People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 32

August 08, 2004



Poetry, Politics And Pablo Neruda

 Vibha Maurya


Sketch by Vivan Sundaram, 1972, Ink On Paper, 

11" *14", Heights of Machu Pichu Drawings


PABLO Neruda, poet, political activist and a simple human being was considered a legend in his lifetime and many think that after his death he got resurrected more like a living heroic figure that inspired one and all. Garcia Marquez considers him the greatest poet of the 20th century and in India he is one of the most read and translated poets of any foreign language. It is not a coincidence that in many stories and novels of Latin American writers Pablo Neruda appears as a protagonist. ‘I sell my dreams’ by Marquez, included in his collection entitled Twelve Pilgrim Stories (1992), poet Neruda appears as a character who with complete firmness announces that ‘nothing but poetry is gifted with intuition and far sight’. Neruda had tremendous faith in the power of poetry. He wrote thousands of verses which were appreciated and memorised by the most common and ordinary people of the Latin American continent. He says in his Memoirs, ‘when I wrote my first lonely books, it never entered my mind that with the passing years I would find myself in squares, streets, factories, lecture halls, theatres and gardens reading my poems. I have gone into practically every corner of Chile, scattering my poetry like seeds among the people of my country.’ Antonio Skarmeta’s novel, Neruda’s Postman (2001), depicts this fact in a most eloquent manner. These fictional texts bring home the point that perhaps in the world of literature there are very few examples of poets or writers who would have had such an impact on literature.


Ricardo Neftali Reyes (1904–1973) popularly known as Pablo Neruda lived for sixty-nine years out of which he wrote poetry for fifty-five years. Thus were born thousands of his poems and copious pages of other writings in prose. Neruda’s parents were of humble background and they lived in a small town called Temuco. All the childhood memories of the poet come from this provincial town with a rich landscape untouched by any social or religious conventions or so called ‘civilisational progress.’ As a result the urban biases of literary schools or theories are absent from his poetry, and the only influence found is that of wondrous nature around him. He says, ‘ I will start out by saying this about the days and years of my childhood. The rain was the one unforgettable presence for me then. The great southern rain, coming down like waterfall from the Pole, from skies of Cape Horn to the frontier.’ Perhaps, the overwhelming surroundings and the discovery of the miracles of nature created an appropriate atmosphere for the birth of a poet in Neruda. He wrote his first poem at the age of thirteen. And when he left Temuco at the age of sixteen, to go to Santiago to complete his studies at the university, he found himself to be a lonely person in the hustle-bustle of urban life. However, poetry always accompanied him and he published his first collections of poems: Crepusculario in 1923 and Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair in 1924, and after that there was no looking back.


It is often said that Neruda was a solitary person and he wrote his poetry in isolation. It is so argued because he lived in great loneliness at several stages of his life. First in Temuco, then as Consul in the Far East where his series of Residence on Earth (1933-47) were composed and also many periods of underground activity and exile. However, a close study of his life-story and of his poetry are themselves stories of a solitary man who consciously tried to get out of his loneliness. As the years passed he became a person with inexhaustible company of friends. V Teitelboim, a lifelong friend and comrade of Neruda says: ‘Solitude weighed on Neruda, that’s why he travelled from South to the North, he came out of the rains to the sunshine, in search of poetry, of the world, of love and of friendship. He searched for love and friendship as a means to unload the solitude and share with others the abundance of love of his heart.’ Nevertheless, the isolated existence for five years in Asia did leave its mark on him. He had to spend long years totally cut-off from his social and familiar milieu and even without using his own language.  Perhaps that was the only time when we see the poet in a sombre mood self-reflexive in an existentialist manner: ‘Here are piles of my poems of great monotony, almost ritualistic and of great mysteries and sorrow…’ he wrote from Rangoon to his friend Hector Eandi.


Neruda had always been a poet with great sense of self-criticism and self-reflection. He was not hesitant in rejecting his earlier views on certain issues and presenting a new and revised understanding. This was what helped in bringing about a fundamental change in Neruda’s personality and in his writings. This is also the reason why many critics divide Neruda’s writings into those of a poet who wrote political poetry with commitment and the poet of the ‘other’ kind of poetry. However, I would like to argue against this proposition. Though it is often said that politics is only one dimension of a person, in my opinion, it is necessary to add that no human experience exists without this dimension. Therefore, this division would mean denying all that is human. He has written about war and about machines, about cities and about rooms, about love, and wine, about death and about freedom. Therefore to separate his ethics from his aesthetics will mean distancing the man from his poetry. Neruda thought that those who want to separate the political poetry from the rest are enemies of poetry. These conclusions by the poet were derived from his own vital experiences.


In 1936, at the time of the out break of the Civil War, when the people of Spain were putting up a heroic resistance against the fascist forces Neruda could not remain indifferent. He got involved in the struggle first as Consul, by helping people whose life was in danger to migrate out of Spain, for this effort he was dismissed from his post. Then he became one of the most vociferous poets speaking out about the cruel events that were unfolding in Spain at that time. During this period in Madrid he found himself amongst a group of poets who had a special relationship with common people – Lorca, Alberti, Miguel Hernandez, Luis Cernuda, Leon Felipe etc. These were indeed the poets who initiated him into politics. His friendship with Rafael Alberti whose house was torched by the growing fascist forces in Spain in 1934 and with Lorca who was assassinated soon after the outbreak of the civil war in 1936 is reflected in the poems, which appear in the collection entitled Spain in my Heart (1936). Outraged by the atrocities of fascist Spanish army he wrote his famous poem ‘I am explaining a few things.’


These poems were so eloquent and had such ‘power of speech’ that they became part of peoples’ discourses on war. Perhaps, for the first time Neruda also found a sense of purpose that expressed his concerns about a plural subject. Suddenly his addressees changed radically and so did the content and the style. His ‘poems no longer could be a sign on the printed page, but were to be uttered and declaimed in order to elicit a response,’ says Jean Franco. This distinction also helped Neruda in understanding that the poetry by nature cannot be a private act, being a form of speech means belonging to a public domain.


The new practice of addressing to an audience, communicating with a group of people becomes more specific in Canto General, a collection of poems that are often called epic poems of Chile. Published in 1950 and divided into fifteen sections, these are some of his major poems, which tell the tale of Latin American people. Songs of Canto General were composed over twelve years, which are also considered years of militant Neruda. He was actively involved in the miners’ struggle of Chile and fought election from the provinces of Tarapaca and Antofagasta, regions known for their trade union militancy and was elected senator in 1945. The same year he joined the Communist Party. As a result his involvement with the problems of ordinary people constantly increased, as did his criticism of the ruling party led by Dictator Gonzalez Videla. Thus in 1948 January, due to his speech in the national parliament, which was later published with the title Yo acuso (I accuse) Chilean Supreme Court removed him from the senate and ordered his arrest. He was forced to go into hiding. During this period he was often sheltered by workers and had to move from house to house of his countrymen. That is why many sections of Canto General are dedicated to workers and peasants whose homes and experiences the poet had shared so many times. While reading these poems one feels that these are the people who are lending their voice to his poetry. Through these poems Neruda explains how his people were oppressed and exploited first by the conquerors and then by the dictators, the collection ends with an autobiographical account of the poet himself.


Canto General, undoubtedly, is the greatest expression of all that Neruda stood for, both in terms of his ideological commitment and artistic mastery. Poems like ‘Heights of Macchu Picchu’, ‘Discoverers of Chile’, ‘Magellan’s Heart’, ‘The Beasts’ all represent him as a poet-visionary for whom poetry was itself the object, independent of a subject but also a medium to communicate and convey a message. That is why he was not a formalist who would mull upon the intricacies of verbal elements. Neruda’s messages were not only informed by the worldly realities but he also talked about how to perceive these realities. He decides to write a chronicle of America in which he exalts her greatness, condemns her blemishes, and writes the history of perpetual confrontation between oppressors and liberators.  The Heights of Macchu Picchu, an important section of twelve songs of this collection, is a vivid description of human agony.


After Canto General he became more and more conscious of his language and concerned about the clarity of his communication as he realised that as a political activist he had to deal with the common man who is illiterate and uninformed. These efforts resulted in the composition of his Elemental Odes (1957) consisting of short lines, which mark a radical departure from long and descriptive poems of other collections Neruda was always concerned about the human beings and human conditions. He did not believe in no man’s land in literature. Each book of poem by him meant always a new beginning and an extraordinary ending. He says in his Memoirs:


My poetry and my life have advanced like an American river, a torrent of Chilean water born in the hidden heart of the Southern mountains, endlessly steering the flow of its currents towards the sea. My poetry rejected nothing it could carry along in its course; it accepted passion, unravelled mystery and worked its way into the heart of the people.


I had to suffer and struggle, to love and sing; I drew my worldly share of triumphs and defeats, I tasted bread and blood. What more can a poet want? And all the choices, tears or kisses, loneliness or the fraternity of man, survive in my poetry and are as essential part of it, because I have lived for my poetry and my poetry has nourished everything I have striven for.


Pablo Neruda wrote till the last day of his life, 23 September 1973. Nine days before his death, seventy-two hours after the fascist coup, Neruda started writing the last chapter of his Memoirs in which he defined the coup as a criminal putsch against the people of Chile. His funeral, as we know, got converted into the first massive protest meeting against the military dictator in Santiago.


Neruda is remembered today for the power of his poetry, for his protest against fascism and oppression, for the voice he gave to the people of Chile.