Reading Pablo Neruda

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Pablo NerudaOne hardly expects poets to generate spirited debate in the media these days*, but they did, not that long ago, well within my own lifetime. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was one of those who sparked great, passionate emotions in people, for both his writing and his leftist politics. And in his own country, Chile, he was the equivalent of a rock star for many years.

Even his 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature was controversial: the award noted Neruda was a “contentious author” about whom the debate still raged. His death, shortly after the coup by the right-wing general, Augusto Pinochet, was long blamed on doctors under order by the former dictator, although a 2013 exhumation and autopsy failed to substantiate that claim (Neruda was suffering from prostate cancer at the time of his death).

My own experience of the prolific Neruda was, until quite recently, framed around a smattering of translations in anthologies. It broadened when I bought a comprehensive collection – more than 600 poems over 1,000 pages – that captures a fair cross section of the roughly 3,500 poems he published over his lifetime.

(To be honest, my appreciation of non-English poets comes mainly from such anthologies and translations; this is my first major collection of a non-English poet…).

Daniel Chouinard, writing in January Magazine, said,

No living poet is as famous today as Pablo Neruda was in his lifetime. He was a world figure, as famous as Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot, but with the added cachet in some circles of being a politically active man of the left. His poetry exerted an enormous influence throughout Latin America, and he remains beloved in his native Chile… In his willingness to experiment and change styles repeatedly, and in the way in which these changes released a flood of new work, Neruda resembled no one so much as Picasso. Contrary to what he believed, the more personal he wrote, the more people he reached.

Mark Strand, writing in The New Yorker, recognizes the problem with foreign-language writers published in English, but explains how editor Ilan Stavans deals with it:

Stavans has been careful to include almost all of Neruda’s major translators, and readers will encounter translation styles that range from the wooden and amusical to the fluid and finely tuned. Fortunately, Neruda’s best work has attracted his most gifted translators. Without them, his best might appear to be a good deal less. Examples of clear success are W. S. Merwin’s translation of “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair,” Jack Schmitt’s translations of “Canto General” and “Art of Birds,” Margaret Sayers Peden’s translation of the three books of “Elemental Odes,” and Alastair Reid’s masterly translations of “Extravagaria” and “Isla Negra.” These works alone would easily be enough to provide many hours of happy reading.

Stavans himself wrote in the New York Times:

Neruda left thousands of poems, a handful of which are of such inspired beauty as to justify the very existence of the Spanish language. Adolescents routinely give his “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair” to their sweethearts. His ideological verses have been read aloud, often from memory, in one revolution after another, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the embers of the Arab Spring. Some of Neruda’s poems — “I Ask for Silence,” “Walking Around,” “Ode to the Artichoke” — have been rendered into English repeatedly, each version another effort to make him current and vital to a new generation.

Which of course makes me want to open the book and hunt for those pieces in an effort to understand and appreciate how a poem might inspire such an effect in others.

Translation is a fascinating art of itself, a mysterious mix of intuition, inspiration, interpretation, linguistics, muse and guesswork, compounded when poetry is at stake. I always read the translator’s notes in any book that has them. They often provide an insight into the work that is not evident in the resulting words alone. But I often feel that a translated work is more an homage than a copy.

John Felstiner, a professor of English at Stanford University, wrote an entire book on translating one of Neruda’s later poems: Translating Neruda, The Way to Macchu Picchu. It’s on my wishlist to read after I have a bit more familiarity with Neruda’s translated works. There’s a review of it here and a scholarly analysis here.

Perhaps in the weeks ahead, as I read through the poems, I will have a better grasp on Neruda’s style and work. My initial thought, from my first hours of browsing, was to compare at least some of his early poems to those of Leonard Cohen. They share common ground in their emotional and sensual imagery and, as an aficionado of Cohen, I was pleased by the similarities.

(Cohen, as far as I know, has not mentioned Neruda as an influence; however he named his daughter, Lorca, after one of his favourite influences, the poet Frederico Garcia Lorca.)

My own Spanish is certainly not up to the task of translating the poems myself, and I lack the prosodic skills even if it were, but a few of the selection are provided in a bilingual version if you feel up to the challenge.

And I have not yet found anything I would want to put to music, although I believe some of his work has been. Again, that may be the translation at work, or simply my poor skills at putting someone else’s words into music.

I have not tackled the longer pieces, nor the overtly political poems, yet. Political poetry is, I think, like political humour in that it is a child of the moment, without a lot of staying power after the events have passed us by. What, after all, would a poem or song about the fall of the Berlin Wall mean to a generation born after the event? (In my experience, most people who sport Che Guevara T-shirts do so for the cool, iconic image, not an appreciation of his life or politics). Not to mention that my understanding of the politics that affected Neruda (Pinochet, Allende and the Latin American Communist movements) is filtered through my own life experiences and nationality. I suppose I am fortunate to have lived through some of the later years of Neruda’s life, so I at least know the outline of that history.

Nonetheless, I will read them, and attempt to find in them some depth of meaning and feeling that transcends the mere historical. But I think I’ll still like his love poems better.

* Certainly not in local media, at least, but that’s not surprising. Poetry pales in popular imagination in the age of the Kardashians, rap, the WWF and Justin Beiber.  I had to look up the name of Canada’s poet laureate, myself, and profess an embarrassed ignorance of his work. But I can still be moved by a sonnet or a haiku, and I can quote some Lewis Carroll, so there might be some hope for me yet.

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