Pablo Neruda stated in a prologue to one of four editions of Caballo verde, a literary review he had founded in 1935 with Manuel Altalaguirre, that the poetry he was seeking would contain the confused impurities that people leave on their tools as they wear them down with the sweat of their hands. He would make poems like buildings, permeated with smoke and garlic and flooded inside and out with the air of men and women who seem always present. Neruda advocated an impure poetry whose subject might be hatred, love, ugliness, or beauty. He sought to bring verse back from the exclusive conclave of select minorities to the turmoil from which words draw their vitality.
Neruda’s work is divided into three discernible periods, the turning points being the Spanish Civil War and his return to Chile in 1952 after three years of forced exile. During the first phase of his work, from 1923 to 1936, Neruda published six rather experimental collections of verse in which he achieved the poetic strength that carried him through four more decades and more than twenty books. He published Crepusculario himself in 1923 while a student at the University of Santiago. Crepusculario is a cautious collection of poems reflecting his reading of French poetry. Like the Latin American Modernistas who preceded him, he consciously adhered to classical forms and sought the ephemeral effects of musicality and color. The poem that perhaps best captures the message indicated by the title of the book is very brief: “My soul is an empty carousel in the evening light.” All the poems in Crepusculario express Neruda’s ennui and reveal his experimentation with the secondary qualities of language, its potential for the effects of music, painting, and sculpture.
There are several interesting indications of Neruda’s future development in Crepusculario that distinguish it from similar derivative works. Neruda eventually came to see poetry as work, a profession no less than carpentry, brick masonry, or politics; this conception of poetry is anticipated in the poem “Inicial,” in which he writes: “I have gone under Helios who watches me bleeding/ laboring in silence in my absent gardens.” Further, in Crepusculario, Neruda occasionally breaks logical barriers in a manner that anticipates much of his later Surrealistic verse: “I close and close my lips but in trembling roses/ my voice comes untied, like water in the fountain.” Nevertheless, Crepusculario is also characterized by a respect for tradition and a humorous familiarity with the sacred that Neruda later abandoned, only to rediscover them again in the third phase of his career, after 1952: “And the ’Our Father’ gets lost in the middle of the night/ runs naked across his green lands/ and trembling with pleasure dives into the sea.” Linked with this respect for his own traditions is an adulation of European culture, which he also abandoned in his second phase; Neruda did not, however, regain a regard for Western European culture in his mature years, rejecting it in favor of his own American authenticity: “When you are old, my darling (Ronsard has already told you)/ you will recall the verses I spoke to you.”
In Crepusculario, the first stirrings of Neruda’s particular contribution to Spanish poetry are evident—themes that in the early twentieth century were considered unpoetic, such as the ugliness of industrialized cities and the drudgery of bureaucracies. These intrusions of objective reality were the seeds from which his strongest poetry would grow; they reveal Neruda’s capacity to empathize with the material world and give it a voice.
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair
One year after the publication of Crepusculario, the collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair appeared. It would become the most widely read collection of poems in the Spanish-speaking world. In it, Neruda charts the course of a love affair from passionate attraction to despair and indifference. In these poems, Neruda sees the whole world in terms of the beloved:
The vastness of pine groves, the sound of beating wings,the slow interplay of lights, a solitary bell,the evening falling into your eyes, my darling, and in youthe earth sings.Love shadows and timbres your voice in the dying echoingafternoonjust as in those deep hours I have seenthe field’s wheat bend in the mouth of the wind.
Throughout these twenty poems, Neruda’s intensity and directness of statement universalize his private experiences, establishing another constant in his work: the effort to create a community of feeling through the expression of common, universal experience.
Tentativa del hombre infinito
In 1926, Neruda published Tentativa del hombre infinito (venture of infinite man), his most interesting work from a technical point of view. In this book-length poem, Neruda employed the “automatic writing” espoused by the Surrealists. The poem celebrates Neruda’s discovery of the city at night and tests the capacity of his poetic idiom to sound the depths of his subconscious. Ignoring the conventions of sentence structure, syntax, and logic, Neruda fuses form and content.
The poem opens in the third person with a description of the poet asleep in the city of Santiago. It returns to the same image of the sleeping man and the hearth fires of the city three times, changing person from third to second to first, creating a circular or helical structure. The imagery defies conventional associations: “the moon blue spider creeps floods/ an emissary you were moving happily in the afternoon that was falling/ the dusk rolled in extinguishing flowers.”
In the opening passages, Neruda explores the realm between wakefulness and sleep, addressing the night as his lover: “take my heart, cross it with your vast pulleys of silence/ when you surround sleep’s animals, it’s at your feet/ waiting to depart because you place it face to face with/ you, night of black helixes.” In this realm between motive and act, Neruda’s language refuses to acknowledge distinctions of tense: “a twenty-year-old holds to the frenetic reins, it is that he wanted to follow the night.” Also, the limits that words draw between concepts disappear, and thoughts blend like watercolors: “star delayed between the heavy night the days with tall sails.”
The poem is a voyage of exploration that leads to a number of discoveries. The poet discovers his own desperation: “the night like wine enters the tunnel/ savage wind, miner of the heavens, let’s wail together.” He discovers the vastness of the other: “in front of the inaccessible there passes by for you a limitless presence.” He discovers his freedom: “prow, mast, leaf in the storm, an abandonment without hope of return impels you/ you show the way like crosses the dead.” Most important, he discovers wonder: “the wind leaving its egg strikes my back/ great ships of glowing coals twist their green sails/ planets spin like bobbins.” The abstract becomes concrete and hence tractable: “the heart of the world folds and stretches/ with the will of a column and the cold fury of feathers.” He discovers his joy: “Hurricane night, my happiness bites your ink/ and exasperated, I hold back my heart which dances/ a dancer astonished in the heavy tides which make the dawn rise.”
When the poet finds his beloved, he begins to acquire a more logical grasp of objective reality, but when he realizes that he is still dreaming, his joy becomes despair. He gradually awakens; his senses are assaulted by the smell of the timber of his house and the sound of rain falling, and he gazes through the windows at the sky. Interestingly, his dream visions do not abandon him at once but continue to determine his perceptions:
birds appear like letters in the depths of the skythe dawn appears like the peelings of fruitthe day is made of firethe sea is full of green rags which articulate I am the seaI am alone in a windowless roomsnails...
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