This piece was first published on Proofed, a Boydell and Brewer blog.
Poetry arrived in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where it came from, from winter or a river. I don’t know how or when, no, they were not voices, they were not words, nor silence, but from a street I was summoned […] there I was without a face and it touched me.”
– Pablo Neruda, Poetry.
There is a beauty in poetry that is not often found in books. Wild, explosive and untamed, poetry is like a painting made of words. It allows us to see the world in varying technicolour, rich with imagery and feelings of belonging or alienation, love or loneliness, fear or happiness. Language almost becomes magical.
I have spent many years at high school, university and beyond reading and loving poetry. Trying to read as widely and voraciously as possible. I have adored many poets in my short lifetime: Lord Alfred Tennyson, W.B. Yeats, Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats to name a few but Pablo Neruda has always been amongst my favourites.
Regarded as the greatest poet of the 20th century, Pablo Neruda is a complicated man with a complicated history. Born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, Neruda’s literary career began early, at the age of 13, with contributions to local publications and journals. His father’s disapproval of literature and poetry (believing poets to be ‘cissies’) drove the young Basoalto to write under the pseudonym of Pablo Neruda, which he officially adopted in 1946 after his father’s death.
Selling his belongings to publish his first book, Crepuscularia, in 1923,Neruda would go on to publish what would become his most popular collection at the age of 20, Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and Song of Despair). Euphoric and sorrowful, this collection mixed adolescent thoughts of love and sex with descriptions of the Chilean wilderness. Despite its critical acclaim, it faced years of censorship for its eroticism. Today it remains one of the best-selling Spanish poetry books almost 100 years after its initial publication.
Neruda’s body of poetry is so rich and varied that is defies easy summary. He explored themes of love, time, destruction and loneliness in all its varieties. His poetry filled with both harmony and anguish, also raged with political energy, ideas of social decay, isolation, alienation, communism and oppression. The Uruguayan critic and poet Eduardo Milan believed that “Neruda is, at the least, two: the author of Residencia en la tierra and the author of the rest of his work”.
Neruda at his core is a Romantic, however, his experiences as a diplomat and affiliation with the Communist party greatly influenced his later works. He came to believe “that the work of art and the statement of thought—when these are responsible human actions, rooted in human need—are inseparable from historical and political context,” and began to use his work to advocate for social change. This was most evident in Canto general, a Whitmanesque attempt at reinterpreting the past and present of Latin America, detailing man’s struggle for justice in the New World.
In celebration of Pablo Neruda’s 115th birthday, I share a few of my favourite poems:
EVERY DAY YOU PLAY…
“My words rained over you, stroking you.
A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body.
Until I even believe that you own the universe.
I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells, dark hazels and rustic baskets of kisses.
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.”
I’d accidentally stumbled across this poem or more accurately, the last sentence whilst I was browsing through quotes on Pinterest a few years ago. There was a purpose to it, I assure you. The line in question was: “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees” and it remains the one singular line of Neruda’s poetry that I remember word for word and my favourite. I love the sentiment it conveys, this idea of helping your significant other blossom into something exquisite.
Who would have thought that one session on Pinterest would have led to me reading as much Neruda as possible? Not me.
Want to read a full version of the poem? Every day you play… can be found online here.
One Hundred Love Sonnets: XVII
“I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.”
I have yet to read Neruda’s full collection of sonnets (even though I’ve been itching to) but Sonnet 17 is one that has always stuck with me. Quiet and intense, uncomplicated and overwhelming, this poem is naked in its honesty. It’s a poem about a love forged so deep, the lovers cease to be two separate beings but one.
Want to read a full version of the poem? Sonnet XVII can be found online here.
“It happens that I am tired of being a man.
It happens that I go into the tailor’s shops and the movies
all shrivelled up, impenetrable, like a felt swan
navigating on a water of origin and ash.”
I was surprised when I first read this, as with many others included in my copy of Selected Poems, published by Vintage Classics. It’s easy to forget that Pablo Neruda wrote more than just love poetry if you didn’t know any better.
Originally published as part of Residencia en la tierra (1935), Walking Around dramatizes the conflict between man and society. The poet is tired of entering urban spaces transformed by technological advancements leaving him detached from nature and the physical world.
Want to read a full version of the poem? Walking Around can be found online here.
Tonight I can write…
“Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.
To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.”
There is something inexplicably beautiful about sad love poems. Perhaps it’s simply the process of taking one’s pain and crafting something precious and heart-wrenching out of it that makes it so appealing. Simple yet exuberant in its melancholy, Tonight I Can Write… explores the theme of yearning and the narrator’s eventual acceptance of his lover’s absence.
Want to read a full version of the poem? Tonight I can write… can be found online here.
Do you have a favourite poem by Pablo Neruda?
Let me know your favourites in the comments below.