Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 30 June 2013





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

The poetic universe of Pablo Neruda

I have, from a young age, been interested in Neruda’s poetry, and as an undergraduate at Peradeniya, translated some of his love poems into Sinhala. I know how difficult it is to translate Neruda; his subtle and dazzling effects are vitally connected with language.

Critics of Latin American literature say that most of the time his subtle effects cannot be dissociated from the musicality of the Spanish language. Distinguished translations of Pablo Neruda such as W.S Merwin, Robert Bly and James Wright, who are eminent poets in their own right, have admitted that translating Neruda is a daunting task. When we translate Neruda into Sinhala from English, we are at two removes from the cherished object. Even so, I am persuaded that some of his strengths survive the rigors of translation.

I would like to discuss the nature, and contours of Neruda’s poetry, the kind of impact he had in Latin America and beyond and his evolution as a highly critically acclaimed and popular poet. I am no expert on Latin American or Spanish literature. My assessment of Neruda is based purely in my readings of English translations of his work. And as I map his poetic universe I would like to highlight the possible relevances and enforceable connections we can make with Sri Lankan literatures.

Neruda’s passion, his startling juxtaposition of imagery, and pubic consciousness converge to produce a body of poetry of exquisite beauty. Why we can appreciate Neruda’s poetry even at two removes is because of his great capacity for empathy. As he remarked in his Memoirs, ‘My life is a life put together from all those lives: the lives of the poet.’

I have periodically returned to Neruda and read his major works as a source of inspiration. I read The Poetry of Pablo Neruda edited by Ilan Stavans - all 995 pages encompassing 600 poems. I had the opportunity to read some of his lesser and less successful works which I had not read before.

Great poet

Pablo Neruda was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth-century. He was well-liked by literary critics and widely popular among ordinary readers - indeed the ideal that all poets cherish. It is said that his collection of poems Twenty Poems has sold over three million copies among Spanish-speaking readers. In 1971 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and the committee in charge said, ‘in Neruda’s work a continent awakens into consciousness’. The prize was awarded ‘for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams.’ Neruda’s poetry succeeded in forcing a delectable union of lyrical beauty and public consciousness that remains, for the most part, unsurpassed.

Pablo Neruda is a pen name; his real name was Neftali Ricardo Reyes. He was born on July 12 1904 in Parral, a small town in Chile. His mother Rosa was a schoolteacher who died just one month after Pablo Neruda’s birth. His father was a railroad engineer; he was stern and meant business. Pablo Neruda both admired and resented him. In a vivid image, he once recalled his father ‘The golden beard of my father advancing towards the majesty of the iron roads’.

Literary talents

When he was two years, the family moved to another village called Temuco, his father remarried and Pablo Neruda spent the next 15 years in this village. There he developed a love for reading as well as taking long walks in the woods and observing nature.

The Principal of the girl’s school in Temuco was Gabriela Mistral, who later went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature before Neruda. She recognised young Pablo’s literary talents and encouraged him by giving him books that he could profitably read

At the age of 17, having completed high school in Temuco, he decided to go to the capital Santiago to pursue studies and find employment as a teacher of French. He left the pastoral tranquility of Temuco for the hustle and bustle of the city. He began to experience an intense loneliness and the threat of hunger was always around the corner.

It was during this period that he came across the name of a Czech writer, Jan Neruda and decided to change his name from Naftali Ricardo Reyes to Pablo Neruda.

He cultivated the friendship of many Bohemian and iconoclastic artistes and writers; he pursued with intense devotion his commitment to literary writing. In 1923, he published his first book of poetry Crepusculario – a book that bears clear traces of symbolist-modernist traits that were in the ascendancy in Latin America at the time.

He wrote another book titled The Ardent Slingsman; however, it was published only ten years later. In 1924, he published Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. It was a stunning success, both critical and popular, and Neruda gained international recognition as a formidable poet. This slim volume of poetry, which depicts an adolescent speaking to a woman about erotic life with a rare intensity and imaginative power, made a profound impact on world literature. I shall discuss the book later in this column.

Pablo Neruda was always interested in literary and artistic developments taking place in Europe, and during this period was attracted by the possibilities of surrealism. According to Andre Breton, one of the architects of surrealism maintained that writers can achieve a higher form of reality by freeing the mind of rational and logical coordinates. His book of poems, Residence on Earth 1, bears the influence of surrealism.

Neruda by now had acquired a wide reputation as a brilliant poet and an equally brilliant reader of his poetry. In Latin America there was a tradition of appointing distinguished writers for posts in the diplomatic service.

The Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz was appointed to the consulate in India and so was the Chilean Nobel Laureate Gabriela Mistral. Similarly, Pablo Neruda was appointed consul of Chile in Burma in 1927. Subsequently, he was appointed consul in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and arrived in Colombo in 1929.

Various poet-diplomats reacted in different ways to South Asia. Octavio Paz was passionately interested in Indian philosophy and art and culture and wrote a number of insightful essays on these subjects; at the same time he also wrote several memorable poems based on his Indian experience. Neruda, on the other hand, felt that his life in Rangoon and Colombo were marked by an intense loneliness and implacable alienation.

Unfortunately, he made no serious attempt to understand Buddhist and Hindu art and philosophy in the way that Octavio Paz did. He wrote many of the poems appearing in Residence of the Earth 1 and 2 while working in Burma and Sri Lanka, and they bear traces of a dark and unforgiving mood.

He felt that he was living in a decaying and disintegrating world and the poems collected in these two volumes reflect this frame of mind.

His language which was marked by a precision in the early poetry gave way to a kind of hermetic isolationism that was designed to capture the decay of the external world.

I plan to discuss Neruda’s experiences in Colombo in a later column.

In 1934 he was appointed consul to Barcelona and then Madrid. He found his Spanish experience more nurturing and stimulating than the Asian experience. While in Madrid he was able to come into contact with and establish bonds of friendship with Garcia Lorca and other distinguished writers. There emerged a community of writers who had a deep and informed interest in literature and Neruda loved their company.

In 1936, the Spanish civil war erupted and this had a profoundly devastating effect on Neruda and his fellow writers. The same year his good friend, Garcia Lorca was assassinated by Fascists. It had a shattering impact on him. The following year, at a public lecture in Paris, he paid a touching tribute to Lorca and his work.

With the outbreak of the Spanish civil war a new mind-set took hold of Neruda. His political and social conscience was awakened. He attended numerous writers’ conferences, public meetings and began to express his desire for consolidated political action. The intensely personal poetry of the early period now gave way to a more public poetry. His poem Spain in My Heart captures vividly the tragic experiences connected to the civil war.

Choose in style

One began to observe a change in Neruda’s poetic style. The hermetic and highly subjective style that characterised his Residence of the Earth 1 and 2 was replaced by a more direct, objective style that combined the power of historical narrative and epic imagination.

His book of poems, Canto General published in 1959 illustrates this new trend. I shall discuss this work later. Not only in terms of form and style but also in terms of theme and content there is a clear departure from his early work. Inspired by the Spanish experience, he increasingly began to turn towards the theme of the Americas and their social problems.

Neruda, in the decade of 1940-50 travelled extensively in Latin America and began to develop a feel for and a commitment to, Latin American history. In 1945 he was elected communist party senator.

During this period he also began to garner prestigious literary awards and honours. Now there was a further development in his poetry – the exuberance that marked the Canto General disappeared; everyday life and material objects associated with it began to receive the dignity of poetic attention in his hands.

If Canto General represented a historical panoramic view of the Americas, his subsequent poetry reconfigured the simple things of day to day existence through the power of poetic imagination.

In 1970, Neruda was diagnosed with cancer. One year later he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his ability to awaken a continent into a newer consciousness. Since 1972, although he was bed-ridden, he continued to work on his verse and prose creations with unabated vigour.

Neruda died in 1973 at his home. Four decades after his death, Neruda’s poetry enjoys an undiminished international popularity. I have sought to present a thumb-nail sketch of his life so that his poetry can be appreciated better in terms of his evolution as a human being. His poetry adds up to a biography of his emotional life. It signals the inner flow of his submerged self.

Literary works

Pablo Neruda is the author of over 40 important literary works. It is not possible to discuss all his works in a few columns. Therefore, I propose to select a few of his works, six in all, that apart from being significant creations in their own right, mark important stages in his growth as a poet.

These poems stand as vital signposts in his advancing poetic trajectory. The six works I have selected for brief discussion are: Twenty Love poems and a Song of Despair – Residence on Earth 1 – Residence on Earth 2 – The Third Residence – Canto General – One Hundred Love Sonnets

Let us begin with Twenty Love Poems, which can be counted among the most popular book of erotic poetry written in modern times. These poems have been translated into Sinhala, some more than once. There is an intensity of feeling and startling juxtaposition of imagery in these poems that generate a hypnotic effect on the reader. The following poem titled The Morning is Full is a representative example. (The translation is by W.S. Merwin).

The morning is full of storm
in the heart of summer
The clouds travel like white
handkerchiefs if goodbye
The wind, travelling, waving
them in its hands.

The numberless heart of the wind
beating above our loving silence
Orchestral and divine, resounding
among the trees
like a language full of wars and songs

Wind that bears off the dead leaves
with a quick raid
and detects the pulsing arrows
of the birds.

Wind that topples her in a wave
without spray
and substance without weight,
and leaning fires.

Her mass of kisses breaks and sinks
assailed in the doors of the
summer’s wind.

The central image of the poem is that of the wind, its power and impact; against the power of the wind is located the poet’s beloved. We see in this poem, as in many other poems gathered in this volume, how the poet is straining to move away from modernism that was current at the time to a form of surrealism.

Let us consider another example, the poem titled, ‘Tonight I can Write – this is, probably my favourite poem in this collection.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines
Write, for example, that night
is starry
and the stars are blue and shiver
in the distance.

The night wind revolves in the
sky and sings
Tonight I can write the saddest lines
I loved her, and sometimes she
loved me too..

Having carefully developed this relationship between the poet-narrator and his beloved against a natural world alive with romantic sentiment, the poem concludes in the following manner.

I no longer love her, that’s certain,
but maybe I love her
Love is short, forgetting is long.

Because through nights like this
one I held her in my arms
My soul is not satisfied that it
has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that
she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that
I write for her.

Here the language is not difficult, it is direct; he is operating in a commonly shared lexical space.

To be continued



Donate Now |
LANKAPUVATH - National News Agency of Sri Lanka
Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL)

| News | Editorial | Finance | Features | Political | Security | Sports | Spectrum | Montage | Impact | World | Obituaries | Junior | Youth |


Produced by Lake House Copyright © 2013 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.

Comments and suggestions to : Web Editor