The Poetry of Pablo Neruda

Edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

996 pages, 2003




Poetry Like Picasso

Reviewed by Daniel Chouinard


No living poet is as famous today as Pablo Neruda was in his lifetime. He was a world figure, as famous as Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot, but with the added cachet in some circles of being a politically active man of the left. His poetry exerted an enormous influence throughout Latin America, and he remains beloved in his native Chile. We think we know him, with his sensuous songs of love, his tender odes to the sea, his melancholy lyrics of loss, and his fiery political statements. But despite its popularity in this country, his work appeared here only in slim volumes or truncated collections which provided mere snapshots of a larger, complicated life. Now, 30 years after his death, the most comprehensive collection of Neruda's poetry is available in English. It brings us not only more of the poetry we know, but also previously unavailable material. We can appreciate his amazing productivity and his willingness to experiment. We can follow his themes through the years, and trace changes in his thinking. At close to 1000 pages it shows us, like a crowded mural by Diego Rivera, a complete life.

The son of a railway engineer, Neruda wrote poetry from an early age and won prizes as a teenager. His first two books, self published and rather traditional, brought little attention from the public, although they were well-crafted and polished. His third, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924), was considered unpublishable because of its frank celebration of sex. Only the recommendation of one of Chile's most respected writers convinced a publisher to take it on.

Body of woman, white hills, white thighs,

you look like the world in your posture of surrender.

My savage peasant body digs through you

and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.

(From "Song I")

It caused a sensation, and made him famous at 20.

The frank eroticism brought attention, but the book's technical merits and emotional intimacy made it endure. Rimbaud and Baudelaire were strong influences, but Neruda's voice rang out clear. His striking images capture the ecstasies and torments of young love. Looking back, we can see the melancholy that followed him throughout his life, and the familiar themes, such as sex as a way to unite with the earth, and love as a salvation from isolation. Twenty Poems remains his most beloved book; its sales reached one million in 1961.

Famous, but poor, he entered avant-garde literary circles in Santiago, where he could be easily identified on the streets by his cape and wide-brimmed hat -- the very image of the poet.

Seeking adventure, Neruda wangled an Honorary Consulship in Rangoon. Surrounded by foreign languages and an alien culture, without a literary community, he was lonely and disoriented, there, and at his later postings in Asia. "I learned what true loneliness was," he wrote. "Solitude, in this case, was not a formula for building up a writing mood but something as hard as a prison wall; you could smash your head against the wall and nobody came, no matter how you screamed or wept."

Neruda turned inward. His poems from this time, which were published as Residence on Earth (1933), are pessimistic, filled with themes of alienation and isolation, haunted by death. They contain the nascent existentialism of that era. One can hear the inner dialogue of a man who is being driven deep within himself by a chaotic and absurd world. Nature is destructive, sex is depersonalized and futile. The objects of mankind disgust him.

I happen to be tired of being a man.

I happen to enter tailorshops and moviehouses

withered, impenetrable, like a felt swan

navigating in a water of sources and ashes.

The smell of barbershops makes me wail.

I want only a respite of stones or wool,

I want only not to see establishments or gardens,

or merchandise, or eyeglasses, or elevators.

I happen to be tired of my feet and my nails

and my hair and my shadow.

I happen to be tired of being a man.

(From "Walking Around")

With the publication of Residence his name began to be known internationally, especially in the Spanish-speaking world.

Salvation came in 1934, when he was posted to Spain. Welcomed by the literary community, surrounded by the Spanish language, Neruda was once again in his element. However, his happiness was not to last. In 1936 General Franco launched the civil war. Neruda watched the bombardment of Madrid, and lost his friend, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, to Nationalist assassins. Politically inactive before the war, Neruda committed himself to the Republican cause in the war's first months. He worked so strenuously for the Republic that Chile, officially neutral in the conflict, removed him from Spain.

Neruda wanted to put his gifts at the service of his politics. No longer would he scrutinize his private experiences of life's bitterness. The cause needed stirring and optimistic exhortations to fight. A change in politics demanded a change in style. His poems would be addressed to the masses, and therefore had to be simple and direct.

Madrid, alone and solemn, July surprised you with your joy

of humble honeycomb: bright was your street,

bright was your dream.

A black vomit

of generals, a wave

of rabid cassocks

poured between your knees

their swampy waters, their rivers of spittle.

(From "Madrid, 1936")

Many of his poems about Spain are moving, whether they are elegies or fierce attacks, but many are propaganda pieces that have lost any power they may have had.

Neruda had called himself an anarchist since adolescence. Spain changed him, and in 1945 he declared himself a militant Communist. He publicly denounced his earlier, personal poetry. In 1948 Chile's President González Videla banned the Communist Party and ordered the arrest of Neruda. The poet who had represented Chile abroad for over a decade went into hiding in his own country, moving from house to house. Choosing exile, he left Chile on horseback. Staying off the trails, he and his companions made the difficult journey through forests and rough terrain, up into the snowy Andes, into Argentina and freedom.

Canto general (1950) is a history of Latin America done in epic poetry, at times lyrical, at times plain spoken. It moves from prehistory through the Spanish Conquest, the revolutions and tyrants, into the 20th century. Much of it is polemical. The combination of plain language and history filtered through ideology is soporific, and the reader longs for some good old decadent Symbolism or Surrealism to come to the rescue. But at times the poem does have a grand sweep, and a cumulative power that makes it one of his outstanding works.

Before the wig and the dress coat

there were rivers, arterial rivers:

there were cordilleras, jagged waves where

the condor and the snow seemed immutable:

there was dampness and dense growth, the thunder

as yet unnamed, the planetary pampas.

Man was dust, earthen vase, an eyelid

of tremulous loam, the shape of clay --

he was Carib jug, Chibcha stone,

imperial cup of Araucanian silica.

Tender and bloody was he, but on the grip

of his weapon of moist flint,

the initials of the earth were


(From "Amor America, 1400")

Chile issued an amnesty for Neruda in 1950. Upon his return, his poetry changed once again. The epic vision of Canto general was replaced by odes to the plainest objects of daily life: a bicycle, an apple, a pair of socks, once again in the plain style meant for the proletariat. (He once said that the greatest poet is the local baker.) Some of it is delightful:








what a marvel

to pronounce these plosive


and further on,



unfilled, awaiting ambrosia or oil

and others,


capsicum, caption, capture,

comparison, capricorn,


as slippery as smooth grapes,

words exploding in the light

like dormant seeds waiting

in the vaults of vocabulary,

alive again and giving life:

once again the heart distills them.

(From "Ode to the Dictionary")

Unlike Robert Frost, who married simple phrases to sophisticated thinking, Neruda combined simple phrases with simple ideas, and this airy style, although lovely, can become tedious in large quantities. Readers responded with enthusiasm however, and Neruda published four volumes of odes during the 1950s.

In his last 20 years he produced an astonishing amount of work, much of it love poetry inspired by his passion for his third wife, Matilde Urrutia (his first two marriages ended in divorce). This collection allows us to follow the evolution of his romantic sensibility over five decades. Whereas the young poet described an adolescent, tremulous experience of romance, the older poet possesses a more mature love. In The Captain's Verses (1952), One Hundred Love Sonnets (1959) and Barcarole (1967), happiness is not fleeting, but sustained. He appreciates, without fear of loss, the shared love and sensuality that joins him to the earth and gives meaning to the world.

Today the tempestuous sea

lifted us in a kiss

so high that we trembled

in the flash of lightning

and, tied together, descended

and submerged without unraveling.

Today our bodies became immense,

they grew up to the edge of the world

and rolled melting themselves

into one single drop

of wax or meteor.

A new door opened between you and me

and someone, still without a face,

was waiting for us there.

(From "September 8" in The Captain's Verses)

In these years, Neruda wrote poignantly of aging and of his past. The theme of alienation, self-censored in the 1940s, returned. He also wrote of his estrangement from people. The poet is by nature separate from others, he felt. Criticism of his political poetry and his wealth stung, and further alienated him. At times he felt embarrassed to be a poet surrounded by people who make useful things. "I feel the world never belonged to me ... I was a child of the moon."

But in his poems from the 1950s and 60s, solitude is no longer unbearable. He has a lovely wife, and a beach house where he draws solace from the sea. Death waits on the horizon, but only as the final, long-sought union with nature. These poems have an atmosphere of stillness and contemplation, especially in contrast to the turbulence of his youth. It is as if he is settling into himself as just a man, not a famous poet.

In 1970 Neruda was diagnosed with cancer, which surgeries failed to remove entirely. The last three years of his life were marked by official honors, the Nobel Prize, and an Ambassadorship to Paris, but also by declining health, which isolated him from public life and eventually confined him to his bed. Pinochet's coup d'etat on September 11, 1973 sent his health into sharp decline, and Neruda died 12 days later.

Time has revealed a dark side to Neruda's work. Some of his overtly political poems express a bloodthirsty desire for vengeance. Some readers may not appreciate the un-feminist tone to his poems. Women are often symbolic vehicles for the poet's salvation and self-discovery. But a large quantity of great work overshadows these drawbacks. There is so much good material that an editor must make difficult choices. Ilan Stavans has done a Herculean job, combing through all previous translations, occasionally presenting an alternate one, often including the original Spanish. In addition, he invited several prominent poets to contribute new translations. But it is hard to justify the expense of nine pages for an anti-Nixon tract when an early book, Venture of the Infinite Man (1924), whose importance Neruda always stressed, is omitted.

In his willingness to experiment and change styles repeatedly, and in the way in which these changes released a flood of new work, Neruda resembled no one so much as Picasso. Contrary to what he believed, the more personal he wrote, the more people he reached. He considered himself primarily a love poet. Readers will be reaffirming that assessment for some time to come. | October 2003


Daniel Chouinard lives in San Francisco and is working on a novel.