Pablo Neruda at 100
By Edward Hirsch
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page BW08
Pablo Neruda, a magnificent poet of Chile, of Latin America and, finally, of the Americas, well may be, in the words of Gabriel García Márquez, "the greatest poet of the twentieth century -- in any language." Beloved by Chileans of all classes, he is known throughout the world -- an iconic figure comparable to, say, Pablo Picasso or Charlie Chaplin. He is one of the most widely read and cherished poets in history. Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of Neruda's birth, and no celebration would be more fitting than to go down to the shore and read aloud his poems. He loved the playful anarchy of the sea -- creative, destructive, ceaselessly moving. He loved the marriage of wind, water and sand, and found inspiration in the crashing fury and freedom of the waves, the seabirds on the coast, the endlessness of blue sky. "I need the sea because it teaches me," he wrote. "I move in the university of the waves." He loved how the sea forever renewed itself, a renewal echoed in his work as well as in his life. He felt that creating poetry was like constantly being born. So let us head for the sea to recite his poems -- "Let us uncork all our bottled up happiness," as he put it in "Celebration" -- and come back refreshed, deepened and enlarged.
Neruda was born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes y Basualto in 1904 in Parral, central Chile. His father was a railroad worker, his mother a primary school teacher. The first heartbreak of his life was that he never knew his mother, who died less than two months after he was born. As he wrote in "The Birth":
And that's where I'm from, that
Parral of the trembling earth,
a land laden with grapes
which came to life
out of my dead mother.
(tr. Alastair Reid)
All his life, Neruda linked womanhood to the regeneration of earth and the cyclical processes of nature. It was one of his most emotionally motivated, earnestly held associations.
The family moved to the frontier town of Temuco in southern Chile, where Neruda was raised in a land of powerful solitude, luxuriant nature and endless rain. "My father is buried in one of the rainiest cemeteries in the world," he wrote sadly. He adored his stepmother, whom he called la mamadre (the more-mother), and when he was 14 wrote his first lyric for her. "And it was at that age," he wrote later, "poetry arrived in search of me." As a teenager, he took the pseudonym "Pablo Neruda" to conceal the publication of his first poems from his disapproving father, and later adopted the name legally. But he quickly found approval elsewhere. He brought his work to the new principal of the local girls' school, the famed poet Gabriela Mistral, who told him: "I was sick, but I began to read your poems and I've gotten better, because I am sure that here there is indeed a true poet."
Neruda's professional life began early. He moved to the capital city of Santiago and published his first collection, Book of Twilight, in 1923. He followed it a year later with the astounding Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which instantly catapulted him to fame and is still loved throughout Latin America. It is the first poetry in Spanish that unabashedly celebrates erotic love in sensuous, earthly terms. "Love poems were breaking out all over my body," he later recalled.
I read these poems in W.S. Merwin's stimulating translation when I was 19 and immediately recognized the adolescent lover, at once a child and an adult, being schooled in the art of longing and obsession. "Tonight I can write the saddest lines," he declared in the 20th love poem. "I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her./ Love is so short, forgetting is so long." I still think of the first poem in this collection as an initiation, an introductory text to the poetry of desire:
Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company