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“Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels, and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all troubled lyricists… In them, one sees the confused impurity of the human condition… Poetry impures as the clothing we wear, or our bodies… the deep penetration of things in the transports of love, consummate poetry soiled by the pigeon’s claw, ice-marked and tooth-marked, bitten delicately with our sweat drops and usage… Melancholy, old mawkishness impure and unflawed, fruits of a fabulous species lost to the memory… surely that is the poet’s concern, essential and absolute.” (Neruda)
Pablo Neruda delineates his poetic doctrine in Impure Poetry, as an implicit reactionary statement against accusations of banality and morbidity. Therein, he justifies his work as that of a contemporary poet, emphasizing upon relevance and purpose. For unlike the stereotypical hermetic poet, Neruda was a politically-conscious artist, who refused to be content with detached aestheticism and introversion. He deemed such traditional poetic notions as escapism in the twentieth century, a time fraught with conflict and disparity; when each institution of faith was crumbling, leading to a general atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty, further compounded by capitalistic, jingoistic, and industrial trends. As Ajanta Dutt explains, “poetry must be discovered through a perception of that which appears grim and destroyed, and appears from the hidden recesses of human consciousness” (xxxvi).
Thus, in the modern scenario, Neruda believed it was necessary to portray these imperfections, as demonstrated by the peculiar juxtapositions in his imagery, regarding which, Dutt opines that Neruda “deliberately juxtaposes the crude against the beautiful to shock a reader out of complacency” (xxxv). For instance, in Ars Poetica: “Between shadow and space, young girls and garrisons, saddled with a strange heart, with funereal dreams”, or “a stench of clothes scattered on the floor and a yearning for flowers” (Dutt 7), which reflects the contradiction between the harshness of reality and the desire to surpass it. In this same poem, Neruda employs a subtle but powerful image that conveys the idea of impure poetry: “a bell cracked a little” (Dutt 7), i.e., the poetic voice cracked from hardship, releasing distorted tones of suffering and truth.
Neruda asserted that contemporary poetry must be colloquial and topical instead of adhering to distant ideals; it must be rooted in the reality from which it arises. As he claimed in Ordinance of Wine, “I speak to things that exist. Heaven forbid that I should invent things when I am singing” (Dutt 80). Therefore, he vouched for poetry, which transcends personal boundaries to reflect upon the universal from an individual perspective. The poet must seek to cure the world he inhabits, and thus, he can no longer afford to immure himself in fancies. He must feel an obligation to share his visions with his readers, as articulated in Ars Poetica: “the morning’s rumours afire with sacrifice now beg of me this prophecy I have” (Dutt 7). The poet must seek to purge the universal anguish through the power of association, and educate through his verse, so the readers may make a tangible effort to bring about the much-needed change. For “the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture” (Dutt 6). Though this line is quoted out of context from Tonight, I can Write . . . , it embodies Neruda’s idea of poetry and its motives.
Such altruism identifies Neruda with visionaries like Tagore, Brecht, and Dario Fo, and this concern continued to grow with his age, as reflected by his corpus and his inclusion into the Communist Party in 1939.
“Arise to birth with me, my brother give me your hand out of the profound depth of your disseminated sorrows” (Dutt 30)
“Show me: your blood and your furrow; say to me; here I was scourged because a gem was dull or because the earth failed to give on time its tithe of corn or stone” (Dutt 46)
Neruda’s Marxist sentiment is more than evident in these lines from Canto General. He understood his role as the voice of an oppressed people, “give me all the pain of everyone, / I am going to transform it / into hope” (Dutt 66). He felt a genuine empathy towards the tormented masses, and implored them to unite and overcome their misery — this was Neruda’s constant endeavour, his message of hope for the proletariat. For as he symbolically emphasized in Ode to Autumn, their strength lay in their numbers:
“It is difficult to take down all the leaves from all the trees of all the countries” (Dutt 65)
Moreover, in the lines: “proletariat of petals and bullets, / alone alive, somnolent, resounding” (Dutt 8), one finds the same hope in explicit poetic candour. The future lies with the proletariat, and they must realize their latent potential — the glorious heritage behind them — and buckle up against the horrors of the present. In such lines, Neruda posits his typical Communist optimism.
Brought up in post-colonial Chile, Neruda witnessed the implicit dichotomies and contradictions of the Latin American milieu and strived to depict them in his work. For example, in Discoverers of Chile: “Shadows of thorns, shadow of thistle and wax, / the Spaniard meeting with his dry figure, / watching the sombre strategies of the terrain” (Dutt 9). In this barren imagery, Neruda captures the complexity of perceptions between the two civilizations. The natives, through the ‘shadow’ motif, are seen as simple and uncivilized in contrast to the Spanish ‘discoverers’. Also, “all silence lies in its long line” (Dutt 9); silence remains a constant motif in Neruda’s poetry; here, it denotes the ravaged aspect of colonized Chile.
Therefore, Enrico Mario Santi describes Neruda as “fiercely anti-intellectual, a political militant . . . the embodiment of the Latin American Poet” (70). A sentiment shared by the Swedish Academy while awarding Neruda the 1971 Nobel Prize and recognizing him as “the poet of violated human dignity,” who “brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams” (Santi 70). Apropos of this, a parallel may be drawn to the growth of ‘magical realism’ in Latin American literature, for its proponents too were driven by a socio-political consciousness, and the genre allowed them to express their discontentment with their circumstances in the guise of fantastical fiction.
The Spanish Civil War played a significant role in formulating Neruda’s activism, as he strived to voice his resentment against the horrors of fascism in his adopted country. Susnigdha Dey explains, “In such a situation, poetry cannot remain as a specimen of belles lettres. It cannot remain any more as pure” (Chilean Poetry 29). For art reflects life, and so the aware artist could no longer lose himself in ‘art for art’s sake’ when everything around him was being torn apart. Owing to such sinister preoccupations, Jon M. Tolman points out a distinctive trait of Neruda’s poetry with regard to his conception of time: “each moment as it passes emerges into a silent, slowly accumulating menace that fills his environment, oppressive in its weight. Time grows like a parasitic plant, eating away at life. In this way, the time symbol serves as a bridge between the related themes of death and solitude” (Dey, Pablo Neruda 40). Herein, one sees the effect Neruda wished to create: to portray the pervading despair as a mundane quotidian reality. Again, one might recall similar themes inherent in ‘magical realism’, as elaborated upon by Gabriel García Márquez in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
Neruda on Residence on the Earth: “These poems should not be read by the youth of our country. They are poems which are soaked by pessimism and terrible anxiety. They do not help to live; they help to die” (Dey, Pablo Neruda 41). These lines betray the young poet’s hesitation and uncertainty; understandably, Neruda, at least at the onset, was skeptical about the ramifications of his work. He had an immense but unsure concern for his compatriots, who were still “learning to build and to read” (Dey, Pablo Neruda 46). Nonetheless, his convictions had matured by the time he wrote Third Residence (1947), where “he held out a promise of uniting the lone wolf’s walk with the walk of man” (Dey, Pablo Neruda 42). Subsequently, he strived for a political purpose beyond pure aesthetics (Agosin 89), and post-Canto General, he finally completed the difficult transition from obscurity to clarity for the sake of his readers (Dey, Pablo Neruda 46-47). As Dutt elaborates, “His purpose is to strip his writings of any distorted or complex factors that may impede the understanding of the reader. His tone is optimistic and positive” (xxxix).
Canto General reflects Neruda’s concern for the individual, it speaks of “‘invisible men,’ so that the poem becomes the collective chronicle of a people. Neruda, like Walt Whitman, is a minstrel who transmits as well as transforms the history of his continent” (Agosin 92). In the poet’s own words: “Poetry is like bread, and it must be shared by everyone” (Dutt 65). Thus, the poet must disseminate his ideals so they may be emulated, such as the one claimed in The Way Spain Was: “How in the depths of me / grows the lost flower of your villages” (Dutt 8).
In the essay, Pure and Impure Poetry, Robert Penn Warren traces the dogma of pure poetry through various sources ranging from Sidney to Poe. However, he avers, “Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not” (229). In realizing this individuality of a literary work and its relation to the circumstances of creation, Warren further quotes George Santayana to justify the intrusion of ‘impure’ aspects into a poem: “Philosophy, when a poet is not mindless, enters inevitably into his poetry, since it has entered into his life. . . . Poetry is an attenuation, a rehandling, an echo of crude experience; it is itself a theoretic vision of things at arm’s length” (249-50).
Thereafter, Warren presents his own view of poetry: “the good poem must, in some way, involve the resistances; it must carry something of the context of its own creation . . . a good poem involves the participation of the reader; it must, as Coleridge puts it, make the reader into ‘an active creative being’” (251). These ideas correspond to those of Neruda, and in fact, one might be tempted to say that Neruda took them a step further due to his impassioned dedication.
Agosin, Marjorie. Canto General: The Word and the Song of America. Neruda, Walcott and Atwood: Poets of the Americas. Ed. Ajanta Dutt. Delhi: Worldview-Book Land, 2010. 87-95. Print.
Ajanta Dutt, ed. Neruda, Walcott and Atwood: Poets of the Americas. Delhi: Worldview-Book Land, 2010. Print. All quotations are taken from this edition.
Bowers, Maggie Ann. Magic(al) Realism. London: Routledge-Taylor, 2007. Print.
Dey, Susnigdha. Chilean Poetry: From the Epic to the Mundane. Neruda, Walcott and Atwood: Poets of the Americas. Ed. Ajanta Dutt. Delhi: Worldview-Book Land, 2010. 24-31. Print.
Pablo Neruda: The Poet. Neruda, Walcott and Atwood: Poets of the Americas. Ed. Ajanta Dutt. Delhi: Worldview-Book Land, 2010. 36-48. Print.
Márquez, Gabriel García. Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. 1982. Trans. Marina Castaneda. Background Prose Readings. Comp. Ajay Malhotra. Delhi: Worldview-Bookland, 2002. 181-86. Print.
Neruda, Pablo. Toward an Impure Poetry. 1935. Web. 12 Oct. 2011. <http://www.onierafilms.com/readings/neruda.pdf >.
Santi, Enrico Mario. Afterword. Neruda, Walcott and Atwood: Poets of the Americas. Ed. Ajanta Dutt. Delhi: Worldview-Book Land, 2010. 70-76. Print.
Warren, Robert Penn. “Pure and Impure Poetry.” The Kenyon Review 5.2 (1943): 228-54. JSTOR. Web. 8 Oct. 2011.
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