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Poet of the People

The partisan world of Pablo Neruda

The poet Pablo Neruda was born in 1920 at the age of 16. It was in October of that year, anyway, that a young man whose unsuspecting parents had baptized him Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto first signed with the name Neruda the poems that he felt he existed in order to write. Already, at 15, Neftalí (as his familiars addressed him until he escaped to college in the big city) had described himself, in excited drafts, not just as a poet but the poet, Mark Eisner points out in his new biography, Neruda: The Poet’s Calling. A sonnet titled “The Poet Who is Neither Bourgeois nor Humble” alluded to his potent, unknown poet-ness: “The men haven’t discovered that in him exists / the poet who as a child was not childish.”

Neruda as an adolescent poet amounted almost to a parody of the type, worryingly thin, melancholy and shy, and got up, unlike other local boys, all in black. Sickly and frail, he was unsuited to the physical labor done by most of his neighbors, and, a lazy pupil at school, he did not suggest a country doctor or lawyer in the making. He appreciated the splendors of the natural world and mooned over pretty girls but otherwise showed little aptitude or interest for anything outside of books. Among the men who didn’t recognize his promise was the poet’s own father, a former dockworker with a hard demeanor. Following the death of Neftalí’s mother mere weeks after the birth of her son, he’d installed the family in the frontier town of Temuco, halfway down the racked spine of Chile, where as the conductor of a “ballast train” he oversaw a crew of laborers continuously pouring gravel over the railroad to keep the tracks from being washed away by violent weather.

His father became so concerned that his son would learn no useful trade that he one day hurled the boy’s bookcase and papers out the window, then set them alight on the patio below. Neruda invented his pen name with the aim, he recalled some 50 years later in his Memoirs, of throwing his father “off the scent” of his published poems. Soon after the 17-year-old Neftalí Reyes enrolled at the University of Chile in Santiago, relying on his father for his meager living expenses and neglecting his studies in French pedagogy, one Pablo Neruda began to attract the notice of fellow students as a talented poet. Exotic but easy to pronounce, his adopted Czech surname became that of the preeminent twentieth-century poet in Spanish, a language whose poetry had quite a century.

Neruda said the ordeals of the era invited the poets’ breakthrough. “It has been the privilege of our time—with its wars, revolutions, and tremendous social upheavals—to cultivate more ground for poetry than anyone ever imagined. The common man has had to confront it, attacking or attacked, in solitude or with an enormous mass of people at public rallies.” A more sociological way of framing the idea would be to say that, because mass literacy and education formed a basic aspect of mass politics, poets during the middle half of the twentieth century could both come from humble backgrounds as never before and find an audience among ordinary people as never before. Neruda’s own case seemed to particularly confirm the general observation: Raised in “country-boy, petit-bourgeois” circumstances, “the people’s poet,” as he called himself, could in the decades after World War II fill stadiums and union halls, reciting to mass gatherings poems about the masses’ common pleasures and collective struggle. “A poet who reads his poems to 130,000 people,” he wrote about an occasion in São Paulo, “is not the same man and cannot keep writing in the same way.”

Neruda remains today an unusually popular poet, in utterly changed conditions. If some of his best poetry eludes easy comprehension, he more often produced verse after transparent verse. Even the surreal imagery of the early work can create a sensation of the cloudless transmission of emotion, as young people in love still frequently discover when they encounter their own throes of passion while reading Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair in their beds. (Taylor Swift credits Poem XX with inspiring her quadruple-platinum album Red.) The Elemental Odes that Neruda published in his fifties, during the 1950s, attain a more deliberate universality, as they contemplate the commonest items of human life: air or wine, copper wire or sexual coupledom, as well as sand and scissors and, in “Ode to Simplicity,” simplicity itself. Neruda’s books, said to outsell all other poetry translated into English, are often household articles in their own right.

Part of the value of Eisner’s biography is to situate a lastingly familiar and accessible body of work in its author’s exceptional experience of an irrecoverable recent past. Today the combination of a great poet who was also, in his words, “a disciplined Communist militant,” one of his country’s leading politicians, and an international celebrity is positively antediluvian. The decades since Neruda’s death in 1973—not two weeks after a right-wing coup overthrew the elected president of Chile, the poet’s “great comrade” Salvador Allende—have seen the rout of international socialism as well as a radical shrinkage in the audience, or market share, for poetry. Neruda the earth’s universal poet hails from another planet.

Neruda was just 20 when he published what remain his best-known poems. Old beyond his years and sad beyond any misfortune he’d yet suffered, he wrote in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair of “mi viejo dolor,” my old sadness. Melancholy is almost obligatory for young male poets; in other respects, Neruda spurned the genteel conventions still prevailing in love poetry of the time. The first lines of the first poem abandon any spiritualized and euphemistic presentation of romance and sex for something carnal and explicit: “Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs, / you look like a world, lying in surrender.” One of the poems’ addressees was Albertina Azócar, another Laura Arrué. The parents of both young women judged a train conductor’s son of unsatisfactory social standing for their daughters. As if to taunt them, he describes his “rough peasant’s body” that “makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.”

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Some of the Twenty Poems became so well known that Neruda was annoyed: In later years he denounced XX (“Tonight I can write the saddest lines”) as the worst thing he ever wrote. The protest is unconvincing. With precocious assurance, the book shows the emotional directness and unabashed musicality that would abide across Neruda’s drastic alternations of style, along with other personality traits, as it were, of a long career. Already there is the offhand metaphorical extravagance, as if it’s merely natural and straightforward to describe oneself as a tunnel or a root, and a pressing awareness of the injuries of class society, the romantic frustrations of poor young men not least among them.

Twenty Love Poems was a critical and even something of a commercial success, but Neruda found himself unwilling or unable to rest on his laurels. In spite of the poems’ frankness they had been conservative in form, consisting largely of rhymed lines of an equal count of syllables. They had also been conversational and urgently communicative: “Now I want [my words] to say what I want to say to you / to make you hear as I want you to hear me.” It may have been precisely the apparent success of his love poems as instances of communication—giving voice to universal experiences of longing, bliss, and loss as if they were the reader’s own—that led Neruda to feel he had been unfaithful to the unhappy isolation of a “soul in despair” that, far more than love, was still the main condition of his life.

His next poems departed from the celebrated mode of Twenty Poems to describe inward states—Eisner writes that Neruda “invented a way to capture how language sounded inside his mind,” prior to the demands of articulation—in obscure imagery and lines of uneven length. Assembled in a volume called venture of the infinite man, the new work met a disappointing and disappointed reception. “The flesh and blood we had admired so much in the author’s other books are missing here,” a prominent reviewer complained, adding that the book might as well be read from back to front. “One would understand the same, that is to say, very little.”

Neruda’s overriding problems in his early twenties, a friend observed, were money, love, and poetry. Of these, poetry was easiest to address, which is not to say solve; for one thing, Neruda could produce it by himself. Love and money, on the other hand, you can only get when others give them. Fiction promised better remuneration than poetry, and Neruda received a small advance to write a thriller. His first and last attempt at a novel “definitely is not one,” Eisner writes, and the nearly plotless succession of moody images achieved about the sales one would expect. Neruda begged his sister, Laura, to convince their father to cough up funds.

When paternal subventions were not forthcoming, Neruda hit on the idea of securing a diplomatic post abroad through Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “In Latin America,” Eisner explains, “especially in the first half of the twentieth century, poets and intellectuals were often named to diplomatic posts, ad honorem, where they could live on a simple salary while working on their craft and acting as emissaries of their country’s culture.” The dream posting was to Paris, capital of world literature and home to various important writers and artists from the Americas. Plus, Neruda spoke the language. A friend in the diplomatic corps duly set up a meeting at the ministry, but when an official ran through a list of capitals in need of Chilean consuls, Neruda could only make out a single name. It was not Paris. “Where do you want to go, Pablo?” he was asked. Neruda—ignorant, embarrassed, hopeful, and desperate—answered “Rangoon” and later located the place on a map.

No writer is more closely identified with Chile—“Neruda is Chile,” Allende would declare—and Neruda felt himself deeply bound up with its tortured geography and political travails, but this was the outset of a highly itinerant life. Neruda appealed to both Albertina Azócar and Laura Arrué to ignore their families’ objections and sail for the Far East as his bride; both turned him down. The journey to Rangoon took him overland to Buenos Aires, where he met Jorge Luis Borges; across the Atlantic to Lisbon, where he celebrated his 23rd birthday; and to Paris, where he met César Vallejo. The thrill of dreamed-of European cities and admired fellow writers was also cruel in its way, since the years that Neruda spent in the Far East would be lonely ones. Posted to Rangoon in the British colony of Burma; then to Colombo, in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka); and finally to Jakarta in Dutch Indonesia, with little in the way of administrative duties at any station, he pursued local women in a manner that Eisner characterizes as predatory.* He dabbled in the society of fellow Westerners but was mainly and essentially alone.

In his solitude, he produced some of the most remarkable Spanish-language writing of the twentieth century. The poems collected under the beautiful title Residencia en la tierra or Residence on Earth—a first volume came out in 1933, a second in 1935, a third in 1947—are often called surrealist, despite being “written, or at least begun,” as Neruda pointed out with some pride, “before the heyday of surrealism,” and the term is apt enough. Smokily elusive of paraphrase, much less interpretation, they project onto the mind’s eye a dissolving succession of images that can seem at once inevitable and inexplicable in the best Surrealist way. “It is a tale of wounded bones, / bitter circumstances and interminable clothes, / and stockings suddenly serious.” The obscure drama in those stockings, and the bathos-cum- pathos of their sudden seriousness, make for one of many hieroglyphs of modern alienation and—Neruda’s coinage—“disaction.”

Sometimes he testifies to the raw passage of time, in the empty extensiveness of space, as if observing a battlefield: “Let what I am, then, be, in some place and in every time, / an established and assured and ardent witness, / carefully destroying himself and preserving himself incessantly, / clearly insistent upon his original duty.” He was dismayed, many years later, to learn that a young man from Santiago had committed suicide beneath a tree with his copy of Residence on Earth open to this poem.

With a dog and pet mongoose (“No one can imagine the affectionate nature of a mongoose”) as his principal companions, Neruda experienced these years mainly as “a demonic solitude,” as he wrote to a friend from Colombo, while waiting out a monsoon. Loneliness seems to have compelled his marriage—the first of three—to a Dutch woman he met in Jakarta. Not yet possessed of the talent he later acquired for making himself and others happy, Neruda started to neglect Maruca, as he called her, soon after they left Asia, and finally abandoned her and their disabled daughter. His Memoirs contain only a single, shamefaced mention of this wife’s name.

Neruda talks to the press in Paris after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971.
Laurent Rebours/Associated Press

Neruda’s life as a poet and a man divides naturally into two periods, so he felt. “The bitterness in my poetry had to end,” he decided, rejecting “the brooding subjectivity of my Veinte poemas de amor, the painful moodiness of my Residencia en la tierra.” From now on his poems would not face inward, toward the isolate individual, but outward, toward “our fellow men”: “I had to pause and find the road to humanism, outlawed from contemporary literature but deeply rooted in the aspirations of mankind.”

This change in attitude, which resulted in his epic poem of the Americas Canto general in the 1940s, began in Spain. Posted to Madrid in 1934, Neruda could enjoy for the first time since college a community of Spanish-speakers and fellow poets, and he often entertained friends and their families in a diplomatic residence, lively with dogs and children, that he and his visitors called “the house of flowers, because it was bursting / everywhere with geraniums.” The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, whose work Neruda seems to have admired without envy, was his favorite guest.

The idyll ended on July 17, 1936, when a junta led by General Francisco Franco rose up against the Spanish Republic and its Popular Front government. Lorca, gay and left wing, was kidnapped and murdered the next month by Falangists. “The news of his death made everyone cry,” Delia del Carril, later Neruda’s second wife and already by this time his lover, recalled. For Neruda it was the most painful event of the war. He apostrophized his dead friend: “If I could weep with fear in a solitary house, / if I could take my eyes out and eat them, / I would do it for your black-draped orange-tree voice”—Lorca was from Andalusia—“and for your poetry that comes forth shouting.” After Lorca’s death, Neruda uses the word poetry as a name not just for printed words with a ragged right-hand margin but, frequently, for beauty, goodness, joy, life, friendship, community, justice, peace. The enemy of poetry is fascism.

With Madrid under bombardment, Neruda fled for Paris in 1937, where he organized a congress of left-wing writers in defense of the Republic. When the Republic fell, he risked his diplomatic career by commissioning a ship to carry some 2,000 Spanish refugees to asylum in Chile. Warned by his government that this action required its authorization, Neruda threatened to shoot himself unless the Winnipeg sailed, and the Chilean president gave in. On Neruda’s return to his country in 1939, with Europe falling to another kind of fascism, he was greeted on the docks by grateful refugees chanting his name.

It is an uncomfortable and perhaps uncomfortably suggestive fact that this most universal of twentieth-century poets was also a notorious Communist and indeed Stalinist. Something similar can of course be said about many important writers and artists of Neruda’s and adjacent generations: They too joined their countries’ Communist parties or at least fellow-traveled; they too rooted for international socialism against the Nazis in Europe and, later, against the yanquis in Latin America and Indochina. Neruda stands out from most of these artists, whose work, good or bad, typically displayed their political commitments superficially if at all. From the late 1930s or early ’40s onward, Neruda was not incidentally but essentially a Communist poet.

The least of it is that he proudly avows his allegiance in any number of poems. He hymns the Red Army’s triumph in Stalingrad and later writes odes to Stalin and Lenin. Much of this stuff is expectably bad. Neruda, in his unembarrassed prolixity, published mediocre verses on all kinds of subjects political and otherwise, but the “Ode to Lenin” (1957) shows as well as anything how facile and sentimental he could let himself be: “The revolution turns forty. / It has the age of a ripe young woman. / It has the age of the beautiful mothers.” The metaphor would be more thoughtful if he’d wondered how the revolution might look in old age or could surpass a normal life span. As it is, the lines are clever, warm, politely beneficent—toast more than poem, and a reminder of Neruda’s long diplomatic career.

Some of Neruda’s explicitly committed work, however, is genuinely stirring, at least to this socialist critic. Although Neruda affirmed “my general Marxist principles, my dislike of capitalism and my faith in socialism,” and viewed the USSR as the lodestar of a rising proletarian international, his poetry bears little trace of either a Marxist theory of history or a Leninist politics of revolutionary strategy. His communism is closer in spirit to what Alain Badiou has described as “the communist hypothesis”—a historically intermittent but almost immemorial proposal of universal emancipation. The penultimate poem of Canto general, written in 1949 and addressed to the Chilean Communist Party, which Neruda had joined four years earlier, offers one of many examples. (With Neruda there are always many examples.) A somewhat free translation of a few lines reads: “You have made me brother to the man and woman I don’t know”; “You taught me to see the unity and difference of humankind”; “You have made me see clearly the world and its chance at happiness”; “You have made me indestructible because with you I no longer end in myself.”

In his concern with the suffering of universal or common humanity and in his celebration of the humble common pleasures partaken of by everybody—profane sacraments of weather, landscape, food, drink, sex, love, friendship—Neruda becomes a communist, small ‘c,’ and therefore a Communist in opposing the ancient, ongoing scandal of class society, which betrays the world’s chance at happiness by fracturing the human community into classes and nations, exploiter and exploited, conquistador and conquered.

Unusually for a Communist poet, Neruda also became a Communist politician. The Stalinism for which he’s derided accurately enough describes his orientation to world affairs from the Spanish Civil War until the early 1960s, when he belatedly repudiated the dictator who “administered the reign of cruelty / from his ubiquitous statue.” At home in Chile, however, Neruda was a democratic socialist: The parliamentary route to power represented the only nationally viable strategy. In 1945, he won election to the Senate on the Communist ticket. He represented a pair of northern mining provinces where workers toiling in nitrate mines, beneath the sun-stricken pampas of the driest desert on earth, figured among the most exploited in the world. A century and more after Chilean independence, both the mines and the railways bearing away the yield of the mines remained in British hands. The neocolonial arrangement more or less enraged Neruda.

In 1946, Gabriel González Videla was elected president of Chile with the support of the left. Once in office, González filled with Communists and subversives a concentration camp in the northern port of Pisagua. On January 6, 1948, Neruda denounced President González on the Senate floor in a speech later published under the Zolaesque title “Yo Acuso”: “There is no freedom of speech in Chile”; those “who fight to free our country from misery are persecuted, mistreated, injured, and condemned.” A week later he read out the names of more than 450 political prisoners, until he was cut off; he resumed the next day with 56 more names. On February 3, the Supreme Court stripped Neruda of parliamentary immunity, alleging that he had made false statements against the president, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

He and Delia hid from the police in a series of comradely households, moving frequently until Neruda was spirited to Patagonia. There the politically unsympathetic owner of a vast ranch showed his decency by loaning horses and men for the trek over the Andes. Neruda escaped Argentina on the passport of a writer who resembled him and flew to Europe. In 1952, the Italian government moved to extradite the fugitive, before reconsidering in the face of public protests and bad press. Neruda the rescuer of refugees and exiled senator, forthright Communist and admired poet, had become international news.

He had put together his beautiful, harsh, partisan, and infuriated book-length poem Canto general over about a decade, from an initial Canto general de Chile begun in 1938 to the completion in 1949 of a general song of all the Americas, from the Southern Cone upward. Bits were composed in Mexico, Peru, at home in “cruel, beloved” Chile, and in flight across the Andean sierra. The historical schema of Canto general (1950) goes something like this: prehistory of the Americas, especially the second Eden of the southern hemisphere; sacking of indigenous South and Meso-America by Iberian empire; liberation from the Bourbon crown in the early nineteenth century and establishment of republics by creole heroes; betrayal of the paradisal continent by local compradors and foreign capital, and emergence of Latin American communism; a summons to the USA to revive the better angels of our nature—Lincoln, Walt Whitman—and join the southern struggle; Neruda’s own fugitive existence, on the run from police; and the prediction or promise that “My people will overcome. All peoples / will overcome, one by one.”

The ghastly vistas of blood and ash that Neruda conjures as he catalogs the genocidal campaigns of Cortés and other conquistadors are often powerful in their simplicity. In what is today southern Mexico, “The solemn river saw its children / die or survive as slaves.” Elsewhere Neruda’s language takes on a rhetorical luxuriance, as in his threnody for the murdered civilization of the Maya. Nor does grief for indigenous victims prevent him from pitying Spanish foot soldiers, their lives wasted on an infamous crime. Short as the individual lyrics are, the howling bill of imperialism is almost unbearable to read more than a few items a time.

Canto general is, as intended, a monument of Western and specifically American literature. As a chronicle of a captive and abused people scheduled for redemption, it recalls the Hebrew Bible; as a historical vision of originary calamity and ultimate deliverance, it brings to mind Paradise Lost; and as a democratic catalogue of New World humanity, it follows Whitman, whom Neruda explicitly invokes. Canto general also looks forward, to Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, where the backwaters of the New World are also the center of creation, or to Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy, another factual chronicle of conquest and rebellion across the span of Latin American history related with prophetic indignation. Che Guevara carried a copy of Canto general with him in the Sierra Maestra.

For all that, Canto general is often more great than good. Neruda’s gift is lyrical, not narrative, and his ostensible epic, on inspection, is so many lyrics in historically chronological order. Neruda sometimes writes least about what is most important (the best of the 15 sections, “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” is also among the shortest), and vice versa. And, unsurprisingly, Neruda’s weakest lines are often his most polemical, propagandistic, the poet seeming to say what he should feel or think instead of what he does. None of this much qualifies the glories of the thing. Part III of “Macchu Picchu” concludes, about everyone: “they all faltered on awaiting their brief daily death: / and the bitter brokenness of each day was / like a black cup they drank from trembling.” My translation may improve on some others, but the rills of plangent vowels are lost.

Sube a nacer conmigo, hermano” is probably the most famous line of the poem: “Rise to be born with me, brother.” History presents a choice, Neruda says, between dying alone each day or being born at last with our brethren. If the notion is embarrassing today, this does not seem entirely to our credit.

Celebrity Communist, champagne Stalinist, poet of the people who owned three houses—the Neruda of his last two decades is easy to make fun of, or worse. Even friends who revered him seem to have smirked. In his memoir of Neruda, Volodia Teitelboim, a friend and fellow Chilean Communist, reports that the recipient of the 1952 Stalin Peace Prize was, on his many stays in Moscow, often put up at the Metropole Hotel, an establishment much favored under the czar by nobles and rich bourgeois, where Neruda enjoyed “an apartment complete with a pair of grand pianos, enormous bathtubs decorated with purple flowers, and huge emerald-green leaves,” and so on. Neruda’s defense was that nothing was too good for the working class.

At his best, Neruda can express in uncanny images and ordinary words something that feels like the essence of experience. At his worst, he seems to trade in stereotypes of reality. The later poetry, oscillating between the poles of the generic and the universal, favors the generic. During his European exile, Neruda fell for a Chilean folk singer, Matilde Urrutia, eight years his junior. Even in one of his strongest late volumes, The Captain’s Verses (1952), the imagery seems easy, sometimes evasive. As he relates the ups and downs of their new love, the same elemental lexicon recurs throughout: roots, earth, blood, wheat, stars, thorns, etcetera. Matilde, “newborn from my own clay,” is a star, or a condor, or a mountain; called “little America,” she has rivers and countries in her eyes, and you wonder how attentively perceived she felt.

In 1952, after a new administration rescinded the warrant for his arrest, Neruda and Matilde returned to Chile. When she complained of the “piece-of-shit-country,” Neruda reminded her: “This piece-of-shit-country is yours!” His work by now brought in enough money for him to maintain one residence in Santiago and two in the provinces. On a rugged stretch of Pacific coast called Isla Negra—“Ancient night and the unruly salt / beat at the walls of my house”—he built a dwelling after his own design and filled it with specimens of the natural world and souvenirs from his travels. In his later poems, he is above all grateful for being alive, “always / half undone with joy.” A secondary but important mood is the melancholy of old age, of the tardiness of fulfillment.

Material comfort and a happy marriage did not exactly mellow him. The title of one late volume is Invitation to Nixonicide and Glory to the Chilean Revolution. In a substantial poem called “The People,” he reiterates his desire to see, for the first time in history, the poor man “properly shod and crowned.” As the Communist candidate for president of Chile in 1970, Neruda promised to support the Socialist Allende in the final round and, in spite of failing health, campaigned energetically for his comrade at rallies where he also recited his poems. Three years later, General Pinochet and his accomplices—with CIA assistance, and aided by a sustained U.S. campaign of economic sabotage—ended at gunpoint Chile’s experiment in parliamentary socialism. Mere days before Neruda succumbed to cancer (unless—forensic investigators have not quite settled the question—he was poisoned by the new regime), he and Matilde saw the presidential palace in flames on television and tanks in the streets of the capital. A fascism not unlike what destroyed the Spanish Republic had seized Chile.

In spite of his intelligence and wit, his transformations and peregrinations, Neruda was, or learned to be, a simple man. His relationship to food suggests something of this. When he was young and poor, he didn’t get enough to eat, often consumed his rations alone, and was very skinny; when he was older and prosperous, he had plenty to eat and became portly. The desire was constant, the fulfillment was not. Similarly, he wanted his fill of friendship, love, and sex. Who does not? After a disconsolate youth, communism bestowed purpose on his life and work, his own happiness granted in large measure by the proposition that happiness could become a universal possession—a staple, not a delicacy. But he died in anguish, saying again and again in his delirium, “They’re shooting them!”

* This piece has been updated to reflect the nature of Neruda’s relationships while on diplomatic postings in Asia.