Pablo Neruda is often compared to Walt Whitman. In fact, the Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner outdid Whitman in some respects. His poems have been memorized and recited by ordinary people across his vast continent. He is perhaps the most widely translated poet in the world. Even in English, his poems have been translated by numerous hands in scattered editions. The major accomplishment of this new collection, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, is that it brings together a capacious sampling of his work, ranging from the classic Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924) to several elegiac volumes published posthumously in 1974. There is also an informative, lively commentary by its editor, Ilan Stavans.
This is not a fully bilingual edition; only a sampling of the poems appear in Spanish. The 1973 Complete Works in Spanish amounts to 3,522 pages of poetry, so it would have been impossible to include everything in either English or Spanish. But Stavans has assembled the most complete anthology of Neruda yet available in English, drawing evenhandedly from the various stages of the poet’s long and complex career. Neruda was, it seems, at least half a dozen poets, many of them in competition with the others. Needless to say, there are wonders in these pages that will delight readers unfamiliar with the tumultuously varied planet known as Neruda.
Neruda died of cancer in September of 1973, less than two weeks after the tragic overthrow of the Allende government by Augusto Pinochet, the US-supported dictator. Neruda had served Allende and his party in various ways, including as ambassador to France during his last years. The symbolic (and widely reported) ransacking of his houses shortly after his death must remain one of the sadder moments in the violent political chronicle of Chile.
I attended a reading by Neruda in London in the spring of 1972. Hundreds packed the large hall, some of them Chileans who opposed the Allende government. At one point, a man seated in front of me began hurling abuse at the poet, shaking his fist. Cries of “Silencio!” came from everywhere in the auditorium, but the man persisted until an elegantly dressed, middle-aged woman with jet-black hair took off one of her shoes and brought the stiletto heel down hard on the man’s bald pate. Blood spurted from the wound, and security guards rushed to his aid. He was escorted away as the crowd broke into pandemonium, quarreling among themselves. Suddenly Neruda–like Moses parting the water of the Red Sea–raised a big hand, simultaneously chanting in his deep, mesmerizing voice a section of “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” one of his most famous poems. The audience fell still as a canyon at night as the poet’s voice swelled. It was an astonishing performance by a man whose life was full of such performances.
The obsession with Whitman is a fascinating aspect of Neruda’s career. In “Ode to Walt Whitman,” he addresses his cherished predecessor:
Your voice, that’s still singing
in the suburban stations, on
the unloading docks at night…
Your word, that’s still splashing
like dark water…
And your people, black, white,
poor & simple, like all people
still not forgetting
the tolling of your bell…
They congregate & sing
beneath the magnitude
of your spacious life.
They walk among the people
with your love. They caress
the pure development
of fraternity on earth.
Neruda himself lived a “spacious life.” He was born in Parral, Chile, in 1904. His mother died shortly after his birth, and he was raised by a beloved stepmother and emotionally constrained father who worked for the railways. In an affecting poem, “The Father,” he speaks affectingly of his “poor, hard father,” who became “the axis of existence” for him. With the publication of Twenty Love Poems, at 20, Neruda became a national celebrity, and was given a diplomatic post by the government–a recognition of his position in Chilean culture.