The people's poet

Print edition : August 27, 2004


Remembering Pablo Neruda, on his birth centenary, for the power of his poetry, for his struggles against fascism and oppression and for the voice that he gave to the people of Chile.

NEFTALI RICARDO REYES BASOALTO (1904-1973), known to the world as Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet and political activist, became a legend in his lifetime. Neruda's first collections of poems, Crepusculario (1923) and Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924), written at a very young age, won him acclaim in Chilean literary circles and form a part of popular lore in Latin America. He is also known for his participation in the anti-fascist struggle during the Spanish Civil War (1936 - 1939), his trade union activities as a member of the Communist Party in organising mine workers against the Gonzalez Videla dictatorship and his involvement in Salvador Allende's presidential campaign in Chile. While most literary critics divide Neruda's oeuvre into love poetry and political poetry, such a division is not justifiable because Neruda reached across to people's hearts and became a people's poet, as much in his love poetry as in his political poetry and writings.

Neruda's formative years as a poet coincided with a modernist movement in Latin American literature, Latin American Modernism, which created new literary forms to express the new personal and societal realities in the context of political independence. While works of poets such as Ruben Dario (1867-1916), a Nicaraguan - "Azul" (1888-1890) and "Prosas Profanas" (1896), for instance - gave Latin America a sense of telluric identity and self-confidence, they also marked a continuity in the tradition of literature as high art. Thus, these literary forms did not seek to alter the role and function of literature. It remained within the hermetic and aesthetic boundaries assigned to it, negating its social function. The avant-garde literature existed alongside modernism, and many critics and artists used these literary terms interchangeably. However, avant-garde artists were more radical in their aesthetic and political vision than the modernists. They had greater faith in the role of art and literature in society. They also considered the traditions of high art to be excessively restrictive and that is why they used radical and experimental methods to challenge established aesthetic or social traditions.

Interestingly, Pablo Neruda's first two collections of poems do not seem to be influenced by these trends. Unlike the avant-garde artists, who were experimenting with form, Neruda's first concerns as a poet sprang from an extensive and vivid exploration of nature. In these poems, the adolescent Neruda is concerned with nature and women as if he were discovering for himself the mysteries of nature and the secrets of women's bodies. Neruda's contact with the forests of Araucania, the volcanos, the cold torrential and interminable rain, the wind and the sound of the waves lashing the cliffs during his childhood in Temuco in the southern part of Chile, left a deep impression on his young mind and is probably the reason for his obsessive preoccupation with nature and its elements. Twenty Love Poems is a collection of intense and passionate poetry about adolescent love, written in a warm, humane and personal tone. Simple, yet original, in its use of imagery, it alternates between exultation and bitterness. Despite their subjective, melancholic tone, they are a tribute to the joys of life.

Having won a literary prize at school and some popularity in literary circles, Neruda wanted to explore the world and presented himself for a diplomatic post. When asked to choose a country from a list of names that all sounded equally unfamiliar to him, he chose Rangoon. He left for Asia in 1927 and stayed there until 1932. The first two parts of the three-part series entitled Residence on Earth, written in these years and published in 1933 and 1935, are recognised as high points of the avant-garde movement in Latin America, along with the Peruvian Poet Cesar Vallejo's Trilce (1922). These poems were radical and innovative in perception and forms of expression. Unlike European avant-garde movements, such as futurism, or euphoric modernism, which praised man's conquest over nature and technological achievements, Neruda internalised avant-gardism and modernism within the human consciousness.

The distinctiveness of his poetics lay in his representation of fractured and fragmented life, men/women dichotomies and the division between mind and matter. He tried to capture dislocated and broken relationships and the alienation and uncertainties of life. The poems reflect his deep disillusionment with life in Rangoon and Colombo. The distance from his homeland made him desolate and the feeling of solitude he experienced amidst two irreconcilable worlds - that of the Asian people and that of the British colonial administrators and merchants - permeated his poetry. The poems were pervaded by a sense of disgust and revulsion and display a deep resentment against the routine emptiness of life. The destiny of man in this chaotic and senseless world is portrayed in poems like "Walking Around", in which the poet is weary of existing in a world with which he cannot identify himself.

It happens that I am tired of my feet and my nails And my hair and my shadow. It happens that I am tired of being a man. Just the same it would be delicious To scare a notary with a cut lily Or knock a nun stone dead with one blow of an ear. It would be beautiful To go through the streets with a green knife Shouting until I died of cold.

After receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm on October 12, 1971.-AFP

Neruda's disillusionment and existential angst reflected in these poems often lead critics to categorise him as a poet of solitude and loneliness. However, it is also possible to read the poems as stories of a solitary man consciously fighting his solitude. His lifelong friend and comrade V. Teitelboim said: "Solitude weighed on Neruda, that's why he travelled from the South to the North, he came out of the rains to the sunshine, in search of poetry, of the world, of love and of friendship." Nevertheless, the bizarre experience in Asia did leave a mark on him. That is perhaps the only time when we see the poet in a sombre and self-reflexive mood. He himself describes these poems in a letter to his friend as "... piles of poems of great monotony, almost ritualistic, and of great mystery and sorrow like in the poets of yesteryears. It is very uniform, like something beginning again and again, like something rehearsed to eternity, unsuccessfully."

NERUDA'S posting in Spain in 1934 brought him in contact with young Spanish poets such as Federico Garcia Lorca and Rafael Alberti, Miguel Hernandez and Manuel Altolaguirre, who were experimenting with the avant-garde, especially surrealist, forms. Neruda was asked to edit the literary magazine Green Horse for Poetry and brought out five issues until 1936, when the Civil War broke out in Spain. In the prologue to the first issue, published in 1935, eight months before the outbreak of the Civil War in Spain, Neruda wrote: "This is the kind of poetry we are looking for, spent as if by acid by manual labour, penetrated by sweat and smoke, smelling of urine and lilies, touched by all the diverse professions. Impure poetry, like a suit, like a body, with stains of nutrition and shameful activities ... "

The political events of the 1930s in Spain, which culminated in the civil war, made these poets aware that art had to address social as well as political reality. Lorca's assassination in 1936 and the subsequent exile of most of the other poets who supported the Republican forces in the war changed the way Neruda looked at poetry. Neruda's Third Residence (1937) contains a poem, "Spain in my Heart", written during the Civil War. He expressed his outrage against the fascist forces in the famous poem "I'm Explaining a Few Things". He wrote:

One morning the bonfires leapt out of the earth devouring human beings - and from then on fire, gunpowder from then on, and from then on blood. ... from every house burning metal flows instead of flowers, ... And you will ask: why doesn't his poetry speak of dreams and leaves and the great volcanoes of his land? Come and see the blood on the streets.

Some of these poems were so powerful that they became a part of the people's discourse against war. Neruda's addressees changed just as his style and content. For him, poetry was no longer a private statement but an utterance that belonged to the public domain. His "poems were never intended to be merely script or signs on a printed page but were to be uttered and declaimed in order to elicit a response", says Jean Franco, a well-known critic and professor of Latin American literature in Stanford University.

In 1936, Neruda went to Paris and helped organise the Anti-Fascist Writers' Congress in Madrid in 1937. He returned to Chile soon after to find that the Nazis had supporters all over Latin America. This persuaded Neruda to find a tone in his poetry that would accompany people in their struggle for survival and justice. Neruda returned to Paris briefly, in 1939, to help in rescuing Spanish intellectuals who were seeking refuge in Chile, and his experience with the refugees from the concentration camps further deepened his commitment to this new poetic vision.

NERUDA'S last diplomatic assignment in Mexico in the early 1940s brought him in contact with Mexican muralists and painters. He began work on his Canto general (1950), envisioned as a poem of epic dimensions on the history of Latin America. Neruda confesses that his visit to the Incan ruins of Macchu Picchu in Peru had opened his eyes to yet another reality. He says: "I felt Chilean, Peruvian, American. I had found in those difficult heights, among those glorious and disperse ruins, a profession of faith to continue my song."

According to Saul Yurkievich, an Argentinean critic, two distinct poetic conceptions co-exist in Canto general, proceeding from two distinct world visions based on dissimilar perceptions and find two different expressions. On the one hand is the natural world expressed with a mythical, primitive, archaic vision through a metaphoric, oracular and obscure language, the other presents a historical, social, progressive world in an impersonal and objective vision through clear and unequivocal language. Song XI of the famous poem "The Heights of Macchu Picchu" is an interesting amalgamation of both these elements: the first part of the poem is an ascent from the abysmal depths of the dark ages while the latter part describes the social realities of the moment.

Through a confusion of splendour through a night made stone let me plunge my hand and move to beat in me a bird held for a thousand years, the old and unremembered human heart! ... I see the ancient being, the slave, the sleeping one, blanket his fields - a body, a thousand bodies, a man, a thousand women swept by the sable whirlwind, charred with rain and night, stoned with a leaden weight of statuary: Juan Splitstone, son of Wiracocha, Juan Coldbelly, heir of the green star, Juan Barefoot, grandson to the turquoise, rising to birth with me, as my own brother.

Chileans walk past a 2-km-long scroll of poems written by admirers of Pablo Neruda on his birth centenary, in the coastal city of Valparaiso, on July 11.-ELISEO FERNANDEZ/ REUTERS

In other poems, the past is invoked to put into perspective the social inequalities in a post-colonial world. "They come for the Islands" (1493) describes the colonisation of the island of Guanahani (Cuba). "Discoverers of Chile" and "The Magellan Heart" describe the destruction and violence unleashed by the colonisers. In the part entitled "Betrayed Sand", he writes against dictators, especially Gonzalez Videla, oligarchies, the advocates of the dollar, exploiters, United Fruit Company, Standard Oil Company, diplomats and heavenly poets, to name just a few. In the poem "Advocates of the Dollar", he says:

He is adopted. They put him On leash. He dresses like a gringo, Spits like a gringo, Dances like a gringo, and he rises. He has a car, whisky, newspaper, He is elected judge and senator, He is honoured, made a Minister, And is heard by the government. He knows who can be bribed. He knows who is bribed. He licks, massages, honours, Pleases, smiles, threatens. And thus he empties through the ports The bleeding republics.

AFTER Canto general, Neruda became more conscious of language and was concerned with clarity of communication. The sense of the public also became more important as he had begun to read his poetry aloud at trade union meetings and political rallies. He consciously chose an aesthetics that would serve as a strategy of social action during the rise of dictatorships in Latin America. As a cultural activist and a political leader, Neruda ground himself firmly in the ideological debates of his time. He affirmed that the primary task of an artist was to explore the unknown and to create new means of seeing, thinking and acting. Thus, he sought to identify the common elements between art and the forces of historical change and to construct an aesthetics that would help these forces.

This was also the period when he was actively involved with the miners' struggles and was elected Senator in 1945 (he had joined the Communist Party of Chile in the same year and remained a militant member until his death in 1973). He campaigned passionately against Videla's dictatorship and had to remain underground and go into exile to escape death. Between 1952 and 1957, Neruda published several collections of poetry, namely The Grapes and the Wind, a private and anonymous edition of Captain's Verses, Elementary Odes, New Elementary Odes, The Third Book of Odes, Hundred Love Sonnets, Estravagario and Navigations and Returns. In all these collections, Neruda turns to a simple style and colloquial language not only to communicate with the masses but also to sing the praises of ordinary objects. He treats the traditional form of the ode with irreverence and humour, using simple, short verses, rich in poetic images. This new form of writing was in tune with Neruda's activism and his conception of social poetry. The odes were also meant for public readings, hence the simplicity of language and the expression of solidarity with the pain and suffering of the collective.

When Neruda was asked to make a weekly contribution of poetry for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional, he insisted that his poems appear in the main newspaper and not in the literary supplement. One of the first odes to be published was "Ode to the Bread":

In the bread I look Beyond the form: I like bread, I bite it And then I see the wheat, The new wheat fields, The green form of spring, The roots, water, And so Beyond the bread I see the land, Water, Man, And thus I taste everything Looking for you In everything.

By the time Captain's Verses was published in 1962, politics had become an indispensable dimension of his poetry. Captain's Verses contains love poems dedicated to his wife, Matilde Urrutia, but unlike his earlier love poems, the poet does not explore an unknown mysterious nature with an equally unknown woman. Instead, love for the woman manifests itself in a celebration of the natural elements of daily life like maize, wheat, stem, root and leaves and the beloved is his companion in arduous struggles. Fully Empowered, another collection published in the same year, engages with the task of a poet and writer. These poems reflect the tension between the poet and his creation and Neruda highlights, yet again, the importance of the written and the spoken word.

Neruda wrote till the last day of his life. He died on September 23, 1973. He is remembered today for the power of his poetry, for his struggles against fascism and oppression and for the voice that he gave to the people of Chile.

In his Memoirs, he writes:

"The human crowd has been the lesson of my life. I can come to it with the born timidity of the poet, with the fear of the timid, but once I am in its midst, I feel transfigured. I am part of the essential majority, I am one more leaf on the great human tree.

"Solitude and multitude will go on being the primary obligations of the poet in our time. In solitude, the battle of the surf on the Chilean coast made my life richer. I was intrigued by and have loved passionately the battling waters and the rocks they battled against, the teeming ocean life, the impeccable formation of the `wandering birds,' the splendour of the sea's foam.

"But I learned much more from the huge tide of lives, from the tenderness I saw in thousands of eyes watching me together. This message may not come to all poets, but anyone who has felt it will keep it in his heart, will work it into his poems. To have embodied hope for many men, even for one minute, is something unforgettable and profoundly touching for the poet."

Vibha Maurya and Vijaya Venkataraman teach Spanish in the Department of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of Delhi, and have worked extensively on Latin American literature. Vibha Maurya is one of the 100 people from around the world who have been awarded the Pablo Neruda Medal by the Government of Chile on the occasion of the poet's birth centenary.

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