, edited by Dudley Fitts (New Directions, 1942), pp. 303–305. ↩
Passions and Impressions, edited by Matilde Neruda and Miguel Otero Silva, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), pp. 78–79. ↩
Passions and Impressions, p. 128. ↩
René de Costa, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda (Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 1. ↩
Pablo Neruda: Absence and Presence, photographs by Luis Poirot, with translations by Alastair Reid (Norton, 1990), p. 134. ↩