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Pablo Neruda, Chile, Poet, Blues for Peace

Pablo Neruda

 Pablo Neruda. A man from Chile who transcended many worlds. A man who took the struggle and anguish of mankind and let it cry and long through him. He was gifted and blessed because he knew how to use words. Universal, when translated, and eternal when read. He is your lover and the beggar and the books, as well as the woods and the unsettled confusion of our past. Pablo Neruda let the rivers and the forests enter him with the wind and the songs of the streets. He is so well loved and read, not because of his writing but because in his writing is a man not separated but struggling along side his words.

 Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto was born on July 12, 1904 in Parral, Chile.  His father was a poor railway worker and his mother was a school teacher  She died shortly after his birth of turburculosis.  After his father remarried, they moved to Temuco where Neruda spent most of his childhood and youth.  He met poet Gabriela Mistral who encouraged his writing and at thirteen he published some articles in the daily paper.  By  1920 he was contributing work to a literary journal called "Selva Austral" under the pen name Pablo Neruda. He used this name in memory of Czechoslovakian poet Jan Neruda (1834-1891) because of his families disapproval of his literary involvement.

 After high school, Neruda went to the University of Chile in Santiago. He studied French and pedagogy while continuing to write.  The first recognition he gained was with the lyrical and romantic Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair which he published in 1924.  It was to become one of his most widely read books, being translated into ten different languages.  In 1927 he got a government job as a consular and went to Burma.  For eight years he worked in Ceylon, Java, Singapore, Buenos Aires, Madrid, and Barcelona.  During this time, the world was changing politically, geographically, and economically.  Fascism, which took over Chile as well as Europe, was rising.  It was a difficult time for all people of the world.  In 1933, Neruda published Residence on Earth which was a literary breakthrough. The two parts of Residence on Earth contain his poetry from 1925 to 1935. They show Neruda at his most surrealistic.  Neruda used obscure and violent imagery to convey a sense of universal chaos.

The murder of Garcia Lorca, who Neruda knew, effected him strongly and he joined the republican movement in Spain.  Because of his political views, and the danger of civil-war torn Spain, he left in 1937 to return to Chile.  In 1939, he was appointed consul of Spanish emigration and moved to Paris and then Mexico.  During this time he wrote Canto de Chile and Canto General which was an epic about the South American continent.  It was published in Mexico and underground in Chile.  It was hard living abroad and by 1943 he returned to Chile.  In 1945 he was elected senator and joined the communist party.  He protested President Gonzales Videla’s oppressive policy against the striking miner’s union and had to live underground for two years until he was able to leave in 1949.  Returning to Europe he was only able to return in 1952.  Because of these experiences, he honed his message and published work closely related to his experiences.  During this time he also won the Stalin prize and Lenin Peace Prize.  He wrote extensively and in his Complete Works he had in 1951 459 pages and by 1968 the book included 3,237!

Neruda was continually changing his approach to poetry. Because of this his work could not be characterized. He also tried to make poems as direct and simple as possible. He showed a new desire to make art speak for oppressed members of society.  In 1971 Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  For the last years of his life, Neruda lived in Isla Negra where he was able to reflect on his adventurous full life.  Pablo Neruda died in Santiago on Sept. 23, 1973 of leukemia.  It was a month after Pinochet overthrew the government and another cycle of death and destruction began in Chile.

By the end of his life, Neruda became what the Nobel Committee rightly said of him, that he is the poet for violated human dignity.  His goal was to speak for the speechless and sing for the mute.  He was able to do this so well because what he wrote was part of him, as his country and his language and his people were are a part of him.  He was a poet who did not only write letters on paper, but wrote songs on the heart.

One poem in particular that shows his mastery of image and speech is the poem "Ode to the Book".  Below is the poem followed by comments that show how the words and man that wrote them are one entity.

Ode to the Book
translated by Nathaniel Tarn

When I close a book
I open life.
I hear
faltering cries
among harbours.
Copper ignots
slide down sand-pits
to Tocopilla.
Night time.
Among the islands
our ocean
throbs with fish,
touches the feet, the thighs,
the chalk ribs
of my country.
The whole of night
clings to its shores, by dawn
it wakes up singing
as if it had excited a guitar.

The ocean's surge is calling.
The wind
calls me
and Rodriguez calls,
and Jose Antonio--
I got a telegram
from the "Mine" Union
and the one I love
(whose name I won't let out)
expects me in Bucalemu.

No book has been able
to wrap me in paper,
to fill me up
with typography,
with heavenly imprints
or was ever able
to bind my eyes,
I come out of books to people orchards
with the hoarse family of my song,
to work the burning metals
or to eat smoked beef
by mountain firesides.
I love adventurous
books,
books of forest or snow,
depth or sky
but hate
the spider book
in which thought
has laid poisonous wires
to trap the juvenile
and circling fly.
Book, let me go.
I won't go clothed
in volumes,
I don't come out
of collected works,
my poems
have not eaten poems--
they devour
exciting happenings,
feed on rough weather,
and dig their food
out of earth and men.
I'm on my way
with dust in my shoes
free of mythology:
send books back to their shelves,
I'm going down into the streets.
I learned about life
from life itself,
love I learned in a single kiss
and could teach no one anything
except that I have lived
with something in common among men,
when fighting with them,
when saying all their say in my song.

 In this poem Neruda starts off as a ‘writer’ and quickly carries the reader into a metaphysical world with the line - "when i close the book/ i open life".  He says that the words can not define him or explain him, that all he is, is a liver, learning how to be from life.  This is a good example of how he often uses images of the country side and common people, not as subjects but as himself.  Maybe because of communist influence or maybe because of his passion for life he wanted to speak for others -be it forest or man- and say, not what is in his mind but what the land and time have given him to tell.

Liat Mayer
English Project
December 20, 2000  

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