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.
Born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, in 1904, Neruda changed his name to conceal from his father, a railroad worker, the fact that he was a poet. In a memoir (translated by Hardie St. Martin), he writes movingly about an event that might have set in motion his decision, as a teen-ager, to adopt a pseudonym:
Once, far back in my childhood, when I had barely learned to read, I felt an intense emotion and set down a few words, half rhymed but strange to me, different from everyday language. Overcome by a deep anxiety, something I had not experienced before, a kind of anguish and sadness, I wrote them neatly on a piece of paper. It was a poem to my mother, that is, to the one I knew, the angelic stepmother whose gentle shadow watched over my childhood. I had no way at all of judging my first composition, which I took to my parents. They were in the dining room, immersed in one of those hushed conversations that, more than a river, separate the world of children and the world of grownups. Still trembling after this first visit from the muse, I held out to them the paper with the lines of verse. My father took it absentmindedly, read it absentmindedly, and returned it to me absentmindedly, saying: “Where did you copy this from?” Then he went on talking to my mother in a lowered voice about his important and remote affairs.
That, I seem to remember, was how my first poem was born, and that was how I had my first sample of irresponsible literary criticism.
By sixteen, Pablo Neruda was publishing poems in school magazines and in the newspapers of his home town, Temuco. At nineteen, he published his first book, “Crepusculario,” and within a year he had published “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.” The book was a sensation, and the young poet who walked the streets of Santiago in a dark broad-brimmed hat and a black cape was suddenly famous. “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair” begins with an evocation of the beloved’s physical presence and ends with acceptance of her absence. Though one can track the downward spiral of love in these poems, it is equally clear that the quality of yearning is what is most important for the poet. So long as his love is absent, he can idealize passion. Here (in a translation by W. S. Merwin) is the beginning of the twentieth poem:
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.
The naturalness of these lines, their exuberant and youthful melancholy, their casual repetitions, their over-all simplicity mark Neruda’s early style and account in some measure for the continued popularity of the book.
In 1927, Neruda’s travels began. He was sent to Rangoon as consul ad honorem, staying in the Far East until 1932, when he returned to Chile. It was there, in the Far East, that Neruda got to work on his cycle of poems “Residence on Earth.” The three volumes that make up the cycle contain the poems that he wrote from 1925 to 1945. In the first volume, which covers a wide range of subjects, the melancholy of his earlier poetry becomes more assertive, more colorful, more surreal, and, finally, more anguished. In the poems of the second volume, the gloom continues, but with less obliquity and considerably more charm, as in “Walking Around,” which (in Robert Bly’s rendering) begins:
It so happens I am sick of being a man.
And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.
By the third volume, it is clear that Neruda’s poetry has undergone a profound change. In 1935, he was made consul in Madrid, a post from which he was fired a short time later, because of his involvement in Spanish politics. Neruda was a fierce supporter of the Loyalists, and his poems describe the horrors of war as Spain fell to the forces of Franco.
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
It’s a living river of shade,
a comet of countless
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.
The style, with its sweeping hyperboles and celebratory tone, typifies many of the early poems in the “Canto” and reaches its limit in the breathtaking section called “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” in which the poet invites the continent’s victimized dead to express themselves through him. He will be their champion, speaking eloquently not only for the victims but for the continent itself. “Canto General” has rarely been matched in its range of subjects, its energy, its imaginative power. It falls down where Neruda substitutes the language of politics for the language of imagination. Even those who agree with his condemnation of the United States, say, and what he believes has been its role in a century-long regime of exploitation and despoilment, will likely feel betrayed by the cornball language of his complaint. Such criticism, however, may be beside the point. Neruda is not a philosophical or meditative poet but one of allegiances and opinions, especially in politics, always wanting us to feel that he identifies with the poor and defenseless, that he knows what is good for them and what is not.
After “Canto General,” Neruda’s books appeared with greater frequency. Although Chilean authorities rescinded his arrest warrant in 1952, he continued to travel: to Eastern Europe, to the Soviet Union (where he had the dubious honor of winning the Stalin Peace Prize and later served as one of its judges), to Italy (the movie “Il Postino” was inspired by one of his visits there), to Mexico (where he never ceased to feel at home), to France (where he was the Chilean Ambassador in the early seventies), and to many other countries. In the poems he wrote in those years, his largeness of spirit, which in “Canto General” was sometimes cramped by ideology, was given free rein. The “Elemental Odes,” three books published between 1954 and 1957, were like nothing else people had seen. With them, Neruda hoped to reach a wider audience than he already had, and his hope was realized. The “Odes” gained immediate and universal praise. They are about the things of everyday life: a lemon, a dead carob tree, a boy with a hare, a stamp album. And they were read by people who had never before paid attention to poetry. Written in very short lines, some as short as a single word, the “Odes” tumble effortlessly down the page in chainlike sentences. Everything is seen in its best light, everything has value, everything deserves to be the subject of a poem. The rhetoric of the “Odes” is as democratic as that of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Here (in Margaret Sayers Peden’s rendition) is the ecstatic opening of “Ode to a Stamp Album”:
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