Pablo Neruda began his career as an apolitical love poet and ended it as an outspoken advocate for engaged art and the Communist cause. With an analysis of crucial points in his body of work and a glance at his three houses, now all turned to museums, Becker discusses the trajectory of the Chilean poet's career and how it was influenced by his increasingly passionate political beliefs
In La Chascona, Pablo Neruda’s house in Santiago, there is a well-known secret passageway he once used, the tour guides say, “to escape the boring people.” The windows in the dining room are round and the ceiling is low. Though Neruda was of average height and more-than-average girth, the doorways are tiny. Neruda insisted on the small dimensions because he wanted his home to feel like a ship. A nautical house suited him better than a real boat. Because he was afraid of the ocean, he said he was a “sailor on land.”
Neruda’s house at Isla Negra on the coast of Chile was his third, final and favorite. Now it is the resting place for both Neruda’s body and his best collections. African and Polynesian masks line the walls of the hallway, ship figureheads hang about the living room, and a communion-bread machine sits conspicuously in the study. Colored piano-leg supporters cover the living-room table. In the yard, there’s a boat that never went into the ocean. His seashells fill up a whole room; cases of pipes sit un-smoked. Despite the vast evidence to the contrary, Neruda insisted he was no coleccionista. He was not a collector—he was a lover of things, cosas—he was a cosista.
Thus the Chilean poet’s houses tell his story like architectural Memorias. As well as a cosista (today translated as a “thinger” at La Chascona), Neruda was a poet, a public servant, a nationalist and a Communist. These various roles often came into conflict and more often than not make no sense in retrospective juxtaposition. His poetry at times skews propagandistic and, for a comrade devoted to exposing the plight of the workingman, his collections and three beautiful pieces of real estate are certainly more bourgeois than proletarian. But of all the overlapping and competing facets of his life, amidst all the contradictions and the hypocrisies, Neruda was always a poet first, and despite his inherent contradictions, his belief in the beauty of life and words always comes through, even in his most political work.
Most Chileans have an opinion about the man who first taught a generation of Spanish speakers about love with his Veinte Poemas de Amor y un Canción Desesperada and then later became the self-appointed spokesperson for the American continent in the Communism-infused political song Canto General (in which he writes “I felt Chilean, Peruvian, American”1). To some, Neruda was a national bard, a poetic idol. To others, he was a Machiavellian figure, power-hungry and conniving, using a false love for el pueblo, the people, to gain political and artistic clout and satisfy his affinity for fine houses, food and drink. Still others see him as gifted but misguided, a talented poet who lost his way following Stalin. US poet Mark Strand, who has translated Neruda, put it less ambivalently: “Neruda was a genius as a poet, but not smart as a man. Just read his memoirs—dumb as can be.”2 No matter one’s opinion, even forty-five years after his death, the figure of Pablo Neruda continues to have a strong presence in Chile and in poetry today, politically and artistically. And the question for the critic persists, too: When Neruda allowed politics to enter his art, how did his art change? What, if anything, did Neruda sacrifice by politicizing his art?
Pablo Neruda was born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in southern Chile in 1904. He moved to Santiago at age 17 and at age 23 was sent as a consul to Rangoon and then Burma.3 In 1934, he moved to Madrid and encountered the “Generation of ’27,” the politicized avant-garde poets who defended the Republican cause against fascism in the tense times before and during the Spanish Civil War.4 It was there that Neruda emerged politically, on the side of the Republicans. Deeply affected by the 1936 murder of his friend, Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, his political engagement increased dramatically—though it was not until over ten years later that he officially joined the Communist party.
In a speech about Lorca on January 21, 1937, Neruda foreshadows the politicization of his later work: “I am not a political man, nor have I ever taken part in political contention, but my words, which many have wished to be neutral, have been colored by passion.”5 Neruda’s leftist politics would highly influence his perception of his own poetic calling, and the nature of that “coloring by passion.” His theory of “poetry like bread” is as far from the idea of art pour l’art as possible. Art for art’s sake alone, in Neruda’s worldview, is a bourgeois waste of time. Art should be functional, wholesome, nourishing, accessible to the masses, and, for Neruda mid-career, political, too.
Yet, as mentioned above, Neruda did not initially intend his artistic career to become intertwined with political engagement. In fact, in his youth he professed an apoliticism; thus one can track the trajectory of his poetic work at his various levels of involvement with the Communist Party. In his early days as an impoverished young poet in Santiago, Neruda still lacked affiliation with a formal political party, though he was a member of the anarchist-leaning Student Federation. His work reflects this distrust of engagement. Crepusculario and Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Canción Desesperada, his first two published works,exhibit a melancholic tone and project an inward-looking authorial persona, contrasting greatly with the fervent optimism and expansive vision of the later Canto General. Except for Crepusculario’s dedication to Juan Gandulfo, an anarchist who spoke at the Student Federation’s headquarters, there is a striking absence of politics, and a complete absence of party engagement, in Neruda’s early work.6
His first major work after his time as a consul in Asia (Residencia en la Tierra, written between 1925 and 1935) contains oblique imagery, difficult metaphors and a deep sense of melancholy. It is famous for the depressing line from the poem “Walking Around,” quoted often by Mario Ruoppolo in the Neruda-based movie Il Postino: “It just so happens that I am tired of being a man.”7 Neruda later disdained this darker, less accessible work, even calling it harmful. Independent from his later post-Spanish Civil War political shift, Neruda had an even more tangible reason to worry about the power of his work: in 1949 he heard the news that a student had committed suicide while reading Residencia en la Tierra under a tree.8
As of 1933, Neruda still denigrated overtly political art. In a letter to Héctor Eandi on the 17th of February, he wrote: “I hate proletarian, proletarianising art. In any period, systematic art can tempt only the lesser artist… I continue to write about dreams.”9 But Neruda’s time in Spain during the Civil War, where he witnessed the results of fascist thinking and the murder of a good friend, altered this stance. In a 1939 introduction to his 1934 poem written in Spain, “Las Furias y Las Penas” [“Furies and Sufferings”] from Tercera Residencia, Neruda writes:
Ay! si con sólo una gota de poesía o de amor pudiéramos aplacar la ira del mundo, pero eso sólo lo pueden la lucha y el corazón resuelto. […] El mundo ha cambiado y mi poesía ha cambiado. Una gota de sangre caída en estas líneas quedará viviendo sobre ellas, indeleble como el amor.10
Here Neruda self-consciously marks a turning point in his work. He attributes it to the abuses he has seen around him, yet still seems to waver (“only the struggle and the daring heart are capable") and doubt poetry’s political utility in the context of such a situation. Even so, he feels his work must change, and he will never write anything like the surrealist lines of Residencia en la Tierra again.
In the same book as the above excerpt, readers also find the poem “Explico Algunas Cosas,” (I’m Explaining a Few Things), in which Neruda invokes the name of his murdered friend García Lorca and announces this shift: “Preguntaréis: Y dónde están las lilas? / Y la metafísica cubierta de amapolas?”11 (“You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs? / and the poppy-petaled metaphysics?” trans. Nathaniel Tarn.) The poem begins with this question, anticipating confusion at the love poet’s newly politicized tone. He relegates his former love poetry and surrealism to “metaphysics,” disconnected from anything tangible, inconsequential like flowers. And instead of progressing with an answer to the question, Neruda develops an increasingly violent image of war-torn Spain, and ends not with an insight but with a command:
Venid a ver la sangre por las calles.
Venid a ver
la sangre por las calles,
venid a ver la sangre
por las calles!12
The streets are covered by blood like the gota de sangre he said had fallen on his lines in Tercera Residencia, and here Neruda’s poetry begins to shift around the axis of that passionate image.
In July 8, 1945, Neruda publicly joined the Communist Party at Caupolicán Arena in Santiago, Chile, reading the poem “A mi partido” to a crowd of supporters. With that announcement, he officially politicized his life, and he made it clear that he would politicize and “proletarianize” his art as well. The September after joining the party, Neruda began writing his Alturas. During this era, the same Neruda who previously disdained politicizing art now stood for the very opposite viewpoint:
Magic and craft are the two permanent wings of art, but I believe that it is those who distance themselves from the bonfire on which culture is burning, instead of rescuing it (even if it means burning one’s own hands), who are traitors to poetry.13
And for an artist in Neruda’s time that bonfire, certainly, was the advent of fascism and Cold War tension. Neruda first felt the tension in Spain during the Spanish Civil War as artists aligned themselves, either with fascism (Salvador Dalí) or Republicanism (Pablo Picasso, Federico García Lorca, Neruda), and felt it now in the breakdown of the tripolar party system in Chile and emerging animosity between the political left and right.
It is important to note, that Neruda is far too complicated an artist to provide readers with any clear-cut division between his political and apolitical work (despite the attempts of many anthologists, especially in the English translations.) His later work is overtly politicized, but still contains elements of the surrealism and love poetry of his past. Similarly, his early work consistently meditates on a search for connection to something larger than the individual in a way that foreshadows his later political engagement. Yet, Canto General does represent a turning point in Neruda’s artistic life: he moves toward completely open and outspoken politicization. The writing of the Canto’s section Las Alturas de Macchu Picchu14 coincides directly with Neruda’s becoming an official Communist party member. Considered by some to be his consummate work and by others considered his worst, the bulk of Canto General was written at a point of intense party involvement—and the height of the party’s influence on his life, in a very practical way. Exiled by President Gabriel González Videla, for whom he had campaigned as jefe de propaganda, chief of propaganda, Neruda had fled from Chile by horseback over the Andes Mountains in 1948.15 Canto General was published January 28, 1950, in Mexico.
The Canto spans from pre-conquistador native history to modern times, telling the history of the entire continent. As Robert Pring-Mill notes in his anthology, it is here Neruda becomes “a comprehensively ‘Latin American’ poet, conscious of a continental mission.”16 In the Canto, Neruda moves forcefully in this large scale, personifying countries and moving from sweeping epochal descriptions to acute accusations of both conquistadores and modern businessmen. Argentina is “plundered by rifle butt,” Paraguay is bound by “torture and mud,” Chile has “sowed the exiled seeds[.]”17 Even regions become embodiments in Neruda’s grandiosities: the speaker calls “Central America—trampled by owls, / lubricated by acid sweat—” to consider him its “ship’s fiber,” bearing its sense and aroma onward.18 In that same section, “The Sand Betrayed,” Neruda skims Latin American history from the early 1800s to the mid-1900s, and implicates the United Fruit Company equally with the Spanish invaders:
Among the bloodthirsty flies
the Fruit Co. disembarks,
ravaging coffee and fruits
for its ships that spirit away
our submerged lands’ treasure
like serving trays.19
Alongside the acute political attacks, Neruda also includes an invective against his former surrealist style, and against other poets who continue to avoid engagement. He not only tells the “surrealist / butterflights burning / in a tomb” that their work only serves to “avert the eyes,” but also accuses them of cowardice and faintheartedness.20 Their poetry flees from that cultural bonfire mentioned before. His, in contrast, not only turns toward the bonfire, but also attempts to confront the history of an entire continent—and all its bonfires—at once.
So the melancholic, egocentric surrealist becomes an expansive chronologist of the past and his own time, and his poetry changes from an anguished meditation on the flaws of human existence and the self to angry and propagandistic political fanfare. Alturas and the rest of the Canto General mark the pivot point of this change. The central question then becomes: is this a change for the better, or the worse?
Some see a decline in the quality of Neruda’s poetry that coincides with his increasing political engagement. Others see his politics as crucial to his poetry, the very aspect that makes it so resounding—or at the very least, so important. Fernando Quilodrán, member of the Chilean Communist Party, believes that though Residencia en la Tierra and Veinte Poemas de Amor are the works that make Neruda famous, Residencia en la Tierra and Canto General are his two most important cultural contributions.21 The first represent his early work and a cohesive theory of poetry; the second pair represents two sections of the artist’s career and, in addition, two very different attitudes about poetry’s nature and function.
In Canto section XII, Neruda describes the response to his new poetry: the critics become annoyed, insult him, and police come to imprison him because he doesn’t “continue to be preoccupied exclusively with metaphysical matters,” a response that echoes the expected question he describes in España en Mi Corazón. The institutions—both the government and the academic hierarchy—are not receptive to his new, propagandistic work. “But I had conquered happiness,” he says. And that happiness is a fulfillment through discovery of his true poetic voice. “I’m not Theocritus” he says; he is Pablo Neruda, and he derives his poetic inspiration from the workers, and now writes with “hands stained with filth and grief.” Those “hands stained with grief” are the bodily manifestation of the “words colored by passion.” It is clear that in his later work, the source of that passion has fundamentally changed.
Tracking that source provides a key to understanding Neruda’s work. In his early publications, it was most clearly derived from the sexual. His second book, Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Canción Desperada, published just before he turned 20, is filled with surreal erotic imagery and both idolization and subjugation of women. All Neruda’s work is based on connection to the world and the rest of humanity; in his youth, he accessed the greater world through physical love and corporeal passion:
Ah vastedad de pinos, rumor de olas quebrándose,
lento juego de luces, campana solitaria,
crepúsculo cayendo en tus ojos, muñeca,
caracola terrestre, en ti la tierra canta! 22
Here at age 20, Neruda finds a connection to the larger earth, both natural creation (pines, waves breaking, snail) and human creation (lights and bells), through the body of his lover. It is a joyous connection: the earth “sings” in response. The image of his lover as a doll underscores her role as a miniature representation of something larger and greater than herself and her own body.
Later in his career, however, sexual love was no longer the greatest source of passion for Neruda. Instead of the intimate erotic love of Veinte Poemas, he reached outward with a familial love for el pueblo, los trabajadores, and his comrades in the Communist Party. His connection to the world became his own all-encompassing voice spurred by his party rather than a sexual energy funneled through the body of a lover. Canto General marks this pivot-point. In Section II of Las Alturas de Macchu Picchu, Neruda references his previous work as disconnected from life’s true passion and struggle. In comparison with his earlier work, in the later work the high ratio of the political to the erotic is striking, especially in more polemic sections like “The Sand Betrayed.”
When sexuality does appear in the later work, like the rest of the poetry it is permeated with Neruda’s burgeoning political views. The passion is universal instead of intimate; in Communist fashion, he now values the communal over the individual. Rather than connecting to the world through the female form, Neruda connects to the world directly, experientially. This section of “The Rain,” an erotic diversion in the Canto’s section “The Great Ocean,” highlights Neruda’s new method of romantic interaction with the universe:
At night I dream that you and I are two plants
that grew together, roots entwined,
that you know earth and rain like my mouth,
because we’re made of earth and rain. Sometimes
I think that with death we’ll sleep below,
in the depths of the effigy’s feet,
gazing at the Ocean that brought us to build and to love.23
Here his love is based in his lover’s connection to the natural world, her connection to something larger than herself. His fantasies are not the fantasies of emotionally wrenching sexual love like those of his twenties. Then, the earth sang in one body, the vastness of pines was distilled into one woman, almost trapped. Now he dreams that his lover has the deep understanding of the universe he aspires to poetically: “that you know earth and rain like my mouth.” In his dream, she has achieved the poet’s goal of intimate, tangible connection with the universal, and in death they will open their senses to a larger existence, together. Now, with this new connection to a larger universe, Neruda is commanded not by his own emotion, but by the natural elements themselves. He has a mandate from the ocean; it brought him “to build and to love.” Thus sexual attraction to women is not absent from the Canto, as some critics have argued, but it has transformed to a broader kind of love, a direct rather than mediated connection, and now sex takes a secondary role in light of Neruda’s new political passion.
Neruda himself acknowledges this poetic transition in Las Alturas de Macchu Picchu, his Canto General poem about the ascension to the physical height of the Incan ruins and the spiritual cognizance that he gains from that height. Like in “Explico Algunas Cosas,” here Neruda critiques the inward-looking poet in his opening section, saying he went “como una red vacía,” like an empty net or an empty line, “llegando y despidiendo,” arriving and saying goodbye (Alturas I, vv.1-2.) He perceives an earlier emptiness, an earlier disconnect from the people in the streets—he was “entre las calles y la atmósfera” (v. 2), between the streets and the atmosphere, rather than in the streets among the people as he now wishes to be.
In that same opening section, Neruda also critiques his earlier love life; as Wilson notes, he seems to forget the poetic energy he derived from those passionate encounters and instead focuses on their fundamental emptiness. Now he believes all that romance was a closed, dispassionate silence, and in retrospect the sexual memories take on a violent mood. His commentary is enclosed in parentheses, a small flashback separated from the truth of who he really is:
(Días de fulgor vivo en la intemperie
de los cuerpos: aceros convertidos
al silencio del ácido:
noches deshilachadas hasta la última harina:
estambres agredidos de la patria nupcial.)24
There was fulgor, radiance, passion, but only in a flash, living but only temporarily, not natural or sustainable. Ultimately, the love was non-human, non-organic, and steel and discordance led to silence. The line “al silencio del ácido” brings out the disconnect by alternating the softer d’s and l’s with harsh “s” and “c” sounds that slice the line into sections. “Agredidos,” or “assaulted,” conjures an oblique image of violence, unexplained but unnerving, washing the whole memory with an aggressive, brutal tone. Finally, the parentheses serve two roles. They dually illustrate the detachment between his former romantic passions from the greater world, and separate that erotic love poetry from the poetry del pueblo he wants to write now, in Alturas and in the whole of Canto General. This stanza is a minor digression, explaining and critiquing the old poetry, as he moves on to his new passion—love for the people, the workers, his party and a direct connection with the entirety of Latin America.
In Alturas readers see one of the high points of Neruda’s work, poetically and metaphorically, and what the poet attempted to accomplish with his art. Feinstein quotes Robert Pring-Mill: “[w]hen Neruda does reach Macchu Picchu, its height turns out to be the place from which all else makes sense, including his own continent.”25 Neruda visited the ancient ruined city in 1943 during his return to Chile after a three-year post as consul-general in Mexico City. He didn’t write Alturas until two years later, the September after he joined the Communist Party. But even much later, while writing his Memoirs, Neruda seems to recall the event vividly:
I felt infinitely small in the center of that navel of rocks, the navel of a deserted world, proud, towering high, to which I somehow belonged. I felt that my own hands had labored there at some remote point in time, digging furrows, polishing the rocks.
I felt Chilean, Peruvian, American. On those difficult heights, among those glorious, scattered ruins, I had found the principles of faith I needed to continue my poetry.
My poem Alturas de Macchu Picchu was born there.26
Recalling that Neruda rebukes his earlier lifestyle in Alturas, his description of the poetic process he gleaned from his visit—words like “navel,” “labor,” “faith” and “born”— signals the rebirth of his poetry through physical and spiritual imagery. In the poem, the narrator, nearly indistinguishable from Neruda himself, journeys to the height of those Andean ruins and also “plunge[s] a turbulent and tender hand / to the most secret organs of the earth” and directly addresses death. Here are the fundamentals of human experience; here is universality, accessed directly through poetry—something in the end his art could express where his politics could not. At its best, in Alturas and the sections that hearken back to his days as a love poet, the Canto is sensual, thoughtful and provocative; at its worst, and often its most political, it is strident and forced. While in his poetry, Neruda was able to turn that tormented inward love outward and engage it in something larger, ultimately politics could not withstand the same subtlety.
La Sebastiana, Neruda’s house in Valparaíso, was built high in the rugged streets of the port city. From his study on the top floor, the ships in the harbor look suspended in the clouds and the gray ocean melts seamlessly into the gray horizon. With windows on every side of the house, Neruda had a view of Valparaíso in all its colors and brilliant houses stacked in the hills, which he describes in his memoirs:
The hills and the sea’s abundance gave the city a pattern, making it uniform, not like a barracks, but with the variety of spring, its clashing colors, its resonant bustle. The houses became colors: a blend of amaranth and yellow, crimson and cobalt, green and purple. And Valparaíso carried out its mission as a true port, a great sailing vessel that has run aground but is still alive, a fleet of ships with their flags to the wind. The wind of the Pacific Ocean deserved a city covered with flags.27
He goes on to describe the local names for those hills: “Little Table,” “Pequenes,” “English Hospital,” and “Sugar Cane.” Rather than considering man’s inability to appropriate nature and the divine with his language, Neruda believes in these names, calling them “profound.” He has faith in language’s utility, its means to describe, to convey, to access. Neruda says these names are “taproots and rootlets, they are air and oil, they are history and opera: red blood runs in their syllables.”28 At this house, with this view of Valparaíso, one understands how Neruda felt that humans and human language could facilitate an understanding of the world. Neruda would use that red-blooded language of passion—for woman, for country, for political party—his entire life.
Neruda’s words did not shield him from critics and did not cover his contradictions. But just as those “profound” names make the hills of Valparaíso more than just mounds of earth, Neruda’s words attempt to extend beyond themselves, making a man into a persona, a political statement into art. There is a famous line near the end of the Canto that Neruda wrote to the Communist Party. But the words may as well have been written about his art, too: “You have made me indestructible because with you I do not end in myself.”29
1 Memoirs 165-66.
2 Mark Strand, Poetry Reading, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 25 February 2009.
3 It is a Latin American tradition to send poets to foreign countries as consuls. (Bleiker, Roland,"Pablo Neruda and the Struggle for Political Memory." Third World Quarterly 20.6 (1999): 1129.)
4 The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, sparked by an attempted military coup by conservative and falangist forces, ended with the defeat of Republican government (largely supported by the working class) and the installation of General Francisco Franco's fascist regime.
5 Feinsten, Adam, Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2004) 124.
6 Feinstein 37.
7 Neruda, Pablo. "Walking Around." Residenciaen la Tierra. Trans. W.S. Merwin. The Selected Poetry of Pablo Neruda. Ed. Nathaniel Tarn. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970) 105
8 Feinstein 93.
9 Feinstein 90.
10 Neruda, Pablo. Selected Poems. Ed. and trans. Nathaniel Tarn. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin/ Seymour Lawrence, 1990) 139. "Ah! if we could only placate the world's rage with a drop of poetry or of love – but only the struggle and the daring heart are capable of that. The world and my poetry have both changed. A drop of blood fallen on these lines will remain alive within them, as indelible as love."
11 Selected Poems 151.
12 Neruda, Pablo. "I'm Explaining a Few Things," Tercera Residencia. Trans. Nathaniel Tarn. Selected Poems 155. "Come and see the blood in the streets. / Come and see / the blood in the streets. / Come and see the blood / in the streets!"
13 Feinsten 183.
14 I follow Neruda's spelling of the ancient city.
15 Memoirs 181.
16 Pring-Mill xxxiii.
17 Canto General 151-3.
18 Canto General 156.
19 Canto General 179.
20 Canto General 167.
21 Fernando Quilodran, Personal interview, 20 May 2009.
22 Neruda, Pablo. "Ah Vastedad de Pinos." Veinte Poemasde Amor y un Canción Desesperada.Trans. W.S. Merwin. Selected Poems19. "Ah vastness of pines, murmur of waves breaking, / slow play of lights, solitary bell, / twilight falling in your eyes, toy doll, / snail of the earth, the earth sings in you!"
23 Canto General 346.
24 Neruda, Pablo. Las Alturas de Macchu Picchu . Trans. Nathaniel Tarn. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966) 3. (Days of live radiance in discordant / bodies: steel converted / to the silence of acid: / nights disentangled to the ultimate flour, / assaulted stamens of the nuptial land.)
25 Feinstein 170.
26 Memoirs 165-66.
27 Neruda, Pablo. Trans. Hardie St. Martin, Memoirs. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977) 63.
28 Memoirs 64.
29 Canto General 399.
Special thanks to the staff at the Fundación Pablo Neruda, especially Darío and Adriana, for all their help and kindness.
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