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Pablo Neruda, the Chronicler of All Things Author(s): Jaime Alazraki Source: Books Abroad, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Winter, 1972), pp. 49-54 Published by: Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma Stable URL: . Accessed: 04/03/2011 05:02
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Commentaries Pablo Neruda, the Chronicler of all Things

By JAIME ALAZRAKI those familiar with Pablo Neruda's work and his literary career the recent award of the Nobel Prize for literature comes as no surprise. For nearly twenty years his name has been among the candidates considered by the Swedish Academy for the coveted prize. Any student of Latin American literature knows that if one were to choose a poet who best echoed the hopes and struggles of a whole continent, this poet would undoubtedly be Pablo Neruda. What is not so self-evident, however, is the fact that Neruda's work has been a sort of seismograph through which one could learn what was happening not only in the poetry of Latin America but also in contemporarypoetry at large. If with Ruben Dario and the modernist poets Latin America shapes a poetic language of its own, with Neruda and the poets of his generation that poetic language reaches adulthood. Neruda himself has said, referring to Dario: "Without him we would not speak our own tongue, that is, without him we would still be talking a hardened, pasteboard,tasteless language" (Viajes). It is not surprising, therefore, to find in Neruda's first published book- Crepusculario (Twilight Book, 1923)- clear imprints of Dario's dazzling brilliance "which so radically modified the Spanish language." With the publication of Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and One Song of Despair) one year later, Neruda gave expression to a new poetic mood. Love is no longer approachedas in modernism by way of mythological gods and godesses, nymphs and satyrs, Sirens and Tritons. In a much more straightforward fashion, Neruda takes the reader to the scene where love is being made and describes, uninhibitedly, a true feast of the senses, at times splashed with suggestive birds, wild flowers, woods, cherries, and chestnuts reminiscent of Tagore's poem which the young poet was then reading. With this brief collection Neruda won an early popularity that he has enjoyed ever since and his name became a myth among youngsters and lovers. From this openly romantic tone, he moved to a totally different form. At approximately the same time the first Surrealist Manifesto appeared, Neruda wrote a long poem- Tentativa del hombre infinite (Venture of Infinite Man) - published in 1925, which bears all the traits of surrealist theory. The paradox can be explained if one remembers that Neruda was then reading the French romantic and symbolist poets who were later to become the major sources of many surrealist innovations and techniques. The little book was ignored (even today it has remained as one of



his least studied works), but for Neruda it paved the road to the poetry of Residencia en la tierra (Residence on Earth), one of his finest achievements. The two volumes of Residencia contain poems written between 1925 and 1935. Unlike most surrealistpoets of that period Neruda did not attempt to prove any theory or illustrate any manifesto. He sought more effective means to express his ferocious loneliness and an altogether bitter and absurd view of life; he found some of those means in surrealism. He did not have any commitment to surrealism or any other literary school. His only commitment was to his world of experience and feeling and he put it in blunt words the year he published Tentativa: "Yo tengo un concepto dramatico de la vida, y romantico; no me correspondelo que no llega profundamente a mi sensibilidad."The result was a poetry in which form and experience fully integrate, bringing forth a poetic equilibrium one misses in much of the deliberate surrealist poetry. Neruda was not then, and has never been, interested in experimenting with form for its own sake. Form was to him, as it has always been to poets in all ages, the flesh through which experience is born in the lines of a text. It was this approachto literaturewhich, perhaps,preservedthe poetry of Residencia from a sterile drabness one often finds in surrealist poetry. It is also his response to human sensibilities, no matter how gloomy they may be in the poems of Residencia, that presumably moved one critic to state that they are "the greatest surrealist poems yet written in a western language." One may agree with such a verdict, but the fact remains that while a great deal of surrealistpoetry has aged and become merely objects of literary curiosity, the poems of Residencia have kept an urgency which is the hallmark of poetry at its best. Miguel Hernandez- a Spanish poet of Neruda's generation- wrote after his reading of Residencia: "I must communicate the enthusiasm that stirs me since I have read Residencia en la tierra. I feel like throwing handfuls of sand in my eyes, like getting my fingers caught in the doors, like climbing to the top of the tough" est and tallest pine A great deal of poetry included in Residencia was written while Neruda lived isolated from his people and his language in countries such as Burma, Java, Singapore, and Ceylon as the consul of Chile from 1927 to 1932. In 1934 he was appointed to the same consular post in Barcelona, and the year after in Madrid. It was during those years in Spain, and particularly after the Civil war broke out, that the so-called "poetic conversion" of Neruda took place. With Espana en el corazon (Spain in the Heart, 1937) the seemingly hermetic texture of his poetry yielded to a quasi-conversational language with which the poet explained the motives of his "conversion."In a poem titled "Explico algunas cosas" (Explaining a Few Things), Neruda wrote that in an agonizing Spain flooded by gunpowder and blood, burned and murdered, sacked and broken there was no place for exquisite poetry: Preguntareis por que su poesia no nos habladel sueno,de las hojas, de los grandesvolcanesde su paisnatal? Venid a ver la sangrepor las calles, venid a ver la sangrepor las calles, venid a ver la sangre por las calles!



The truth is that Neruda's poetry was never exquisite. In fact he himself has coined the concept of "impure poetry" (as opposed to the French idea of "pure poetry"), which best defines his own poetic credo. Before and after the "conversion"Neruda's poetry was and remained open to human experience. Before, it aired much of his own solitude and anguish, but at the same time it revealed what was throbbing deep in the heart of modern man. Afterward, his poetry moved from the emotions of the inner ego to the emotions of the outer world. Neruda could no longer see himself detached from the conflicts and problems of his time. When he took sides with the Loyalists, he did so shocked by the bloody violence of the war rather than coldly convinced by political arguments. What happened to him happened to a great number of well established poets and writers from many parts of the world. In Neruda it produced a drastic turn in the themes of his poetry and the turn itself became a favorite motif. He treated it again and again in order to present and justify his new poetic faith. In 1942, while he was in Mexico as the consul of Chile, he wrote a poem of solidarity with the defense of Stalingrad. When the poetic value of the poem was questioned, Neruda answered by writing a new poem- "Nuevo canto de amor a Stalingrado"as well as his own "committed"poetry: "Yo escribi sobreel tiempo y sobre el agua / describi el luto y su metal morado, / yo escribi sobre el cielo y la manzana, / ahora escribo sobre Stalingrado."The long poem is a sort of "mea culpa" for his past individualistic and introvertedpoetry, but at the same time it is an apology for his new poetic creed. Neruda chose the same meter (hendecasyllable) and the same rhyme (abab) chosen by his master Ruben Dario in 1905 to explain a similar poetic turn in the poem "Yo soy aquel que ayer no mas decia . . . ." The two poems came to represent a watershed in the work of both poets. After returning to Chile in October of 1937, Neruda actively engaged in the political life of his country and in 1945he was elected senator for Tarapaca and Antofagasta. Between 1940and 1950,alternating with his diplomatic and political activities, he completed his most ambitious work- Canto general. Somebody has called the book "the Bible of the Americas" because it traces a poetic account of the continent's history since its origins, through pre-Columbian times and the Spanish conquest up to the most recent events. One feels tempted to call it an epic poem, but it is not. The very difficulty in categorizing the book indicates that Neruda has achieved in it a form without counterpartin Western poetry. It is comprised of fifteen sections which depict a gigantic poetic mural of the Americas. The first edition, in fact, published in Mexico in 1950,includes two platesof mini-muralsspeciallydesigned for the book by the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and Alfaro Siqueiros. The first section is the story of the continent's genesis : its vegetation, its birds and beasts, its rivers and minerals, its people. The second is devoted to Macchu Picchu as the grandest monument in all preColumbian America, as the most majestic witness of an untold past. Yet in these two, as in other sections, Neruda is not merely chronicling historical events. The poet is always present throughout the book not only because he describes those events, interpreting them according to a definite outlook on history, but also because the epic of the continent intertwines with his own epic. Thus he presents Macchu Picchu as the place where the continent on one hand, and the poet on the other, become fully aware of their plight. In parts III, IV and V of "Alturas de Macchu Picchu," for example,



Neruda tells the story of his constant intercourse with death. In parts VI and VII he recounts his climbing to Macchu Picchu- which truly occured in October of 1943* where he discovers that the "alto arrecife de la aurora humana" is also inhabited by death. After exalting the city's magnificence by means of a string of eighty-six splendid metaphors in poem IX, X is dedicated to indict those who built the city at the expense of the people: "Macchu Picchu, pusiste / piedra en la piedra, y en la base, harapo? / Carbon sobre carbon, y en el fondo la lagrima? / Fuego en el oro, y en el, temblando el rojo / goteron de la sangre? / Devuelveme el esclavo que enterraste!"Here, as in the rest of the poem, the destiny of Macchu Picchu can be understood as the destiny of the entire continent. The last poem of this section is an appeal for hope and an exhortation to be reborn from those same ashes of tatters, tears, and blood in which primeval America was buried. Neruda has managed to coalesce his own personal search ("y, como un ciego, regrese al jazmin de la gastada primaverahumana") with the expectationsof a whole continent: "Piedraen la piedra, el hombre, donde estuvo?/ Aire en el aire, el hombre, donde estuvo?/ Tiempo en el tiempo, el hombre, donde estuvo?" He further manages to do the same with the book as a whole. Paralleling the history of the continent describedthroughout the entire book, the last section of Canto general is devoted to the story of the poet's life. By bringing together his own odyssey and the drama of the continent, Neruda has simultaneously given to Canto general the quality of a lyric and an epic poem. The lives of conquistadores,martyrs, heroes, and just plain people recover a refreshing actuality because they become part of the poet's fate and, conversely, the life of the poet gains a new depth because in his search one recognizes the continent's struggles. Canto general is, thus, the song of a continent as much as it is Neruda's own song. Since Neruda joined the Communist party in 1945,much of his poetry has become heavily politicized. Neruda himself calls it "poesia politica" and in 1953 he published a two-volume anthology {Poesia politica) of this type of poetry. He believes that with this poetry he fulfills one of his "deberesde poeta" (duties of a militant poet). The trouble is that today's politics changes so fast all over the world that the man who is today glorified as a hero could tomorrow become an execrabletyrant. These changes have often been an embarrassment to Neruda's "poesia politica." In Las uvas y el viento (The Grapes and the Wind, 1954), for example, Stalin is portrayedas a beacon of peace sending doves to the most distant peoples on earth ("En su muerte"); fifteen years later, in Fin de mundo (1969), Stalin's lamblike mustache turned into a jaguar's threatening whiskers ("El culto, II"). Mao Tse-tung goes through a similar transmutation. In spite of his "deberesde poeta" Neruda continued to write good poetry. The same year that he published Las uvas y el viento, his first volume of Odas elementales (Elemental Odes) appeared. Here he inaugurated a new poetic form with which he celebrated (or, at times, execrated) things and beings of the elemental world: a pair of socks, a tomato, the dictionary, a lizard, laziness, a bicycle, an orange, a rooster, a saw, numbers, fire, the skull, etc. Neruda rediscovered in these objects and creatures
#After climbing Macchu Picchu Neruda stated that it was there that "the idea of an American general Canto had begun to grow. Before, I had the idea of a general Canto of Chile, as a chronicle. Now I was seeing America as a whole from the heights of Macchu Picchu."



from daily life an essential beauty that use and routine seemed to have worn out. If poetry is a form of rediscovering or rather reinventing reality, these odes epitomize that understanding of poetry. Neruda turns here to forgotten things and in their material substance he finds a hidden soul poets have always sought. He also finds a transparentlanguage which may have been motivated by his efforts to make poetry "utilitaria y util, como metal o harina,/ dispuesta a ser arado,/ herramienta,/ pan y vino, . . ." ("Oda a la poesia")- hence the frequent moralizing and didactic overtones of the odes- , but which could only have been achieved by the consummate and ripe poet Neruda was when he wrote them. The lyric clarity he reached in the "elemental odes" is a point of arrival in his poetic development. Neruda produced four full volumes of these odes before he realized that the svelte and agile odes were growing fat and showing signs of exhaustion. While Neruda was still writing "elemental odes," he published Estravagario (Book of Vagaries, 1958), a new form of poetry in which the militant poet gives way to a poet perplexed and amused by the bizarre paradoxesof his own personal life. The tone is sardonic: ? Paraque me caseen Batavia sin castillo, Fui caballero pasajero, improcedente personasin ropay sin oro, idiotapuroy errante Por que vivi en Rangoonde Birmania la capitalexcrementicia dolores? de mis navegantes Por que, por que tantoscaminos, tantasciudadeshostiles? ? Que saquede tantosmercados Cual es la florque yo buscaba? Por que me movi de mi silla y me vesti de tempestuoso? ("Itinerarios") Combining irony and jest, Neruda has a good laugh at people and events that, earlier, would have awakened rage and triggered deprecation.There are no facile answers to the oddities of life and Neruda acknowledges this: "Nadie lo sabe ni lo ignora." In spite of his commitment to clarity in his early "elementalodes" (see, for example, "Oda a la claridad"),Neruda confesses to himself towards the end of Estravagariothat "toda claridad es oscura" ("Testamento de otofio"). Approaching the autumn of his life, he has come to terms with a notion that poets seemed to have accepted since Baudelaire, merely the idea that the "essential obscurity of poetry is due to the fact that it is the history of a soul and that it seeks to comply with the mystery of that soul; but this obscurity is luminous . . . ," in Jean Royere's words. Without deserting his "deberesde poeta" Neruda vindicates that "essential obscurity" with which poetry attempts to touch light. In the last poem of Plenos poderes (Full Powers, 1962) Neruda closes the book with this lapidary verse: "A plena luz camino por la sombra."



But Neruda is an unpredictable poet. He can write a book of sonnets {Cien sonetos de amor, 1960), a book on the stones of Chile {Las piedras de Chile, 1960), a five-volume autobiography in verse {Memorial de Isla Negra, 1964), a fable which reenactsthe eternal history of love {La espada encendida, 1970), and, at the same time, poems which dig deep into "the mysteries of the human soul," poems on the birds, trees, and rivers of Chile, poems on Cuba and Vietnam, poems on sex and bombs, poems on roses and silences. This exuberance is reminiscent of Walt Whitman's, and Neruda himself has provided a suitable explanation: "Poetry in South America is a different matter altogether. You see, there are in our countries rivers which have no names, trees which nobody knows, and birds which nobody has described .... Our duty, then, as we understand it, is to express what is unheard of. Everything has been painted in Europe, everything has been sung in Europe. But not in America. In that sense, Whitman was a great teacher. Because what is Whitman? He was not only intensely concious, but he was open-eyed! He had tremendous eyes to see everything he taught us to see things. He was our poet." Traces of Whitman's influence on the work of Neruda are not hard to find. In the section "I Wish the Wood-cutter Would Wake Up" of Canto general he significantly invokes Walt Whitman's voice: "Dame tu voz y el peso de tu pecho enterrado/ Walt Whitman, y las graves/ raices de tu rostro/ para cantar estas reconstrucciones."But what is even more significant is the fact that Neruda has defined Whitman in the same terms he now defines himself. In a poem from La barcarola (1967) he wrote: "Pablo Neruda, el cronista de todas las cosas" (Pablo Neruda, the chronicler of all things). University of California,San Diego

Pablo Neruda in Books Abroad (1929-72)

1. Crepusculario(Santiago de Chile. Renacimiento. 1926), reviewed by Willis Knapp Jones in BA 3:1, p. 42. 2. Maurice Halperin, "Pablo Neruda in Mexico" in BA 15:2, pp. 164-68. 3. With Carlos Pellicer and Jorge CarreraAndrade. 3 Spanish American Poets. Lloyd Mallan, Mary and C. V. Wicker, & Joseph Leonard Grucci, trs. (Albuquerque. Sage Books. 1942), reviewed by Byron Chew in BA 17:4, p. 386. 4. Residence on Earth. Selected Poems. Angel Flores, tr. (New York. New Directions. 1946), reviewed by Roy Temple House in BA 22:1, p. 92. 5. Todo el amor. (Santiago de Chile. Nascimento. 1953), reviewed by Manuel H. Guerra in BA 30:2, p. 176. 6. Viajes. (Santiago de Chile. Nascimento. 1955), reviewed by Albert Guerard, Sr. in BA 31:2, pp. 148-49.