I have been traveling in Argentina and Chile the last couple of weeks, experiencing this part of the world for the first time, enjoying the summer weather, and becoming better acquainted with the poet Pablo Neruda.
It has been said that no writer of world renown is perhaps less known in North America than Neruda. I have been chipping away at my ignorance. Before this trip I knew basically three things – he was Chilean, a poet, and persona non grata during the Pinochet dictatorship.
I had also enjoyed the popular 1994 art film “Il Postino.” In that fictional story Neruda exiles himself to an Italian island for political reasons. There he meets a poorly educated postman, whose job it is to deliver bags of mail from Neruda’s many admirers. Neruda helps the postman win the heart of the beautiful waitress at the village inn by showing him the beauty and power of poetry.
The actual events of Neruda’s life render listless any fictional account. A brief summary might look like this: born 1904 to working class family in southern Chile; mother died shortly after his birth; wrote first poetry at age ten; published at age 13; studied French at university in Santiago; published book of poems at age 20; served in embassy posts in Asia, Buenos Aires and Spain. Was politicized in 1930s during Spanish Civil War, becoming a lifelong communist. In 1949, threatened with arrest for political activities, he fled on horseback over the Andes mountains to Argentina. Served as advisor to Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende and as Ambassador to France 1970-73. Awarded Nobel Prize in Literature, 1971. Afflicted with cancer, died in 1973, within weeks of Pinochet’s coup d’etat and Allende’s suicide. Many think the poet was murdered by a doctor, under orders from Pinochet, while being treated for cancer. Dispersed among this incident-laden life were countless love affairs, three marriages, the construction of as many houses, and bottles of green ink, his favorite for writing.
Let me add one anecdote from the theatre world. Neruda was one of the most outspoken leftist public intellectuals of his era. Due to his ties to communism he was banned from entering the U.S. However, he wanted to attend the 1966 International PEN conference in New York. American playwright Arthur Miller interceded, prevailing upon the Lyndon Johnson administration to grant Neruda a visa.
Walt Whitman was one of Neruda’s heroes and photographs of the American poet hang in Neruda’s homes. Indeed, Neruda has been called the Whitman of South America. No philosophical abstractions for this poet. His verses live in the vernacular. A sensualist, he glorified experience. His subjects often came from nature – plants, flowers, stone, birds, the sea, and – like Whitman – the human body: “Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs, / you look like a world, lying in surrender. / My rough peasant’s body digs in you.”
Any poet who writes “My dog has died. / I buried him in the garden / next to a rusted old machine” is not likely to get balled up in abstraction.
His most famous book of poetry, published when he was 20, is Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Translated into numerous languages, it has sold millions of copies. I have been enjoying the translation by American poet W.S. Merwin. (If you are unfamiliar with Neruda’s poetry, this website offers a wide selection.)
A measure of Neruda’s stature in Chile’s cultural history is that three of his homes have been preserved and are now open to the public: Isla Negra (on the coast near Valparaiso), La Sebastiani (in Valparaiso, overlooking city and harbor), and La Chascona (Santiago). I visited the latter two.
Neruda was a compulsive collector of objets d’art and tchotchkes, and his homes were his museums. Often when you visit houses of deceased artists, they feel sterile, with many of the quirky details that made the residence an extension of the artist scrubbed out. No so with Neruda. The three houses are full of his stuff – taxidermied flamingo, carousel horse, music boxes, café table from Paris, paintings, photographs, correspondence, colored glass everywhere. There’s no end to it all.
I am returning home better informed about Latin America’s most famous poet, with pleasant memories of his homes and, packed in the suitcase among dirty clothes, books of his poetry.
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