In the modern world, we don’t tend to associate politicians with particularly artistic, or even sometimes coherent, language. However, there was once a politician with the ability to manipulate language not only coherently, but beautifully – Pablo Neruda.
All joking aside, Neruda was a master of the Spanish language throughout the sixty-nine years of his life. Described by René de Costa as “central to almost every important development in twentieth-century Spanish and Spanish American poetry”, he is considered one of Chile’s four greatest poets. He has certainly become one of the most popular and well-known writers from Chile to a Western audience – he is one of only two writers from the Southern hemisphere to be included in Harold Bloom’s famous work, The Western Canon.
Neruda’s work is striking in its sensitivity, which is especially visible in his initial collection, Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair), written in 1924. This collection demonstrates why he is praised for his love poetry. It has no political affiliation, no underlying radical motive, it doesn’t make you want to tear down the system. A reader unaware of the context of Neruda’s life might not see in the author a future forerunner in Chilean politics. Yet, even in their least overtly political form, his love poems are revolutionary.
Neruda’s love poetry is not simply love poetry: it is erotic, defying the censorship of the time and charging toward the liberation movements of the sixties. To write such sexual material in the 1920s brutally undermined the status quo, offending those who held what we would today deem conservative values. In this sense, Neruda’s revolutionary spirit shines through.
To take a few examples from the collection, the opening poem ‘Cuerpo de mujer’ (‘Body of a Woman’) sets the tone:
“Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.”
This description is clearly radical for its time, explicitly describing the naked curves of his lover’s frame, comparing her to the natural world, creating a wondrous synergy between humanity and nature. Neruda’s language in the poem reminds me that no matter how far from the natural world we may stray, we will always remain caught up in Mother Earth’s patterns.
Neruda begins a motif in this poem that permeates the entire collection: love as a powerful, fluid force. He writes:
“My thirst, my boundless desire […]
Dark river-beds where the eternal thirst flows”.
Halfway through the collection, he attempts to quench this thirst, daring to
“[…] cast my sad nets
towards your oceanic eyes.”
By the final poems, this desire has fast developed into an almost overwhelming force:
“[…] even my soul is wet”.
In his search for connection and intimacy, the speaker has become so engrossed in his partner’s love, which he so desired, that it has flooded him and got underneath his skin.
The collection is not one of love poems alone, it also acts as a caution of the power of love and desire. ‘La canción desesperada’ (‘A Song of Despair’) warns of the destructiveness of love, in its fluid form, hence the repetition of the phrase:
“In you everything sank!”
Love is water, less dense than the objects it interacts with, and therefore causes overwhelming pain and suffering when someone unwittingly allows themselves to drown in it.
This idea of love as a powerful force is not new – it echoes the Ancient Greek idea that love was even more powerful than the gods. In the same way, Neruda’s eroticism isn’t new, many poets before him wrote on similar themes. However, Neruda makes these themes more explicit, making it impossible to overlook them.
My only wish, on remembering Neruda on his birthday, is that my Spanish was better. I have been reading the W. S. Merwin translation of Neruda and though it captures the sense of the writing, I feel that if I could read Neruda’s poetry in its original Spanish, I would pick up on interesting and beautiful nuances that may have been lost in the translation.
Neruda was revolutionary both poetically and politically, combining sensitivity with power. In his writings on love, the ‘Picasso of poetry’ saw the radical natural world in the human body, something we are steadily forgetting. We should continue to celebrate his work today.
Image: Rafa Alves via Flickr