In 1954, Neruda wrote, “I am the foremost adversary of Nerudism.” What makes reading Neruda’s poems so entertaining, although sometimes challenging, is that his voice varies in almost every book. He can be passionate lover, visionary mystic, political radical, historian, or naturalist. His voice can be lyrical, conversational, meditative, playful, metaphysical, personal, or satiric. His poems are sometimes rich with imagery and dense with surreal metaphor. At other times his poems are direct and readily accessible.

In Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair the twenty-year-old poet writes of love and its absence with great intimacy, but without falling into sentimentality. These poems are rich in imagery, some of it fairly obvious, as when the speaker tells his beloved she is like his soul, “a butterfly of dream,” or when he tells her that her silence is “that of a star, remote and candid.” Neruda also shows his mastery of surreal metaphor, as in poem 8, in which he writes, “Your breasts seem like white snails./ A butterfly of shadow has come to sleep in your belly.” Such metaphors do not need to be understood or analyzed, but to be accepted and enjoyed.

In the process of writing the three cycles of Residence on Earth, and Other Poems, between 1925 and 1945, Neruda’s themes and his manner of expressing them changed in various ways. The poems of the first two cycles are introspective and are filled with images of alienation. In one poem, for example, he writes: “I wrench hell’s captain from my heart/ and lay down sad, equivocating phrases.” In another poem, the speaker sees himself “on some sad coast,/ surrounded by the stuff of the dead day,” waiting for someone to come and touch his heart, but the only sound he hears comes from “a shell of shadows” which offers only “shreds of sound” and a “grid of misery . . . by the shores of the solitary ocean.”

In his third cycle, however, Neruda shifts to social and political themes and toward a poetry of commitment. Critics have observed an increased tendency throughout the cycle to capture a “spoken voice,” a less rhetorical and more realistic use of language. The spoken voice is evident in the third cycle’s political poems, for example: “You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?/ and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?” Neruda decries the Spanish Civil War, in which “bandits with black friars spattering blessings/ came through the sky to kill children.” His sometimes strident protests run close to propaganda in places. One poem, for example, ends, “Come and see the blood/ in the streets!” Neruda’s social commitment is most pervasive in Canto General, in which he traces the history of Latin America from pre-Columbian times, through the conquest and the liberation, and into the exploitation of its resources and people in the twentieth century. Hernán Cortés, for instance, is described as “a chilling/ thunderbolt, a cold heart clad in armor.” Another poem decries Standard Oil, which is run by “obese emperors/ from New York . . . suave/ smiling assassins.” Amid the poems of protest, however, are sublime celebrations of Neruda’s native country’s mountains, deserts, and long coastline. The Canto General is, as its title implies, a sort of encyclopedic poem, covering vast stretches of history and geography.

Just four years after the appearance of the Canto General, Neruda changed his voice, form, and subject matter altogether with the first volume of Odas elementales (1954; The Elemental Odes, 1961). Written for the common man, these short-lined poems deal with the ordinary objects of everyday life. “Oda a las cosas” (“Ode to things”) which consists of 120 lines, begins

I have a crazy,crazy love of things.I like pliers,and scissors.I lovecups,rings,and bowls—not to speak, of course,of hats.

In a poem for an artichoke, Neruda describes the vegetable as warlike in its spiky armor, but María buys it and drops it in the pot, and “This is how/ the career/ of the armored vegetable/ we call an artichoke/ comes to a peaceful end.”

Often an individual volume of Neruda’s poems is a collection of several self-contained parts or sequences. Isla Negra: A Notebook, for example, consists of five fairly distinct books, which together form an introspective autobiography. The single collection Extravagaria, noted for its conversational tone, consists of almost seventy poems, one of which runs over ten pages. “It seems I still haven’t learned/ the harsh speech of frogs,” Neruda writes: “If all this is so, how am I a poet?” Pablo Neruda felt the urgent necessity of communicating virtually everything in the world. “So, gentlemen,” he playfully concludes one poem, “I am going/ to converse with a horse; let the poetess excuse me,/ the professor give me leave./ I shall be busy all week,/ I have to listen incessantly.// What was that cat’s name?”

“Walking Around”

First published: 1935 (collected in Residence on Earth, and Other Poems, 1946)

Type of work: Poem

This poem from the second Residence on Earth cycle depicts a visionary poet, out of tune with his urban surroundings.

“Walking Around” opens casually: “It happens that I am tired of being a...

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