Pablo Neruda Neruda, Pablo (Pseudonym of Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto) - Essay

Neruda, Pablo (Pseudonym of Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Neruda, Pablo (Pseudonym of Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto) 1904–1973

A Chilean poet and diplomat, Neruda was active in various social and political movements. The recipient of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature, Neruda celebrates in his poetry love, nostalgia, experience, and the interior life. He is considered one of the finest surrealist poets of our time. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 45-48; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

Pablo Neruda's Odas Elementales are particularly interesting for their fusion of a considerable amount of social doctrine and of many subjects traditionally considered "unpoetic" into very effective poetry…. Neruda's choice of poetic subject has made certain poetic techniques particularly apt. For it is evident that personification, catalogues, and the creation of foil relations between large parts of poems (frequently structured dialectically) are techniques common to most of these poems.

Nevertheless, as hasty equation of the dialectic structure common in Neruda's poetry with the dialectic form of his Marxist social doctrine (generally progressing from past to present to a more or less hortatory future) would certainly be an oversimplification. For these poems are odes, and their dialectic structure also corresponds to the traditional division of the Pindaric ode into strophe, antistrophe, and epode. The two influences would appear to complement and reinforce each other, the form of the ode perhaps supplying the tripartite structure, the Marxist doctrine the tendency toward the temporal division into past, present, and future.

Such a structure is readily apparent in "Oda a las Américas."… The strophe and antistrophe correspond to the typographical division between stanzas one and two, and their temporal division into past and present. But Neruda's dialectic here is somewhat complicated by his concern with universalizing his poem. This concern causes him to call upon America primarily in terms of the beauties of its nature, especially at the beginning, and only to present a more explicit and direct vision of its people in the middle section…. For America as a continent with its natural beauties has a greater direct appeal for the reader, regardless of national, class, or ideological affiliations, than a more partisan class or historical approach, say exclusively through the Pre-Columbian Indians, could possibly have. At the same time, specific historical, class, and even certain chauvinistic appeals to a Pan-Latin Americanism, must be and are made in the poem to fill both doctrinal and exemplary needs. This results in some tension and ambivalence between the two directions, finally united at the end.

It is evident from the prominent place nature has in this poem, and from its first lines, where the oceans are said to have kept the continent pure and intact in a more or less military metaphor ("guardaron"), that we are here in a world similar to the beginning of the Canto General, where nature is called upon to resist the Spanish conquerors and to act as one with the Indian defenders. A different emphasis, however, is apparent in this poem. Whereas in the Canto General nature's purpose was primarily to protect the largely helpless Indian civilizations, here it is clearly the other way around, and in the latter part of the poem there is a fairly explicit reproach to the Latin Americans for allowing their beautiful continent to be plundered by the new conquerors…. (pp. 41-2)

Much of the ambivalence evident in the second part of the poem over just where the real value of the Americas lies, whether in the unspoiled beauty of its nature, or in its people, is undoubtedly due to the poet's personal sense of outrage and disappointment at what he feels to be the complete failure of Latin Americans to achieve viable and independent political and economic institutions. A resolution of all ambivalence finally occurs when the speaker makes clear in the last section of the poem that the continent's treasure includes both the land and its people…. The dialectic between nature's purity and man's misery and corruption finally resolved in a new man in harmony with nature also presents a specific Latin American formulation of the general Marxist dialectic of past versus present to synthesize in an ideal future. (p. 42)

[Neruda] seems … to be opting for the sentimental view of the Pre-Columbian Indian as the noble savage living in a largely paradisiacal environment, who is now come to woe at the hands of foreign invaders, rather than for a more orthodox Marxist dialectic, which would see Pre-Columbian America in a more objective and perhaps less rosy light…. Neither the Canto General nor most histories would suggest that the Indians under Spanish rule, or any considerable part of the population of these countries since independence has been much better off than they are now. The cause of this logical inconsistency, apart from what is perhaps some simple carelessness in the poem's elaboration, appears to lie in Neruda's political beliefs. These seem to have dictated the creation of an earlier, golden age, to act as a foil to the present state of affairs, and so to portray that state as negatively as possible. That golden age is conveniently not specified. The resulting lack of a clear subject to make possible the creation of a dramatic antithesis or foil considerably reduces the effectiveness of this last image, and leads to the simplistic visualization of these countries in terms of editorial page cartoon images as caricatures of mouths, rather than of their suffering inhabitants. (pp. 43-4)

In addition … to the structural use of foils for the creation of the dialectic and the general polemic and extra-literary foils of exploited-exploiter which pervade the poem ideologically, Neruda manages to create another, a very emotional foil relation between the polemic eloquence of his narrative voice which reproaches and contrasts with the shameful silence of the Latin American reader. This final foil relation reaches out beyond the poem itself, seeking to resolve the poem-reader dichotomy in the synthesis of the reader's direct action against the postulated common enemy.

In "Oda a la pobreza," Neruda uses similar techniques, but structures his poem about a central dichotomy between himself, the poor of the world, and a poverty personified much like the figure of a medieval vice. The poem is divided into the past of the poet, when he himself was persecuted by poverty, and the present, when he relentlessly hounds poverty wherever he can find it. The foil relation is thus dramatized into a personal confrontation between the narrative voice and a personified enemy. The explicit appearance of the narrative voice as the rhetorical "I" in the poem greatly increases the vigor and force of the poem, adds to the effectiveness of the contrast, and serves as a sincerity ploy to capture the sympathy of the reader for the speaker and his cause.

Catalogues serve an important function in the poem. The enumeration of the objects which he first associates with poverty … is essentially metonymic, but the more extended catalogue of his persecution of poverty toward the end of the poem … is so amplified as to create its own world, a world of the future where poverty is already substantially defeated…. [The] tremendous sense of action and the images of positive, constructive work seem already to represent the desired millennia…. The structure of the poem, then, while essentially a dichotomy between the poet pursued by poverty in the past, and the poet now pursuing it in the present, nevertheless manages to arrive at the suggestion of a synthesis, where poet and people together construct a world without poverty.

In "Oda al caldillo de congrio," a poem much lighter in tone, Neruda is presented with a problem which is roughly the opposite of that in "Oda a las Américas." There he had to make specific a very general subject, along with a good deal of potentially unacceptable social doctrine. Neruda's program in these poems includes subjects considered inherently unpoetic. This is implied in the title Odas Elementales, and here takes him into that area of the expository presentation of cognitive material which is usually avoided by most good poets. This poem is a poetic recipe.

Besides the able creation and manipulation of images and rhythms, Neruda manages to generalize the subject by certain specific poetic techniques in combination with the humorous tone. Thus we progress by syntactic association and juxtaposition … [until we approach] bathos…. To insure that the reader has not been completely swept away, and that he remembers the tenor of these witty hyperboles, the poem's subject appears again … for a final juxtaposition.

But this poem is not typical of the manner in which Neruda handles such a problem in these poems, just as the lack of polemic content and social doctrine is not typical. The link between polemic content and the combination of foil, personification, and catalogue is therefore made more apparent in this poem by a prominent diminution of both foils and personification. Catalogue structure is, of course, inherent in a recipe. Much more common is the solution in "Oda al átomo," where he strongly personifies and dramatizes a specific, scientific concept, the atom, puts it into a social setting, and creates foils into a dialectic structure, all through amplification and catalogues of pathetic, emotion-arousing imagery with exemplary value…. (pp. 47-8)

Whatever focus Neruda uses in these poems, in nearly all of them foil, personification, and catalogue are key structural elements. This is undoubtedly in part due to the epic mode of most of the poems, which calls for generous amplifications and broad, emotive contrasts. More specifically, personification allows Neruda to bring into a specific dramatic framework both the abstractions of his social doctrine (as in "Oda a la pobreza"), and very specific, somewhat unpoetic subjects (as in "Oda al átomo"). Foils are used to organize his material into the dialectic perspective of his doctrine. And the catalogues serve mainly to universalize by amplification and thus to create the distinctly epic mode of these poems.

Neruda's ideology also creates some interesting similarities between these poems and much medieval doctrinal poetry, especially the Everyman morality play, where foil, personification, and catalogue were also key structural elements for the exposition of an ideology whose dichotomy between good and evil was even more absolute than that of Neruda, and which supplied no synthesis as it refused to countenance any true dialectic between good and evil. It is indicative of Neruda's talent as a poet, however, that whereas in the plays the resolution of the dichotomy always occurs within the character of Everyman himself, and the audience remains largely passive, Neruda often manages to focus his dialectic upon the reader himself, who is then called upon to provide the synthesis by direct action. (pp. 48-9)

Walter Holzinger, "Poetic Subject and Form in the 'Odas Elementales'," in Revista Hispánica Moderna, XXXVI, 1970–1971, pp. 41-9.

Pablo Neruda is fecundly dead. His poems keep coming into English, sometimes bruised and tattered by the translator's egotistical ineptitude and sometimes decently clad, as in [Fully Empowered]. Almost always enough survives the metamorphosis to serve as an invigorating example of how a truely universal poetic consciousness goes about its business….

A difficult poet Neruda may be; but he never, to my knowledge, wrote nonsense. Fifty or more years ago, though, even his friends had trouble with a line like, "I am sad, but I am always sad," considering it either unintelligible or unnecessarily repetitive. When asked to explain himself, that sad eyed young poet from the South wrapped himself tighter in his railman's cloak and kept his own counsel. But when hostile critics of Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (1924) laughed long and mockingly as they recited, "I don't love her anymore, that's true, but perhaps I love her," Neruda tried his best to explain in La Nación. "For ten lonely years my poetry has obeyed differing rhythms and conflicting currents. Joining them, braiding them together, unable to find a permanent essence because it doesn't exist, I've composed Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Love Song…." (p. 100)

Quite early, Neruda seems to have realized that an integral poetry, more like Rimbaud's than Baudelaire's, must aim to reproduce or represent that level of authenticity below censored consciousness at which mind operates in endless alternations and concatenations of contraries. These are the differing rhythms and conflicting currents he alludes to. Fidelity to his own feelings had forced Neruda to do violence to the niceties of language and to defy the logic of identities which, because it ignores time, can maintain that A is always A. What the critics were laughing at was a natural consequence of this precocious poet's discovery that you can be sad now, and then again sad; you can love this way and that, but never in the same way consecutively. In Twenty Poems, love and unlove, trust and mistrust, Mary-sunlight and Mary-shadow alternately beat out a rhythm which is locked in time and which cannot come to rest in any permanent essence because nothing of the sort exists in time and nothing at all can exist outside it. (pp. 100-01)

Like William Carlos Williams, Neruda … learned to kill the explicit sentence, but with weirdly different results. [Residence on Earth is, according to Neruda,] "a heap of very monotonous, almost ritualistic poems, full of mystery and sorrows like the poems of the old poets. Something very uniform, like a single thing attempted without success."

What is this single thing attempted without success?… Intellect, Neruda is saying, has deprived poetry of its substantiality, has removed it from the arena of existential struggle so that it can no longer give sustenance. Neruda wants to re-endow the poetic message with substance and sustenance. He wants to "penetrate life and make it prophetic." But for the time being he can do no more than establish an authentically self-expressive language that accurately registers a relentless and desperate attempt to refloat a monstrously barnacled universe of human aspirations that has foundered in time. He has the language now, but no credible and life-empowering dream to make it fully intelligible, and the only form is the pressure of the effort itself. Forget this, and the pre-political poems of the Residencias (1925–47) seem opaque and aphasic; remember their intention, and they become unbearably articulate in a way as yet unavailable in English. (p. 101)

What is the most moving about the later Neruda is not his occasional political stridency, but the enormous generosity of his vision and his unfailing sense of humor. "You learn poetry," he said in 1956, "moving step by step among things and beings, never isolating, but rather containing them all within a blind expansion of love." Fully Empowered (1962) is a triumphant expression of this all-encompassing expansiveness. Here is the house, whimsically built from the stars down; here is a child that needs washing; here are thistles and clocksmiths, friends and enemies, all have a place in this finally convincing Nerudian universe where, as Rilke has it, song is existence itself. You read these poems and you ask yourself sometimes: "Didn't Brother Pablo say this better somewhere else?" And the answer is, "Maybe, but never mind, no one ever said it better, ever." (p. 102)

Luis E. Yglesias, "Out of Some Rumbling Wholeness," in Review (copyright © 1976 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Spring, 1976, pp. 100-02.

Attached to the end of a literary career that spanned five decades and that gathered to itself, like moss to a rock, more than 40 volumes of poetry, prose, verse drama, and translations, Neruda's Memoirs is not so much a summing up, a culmination of a life, as it is simply one more chapter added to his continuous revelation of himself. He was first driven to poetry, he says in Memoirs, by youthful shyness, a sort of "kink in the soul" that intensified both his sense of innate human solitude (the common inheritance of so many Latin-American writers) and his own particular separation from those around him. Thereafter, self-disclosure in poetry seemed to him one way of smashing whatever barriers were raised between himself and his fellowman….

Pablo Neruda's Memoirs, therefore, is not his first conscious venture into the confession of how he lived, who he was. His poetry is as progressive as it is prodigious, and it moves through stages in which he was—among other less definable things—a romanticist, a surrealist, an erotic lyricist, a symbolist, a realist, a political revolutionary. Through all these multitudinous sea changes, however, the constant is Neruda himself, and in some works he is pointedly autobiographical….

Neruda professes in Memoirs to have been, always, too simple a man, which was both his honor and his shame. He was born not to pass judgment, he says, but to love. From the start, his life's education was anti-literary and anti-intellectual, taking its source from instinct rather than from reason, arousing in him a suspicion of all fixed ideas, precepts, structures, and sects—including those of the Communist dialectic, which he subscribed to with reservations. His problem in his voluminous confessions, therefore, seems never to be W. B. Yeats's mystery of how to locate within his many-sided complexities a "unity of being," nor is it how to construct any vast Yeatsian synthetic "vision." Like Walt Whitman, his acknowledged model, Neruda seems at peace with his metamorphoses and contradictions. ("Pablo is one of the few happy men I have known," Ilya Ehrenburg once wrote about him.) His problem, rather, is how to fix in language the person he was at any given moment; the task, he wrote in Black Island Memorial, is never-ending…. (p. 19)

The result of Neruda's approach to his remembrances is a book of lapses, of airy interstices, but also of fullness—a sort of distilled essence of himself in both substance and form. He never seems prompted to play the part of sage, of the comprehensive thinker who somehow captures his life and era with trenchant abstractions; and except in isolated parts, Memoirs seems hardly to have been written at all, if we think of writing as language that is tight, sparse, impeccably fashioned, consciously structured. "Our [Latin] American stratum is dusty rock, crushed lava, clay mixed with blood," Neruda says, attributing his style to his continental heritage. "We don't know how to work in crystal." Perhaps for these reasons, it is doubtful that Memoirs will ever appear on a list of great literary autobiographies. Much more certain is its destiny as a book of uses. It is the starting point for all future biographers. It will serve as a rich mine of support for those who share Neruda's political views…. The chapter "Poetry Is an Occupation" is invaluable for students of Neruda's work, and innumerable short portraits of writers and artists should serve scholars as a bottomless source of opinions and quotations….

The drama of his position in Latin America, he once said, didn't permit him the luxury of being uncommitted; and he felt strongly that even poetry that professed to be impervious to politics was thus political to the roots. "Everyone has to choose a road," he said in an interview with Robert Bly, "a refined and intellectual way, or a more brotherly, general way, trying to embrace the world around you, to discover the new world." Neruda's choice was the second one. It was, in a word, Whitman's. (p. 20)

Robert Maurer, "A Confession of Life," in Saturday Review (© 1977 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), February 19, 1977, pp. 18-20.

Neruda must have written these marvelous, exasperating memoirs fitfully during the last [, busy] decade of his life…. Neither his publishers nor his editors say so, but it would be one explanation for their discontinuity and unevenness…. Another explanation may be that these are, after all, memoirs: the reader must be thankful for whatever the writer is pleased to remember. But the most persuasive explanation, whatever the manner in which they were written, is that Neruda could not have performed differently—a poetic genius trying in an unaccustomed medium to fit the prose of his life to the persona he created in more than 60 volumes of poetry. (p. 3)

[Many] of these anecdotes, vignettes, prose poems, are succulent leaves that we should not do without. Some of them have the charm and humor and mystery of his best poems…. He manages, too, despite his self-absorption, to come up with some charming portraits, some done with love, some with malice, of Ehrenburg, García Lorca, Juan Ramón Jimenez, Rafael Alberti, Nehru, Miguel Hernández. He is master in all this, as in his poetry, in making the homely, neglected detail vividly new, the grand mysteries intimate….

Only the knowing will discover some of his malice and obtuseness in his memoirs. (p. 18)

[Still] Neruda … must be forgiven his disingenuousness, malice, vanity and egoism—he was a brave man who wished us well and generously left us an incomparable body of poetry, the finest in Spanish in this century. (p. 20)

Frank MacShane, "Neruda in New York," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 13, 1977, pp. 3, 18, 20.