Forty-five years after his death, Pablo Neruda’s poetry still has the power to astonish and appall, awaken and chill us and leave us shaking our heads in bafflement or respect. There is such breadth and profligate intelligence in the work, which ranges from opaque surrealism to bighearted populism to Pan-American epic to shocking propaganda, that one hardly knows where to place it in our era of thwarted emotions. Clearly it is not of our time. Given Neruda’s relations with women, it is certainly not of the time of #MeToo. The work will not always sit well beside a mature feminist consciousness, and of course it will not please ideologues who can’t tell one form of socialism from another. Neruda changed, and his circumstances changed. As a man he could be a monster of egotism and a courageous dissident, a purblind Stalinist and a Roosevelt democrat. His poetry incarnates these shifts and siftings and restless experiments. The past is a moving target. Poetry keeps it alive.
Neruda’s poetry is embodied, contradictory, expressing public and private iterations of the life of a man, but we live in a time strait-jacketed by either/or thinking: either you’re a womanizer or you’re a flawless saint; either you’re a Libertarian or you’re a Stalinist; either you’re with us or you’re against us. Neruda frustrates contemporary appetites for correctness and justice, and some readers will dismiss him precisely on such limited grounds, as if the past could be purified to meet our astringent demands. To say Neruda was flawed is laughable. Humanity is flawed. That’s what makes us human.
A solid new biography of Neruda by Mark Eisner frets at the issue of reception. In an epilogue, Eisner quotes a handful of Chilean university students—millennials in 2014, who sound a lot like my own students now. One of them offers, “Poetry that idealizes the feminine image, highlighting only its physical attributes from a male perspective, doesn’t work as well in the twenty-first century as it did before, at least for me and other friends.” It’s a perfectly legitimate complaint that might help male poets find new ways of writing about erotic love—awfully hard to do without an “object.” Yet the student is also erasing aspects of the past that do not conform to present views, upheld by the authority of one generation’s perspective, and I can’t help feeling that, somewhere, a living baby is being thrown out with the foul old bathwater. (This “presentism” comes in a decade when the study of history on university campuses is at an all-time low.) Another student says, “Neruda seems to be loaded with a basic machismo, good bourgeois taste with the Communist flag in hand, and a pompous heroism that seems very far away from us.” Very far away from us. Again, I question any education that assumes its purpose is to reify the present without trying to understand the past. A third student opines, “In my opinion, Pablo Neruda serves as an ideal example of what’s happening today with the ‘authority figure’ in diverse subjects, like politics and religion. . . . Neruda is the figure of a poet fallen from the heavens, a fallen angel, as certain truths about him have come to light and knocked him from his pedestal. . . . Neruda’s consecration as a poet is not enough in our culture now; his failings as a human being must also be acknowledged.”
Valid as these feelings may be, they arise from another fallacy—that admiration of a poet must perforce be consecration. Either/or. Between extremities we run our course. If Neruda was turned into a posthumous object of veneration, that is hardly the fault of his poetry. And his poetry means his voice as a human being, which his friend and translator Alastair Reid called “the most lasting legacy of any existence.” We live in a time of absolutist judgments, when as Auden put it, dead writers are “punished under a foreign code of conscience.” It’s inevitable, I suppose: “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.” Yet even our desire for just goals like diversity too often denies diversity by policing the past, trying to cleanse it of anything incorrect or unseemly. We must be able to reside with human imperfection, critical but compassionate and curious, or we will lose the diversity of art.
Justice for Pablo Neruda, and for his readers, would be to acknowledge his sins without losing sight of his accomplishment—meaning his voice. While writing this, I listened on YouTube to Neruda’s cultivated tenor declaiming lines of his masterpiece, “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” which some have called the greatest poem of the Spanish language, and I found its rhythms compelling—big breaths of chanted sound. Here are a few lines in Eisner’s translation:
Rise up and be born with me, brother.
From the deepest reaches of your
disseminated sorrow, give me your hand.
You will not return from the depths of rock.
You will not return from the subterranean time.
It will not return, your hardened voice.
They will not return, your drilled-out eyes.
Look at me from the depths of the earth,
plowman, weaver, silent shepherd:
tender of the guardian guanacos:
mason of the impossible scaffold:
water-bearer of Andean tears:
goldsmith of crushed fingers:
farmer trembling on the seed:
potter poured out into your clay:
bring all your old buried sorrows
to the cup of this new life.
As Eisner points out, no less a purveyor of opinions than Harold Bloom “claims that Neruda ‘can be regarded as Whitman’s truest heir. The poet of Canto General is a worthier rival than any other descendant of Leaves of Grass.’” Bloom’s narrative of heirs and anxieties is easy to dismiss, yet it accurately identifies a level of magnitude in Neruda’s accomplishment. Nerudismo, to use a term of derision sometimes applied by Neruda’s own contemporaries, can feel positively Whitmanesque: big-shouldered, open-armed. Yet Neruda as a teenager was producing gorgeous, delicate love poems, and soon after that prose of hermetic surrealism, and soon after that a poetry with grand historical vision of a sort we’d be hard-pressed to find in North America. He had his phases of socialist realism, wrote a perfectly awful ode on Stalin’s death, and accepted prizes from the Soviets, yet the great odes and “thing poems” of his later years are delightful. Did he contradict himself? Most certainly. Another poet I would compare him to is Yeats, both for his public life and his personal idiocies. Flawed men who wrote some great poetry—I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them.
I knew Alastair Reid, the Scottish poet who superbly translated Borges and Neruda—writers of the right and the left—and loved them both as men, loved their voices. Eisner quotes from Alastair’s memoir of these two men a lovely anecdote of Neruda’s generosity: “Once, in Paris, while I was explaining some liberty I had taken, he stopped me and put his hand on my shoulder: ‘Alastair, don’t just translate my poems. I want you to improve them.’” Later, Alastair would write a very fine poem, “1973,” about Neruda dying right at the moment the coup toppled Chile’s first truly popular government and rolled in seventeen years of dictatorship under Pinochet. I remember that autumn. Auden died just a week after Neruda, and it seemed two giants of world poetry had been felled. I met Alastair soon after, when he came to teach at the college where I was a student, and I remember him reading another tribute, “Translator to Poet,” which Eisner quotes late in his book:
There are only the words left now. They lie like tombstones
or the stone Andes where the green scrub ends.
I do not have the heart to chip away
at your long lists of joy, which alternate
their iron and velvet, all the vegetation
and whalebone of your chosen stormy coast.
So much was written hope, with every line
extending life by saying, every meeting
ending in expectation of the next.
It was your slow intoning voice which counted,
bringing a living Chile into being
where poetry was bread, where books were banquets.
Now they are silent, stony on the shelf.
I cannot read them for the thunderous silence,
the grief of Chile’s dying and your own,
death being the one definitive translation.
What Alastair taught was the joyful humility of reading, allowing other presences their imperfect existences—that final translation being the limit of all our lives. Neruda’s life, then, to the degree that we can know it, is instructive, even as a fading coexistence with the poems.
Literary biography is a strange addiction. One knows it’s all provisional, and one learns skepticism about any connection between the life and the work. The self is so unknowable, flickering and transient, so how can we know another? Reading a life is like reading a poem—full of ambiguity, which involves consciousness that we are reading. Was there ever a time when no one doubted authority? Even the great biographer Richard Holmes has said in a recent interview with Andrew Motion that “biographies take place cumulatively on the subject. There’s very rarely one biography. They build through time. . . .” If Mark Eisner’s life of Neruda sometimes feels a bit flat and declarative in style, it’s still a thoughtful and valuable book, linking the meaning of Neruda’s public life to the state of our world now with versions of fascism ascendant on both the right and the left.
Like most biographies, this one begins with a blur of begats. Neruda was born Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto in southern Chile in 1904. I was jet-lagged while reading the early pages and couldn’t recount them to you if I tried. I began to wake up when the boy Neftalí took the name Pablo Neruda at age sixteen, by which time he had already developed sympathies for the indigenous Mapuche people of Chile and a grasp of class differences. Prodigious in both poetry and romance, he was nineteen when he published The Book of Twilights, twenty when he produced a book that has now sold well over a million copies, Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song. For a while he studied French pedagogy at university in Santiago, but the distractions of literature and sex already dominated his life. The universal struggle of earning a living led him to the foreign service, and he was posted at twenty-three as Chilean consul in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar). Like his contemporary, Auden, he pursued an international life, much of it free of political ideology, following his own passions and proclivities. Younger than the modernists then ascendant in Europe, Neruda’s generation was sympathetic to their experiments, particularly to surrealism. His international experience would eventually contribute to the global fame of a literary rock star, but in those early diplomatic years he was poor and isolated. Eisner confesses to some queasiness about Neruda’s racial attitudes in Asia, particularly his treatment of local women and prostitutes. He records several encounters, versions of which appear in the poet’s memoirs, one of which might have been a rape:
Neruda’s behavior, both here and throughout his time in Asia, was imperialism perpetrated on a human scale, an exact replica of the imperialism perpetrated on a geopolitical scale against which he ranted both while in Asia and while writing his memoirs. . . .
His narcissism is further expressed in the way he integrates the woman’s duty of cleaning his personal excrement into the story of his violation of her. It amounts to the divinization of his excrement, as it is a sublime goddess who empties his chamber pot. The goddess merits less consideration than even a prostitute, who Neruda would at least have paid for her services.
Eisner sees Neruda’s opium use and sex life in Asia as a drama of the suffering ego, the agon from which the early poetry was made. Surrounded by Buddhists, Neruda rejected their vision of enlightenment in favor of a more personal drama, a struggle that would eventually have its parallel in politics.
He was working on poems that would eventually comprise the three volumes of Residence on Earth—that marvelous visionary title—and would contain some of his most popular poems, like “Walking Around”:
Comes a time I’m tired of being a man.
Comes a time I check out the tailor’s or the movies
shriveled, impenetrable, like a felt swan
launched into waters of origin and ashes.
A whiff from the barber shops has me wailing.
All I want is a break from rocks and wool,
all I want is to see neither buildings nor gardens,
no shopping centers, no bifocals, no elevators.
Comes a time I’m tired of my feet and my fingernails
and my hair and my shadow.
Comes a time I’m tired of being a man.
The poem extends its list of injustices, some more trivial than others. It’s a howl long before Howl, and indeed the Beats felt they owed a great deal to Neruda.
But his life at this point was a series of evasions, and when almost by accident he found himself consul in Batavia (now Jakarta), his precipitous marriage to Maria Antonia Hagenaar Vogelzang, a woman unsympathetic to literature, seems part of a desperate pattern. Pablo and Maruca, as she was more affectionately known, eventually had a daughter together, Malva Marina, who suffered from hydrocephaly, and whose neglect was one of Neruda’s worst actions. The girl would die at age eight, by which time Neruda and Maruca were separated. The poet’s vitality was sometimes sustained by a clueless ego, and this was not the only time he turned his back on the suffering of others.
Eisner’s book really comes to life when Neruda, age thirty, takes diplomatic posts in Spain, developing his connection to Spanish writers like Federico García Lorca, deepening his relationship to Chile’s mother country. In Spain Neruda developed his theory of “A poetry impure as old clothes, as a body, with its food stains and shame, with wrinkles, observations, dreams, vigilance, prophecies, declarations of love and hate, beasts, blows, idylls, manifestos, denials, doubts, affirmations, taxes.” As civil war erupted in 1936, Neruda took on a heroic stature that was not a pose. The stakes were real and vital, and he was one of the poets who could see them clearly. Like Auden, Orwell and Hemingway, he witnessed history being made, but as a diplomat he had additional responsibility for the people involved and acquitted himself well. Poems like “I Explain Some Things” brought stark reportage of events into literature:
You will ask why his poetry
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!
In 1936 García Lorca’s execution by fascists affected Neruda profoundly: “Lorca’s fate moved the poets to become active participants in the war, not just observers. Pablo Neruda had become a different poet; now he became a different man. There were no more surrealistic dead doves or pumpkins listening. There was the blood of children. There was Lorca’s blood, and much more to follow.” Neruda and his new partner, Delia, escaped first to France, then to Chile, where he worked valiantly to resettle Spanish refugees. To make his love life possible, he was acting the cad toward Maruca, but in politics he was genuinely intrepid. He didn’t see the Stalinist takeover of the Spanish left as a danger the way Orwell did, largely because he focused on the suffering of the Spanish people and tried to do something about it. His blindness to Stalin’s crimes would blight his biography, to be sure, but in the 1940s, he was more a compassionate politician than an ideologue.
Neruda set himself in opposition to the conservative government of his homeland, formally joining the Communist Party in 1945. In hindsight, of course, this seems a blunder, but Eisner makes a good case that Neruda saw communism as the only viable way to oppose the economic and political corruption of his country. In 1947, now a senator, he addressed the Chilean senate in defense of an article he had published on the “Crisis of Democracy.” Here again his ideas do not seem Stalinist but responsible criticisms of an untenable status quo. He quoted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four freedoms—as succinct a formula for a just society as any I know: “freedom of speech and expression; freedom of every person to worship God in his own way; freedom from want; freedom from fear.”
This public stance was not easy. In an intolerant state, he was putting his life in danger, and he was not fearless of the prospect of incarceration and worse. When the state issued a warrant for his arrest, Neruda went into hiding, protected by literary friends and fellow Communists. This is another of the best chapters in Eisner’s book, recounting Neruda’s escape over the Andes to Argentina. His fame made him into a Robin Hood figure, supported by the very people who were the subjects of his poems. He spoke of these trials in his Nobel lecture in 1971, relating a beautiful story of aid received from mountain peasants:
And I remember vividly: when we wanted to give the people of the mountain a few coins for their songs, their food, the water, the beds, and the roof over our heads—the unexpected shelter we had found —they refused our offering without even a gesture. They had done what they could for us, and nothing more. And in that silent “nothing more,” many things were understood; perhaps acknowledgement, perhaps dreams themselves.
Always seeking connection, Neruda links the politics of the time and the lives of “ordinary people,” whatever we take such a phrase to mean, with the imaginative work of the poet. In this he seems Emersonian, a representative man.
Yet there remain just as many stories of Neruda as the “Champagne Communist,” whose devotion to pleasure proved constantly distracting. He was in many ways a coward with women, hiding from Delia his love for the woman who would become his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, and eventually hiding from Matilde his affair with her niece. If you want your poets to be saints, don’t look to Neruda for the model. He went into public exile, living in Europe, visiting the Soviet Union. He was mobbed by fans at airports and in restaurants. He got fat. His political poems were more strident and sentimental, though in 1963 he finally managed to denounce Communist totalitarianism. Decades of silence about Stalin’s crimes, years in which he turned his back on friends who suffered under Stalin, could hardly be assuaged by these changes of heart. Neruda even slandered his friend Czesław Miłosz, who had left Poland for France, “in an article entitled ‘The Man Who Ran Away,’ naming Miłosz. . . ‘an agent of American imperialism.’” Years later, Neruda remained incapable of understanding what he had done:
A decade and a half after Neruda wrote his denunciation of his former friend, the two saw each other at the 1966 PEN Conference in New York. Neruda saw Miłosz across the room, cried, “Czesław!” and rushed to embrace him. Miłosz turned his face away and Neruda said, “But, Czesław, that was politics.”
On YouTube you can find films of the corpulent, dignified Neruda from these years and see in him both gravitas and clownishness, a face easy to caricature, giving him an aspect of the Chaplinesque. He’s one of the instantly recognizable figures of modern art, like another Pablo, his good friend Picasso, who had also worked through multiple phases of creativity and danced awkwardly with Stalinism. Genius is no proof of wisdom.
We are left with Neruda’s death from prostate cancer, and for a time the death of Chile, the latter partly orchestrated by the CIA. If Neruda’s death was brought about in the same way, the evidence has not yet been produced, despite many attempts to make it so. Eisner reports that new genetic tests on Neruda’s exhumed bones may yet have another story to tell. Or may not.
And we are left with Neruda’s voice. Watch his dignified manner in interviews with the likes of Gabriel García Márquez, or listen to him reciting “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” or consider Eisner’s account of a reading Neruda gave at the Royal Festival Hall in London in April 1972 with his friend Alastair Reid:
Reid read the English first, followed by Neruda reading the Spanish, in sections, so that the “sense comes first and the sound follows,” as Reid put it. If four decades earlier Neruda’s reading voice had been nasal and monotone, now it resounded, especially pronounced by the crisscross rhythm between the Spanish and the English, alternating long strands or stanzas or just couplets back and forth, the poems broken up as if into meter, creating varying speeds and tension and song. Reid had heard Neruda read many times, but on that night he sensed something truly special: the Chilean’s voice was “spreading itself like a balm over the English audience.” It was “a magical sound.”