Poetry gets a bum wrap most of the time. It is erroneously considered, by the masses, as exaggeratedly cerebral, requiring a massive intellect and purposefully obscure and abstruse. In some cases this may even be true, but as with all stereotypes there is more to be found in the particulars of the generalization than the whole.
Chilean poet-diplomat and politician, Pablo Neruda is a great example. Known as “the people’s poet”, this deeply passionate man was a detailed observer whose poetic subject matter ranges from the humble onion to the universal fear of death.
Neruda wrote in many forms and moods (granted that some may be slightly more challenging than others) sensual erotic poems, surrealist poems, political poems and conversational poems. His poetry was informed by his passionate loves, his commitment to political causes, his depression and loneliness and his appreciation for nature and artisanship. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 and his works have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Federico Garcia Lorca wrote of Neruda, ” A poet closer to death than to philosophy, closer to pain than to intelligence , closer to blood than to ink.” I envision a down to earth man of dust and air and water. And Neruda himself in his poem “So is my life” writes, ” I am the man of bread and fish – and you will not find me among books – but with women and men – they have taught me the infinite.” (translation by Miguel Algarin). It is his direct (yet always very profound) way of writing, describing, evoking that makes him readable, in my opinion.
Philosophy believes that the arts can be used as a tool to assist us with our psychological frailties and deficiencies. Neruda can definitely fill those gaps or voids, within us, through his poetry, if we allow him to. A poetry that is purposefully accessible, like a conversation. And as Alain de Botton states, “It lies in the power of art to honour the elusive but real value of ordinary life.” And a poet who writes an Ode to a chair is doing just that; uncovering the nobility in the everyday. And expressing those feelings we were not able to articulate.
“It lies in the power of art to honour the elusive but real value of ordinary life.”
Alain de Botton
Reading him is a cathartic experience. For example, read parts of the below poem, “The Unhappy One” (translation by Alastair Reid) and see if it connects with you in any way. The full poem can be found on page 483 of the above book of collected poems.
“I left her in the doorway waiting
and I went away, away.
She didn’t know I would not come back.
A dog passed, a nun passed,
a week and a year passed.
The rains washed out my footprints
and the grass grew in the street,
and one after another, like stones,
like gradual stones, the years
came down on her head.
Then the war came
like a volcano of blood.
Children and houses died…
And that woman waiting.”
“I am the man of bread and fish…”
Or what about these last lines from the poem, “Love” (translation by Ilan Stavans). The full poem can be found on page 5 of the above book of collected poems.
“How I would love you, woman, how I would
love you, love you as no one ever did!
Die and still
love you more.
love you more
I read the poem “Insomnia“ the other day and it stopped me in my tracks. The similarity to the pandemic and our state of mind in 2021 and Neruda’s musings, in 1964, about his beloved Chile are chillingly similar. Take a read for yourself. These are the last seven lines (translation by Alastair Reid) of the poem that can be found on page 693 of the above book of collected poems
“I feel that now,
with the dead year of doubt scarcely over,
now that the mistakes which bled us all
are over and we begin to plan again
a better and a just life,
the menace once again appears
and on the walls the rising rancor.”
Pretty good stuff right?! It comes from a man who feasted on life, lived extraordinarily and died under extraordinary circumstances. He remains to this day a controversial and fascinating figure.