Pablo Neruda Neruda, Pablo (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pablo Neruda 1904–1973

(Born Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto) Chilean poet. See also Pablo Neruda Criticism, and volumes 1, 2, 5, 7.

Neruda is considered one of the finest poets of our time. A prolific and adventurous writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971, he passed through several literary and political stages in his long career. The poetry consistently celebrates love, nature, and human experience, and was in certain periods intensely political.

Neruda's passion for writing love poetry is particularly evident in the early Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada (1924; Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair). In the poems of this collection, Neruda presents woman and nature as "two aspects of the same reality" and uses nature imagery to describe women. Although it is now among the best known of Neruda's works, Chile's leading publisher refused to publish the book, claiming that it was too blatantly erotic. Neruda's poetry of that time is extremely personal and characterized by a melancholy view of the world and a preoccupation with unrequited love. In Tentativa del hombre infinito (1925; Venture of the Infinite Man) Neruda employs a freer style and surreal imagery. This movement toward the surreal culminated in Residencia en la tierra (1933; Residence on Earth), one of Neruda's most acclaimed works. The poems in this collection are anguished and despairing, full of surreal images of nature. They are perhaps the result of the loneliness Neruda was experiencing at the time of their writing.

The years 1945–1952 were turbulent and productive ones for Neruda. In 1945 he joined the Communist party in Chile and was elected to the Senate. In 1946 he supported the leftist presidential candidate who, once elected, became a pawn of the nation's industrial leaders. Communism was outlawed and Neruda's arrest ordered. In 1948 Neruda fled to Mexico and lived there until his return to Chile in 1952. During his exile he wrote the poems that were published as Canto general in 1950; they represent, in the opinion of most critics, Neruda's most significant work. The collection expresses his outrage at the Chilean political situation in the late 1940s. The work is his attempt to analyze and interpret the political and cultural directions being taken by South America. The book was banned in Chile.

After Canto general, Neruda's poetry underwent an important change. Subsequently, he began to write in a clear and simple style to powerful effect. The poems in Odas elementales (1954; Elemental Odes), for instance, take as their subjects everyday, familiar objects and raise them to a point of dignity and grace. At the time of their publication, these earthy, realistic poems came under critical fire for being too simple, but they are now considered among Neruda's most significant works.

At the time of his death Neruda was working on his memoirs and several volumes of poetry, including El mar y las campanas (1973) and Jardin de invierno (1974). Although the subjects of these collections are similar to Neruda's previous works, they were written with the knowledge of his imminent death. Death and winter are the most dominant themes.

James Wright and Robert Bly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What is most startling about Neruda, I think, when we compare him to Eliot or Dylan Thomas or Pound, is the great affection that accompanies his imagination. Neruda read his poetry for the first time in the U.S. in June of '66 at the Poetry Center in New York, and it was clear from that reading that his poetry is intended as a gift. When Eliot gave a reading, one had the feeling that the reading was a cultural experience, and that Eliot doubted very much if you were worth the trouble, but he'd try anyway. When Dylan Thomas read, one had the sense that he was about to perform some magical and fantastic act, perhaps painting a Virgin while riding on three white horses, and maybe you would benefit from this act, and maybe you wouldn't. Pound used to scold the audience for not understanding what he did. When Neruda reads, the mood in the room is one of affection between the audience and himself.

We tend to associate the modern imagination with the jerky imagination, which starts forward, stops, turns around, switches from subject to subject. In Neruda's poems, the imagination drives forward, joining the entire poem in a rising flow of imaginative energy. In the underworld of the consciousness, in the thickets where Freud, standing a short distance off, pointed out incest bushes, murder trees, half-buried primitive altars, and unburied bodies, Neruda's imagination moves with utter assurance, sweeping from one spot to another almost magically. The starved emotional lives of notary publics he links to the whiteness of flour, sexual desire to the shape of shoes, death to the barking...

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Nancy Willard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the poem "Ode to Bread," from his collection Elemental Odes,] Neruda wants to do with bread what Stevens did with his jar in Tennessee: to place it on a hill and let its presence tame the wilderness. The comparisons in the first stanza of the poem make it clear that he celebrates bread for being itself, not for being eaten. Making bread is a birth and a growing. Its shape suggests the birth of man, its growth the rebirth of spring, an "equinoctial terrestrial germination" (equinoccial/germinación/terrestre). It grows like a mouth, a breast, a hill, in a universe where everything is alive. Change is the sign of its life. If you cannot change, you cannot grow, and in Neruda's eyes you are less alive than the bread or the hill.

Because bread does not happen by itself, man is as much the subject of the poem as bread. But the "I" of the earlier poems has become "we," and Neruda no longer uses things to carry his private emotions. (p. 103)

In bread Neruda sees the kingdom of man. Contrary to Christian teachings, man does live by bread alone. Beauty and love have meaning nowhere but here. The pitiful spectators he sees at religious processions tell him that institutionalized religion destroys those it promises to save. The Indians are servile and abused; the hungry parochial schoolmasters, the nuns, and the clergy have lost touch with the earth. They deny life because they are afraid of death. But a salvation that asks of anyone such a denial is not for Neruda. (p. 104)

Neruda's kingdom of peace on earth is to come only when people have learned to share the gifts of the earth. It will come through sacrifice, for the meek cannot inherit the earth until the conqueror has been conquered and the treacherous arena converted into the plains of peace. If the rich hoard bread, let no man beg or pray for it; but let him and hungry men everywhere fight for justice…. (p. 105)

Although Neruda wants you to feel the urgent life of bread, too many explicit ideas make the whole effect rather flat. Ultimately, the poem has little to do with bread and everything to do with the government of man. The apocalypse is oversimplified, as in Neruda's least successful political poems, where the line between poetry and prose disappears altogether. Compared to those in "From: Elephant" …, the metaphors in this poem are general and the rhythms weak. Furthermore, you cannot read his promise that the simple man will conquer the earth without remembering Neruda's remarks elsewhere that no one can conquer it. Both the oppressed and the oppressor are subject to the laws of nature; here, he has already said, is the real conqueror.

The Elemental Odes are Neruda's hymns to...

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James Wright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

this time it is clear to everybody who has ever heard of him that Neruda is a very great poet.

It is the folly of Americans to assume that to say as much is to say that a man is a great man, worthy of worship, a relief to us in our frantic and temporary deaths.

But a great poet is a disturbance. If poetry means anything, it means heart, liver, and soul. If great poetry means anything, anything at all, it means disturbance, secret disturbance, that can be disposed of in public, as the pharmacist's delivery of prescription disposes of lonely midnight daydreams. But that cannot be so easily disposed of privately, as the insomniac discovers that the soporific provides him with sleep only to follow the hand of sleep into a land of secret wakening, nightmare, or illumination, that he wished to escape in the first place. It is bad enough to be miserable; but to be happy, how far beyond shock it is. To be alive, with all one's unexpected senses, and yet to face the fact of unhappiness.

There is a critic in the English language whose nobility and spaciousness allowed him to make the statement about poetry that can in turn allow us to cherish what is great. It is a statement about Shakespeare, and it applies to Neruda's poem The Heights of Macchu Picchu. In his preface to the works of Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson wonders why we should care about a poet after he has been dead for more than a hundred years. After all the envious reviewers are dead, something lives. How do we know it lives? We love it. It is alive. It is all we have. But why? Why do we love it? What is alive?

It combines a flowering in language with a cold pruning of form. Great poetry folds personal death and general love into one dark blossom.

I don't know why you read it, but I read it because I like it. I want poetry to make me happy, but the poetry I want should deal with the hell of our lives or else it leaves me cold. Why should I care? Why should I let it touch me?

Here is Johnson's remark on great poetry, which on this particular occasion happens to be Shakespeare:

Nothing can please many or please long but just representations of general nature. Particular manners can be known to few, and few only can judge how nearly they are copied. The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile, by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest. But the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.


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Fernando Alegria

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Neruda] will keep on dying with the movement of our century and with us: a vast and profound death of incalculable significance, dying first here, later there, and then beyond; now in me and then in other men and women, without obvious rhythm, but really with the rhythm of the seasons, of the sea, the stars and the trees, through which he keeps growing, stretching, resting from his life, breathing at last all the atmosphere and all the earth, all of time, the components of his death….

I want to write a few things down about the friend I loved and the poet, who at the end faced up to the fact of his death, clothed as always in a magical complexity and simplicity. To my mind what is significant is...

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Robert Pring-Mill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At the time of his death in Santiago in 1973, twelve days after the military coup, [Pablo Neruda] had just seen the fourth edition of his Obras completas through the press, he was nearing the completion of his memoirs (Confieso que he vivido), and was working on the last of eight volumes of new poetry [Larosa separado, Jardin de invierno, 2000, El corazón amarillo, Libro de las preguntas, Elegía, Defectos escogidos, and El mar y las campanas]. He had planned to publish these, along with his autobiography, on his seventieth birthday. Those eight collections make up a remarkable last chapter in the life of the most varied twentieth-century poet to have written in Spanish. Two of...

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Rene de Costa

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In relation to Neruda's previous public posture as a writer of the people, Estravagario seemed very individualistic, even frivolous in its self-indulgence. What is more, the frivolity was not unintentional. (p. 175)

How is one to interpret this about-face, Neruda's sudden lack of solemnity regarding himself and his work? Only eight years before, in 1950, at the end of Canto general, he had piously willed his books to the poets of tomorrow…. Then, speaking as the collective voice of his people, he went on to claim for his own work an enduring meaning for future generations…. In 1958 he makes no such claim on posterity. He does not even ask that his writings be practical or...

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Manuel Duran and Margery Safir

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Neruda's career as a poet began with love poetry and ended with love poetry. One of his very last works, written only days before his death, is "The End," a love poem to [his wife] Matilde. There were, of course, changes; there were deviations during the period of Residence on Earth, for example; there were turns and innovations during the period of political and epic poetry that began in the late thirties and culminated in 1950 with Canto General, but there was also a remarkable continuity. Erotic poetry and love poetry were for Neruda an important, essential part of his poetic life.

Pablo Neruda was one of the most prolific poets of our century. To trace the development of even one...

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Robert Bly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In 1962, Pablo Neruda began to set down some autobiographical poems centered around his house in Isla Negra, Chile. He wrote just over a hundred before he finished; it is this book ["Isla Negra"] Alastair Reid has now translated elegantly.

In some of the poems Neruda goes below the surface of life, with its poisoned flowers, snakes and waterfalls that he loves to describe, and talks of a mysterious "wicked King," who is allied with the terrifying jungle. It's not clear who this wicked King is, but Neruda knows that his life as a poet is associated with the jungle and that his growth resembled a jungle's….

Neruda's growth was amazing; he does find, following Whitman's lead,...

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Jascha Kessler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Pablo Neruda's Isla Negra, A Notebook, was] written during 1962–63, and consists of about 202 pages of meditative, autobiographical poems. He seems to have written them "as a present to himself for his sixtieth birthday" (as Professor E. M. Santi observes in his Afterword). In this "present to himself," Neruda contemplates the various periods of his life, dividing the lyrical series into 5 sections: Where the Rain is Born, The Moon in the Labyrinth, Cruel Fire, The Hunter after Roots, and Critical Sonata. It is in the last of these, Critical Sonata, that the poet takes up the questions of his political belief, if not of his political acts in support of that belief, and suggests...

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