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The poetic universe of Pablo Neruda

The final book of poems of Neruda that I wish to focus on is One Hundred Love Sonnets. This shows the trend-line of his later poetry. This poem is dedicated to Matilde Urrutia who became his third wife, and she lived with him until his death on September 23 1973.He experienced a sense of fulfilment in his third marriage and his later poetry, in many ways, reflects this fact. Clearly, there is a difference in tone and tenor between his early love poems, say, those contained in Twenty Love Poems and those in his later life. One Hundred Love Sonnets, in my judgment, represents this change.

Many of the poems gathered in this book were written in Isla Negara where Neruda spent much of his time after 1960.It was, then, a small fishing village with unpaved roads and without electricity. Neruda’s house was by the Pacific Ocean overlooking the vast expanse of blue. His book of poems House in the Sand describes his house and its environs in vivid terms. The sea, its rolling waves, the wind, shells on the beach are a constant presence in the poems collected in One Hundred Love Sonnets. In composing his poems, Neruda chose the Italian sonnet form but he did not adhere strictly to the Italian convention and made certain departures from it.

Instead of the dark and somber tone that characterised many of the poems in the Residence cycle, a note of optimism now enters his poetry. The image of the earth, which was central to his earlier love poetry, remains so in the compositions of One Hundred Love Sonnets. This is Sonnet IV.

Pablo Neruda

You will remember that leaping stream
Where sweet aromas rose and trembled,
And sometimes a bird, wearing water
And slowness, in winter feathers.

You will remember those gifts from the earth:
Indelible scents, gold clay.
Weeds in the thicket and crazy roots,
Magical thorns like swords.

You’ll remember the bouquet you picked,
Shadow and silent water,
Bouquet like a foam-covered stone.

The time was like never, and like always,
So we go there, where nothing is waiting,
We find everything waiting there.

Similarly, the tone of optimism and fulfillment continues in passages such as the following. This is taken from sonnet XLVIII

The air and wine accompany the lovers.
The night delights them with joyous pearls.
They have the right to all carnations.

Two happy lovers, without an ending, without death,
They are born, they die, many times while they live;
They have the eternal life of the Natural

In discussing Twenty Love Poems, I made the point that they grew out of intensely felt experiences and sensations of a young man. The Canto General gave expression to his growing interest in public issues. Now in his later poetry, we observe a combination of the personal and public in interesting ways as is exemplified by passages such as the following..

My love, I returned from travel and sorrow
To your voice, to your hand flying on the guitar,
To the fire interrupting the autumn with kisses,
To the night that circles through the sky.

I ask or bread and dominion for all;
For the worker with no future I ask for land,
May no one expect my blood or my song to rest!
But I cannot give up your love, not without dying.

Categories

The sonnets in this volume are divided into four categories – morning, noon, afternoon and night. They are designed to correspond to the seasons in the life of human beings. There are only two characters in these sonnets; the poet-narrator and his beloved, Matilde. She does not speak and animates the poems through her silent, but distinct, presence.

The union between the human and natural worlds that marked his early erotic poetry finds expression, perhaps in a more mature form, in these sonnets as well. Here the ocean which figures so prominently in many of his poems gives a unity to the sonnet.

You are the daughter of the sea, oregano’s first cousin.
Swimmer, your body is pure as the water.
He goes on to claim that

Your eyes go out toward the water, and the waves rise;
Your hands go out to the earth, and the seeds swell;
You know the deep essence of water and the earth.
Conjoined in you like a formula for clay.

What I have sought to do so far is to discuss briefly, what I think are, six of the more important works of Pablo Neruda so as to indicate his growth as a poet as well as to convey an impression of his primary thematic interests and formal and stylistic innovations .As I stated earlier, Neruda is, without a doubt, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century who has exercised a palpable influence on the thought and imagination of Latin American countries.

To be sure, his influence is not confined to Latin America alone; he is valued equally highly by readers in other continents as well

What lessons does Neruda’s poetry hold for us in Sri Lanka? Here I wish to stress three important points. First he demonstrates with great poetic intensity the way a gifted poet can explore public themes, social and political issues, in his or her poetry. This is indeed important in view of the fact that many Sri Lankan writers have voiced the opinion that poetry should grapple with complex social issues.

This demand was heard loudest in the 1970s when the call for a people’s literature as at its peak. Pablo Neruda was a committed writer. In works such as Canto General he sought to combine social consciousness and lyrical power. How did he accomplish this? He accomplished this primarily through the power of a language medium alive with metaphoric richness and density and a soaring imagination.

For example, in the poem titled ‘The Land is Called Juan’, Neruda displays the life stories of ordinary men, in order to underline the common bonds that exist among the down trodden. He says that the land belongs to them, and they, unfortunately, have been rendered invisible by history.

Behind the liberators you could always find Juan
Working, fishing, also fighting,
In the carpenter’s shop, in his deep wet mine,
His hands have ploughed the soil, they have measured every road.
His bones are buried everywhere.

It may be that his bones are everywhere, but the fact is he has not been vanquished. The conquering armies might harm him, but the land belongs to him and he and his spirit will emerge from it

But he is alive. He came back from the earth. He us reborn,
He is born again like an eternal plant

When we consider passages such as these we begin to understand how public consciousness and individual sentiment can be fruitfully blended through the power of poetic imagination. There is a lesson for us here.

Second, we can study the complex ways in which the imaginations works in and through his poetry. The success of a poem depends to a very large extent on the way the poet’s imagination function within it. It is related to such poetic resources as the use of language, imagery, rhythm, sound effects and so on.

However deeply felt the experience is or however lofty the sentiments are, the poem will not achieve the desired measure of success unless it is enlivened by a powerful imagination. Even his detractors would agree that many of Neruda’s poems are quickened by his rare imagination. A passage such as the following, taken from his early work Twenty Love Poems, illustrates this point.

Upstream, in the midst of the outer waves
Your parallel body yields to my arms
Like a fish infinitely fastened to my soul,
Quick and slow, in the energy under the sky.’

Visionary poet

Third. Pablo Neruda increasingly came to see himself as a visionary poet. He was moved by a vision of the future, of human possibilities. Indeed, he was a seer in the true sense of the word. His Canto General can be said to incarnate a millennial vision. Walt Whitman, who in many ways inspired Neruda, is another visionary poet. When we examine Neruda’s poetry carefully, we realise that the carving out of a visionary path is indeed a challenging task. To be a visionary poet, it is not enough to articulate some philosophical or reflective thoughts; they have to be embodied in the very texture of the poetry.

In Neruda’s case the dazzling images carry the burden of his effort. This again is an area that we in Sri Lanka can pursue profitably. There have been many modern Sinhala poets who have tried to write philosophical and visionary poetry, but their efforts have, by and large, fallen far short of the mark.

We can, then, learn a great deal from the poetry of Pablo Neruda. At the same time, we need to be keenly aware of his defects and blind spots. In the interest of space I would like to identify three of them.

Firstly, although he was, for the most part, successful in blending public issues private sentiment and convert the public issues into poetic experiences, there are also instances where he failed in this effort.

Some of the pieces, for example those dealing with Stalin, barely rise above propaganda. It need hardly be said that there is a difference between sloganeering and publicly-oriented poetry, and at times Neruda fails to transition from one to the other.

Second, many of his poems are love poems, and even in those poems dealing with social issues, there is a pronounced element of eroticism, especially in the deployment of tropes.

At times, Neruda comes very close to sentimentality and melodrama; it is only his ability to fashion startling images and open up newer vistas of imagination that saves him from this peril. In the hands of a lesser poet, some of these poems would have almost certainly been tarnished by sentimentality. This is an aspect of poetry that we should examine with great care.

Third. I personally find that Neruda missed an opportunity to engage the cultural and intellectual traditions of Asia, while he was living in Asia, and there by widen his intellectual horizons and enrich his poetry. In this regard, the poetry of Octavio Paz, is most instructive.

This Nobel-Prize winning Mexican poet spent some time in India as a diplomat. During this period, he made a genuine effort to understand the philosophy, art and culture of India; he even taught him some Sanskrit. As a result he was able to write a number of highly insightful essays in Indian art and philosophy.

Indian experience

He wrote several poems based on his Indian experience and they are vitalised by this informed understanding of Indian philosophy. For example, his book titled The Monkey Grammarian, he uses a mind-journey to the Indian city of Galta in Rajasthan, now ruined amidst forbidding hills, to offer poetically charged reflections on many things Indian.

For Neruda, on the other hand Burma, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and Indonesia became backgrounds for the articulation of his loneliness and solitude. Just as the Spanish Civil War became a kind of event in his evolving biography, these Asian countries became mere backdrops to articulate his depressed mood.

Hence, it is my belief that he missed an opportunity. For example, he remarked in frustration about his Asian experience, ‘distance and deep silence separated me from the world, and I could not bring myself to enter whole-heartedly the alien world around me’. Speaking of India he once claimed that. ‘Everything here seems to be in ruins and tearing itself apart.’ However, in fairness to Neruda, it has also to be said that he recognised that there were certain elemental and unifying forces that prevented such a catastrophe.

At the beginning of this series of columns on Neruda, I said that he spent sometime in Sri Lanka as a diplomat. In conclusion I would like to comment on that period of his life. In his book titled ‘Memoirs’ which is a chain of memories from his childhood onwards he devotes some pages to his experiences in Sri Lanka. ‘Memoirs’ is characterised by vigorous writing that is enticingly descriptive with eloquent turns of phrase and vivid imagery. The book runs into about 364 pages and the author devotes about 12 pages to reminiscences of Sri Lanka.

This is how he opens his descriptions of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. ’In 1929, Ceylon, the most beautiful of the world’s large islands, had the same colonial structures as Burma and India. The English ad entrenched themselves in their neighborhoods and their clubs, hemmed in by vast multitude of musicians, potters, weavers, plantation slaves, monks in yellow, and immense gods carved into the stone mountains.

Caught between the Englishmen dressed every evening in dinner jackets and Hindus I couldn’t hope to reach in their fabulous immensity I had only solitude open to me, and so that time was the loneliest in my life.’ It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many of the poems composed during this period in Sri Lanka bear the indubitable presence of loneliness and solitude. Neruda, as I pointed out earlier, was always fascinated by the sea, and his stay in Sri Lanka was no exception. He recaptures the experiences by the sea in the following manner.

Music

‘I went to live in a small bungalow recently built in the suburb of Wellawatte, near the sea. It was a sparsely populated area, with the surf breaking on the reefs nearby. The music of the sea swelled into the evening.

In the morning, the miracle of this newly washed nature was overwhelming. I joined the fisherman very early. Equipped with long floats, the boats looked like sea spiders.

The men pulled out fish of vivid colors, fish like birds from the teeming forest, some with deep blue phosphorescence of intense living velvet, others shaped like prickly balloons that shriveled up into sorry little sacs of thorns.’

During this period of intense loneliness in Sri Lanka, Neruda had two companions – a dog and a mongoose. As he observes, ‘my dog and my mongoose were my sole companions. Fresh from the jungle, the latter grew up at my side, slept in my bed, and at my table.

No one can imagine the affectionate nature of a mongoose. My little pet was familiar with every minute of my day-to-day life, she tramped all over my papers, and raced after me all day long. She curled up between my shoulder and my head at siesta time and slept there the fitful, electric sleep of wild animals.’

Neruda narrates an interesting story about his mongoose called Kiriya. It had a reputation as a fighter, and mongooses are famous for fighting off snakes. One day, street children had organised a clash of wills and prowess between a viper and Neruda’s mongoose.

The fight began in earnest, and after a while the mongoose got cold feet and ran away and hid in Neruda’s house. Neruda fexperienced a self- diminution; he suffered an intense loss of face in the street community from which he never recovered! He says, ‘that’s how I lost caste, more than thirty years ago, in the suburb of Wellawatte.’

His recounting of his various experiences in Sri Lanka is interspersed with comments on the social structure of Sri Lana at the time.

This was a period in which Neruda had the time to read, or more accurately, was forced to read all kinds of books. His friend Lionel Wendt supplied him with a never ending supply of books.

One such book that particularly stirred his imagination was Leonard Woolf’s Village in the Jungle. He said that Village in the Jungle is ‘a masterpiece true both to life and to literature, it was virtually eclipsed by the fame of his wife, none other than Virginia Woolf, the great subjective novelist of world renown.’

There are some interesting anecdotes in Neruda’s descriptions of Sri Lankan life. The following is replete with sarcasm.

‘I stayed there a little while, caught in the magic spell of the drum and fascinated by the voice, and then I went on my way drunk with the enigma of an emotion I can’t describe, of a rhythm whose mystery issued from the whole earth. An earth filled with music and wrapped in fragrance and shadows.

The English were already seated at the table, dressed in black and white.

‘Forgive me, I stopped along the way to listen to some music’ I told them.

They, who had lived in Ceylon for twenty-five years, reacted with elegant disbelief. Music? The natives have musicians? No one had known about t. This was news to them.’ News indeed!

Much of Residence on Earth 1 was written in Sri Lanka, and Neruda offers us interesting insights into its composition .He had finished writing the first section of this poem; however, he felt that he was making very slow progress.

He felt that he could not enter enthusiastically into his surroundings. He says, ‘things that happened in my life, which was suspended in a vacuum were brought together in my book as if they were natural events.’

He felt that his style was becoming increasingly bitter as a consequence of the deep melancholy that had enveloped him. As he remarked, ‘the style is not only the man. It is also everything around him, and if the very air he breathes does not had a chance to breathe.’

During this period he read widely; through the writings of Proust he made his way into the joys of music. As Neruda points out, ‘Proust’s insight illuminated whatever he touched, he frequently returned to the enchantment of sonata. Neruda states that, ‘his (Proust’s) words led me to re-live my own life, to recover the hidden sentiments I had almost lost within myself in my long absence. I wanted to see in that musical phrase Proust’s magical narrative and I was swept away on music’s wings.’

Memoirs

There are a few paragraphs in Memoirs dealing with his Sri Lankan experience that serve to open a useful window onto his poetry. He remarks that, ‘until now, critics who have scrutinized my work have not detected this secret influence I am confessing here. For, I wrote a large part of ‘Residence on Earth’ there, in Wellawatte. Although my poetry is not ‘fragrant or aerial’ but sadly earth-bound, I think those qualities, so often clad in mourning, have something to do with my deep feelings for the music that lived within me.’

Neruda wouldn’t be Neruda if he did not get himself embroiled in various sexual relationships. There are some passages in his descriptions of his experience in Sri Lanka that touch on sexual relations.

One such sad and amusing relationship is the one that he had with the young woman who cleaned his latrine.(Remember, this was in the 1920s when flush-toilets were not common). This is how he describes her. ‘Into the back of the house, walking like a dusky statue, came the most beautiful woman I had yet seen in Ceylon, a Tamil of the pariah caste. She was wearing a red-and-gold sari of the cheapest kind of cloth.

She had heavy bangles on her bare ankles. Two tiny red dots glittered in ether side of her nose. They must have been ordinary glass, but on her they were rubies.’ He goes on with the description

‘She walked solemnly toward the latrine, without so much as a side glance at me, not bothering to acknowledge my existence and vanished with the disgusting receptacle on her head, moving away with the steps of a goddess.’ The various accounts of his life in Sri Lanka, then, provide us with valuable insights both into his personal life and his art of poetry.

In this series of columns on Pablo Neruda, it was my intention to highlight his strengths and weaknesses as a poet, and offer some pointers to his relevance to us – to us as Sri Lankan writers and readers. He subscribed, it seems to me, to a poetics of hyperbole; this poetics underwrites much of his writing.

Poetics

It is only the most gifted of poets, I contend, who can make use of this poetics cogently and productively, and Neruda was certainly one of them. He managed to pull it off while producing, for the most part, compositions marked by an exquisite lyricism. For us, in Sri Lanka, an aspect of his poetry that holds a special interest is his deft blending of personal sentiment and public consciousness.

The distinguished literary critic Edward Said once observed that in terms of achieved social vision there are important affinities of interest between Yeats and Neruda, although there are significant differences as well. Said refers to the way both poets succeed in combining individual experience and social vision.

He selects a poem by Neruda – Fully Empowered – and compares it with Yeats’ The Fisherman to demonstrate the fact that ‘in both poems the central figure is an anonymous man of the people, who in his strength and loneliness is a mute expression of the people, a quality that inspires the poet in his work.’ We as Sri Lankan readers will recognize his startling imagery, cosmic imagination, boundless energy, the capacity to feel intensely and the ability to discover the essence of being beyond the clutches of time as the sinews that bind his poems together.

Neruda was influenced by Whitman, surrealist poets, Latin American poetry, but there was no Neruda before Neruda. Analogously, many sought to emulate him, but there is no Neruda after Neruda.

To be continued

 

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