Poet Spotlight: Pablo Neruda
Pablo Neruda, born as Ricardo Eliezer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto in Parral, Chile, to a rail-worker father and school-teacher mother (who died shortly after his birth), grew up in Temuco, a town in the southern countryside. His younger years were critical for his inspiration to compose his early works, especially with the help of his mentor, future Nobel laureate and fellow Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral.
Neruda remained a productive writer throughout his childhood and into high school, winning numerous literary prizes and frequently writing in magazines and newspapers. Thereafter, he moved to the capital of Santiago, where he became increasingly involved in politics while also studying French and pedagogy at the national university. All the while, he composed more and more poetry, including the love poems and lyrical accounts of the Chilean wilderness and people for which he became so well known.
The Chilean government eventually sent Neruda abroad as an ambassador to Burma (now Myanmar), part of a long, unofficial tradition that many Latin American countries adopted of sending their well-known poets and writers abroad as cultural diplomats, with the goal of spreading peace and understanding. This, in turn, would lead to a series of events that would push Neruda into international fame.
After serving his post in Burma and traveling eastern Asia, Chile directed Neruda to be ambassador to Argentina for several years, during which he met and struck a friendship with the famed Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Soon after, he was transferred to Madrid, by which time, in the early 1930s, was already showing signs of the internal tensions that would explode into the violent Spanish Civil War, one of the precursors to the second World War, just a few years later. Upon the outbreak of the hostilities, his poetic career took a backseat as he sought to help end the war through his accounts of its effects on the people of Spain. His sympathy for the Republicans, the loyalist fighters that sought to preserve Spanish democracy against the fascists under Francisco Franco (supported by the Germans and Italians), took a more serious and passionate turn upon Lorca’s execution by the Francoists in 1937. After this, his ideologies became too strong, to the effect that he could no longer remain an impartial politician. The Chilean government recalled him from Spain later that year to take refuge in France, wherein he worked to resettle escaping Spanish refugees to new homes in Chile.
In 1943, after having served as a consul to Mexico since the late 1930s, Neruda joined Chile’s Communist Party, an act for which he and other left-leaning figures in Chilean society were expelled from the country as it became more right-leaning. The government later rescinded this decree and allowed him to return in 1952, after which Neruda spent the rest of his life acting as “the people’s poet”, campaigning for private and public concerns both in government and in his writing.
Neruda was diagnosed with cancer while working a diplomatic post in France, and on September 23rd, 1973, less than two weeks after a right-wing, US-supported coup-d'etat under Augusto Pinochet toppled Chilean democratic rule, sealing the country’s fate for the next seventeen years, one of its most conspicuous, fervent champions passed away.
Neruda won the International Peace Prize in 1950, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, just two examples of the honors bestowed upon who is widely-regarded as one of the finest Latin American poets in modern history. His poetry is a concoction of a lifetime of experiences with art, nature, politics, society, suffering, alienation, and self-identity, all painted with lavish, abstract metaphors and phrases that make his poems uniquely, and sometimes strangely, colorful.
One poem of his that he seasoned with all of these aspects, in one dose or another, is “Some Beasts”, part of his Canto General (“General Song”), a stage of his poetry that dominated the years of his life he spent hidden from the public and government eyes following his expulsion from the anti-communist Chilean Senate.
It was the twilight of the iguana:
From a rainbow battlement,
a tongue like a javelin
lunging in verdure;
an ant heap treading the jungle,
monastic, on musical feet;
the guanaco, oxygen-fine
in the high places swarthy with distances,
cobbling his feet into gold;
the llama of the scrupulous eye
that widens his gaze on the dews
of a delicate world.
A monkey is weaving
a thread of insatiable lusts
on the margins of morning:
he topples a pollen-fall,
startles the violet flight
of the butterfly, wings on the Muzo.
It was the night of the alligator:
snouts moving out of the slime,
in the original darkness, pullulations,
a clatter of armor, opaque
in the sleep of the bog,
turning back to the chalk of the sources.
The jaguar touches the leaves
with his phosphorous absence,
the puma speeds to his covert
in the blaze of his hungers,
his eyeballs, a jungle of alcohol,
burn in his head.
Badgers are raking the river beds,
nuzzling the havens
for their warm delectation,
red-toothed, for assault.
And below, on the vastness of water,
like a continent circled,
drenched in the ritual of mud,
gigantic, the coiled anaconda.
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