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Wed Jun 30 06:39:43 MDT 2004
Chronicle of Higher Education, July 2, 2004
Pablo Neruda: a Life Consumed by Poetry and Politics
By ILAN STAVANS
On December 13, 1971, the Nobel Prize committee honored Pablo Neruda
with its award in literature, citing his "poetry that with the action of
an elemental force brings alive a continent's destiny and dreams." By
then, Neruda had become the poet par excellence of Latin America.
It was, as the legendary books of Octavio Paz and Gabriel García Márquez
described it, a continent defined by solitude. But in his acceptance
speech in Stockholm, Neruda, born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in the
lonesome town of Parral, Chile, proclaimed that "there is no
insurmountable solitude." He added: "All paths lead to the same goal: to
convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and
difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the
enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our
Neruda would have turned 100 on July 12. Today he is the emblem of the
engaged poet, an artist whose heart was consumed by passion -- for
people and politics. García Márquez called him "the greatest poet of the
20th century, in any language." While the homage might have been
overinflated, there is little doubt that Neruda is among the most
enduring voices of the last, tumultuous (in his own words, "the
saddest") century. From his romantic Twenty Love Poems and a Song of
Despair (1924) to his masterpiece, "The Heights of Macchu Picchu,"
published as part of the epic Canto General (1950), and his five-volume
Memorial de Isla Negra, released on the occasion of his 60th birthday,
his work has sold millions of copies in divers languages.
Even before his death in Santiago on September 23, 1973, at the age of
69, Neruda had become an icon of the young: at once eternally idealistic
and impossibly hyperkinetic. Among his own idols was Walt Whitman, whom
he called an "essential brother." Whitman personified for Neruda the
crossroads where poetry and politics could meet and the commitment to
use the pen to calibrate one's era. Canto General, a sweeping history of
a people, written over a decade (1938-49) and including myriad poetic
forms, justly made him famous. It offered a CinemaScope portrait of the
Americas, the United States included, that is still incomparable.
Everything is there: mineral structure, flora and fauna, the
pre-Columbian past, the sweeping swords of conquistadors and liberators,
factory workers on strike.
Neruda, like Jorge Luis Borges, attempted to capture the universe -- or
at least a universe -- in a single book. Poetry today appears to have
lost that ambition, supplanting it with an endless emphasis on the
autobiographical. In accepting the Nobel Prize, Neruda said: "I did not
learn from books any recipe for writing a poem, and I, in my turn, will
avoid giving any advice on mode or style which might give the new poets
even a drop of supposed insight." Nevertheless, his own oeuvre displays
a clear pedagogy: uniting poetry and history.
To be sure, Neruda also left us a large dose of bad poetry. How could he
not, when his multivolume Obras Completas, published in Spanish between
1999 and 2002, totals some 6,000 pages? His late works are passable at
best and disheveled at worst. Indeed, Alastair Reid, one of Neruda's
most accomplished English translators, told me I was wrong to include,
in the 600 poems I gathered together in my 2003 collection of the poet's
work, the overall arc of his career. I argued that an unsmoothed Neruda
was better than a censored one, even when that censorship would have had
nothing to do with politics and all to do with aesthetics. To fully
appreciate the sublime, it helps to contrast it with the unworthy.
Neruda's ideological odyssey took him from apathy to Communism, turning
him into the spokesman for the enslaved. From the remoteness of his
childhood he heard the echo of the guns of the Great War; his poetry was
published in Spain in the 1930s, where he witnessed the Spanish Civil
War and befriended Federico García Lorca; he traveled through the Soviet
Union, saw the rise and demise of Hitler, visited Cuba after 1959,
opposed the U.S. invasion of Vietnam and Cambodia, and was in Chile when
Gen. Augusto Pinochet orchestrated a coup, on September 11, 1973,
against the elected socialist president Salvador Allende. Throughout,
Neruda was an observer and a chronicler of the events of his day. He
served as a Chilean senator and diplomat and was a presidential hopeful.
All of which didn't manage to dissipate his naïveté. He was a staunch
supporter of Stalin, which prompted him to write some cheap propaganda.
He unquestioningly embraced Castro. "Fidel, Fidel, the people are
grateful/for word in action and deeds that sing," he wrote. In 1973 he
hastily released a book called, embarrassingly, Incitación al
Nixonicidio y alabanza de la revolución chilena -- A Call for the
Destruction of Nixon and Praise for the Chilean Revolution.
Still, Neruda was -- and continues to be -- a torchbearer. The beatniks
made him a role model. On campus in the 1970s he was a favorite. If the
neoliberalism of the 1980s seemed to turn him into an anachronism,
Michael Radford's 1994 film Il Postino, based on a novella that included
Neruda, by his compatriot Antonio Skármeta, renewed his appeal. The
festivities surrounding his centennial are adding to the enthusiasm.
Launched last year in the United States at a poetry reading and
photographic exhibit in New York, the celebration has continued with
events at numerous universities. In Chile, proud of its once-prodigal
son, a government-organized, yearlong program includes symposia,
publications, theater productions, and the bestowing of presidential
medals on an international cadre of intellectuals who have followed in
Neruda's steps. Who would have thought a writer whose work was such an
annoyance to the Pinochet regime would become a marketable symbol so soon?
Students everywhere embrace Neruda because he sought fairness and didn't
shy away from resistance. The Communism he so fervently embraced has
lost its gravitas but another larger-than-life conflict has taken hold.
How would he have reacted to the current threat to civil liberties in
our country? To the contradictions of the war on terror? His poems offer
us an answer, with their indictment of careless corporate globalism and
anger at limitations on freedom of the press.
Neruda's Buddhist-like concentration on the mundane, insignificant
objects surrounding us also speaks to us today: a stamp album, an
artichoke, a watermelon, a bee, a village movie theater. My personal
favorite is his "Ode to the Dictionary": "you are not a/tomb, sepulcher,
grave/tumulus, mausoleum,/but guard and keeper,/hidden fire."
But it's Neruda's deep if conflicted love for the United States that
especially resonates with me. Throughout his life, he made sure to
distinguish between the people of the United States and its government.
He paid homage to the American masses but reacted irritably when they
were betrayed by politicos. In the poem "I Wish the Woodcutter Would
Wake Up" (1948), he wrote: "What we love is your peace, not your mask."
Listen to the translation by Robert Bly:
You come, like a washerwoman, from
a simple cradle, near your rivers, pale.
Built up from the unknown,
what is sweet in you is your hivelike peace.
We love the man with his hands red
from the Oregon clay, your Negro boy
who brought you the music born
in his country of tusks: we love
your city, your substance,
your light, your machines, the energy ...
Over time I've also learned to understand another aspect of Neruda that
my students have recurrently pointed out to me: his humor. After reading
dozens of his poems in a single semester, a student of mine said, keenly
if a bit pompously, that a life experienced only through the heart is
nothing but tragedy; one approached solely through the mind is comedy;
and one seen through Neruda's eyes is sheer drama -- poignant and droll.
What mesmerized the student was that the Chilean bard resisted the traps
of cynicism. He took human behavior seriously but also knew how to
laugh. Latin American poets obsessed with recognition, for example,
became "Europhile cadavers in fashion."
As death approached, Neruda's humor was sometimes tinged with sarcasm.
In "The Great Urinator," a poem left unpublished, now part of the
posthumous Selected Failings (1974), he portrayed God's urine falling on
factories, cemeteries, gardens, and churches, eroding all it touched. It
is a scene taken out of a Hollywood disaster movie. How do people react?
Everyone is frightened, but -- oops -- there are no umbrellas. And "from
on high the great urinator," the poem says (in John Felstiner's
rendition), "was silent and urinated."
True to form, he didn't try to tell us what it all meant. Again, he had
no wisdom to dispense. Or had he? The last stanza reads:
I am a pale and artless poet
not here to work out riddles
or recommend special umbrellas.
Hasta la vista! I greet you and go off
to a country where they won't ask me questions.
Happy birthday, Señor Poeta!
Ilan Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at
Amherst College. Among his latest books is The Poetry of Pablo Neruda
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003).
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