Pablo Neruda

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Neruda, Pablo (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Neruda, Pablo 1904–

Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)

Neruda knows that only by holding his own identity in abeyance can he hope to see clearly and to accommodate the lives around him. Yet he finds that such vulnerability destroys him; it opens the floodgates to chaos. Sounds wrinkle him and objects pass through him. He is a phantom, a man without qualities, invaded by stones, wool, elevators, gardens, and eyeglasses. Everything that strikes his senses penetrates to his heart. A man grows tired of being a man when his life becomes the fruitless attempt to assert his endurance in a world where nothing endures and all are subject to the same lawlessness….

In the poetry following Residencia en la tierra, we find a sharp change in Neruda's purpose and direction. In spite of his promise to undertake the sorrows of all men, the despair of these poems remains a personal one. Both his style and his subject are remote from the ordinary modes of experience. But now he decides that if poetry is to remake the world, it must first be accessible….

Poetry must be useful, it must change the world, says Neruda. Yet the value of harnessing poetry to social action is questionable, for the poet is a singer who does not come to solve anything but to express that which cannot express itself….

Because he believes the poet should affirm the harmony between man and the earth, Neruda rejects all poetry which bears witness to men's isolation. He would like to deny the possibility of the crisis in Residencia en la tierra. Unable to do so, he transfers the blame from personal to external causes: from the government of oneself to the government of the state….

The limits of Neruda's vision are immediately apparent. He cannot sanction a poet who criticizes man's life at a level where systems are irrelevant when that criticism disparages his own. The kingdoms of agony may be internal as well as external and wholly inaccessible to social action….

Neruda maintains that man is subject to two kinds of death. The great death which extinguishes him physically belongs to the natural world; it is one of the changes which continues life. The small death, says Neruda, is what cannot be reborn. It prevents change; it is revealed in the habits and events which confirm men in their isolation from one another. Man's impermanence belongs to all the conditions that made the poet say, "It happens I'm tired of being a man."…

Neruda's justification of the concrete world leads him to accept death without despair. If he is intolerant of despair in the poetry of others, it is because he wants nothing to sully man's residence on earth, and he knows that Eden can survive only when a man's love is stronger than his knowledge of his death.

Nancy Willard, "Radiant Bread for the Sun of Man: The Poetry of Pablo Neruda," in Chelsea, No. 22/23, 1968, pp. 180-98.

I shall assume, because his essential gravity in 1968 pulls the depths and meanings that way, that the poetry of Pablo Neruda is part of everything else I know and sense about work of genius everywhere; that it is not a special barrio or ghetto of the contemporary mind known only to the caseworker and the Spanish-speaking experts in segregated mentalities; that we have wrangled too wastefully about public commitment and thought too little of the solitude of an interior stance; that his work, given "free and innocent passage," resonates against literatures other than his own, including the English, from which he has translated Blake and Shakespeare, and that this resonance is the true measure of his long traffic with the democracy of letters….

[In Estravagario, the "Book of Vagaries"] Neruda's avowed penchant for "impurity"… constantly deflects him into private caprice, a coquetería of unanswered solicitations, digressions of the mind's finalities into the absurd, the quizzical, and the imponderable…. Against [an] iconography of persiflage, savored by a mind that shrugs away all fictions...

(The entire section is 1,299 words.)