Reading a biography is always an unusual experience; to think that a person’s entire life can be churned into a dense collection of words and folded between two pieces of cheap paper, even a life as eventful and dramatic as Pablo Neruda’s. It is an experience that is both humbling and unnerving, for it makes one reflect on one’s own life.
Pablo Neruda was born Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basalto in Parral Chile, where “the vines curled their green head of hair.” His mother died two months after his birth; he grew up with his grandparents; then lived with his stepmother; went to Santiago for college; joined the government so he could travel; traveled to Rangoon in Burma; then India, before removing to Spain where he helped refugees escape to Chile from Franco’s fascist regime during the Spanish civil war; went back to Chile; was exiled for his communist ideals poems and writing; lived as a fugitive and returned to Chile a hero; died in Chile because of cancer, during a U.S. sponsored military coup that ended up taking thousands of innocent lives and placed a dictator in office that was two rule Chile for over a decade.
Through his life, Neruda taught me what being an artist means:
- The quality and texture of his work was perpetually changing. He kept playing and experimenting with different styles, techniques, and ideas, making the entire body of his work rather uneven. Critics hated this, but Neruda didn’t care. Sepulveda, the best-selling Chilean novelist even wrote:
” I share Borges view of Neruda that he was uneven. All poets are uneven, of course, but Neruda’s poetry underwent some peculiar leaps. How could the same man write both “El hondero entusiasta” and the “Odas elementales?”
To me, this willingness to experiment and contradict himself is precisely the reason Neruda’s work is so refreshing. He wasn’t afraid to disprove or question himself ideologically or stylistically, despite his fame. His constant play and experiment are precisely what enabled him to go from writing poems of love to starting a revolution.
This is the poetry we should be after, worn away, as if by acid, by the labour of hands, impregnated with sweat and smoke, smelling of lilies and of urine, splashed by the variety of what we do, legally or illegally. A poetry as impure as old clothes, as a body, with its food stains and its shame, with wrinkles, observations, dreams, wakefulness, prophecies, declarations of love and hate, stupidities, shocks, idylls, political beliefs…“1
- He was poor for the majority of his life, even when he became a famous and successful poet. The necessity of living–paying bills, renting an apartment–that was paid for by his “day job” as a senator. A position he hated for the majority of his life. But he didn’t let the mundane regularity of daily life get to his creative spirit. He continued to write, experiment and read every day just to keep his soul nourished. Even when he was a fugitive, he continued to write in dark closets and unlit spaces, letting his words convey the light.
- He stood up for what he believed in, even when it meant that he would lose his job and freedom. He died a disillusioned man; as a communist, he was shocked when he learned about Stalin’s crimes and having seen the effects of the US invasion of Latin countries and Vietnam (directly or through proxy) made him wary of capitalism. Despite the disillusionment from politics, he kept fighting for the rights of everyday workers till his dying breath. Even when it meant going to jail or facing torture. Neruda never sacrificed his ideals.
- Even at the lowest points of his life, he never lost his passion for living. He kept throwing parties and meeting with friends, even when he was in danger of being thrown in prison He didn’t let fear conquest his life or art.
- He had an extensive library collection and loved to read. But he wasn’t reading books about books; he was reading books that inspired him. On a ceremony at the Universidad de Chile on 20 June Neruda exclaimed: ‘I’m not a thinker, and these collected books are more reverential than investigative.”
- He learned early on in his life to look at the world through symbols. Growing up in a pioneer town where no one spoke the same language, the shops around him were strewn with symbols instead of words. So instead of seeing J.B Hardware company, you would see a giant hammer; a cobbler’s shop would be represented with a shoe; and so on. The world around him was all represented in symbols rather than words, much like his poetry.
- He never lost his sense of playfulness and humor. As he was fleeing Chile on a horse, crossing the mountains while every cop in the country was looking for him, he saw a tree and was inspired to write a note to his hunter:
“How good the air smells
In the Lilphela Pass
Because the shit has not yet arrived
From traitor consoles Videle’s ass.”
- He loved writing and creating art for art’s sake. Of course, he enjoyed fame and lavished in it; but at the beginning of his writer’s life, he had to fight his father and alienate himself from his family to pursue art. Later on, people tried to box him as a “love” poet or a “revolutionary” poet, but he still kept evolving and changing; even when critics wrote about how terrible his work was. He kept his eyes on his writing.
Neruda’s favorite color was green. He thought it was the color of hope and life. And so, he always wrote in green ink. His life, like the color green, has given me hope. Hope that despite all the challenges that life throws at us, we need to keep the child in ourselves alive and keep moving forward, with courage and love.