Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Latin American Literature

After World War I, Latin American writers began to gain international recognition. As a result, these writers started to shift the focus in their works from regional preoccupations to more universal themes. They also experimented with new literary forms. Modernism, especially had an impact on Latin American poets. Love, the family, and social protest became popular subjects, especially with the Uruguayans Delmira Agustini and Juana de Ibarbourou and the Chileans Mistral and Neruda.

Marisol and Marisombra

Neruda has admitted that the poems in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair were inspired by his relationships with two women during his student years in Santiago. Two distinct women emerge in the poems in this collection—a mysterious girl in a beret and another young woman. Although he does not identify the women by name in the poems, later in an interview he referred to them as Marisol and Marisombra. The posthumous publication of his letters in 1974 revealed the girl in the beret to be Albertina Azocar, the sister of his close friend Ruben Azocar.

Literary Censorship

Chiles leading publisher refused to publish Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair because of its blatant eroticism. When the collection was eventually published, many readers were scandalized by the sexually explicit imagery. Political and literary censorship has existed in...

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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

Readers responded positively to Neruda’s innovative, simple, direct language and sparse imagery in “Tonight I Can Write.” In her book on Neruda, Agosin writes that the poem, along with others in the collection, “marks a clear transition from the era of Spanish-American modernism to that of surrealism, with its often disconnected images and metaphors, which will dominate Neruda’s next phase.” The poem does not contain a regular meter. Neruda suppresses rhyme but attains rhythm through a mixture of consonance and assonance. Often one line will appear by itself, calling attention to content over form. Duran and Safir in their book, Earth Tones: The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, determine “Tonight I Can Write” to be a “constructive” poem, in that it is “organized around experiences in which real human beings, Neruda himself and the women he loved, provide a stabilizing platform upon which [the poem] is built.”

Neruda uses nature imagery in “Tonight I Can Write” when he describes his lost love and their relationship. When the speaker describes the “endless sky” and his love’s “infinite eyes,” he suggests that their relationship achieved a cosmic level. Neruda also uses images of nature to illustrate the speaker’s state of mind. When he writes of the stars that are “blue and shiver in the distance” he suggests the distance that has formed between the lovers and the coldness...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Agosin, Marjorie, “Chapter 2: Love Poetry,” in Twaynes World Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall Co., 1999.

———, Pablo Neruda, translated by Lorraine Roses, Twayne Publishers, 1986.

Clemens, Robert, Review in Saturday Review, July 9, 1966.

de Costa, René, “Pablo Neruda: Overview,” in Reference Guide to World Literature, 2d ed., edited by Lesley Henderson, St. James Press, 1995.

Duran, Manuel, and Margery Safir, Earth Tones: The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, Indiana University Press, 1981.

Neruda, Pablo, Memoirs, translated by Hardie St. Martin, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.


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Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

  • 1924: The first airplanes to circle the globe arrive in California after flying 30,000 miles in five months.

    1996: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announces that Mars may have supported life-forms. The report cites evidence gained from an analysis of a meteorite found in Antarctica in 1984.

1924: The United States Congress passes the Johnson-Reed Act, which removes restrictions on immigration from Canada and Latin America. As a result, by the end of the year, immigration numbers from these areas break previous records.1996: Mexico and the United States sign several pacts including the Migrants’ Rights pact, which grants rights to legal and illegal Mexicans in the United States.

1924: The United States Congress recognizes Native Americans as U.S. citizens.1996: The South African government makes its final transition from apartheid to democracy with the adoption of a new constitution. President F. W. de Klerk resigns.

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Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Take a walk in a natural setting: the woods, the beach, a park. Write a poem about what you see. Does your mood in any way affect your descriptions?

Research theories of remembering and forgetting. How does your research relate to the speaker in “Tonight I Can Write” ?

Compare and contrast the statements on despair in W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” and Neruda’s “Song of Despair.” How does the style in each reflect the theme?

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Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

All of the poems in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair were released on cassette by Viking Penguin in 1996.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” (The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1929) focuses on the acceptance of grief.

“Funeral Blues” by W. H. Auden, published in 1940 in his Another Time, presents a portrait of the suffering experienced after the death of a loved one.

“The Song of Despair” is another poem by Neruda, published with “Tonight I Can Write” in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, that expresses the speakers memories of a past relationship and pain over its dissolution.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” in 1923. In this poem, published in her Collected Poems that same year, the speaker laments the loss of past lovers and the resulting state of emptiness.

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