Pablo Neruda

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Sep 2 09:50:24 MDT 2003

New Yorker Magazine, Issue dated Sept. 8, 2003

Pablo Neruda and his passions.

Pablo Neruda was easily the most prolific and popular of all 
twentieth-century poets. His collected poems run in excess of 
thirty-five hundred pages, and his books, which have been translated 
into dozens of languages, have sold in the millions. His life as a 
diplomat, an exile, and sometimes a fugitive was not an easy one. The 
solitude that most writers need in order to work was something that 
Neruda for the most part was denied. Many of his poems reflect the 
shifting conditions under which he lived, and have at heart a longing 
for fixity, whether of place or of idea. At his best, he is among the 
small group of last century’s great poets. Now the most comprehensive 
selection to date of Neruda’s translated poems has been published. “The 
Poetry of Pablo Neruda” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $40), edited by Ilan 
Stavans, a professor of Latin-American and Latino culture at Amherst 
College, is a weighty volume of almost a thousand pages, including an 
informative introduction, a bibliography of translations into English of 
Neruda’s work, and notes on his life and his poetry.


Neruda’s political concerns were not limited to Spain. Later on in the 
same book, he pays homage to the Soviet Union (something he continued to 
do for the rest of his life) with an ode to Stalingrad, comparing—in a 
gesture that seems not only dated but mistaken—its battle against the 
Nazi onslaught with the struggles of the Spanish Loyalists. Most 
political poems do not enjoy a long life, and Neruda’s are no exception. 
Their urgency turns out to be as perishable as our memory of the events 
that inspired them. “Residence on Earth” is a diffuse and transitional 
enterprise, a bridge between the precocious and unprogrammatic early 
work and the great works of his maturity.

In 1945, Neruda became a member of the Chilean Communist Party, which 
was soon outlawed. In 1947, having published scathing criticisms of 
Chile’s President, he was charged with treason and became a fugitive, 
escaping through the Andes on horseback and resurfacing in France in 
1949. By 1950, he was in Mexico, where his sprawling Whitmanesque epic 
“Canto General,” written largely while he was on the run, appeared. It 
is a lyrical encyclopedia of the New World, proceeding chronologically 
through three hundred and forty poems and more than five hundred pages. 
It begins with the world before man arrived. Here (as rendered by Jack 
Schmitt) is a passage from “The Birds Arrive,” a poem in the first section:

A marine mountain flies
toward the islands, a moon
of birds winging South,
over the fermented islands
of Peru.
It’s a living river of shade,
a comet of countless
tiny hearts
that eclipse the world’s sun
like a thick-tailed meteor
pulsing toward the archipelago.

And at the end of the enraged
sea, in the ocean rain,
the wings of the albatross rise up
like two systems of salt,
establishing in the silence
with their spacious hierarchy
amid the torrential squalls,
the order of the wilds.



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