Selections for Neruda — Seminar I
Poema XIV – “juegas todos las dias” — is from Neruda’s very early, and still remarkably popular, collection Twenty Love Poems (1924), published when he was only twenty years old. There is nothing juvenile or immature about them in subject matter, treatment, or style. At the time, these poems caused a sensation because of their sexual directness, though to our jaded eyes, that shock is difficult to recover. They are, however, unblinking, in portraying desire and sexual pleasure.
The lines are mostly pentameter and more regular than Neruda’s later work. The lines proceed with relaxation, as if spoken rather than written to formula. The themes are romantic in traditional fashion – the loneliness of the lover, pain healed by love, references to the processes of nature, and appeal to the beloved by the lover to be understood, and so forth. The language is clean, rejecting familiar lyricism associated with the genre. The poem collects its images gradually in the form of comfortable reflection, some of the images fairly certain and direct, and others more symbolic and puzzling.
“Sonata and Destrucciones” is from Neruda’s first comprehensive collection of poems published as Residencia en la Tierra I (1933) … [Residencia en la Tierra II was published in 1935]. This collection, developed under the influence of Neruda’s growing artistic friendships in Paris and in Spain, announced his triumph as a Symbolist poet. Symbolism – think Breton, Cocteau, Picasso, and Dali – looked to the unconscious for the deeper truths of our nature, unfiltered by rational demands for orderliness and by social demands for conventional morality and good sense. The writer is more likely to present himself as a collector of impressions, in some ways almost at random and bearing metaphors (tropes of meaning) that are surprising and unstable. Neruda seeks to simulate the eye, open to what it sees without imposing an order to sensations. The lines are irregular, the stanzas governed by no obvious format or plan, the whole bourn as a mood, a truth-telling, looking-on and receiving impressions and the thoughts they stimulate as they happen.
“El Poeta” appears in Canto General (1950). Neruda’s immense collection includes over 300 poems arranged in 15 units tracing the broad history of America Latina. For example, one section “Los Conquistadores” compiles portraits of the invaders, from Colon in 1493 and events, mostly brutal, until the time of Magellan. “Los Libertadores” celebrates heroic resistance, including caciques, Bartolemé de las Casas, Túpac Amaru, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Martí, Emiliano Zapata, and many more. In another section, Neruda recounts the humiliations of Hispanic nations, including Puerto Rico:
Truman a nuestras aguas llega Truman comes to our waters
a lavarse las manos rojas to cleanse his red hands
de la sangre lejana. Mientras from foreign blood. Meanwhile
decreta, predica y sonríe he makes decrees, and harangues with a smile
en la Universidad, en su idioma, in the University, in his own language;
cierra la boca castellana, he shuts the Castilian mouth,
cubre la luz de las palabras hides the brilliance of the words,
que allí circularon como un that here flow like a river
rio de estirpe cristalina of crystal pure descent,
y estatuye: “Muerte a tu lengua, and imposes a statute: “Death to your tongue,
Puerto Rico.” Puerto Rico.”
This passage is a good example of Neruda’s poetry in the form of public and political rhetoric rather than personal sensation and imagery. “El Poeta”, from section 11 of Canto General, is one of the many poems Neruda penned over his lifetime tracking his path as a poet. In this case he journeys from the poetry of the sensitive soul seeking beauty to an encounter with the horror of events infecting his world. It is a poem full of ugliness and ending in an imagist nightmare of reptilian horror.
Canto General, in a section entitled “Las Oligarquías,” contains also a series of bitter, mocking poems aimed at American corporations – Standard Oil, Anaconda Copper, and United Fruit – that were transforming Latin America, despoiling the land, and ravaging the people.”La United Fruit Co.”, while political and polemical, is also a work of rich imagination. The local dictators hatched by the corporations are flies; the heavily laden ships with their plunder are teetering tea-trays, the Indians dumped into the harbors “a bunch of rotten fruit”. Things are literally what they are and also what they become in the imagination, transformed for bitter disdain and revolution. The lines are curt and stinging, ripe with anger and menace.
“Oda al Tomate” is from Odas Elementales (1954). These are odes to homely objects and experiences, including such unpoetical things as onions, and books (as objects), and shoes, and even one that celebrates laziness. The lines are short, blunt, direct, and seemly haphazard. However, these jolly pieces are not only precisely observed but delicately organized. Neruda delighted in styling himself a peasant and a plain worker, and these delightful poems have a universal gaiety and celebrate simple life. He makes the everyday thing into a marvel. You will never look at and think about a tomato in any casual way again after reading this poem.