A Poet of Multitudes

A Poet of Multitudes

Pablo Neruda is often compared to Walt Whitman. In fact, the Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner outdid Whitman in some respects.


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.

From this point on, the poet worked in the diplomatic corps, beginning with a far-flung, unimportant job at the embassy in Burma. He shifted around the Far East for a number of years, attached to embassies in Ceylon, Java and Singapore. During the 1930s, just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he served as consul in Barcelona, where he met Federico García Lorca, the poet and playwright, who introduced him at a conference in Madrid, saying: “I tell you that you are about to hear an authentic poet, one of those who has tuned his senses to a world which is not ours, and which few people perceive. A poet closer to death than to philosophy, a poet closer to pain than to the intellect, closer to blood than to ink.”

Having taken sides against Franco, Neruda moved to Paris for a while, then Mexico City, during which time he joined the Communist Party. In the mid-1940s he returned to Chile, where he was elected to the national senate. But after denouncing the country’s right-wing leader, González Videla, he was forced into exile. He led a peripatetic life, in Italy (the film Il Postino is based on Neruda’s residence there in the early 1950s), France, the Soviet Union and Asia. During this period, his poems were printed in editions of more than a million copies in Russian and Chinese, and his fame grew exponentially. In 1952 he returned to Chile, where he devoted himself to writing and politics. Still a passionate Communist, he campaigned for the presidency of Chile in the late 1960s, eventually throwing his support to Allende.

Twenty Love Poems remains a touchstone in the Spanish language for young lovers, inhabiting a verbal reality beyond the “real” world. One can point to predecessors: José Martí and Rubén Darío among fellow Latino poets, or earlier Spanish poets like Góngora or Quevedo. Yet Neruda sounds like nobody else. The opening poem, for instance, bursts into being:

Body of woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world in your posture of surrender.
My savage peasant body digs through you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.

I like Martin Espada and Stavans’s translation well enough, though I remain attached to the W.S. Merwin version, which is grittier and less abstract, as in the third line, which Merwin renders: “My rough peasant’s body digs in you.” The line in Spanish runs: Mi cuerpo de labriego salvaje te socava, and so the Espada/Stavans version is literally more accurate, but it misses the Nerudian earthiness, which Merwin approximates with “My rough peasant’s body.” “Savage” seems to mislead the English reader.

Wisely, Stavans falls back on the Merwin translations for the rest of the love poems, as well as the concluding “Song of Despair,” with its lovely but anguished incantation: “Oh flesh, my own flesh, woman whom I loved and lost,/I summon you in the moist hour, I raise my song to you.” This doesn’t quite match the echoing vowels and sensuously enclosing consonants of the Spanish (Oh carne, carne mía, mujer que amé y perdí,/a ti en esta hora húmeda, evoco y hago canto), but it passes (barely) for poetry in English. One can intuit the force of the poet’s oratory, if not quite the calamitous melancholy of the original. Stavans has sensibly included the Spanish version right after the English translation so that readers can make comparisons. One sees, for example, that the marvelous, accusatory cry to his beloved at the end–Oh abandonado!–cannot be translated as “Oh abandoned one” without seeming prosaic, even a little silly.

Having established himself mightily with Twenty Love Poems, Neruda began writing the sensuously gloomy and surreal poems of Residence on Earth (1933), most of which he composed while traveling as a lonely diplomat in the Far East. Some of his best-known poems, such as “Ars Poetica” and “Ode to Federico García Lorca,” were written at this time, and are amply represented here. “Ars Poetica” appears in two different translations, one in the lame verse of Donald Walsh, the other in a better version by Angel Flores. In the Walsh translation, we hear the poet pay tribute to “each invisible water that I drink somnolently.” Does that even track? Flores, more plausibly, writes of “each invisible drop of water which I drink sleepily.” On the poet’s reason for being, however, I much prefer “The Poet’s Obligation,” published in Fully Empowered (1962) and translated by Alastair Reid. This poem is addressed

To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell,
to him I come, and without speaking or looking
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a long rumble of thunder adds itself
to the weight of the planet and the foam,
the groaning rivers of the ocean rise,
the star vibrates quickly in its corona
and the sea beats, dies, and goes on beating.

In many ways, the later Neruda–quirky, abundant, unpredictable–teaches us to read the earlier Neruda, with his surreal imagery and occasionally overbearing symbolism, as in the “pure/and cleft rose” invoked in “Spain in Our Heart,” which opens into a memorable sequence about the clash of Loyalists against Franco in the 1930s. Though it seems a bit forced in this version by Angel Flores, one can sense the power of “Song to the Mothers of Dead Loyalists,” which in its deep sense of commiseration mimics the Whitman of Drum-Taps:

I have not forgotten your misfortunes, I know
Your sons,
And if I am proud of their deaths
I am also proud of their lives.
      Their laughter
Rang in the deafening factories,
In subway stations
Their feet sounded by mine every day, and among
The oranges of the East, by the fishing nets of the South, in
The ink of the print shops, upon the cement of buildings

I have seen the flame of their hearts of fire and strength.

Like Whitman, Neruda catalogues the world as he discovers it. That tendency flowered into a method in Canto General (1950), the poet’s epic work on Latin American history and prehistory. At the center of this ambitious chronicle lies “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” written in 1945, soon after the poet visited the famous Incan ruins in Peru. The wish to represent Everyman pervades the poem: “I come to speak for your dead mouths.” In Spanish, the lines goes: Yo vengo a hablar por vuestra boca muerta. This can mean that the poet speaks “for” or “through” the dead mouths, interrogating the stones themselves as he strikes “the old flints/to kindle ancient lamps.”

The poem describes a mythic journey, incorporating the poet’s past and the past of a continent, plunging into the depths of geological and cultural history to conjure a present that teems with lively spirits. Neruda concludes with an address to those, his brothers, for whom he speaks in this poem:

Look at me from the depths of the earth,
tiller of fields, weaver, reticent shepherd,
groom of totemic guanacos,
mason high on your treacherous scaffolding,
iceman of Andean tears,
jeweler with crushed fingers,
farmer anxious among his seedlings,
potter wasted among his clays–
bring to the cup of this new life
your ancient buried sorrows.

The rhetoric accumulates with incantatory effect, becomes a summoning of the dead, who are invited to “Speak through my speech, and through my blood.” Here Stavans includes the Spanish version of the culminating section, so that readers can savor the original, contemplating the English version by Nathaniel Tarn, whose translations are wooden, though accurate.

In many of the poems of Canto General, Neruda considers what happened when “Spain drove into the South of the World.” The volume includes hymns to great sympathetic spirits, from Bartolomé de las Casas, the friar who recorded the suffering of indigenous people at the time of Columbus, to Tupac Amaru, “wise man, just forefather,” a revolutionary ancestor whose name has been appropriated by leftist rebels in Peru. Some of these poems descend into political sloganeering–“Sandino” being the worst in this category, with its derisory invocation of Somoza as “a newly hired traitor” and quasi-sanctification of Sandino, the Nicaraguan political rebel. “Standard Oil Co.” offers a potted history of economic imperialism, conjuring American capitalists as “obese emperors/from New York” who become “smiling assassins/who buy silk, nylon, cigars,/petty tyrants and dictators.” While true enough as political commentary, the poetry wilts in the dogmatic, overheated phrasing.

In The Captain’s Verses (1952), Neruda temporarily lost his bearings. These self-indulgent poems to a new lover seem lazily composed, even foolish. So with some relief one turns to the astringent atmosphere of Elemental Odes, published in three volumes in the mid-1950s. Neruda loved the ode, which became his most characteristic form. Musing on this work, he said he “decided to deal with things from their beginnings, starting with the primary state, from birth onward.” Thus he writes odes to the artichoke, to the atom, to criticism, to laziness, to the earth, to his suit, to sadness, or to wine. Here we begin to see Neruda as the man of appetite, a world-devouring creature who loves his food and drink, who thinks of the dining room table as paradise. He writes to wine as if it were a woman:

My love, suddenly
your hip
is the curve of the wineglass
filled to the brim,
your breast is the cluster,
your hair the light of alcohol
your nipples, the grapes
your navel pure seal
stamped on your belly of a barrel,
and your love the cascade
of unquenchable wine,
the brightness that falls on my senses
the earthen splendor of life.

During the same period, Neruda composed Extravagaria (1958), calling it his “most personal book.” He had just settled, after years of wandering, in Isla Negra–a village on the Pacific, where he had purchased an old sea captain’s house in 1939–and the poems reflect the poet’s newly awakened sense of place, his constant rediscovery of Chile, of the natural world itself. By turns wistful and celebratory, the poems inhabit a private landscape, as much internal as external. Alastair Reid’s translation appeared in 1972, and has remained a touchstone for readers of Neruda, with its idiosyncratic, benign, sad, generous vision. One feels close to the poet in these poems, as in “Pastoral”:

I copy out mountains, rivers, clouds.
I take my pen from my pocket. I note down
a bird in its rising
or a spider in its little silkworks.
Nothing else crosses my mind. I am air,
clear air, where the wheat is waving,
where a bird’s flight moves me, the uncertain
fall of a leaf, the globular
eye of a fish unmoving in the lake,
the statues sailing in the clouds,
the intricate variations of the rain.

Poetry being what usually gets lost in translation, a first-rate translator must be a genuine poet as well, or at least have the technical skills of one. In this poem, as throughout Extravagaria, Reid has managed a small miracle, allowing Neruda’s gift to shimmer in poems such as “Horses,” “We Are Many” and “I Ask for Silence,” which Stavans also includes in a fairly literal version by Betty Ferber as well as in Reid’s version. A marvelous line like Vuela la luz con sus abejas in Ferber becomes “Light flies with its bees.” That is accurate but dull. Reid actually improves upon the Spanish, writing: “The light is a swarm of bees.” Reader, take your pick.

The end of the 1950s and the early 1960s were years of furious, uneven production for Neruda. He liked to set himself a task, as he did with One Hundred Love Sonnets (1959), which are by turns dreadful and brilliant, with aspects of both occasionally residing in the same fourteen lines. Because Twenty Love Poems was so charged with erotic and youthful energy, the verse itself carried the frequent metaphorical shifts, the clashing symbols, the unlikely imagery. It’s a little harder to absorb the sonnets, which are frequently shapeless, effusive and cliché-ridden. The third sonnet, for example, leaps from metaphor to metaphor, with love as a violet, a “crown/of thorns,” a “corolla of rage.” It becomes a “tender fire” in the second stanza, but by the end of the poem has transmuted into a “sword” that slashes “a seared road through my heart.” Hold on, Pablo.

As a faithful Communist, Neruda never abandoned political poetry for long, and Song of Protest (1960) surges with polemical poems in praise of Castro and “young communists of the day.” The poet’s political engine by this time was running on fumes, however. Except for the appealing “Caribbean Birds,” with its witty celebration of this “airborne jewelry of the foliage,” these late political slogans in the guise of verse do no justice to the poet. Stavans might well have cut the love sonnets and the protest poems down to a handful of lyrics, perhaps sweeping aside as well many of the Ceremonial Songs (1961), which seem mechanical.

The exquisite poems of Fully Empowered (1962) also date from this period, as does Isla Negra: A Notebook (1964). A sense of spoken intimacy pervades this work, which forms a kind of emotional autobiography. Isla Negra became the fulcrum of the world for him, a point of balance. From there, he recalls the past, feeling its presence in the day-to-day life registered in these flinty, imagistic poems. His mesmerizing voice rises and falls with the tide, the tone shifting from whimsical to vatic. The sea dominates these books, a point of daily reference, a symbol of a mysterious truth that seems perpetually at hand:

I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea’s lamenting in my consciousness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the sentence of the autumn,
I may be present with an errant wave,
I may move in and out of windows,
and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves,
asking “How can I reach the sea?”

Neruda continued writing to the end, always leading his readers from the prison of their self-consciousness into an open place beside the sea, into the green freedom of the water itself, its rhythmic sway and exhilarating depths. He offered “freedom and the sea” to all who would listen. In its comprehensive amplitude, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda will doubtless attract many new readers to the poetry and surprise those who thought they knew it well.

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