Sunday, April 21, 2019

Unreconciled / Poems 1991-2013 by Michel Houellebecq / Review

Michel Houellebecq

Unreconciled: Poems 1991-2013 by Michel Houellebecq - review

Houellebecq the poet: who knew? 
Thursday 12 January 2017

Since the publication of his latest novel Submission, foreseeing a France submitting to Islam, on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, the stature of Michel Houellebecq as perhaps the most radical and far-sighted  novelist now writing in any language,  has been widely recognised. All six of his novels, beginning with Whatever in 1994, now look like contemporary classics.
What’s less well-known among his English-language readers is that he began his literary career as a poet, in 1991 publishing both his first collection, The Pursuit of Happiness, and a marvellous, Baudelairean poetic manifesto, Rester Vivant: méthode (Staying Alive, not yet translated). To Houellebecq, poetry remains primary. “The novel… in comparison to the poem remains a minor genre,” he told Bernard-Henri Levy in their correspondence, Public Enemies. 
His poetry has been presented in English before, in The Art of Struggle, a dual-language text of his second collection by academics Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews (Herla/Alma Books, 2010) but has previously made little impression here. Now his main British publisher Heinemann has brought out a substantial selection from all four of his books of poems, in both French and English, translated by Gavin Bowd, who has known him for 20 years and whom Houellebecq (whose English is not  bad) has amicably called “my best translator in the language of Donald Duck”.
The book is presented by the publisher as simply as possible, almost indeed as if it were a novel in short lines, doubtless in the hope of winning it the wide readership it deserves. There’s no introduction whatsoever, just the plain text, not even an index.

That seems a pity, for the collection does actually need some explanation, even for those who already know something of Houellebecq’s work. It is very much his “personal anthology”, in which he has rearranged 132 poems not chronologically but into five themed sections, moving from comic desperation with the world of heartless consumption,   through a search for love and intimacy nonetheless, to a final section of some degree of mystical acceptance, Immobile Grace. 
When published in French (Gallimard, 2014), the anthology was preceded by a long and brilliant introduction by the young academic Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, which not only explained the structure of the book but the unique qualities of Houellebecq’s poetry, the true extent to which it is an act of non-reconciliation, of “taking note, without concession, of the monstrosity of the world”, a world that is “strictly unbearable”.
And his means of confronting that world  are those of structure, as she says. “Metrical structure, rhyming structure, rhythmic structure: versification is not an adventitious pleasure, it’s the very principle of resistance to a deliquescent world.”
Just so. In his poetry Houellebecq presents the shocks and absurdities of modern life not casually but with beautiful formality, in alexandrines worthy of his beloved Lamartine, or quatrains as precise and irrefutably rhymed as those of A E Housman, charting what is not to be endured. His poetry is often not only absolutely direct  emotionally — contrary to his reputation as a misogynistic cynic, deeply romantic even — but also remarkably funny, deploying, as Novak-Lechevalier  observes, an art of montage, “the brutal juxtaposition of heterogeneities”.
And here is the rub. Of all literary forms, poetry, depending as it does on those precise verbal structures, is the least translatable. Houellebecq’s novels are pretty fully available to the English language-only reader. But the truth is that, admirably accurate as Bowd’s translations are, Houellebecq’s poems, read in English alone, unrhymed and in a completely different rhythm, are nothing like as remarkable as they are  in the original. If you are able to use this edition as a crib, it’s a treat. But if you consult only the English you’ll wonder why this poetry could possibly  be worth taking to heart.
That’s sadly true of the very simplest piece. Houellebecq: “Pourquoi ne pouvons-nous jamais/Jamais/Être aimés?” Bowd: “Why can we never/Never/Be loved?” It doesn’t rhyme the same way,  it’s not a mantra.
Or again: “Il n’y a pas d’amour/ (pas vraiment, pas assez)/ Nous vivons sans secours,/ Nous mourons délaissés.” Worthy of Baudelaire, hard to forget once read. “There is no love/ (not nearly, not enough)/ We live unaided,/ We die abandoned.” Flat as a pancake, gone in a flash.
 So, as a publication in English of a substantial part of the work of one of the greatest authors of the age, unlikely to be particularly profitable, this is an admirable endeavour.  
However, it could have been so much more helpful an edition — introducing itself, perhaps  translating Rester Vivant as an appendix, and even the fantastically raw journal Mourir that Houellebecq  wrote in 2005 as a contrary summation of his life at that point (still available online). 
A missed opportunity. For Michel Houellebecq is one of those writers who matters now, in his entirety, if any do.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Catherine Phil MacCart / The Bells of Notre-Dame

The Bells of Notre-Dame

By Catherine Phil MacCarthy

Nine bells line the main aisle,
flaxen domes echo one another,
as visitors pour in,
rocked by each
newborn colossus
stood on oak beams,
cast in bronze with
its own design
and tone.
“Marie”, “Gabriel”, “Denis”,
parade along the queue –
“Et elle a conçu du Saint-Esprit.”
Hands caress the patina,
gauge the width
of the lip, test notes
rapping the rim.
Each chime stirs
the house
with an acoustic tone
pins a celebratory hum
of pandemonium,
heralds the North tower
hung with instruments again,
that mark the flow of hours
for how long more
from earth
across the skies?

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Czeslaw Milosz’s Battle for Truth

Czeslaw Milosz’s Battle for Truth

Having experienced both Nazi and Communist rule, Poland’s great exile poet arrived at a unique blend of skepticism and sincerity.

By Adam Kirsch

May 22, 2017

In July, 1950, Czeslaw Milosz, the cultural attaché at the Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C., received a letter from Jerzy Putrament, the general secretary of the Polish Writers’ Union. The two men had known each other for many years—they had been contributors to the same student magazine in college, in the early nineteen-thirties—but their paths had diverged widely. Now the arch-commissar of Polish literature told the poet, “I heard that you are to be moved to Paris. . . . I am happy that you will be coming here, because I have been worried about you a little: whether the splendor of material goods in America has overshadowed poverty in other aspects of life.”

The language was polite, even confiding, but the message could not have been clearer. Milosz, who had been working as a diplomat in the United States for four years, was no longer considered trustworthy by his superiors. He was being transferred to Paris so that he would be within reach of Warsaw. Sure enough, a few days before Christmas, Milosz was summoned back to Poland, and his passport was confiscated. “He is deeply detached from us,” Putrament observed, after meeting with Milosz in person. There was “no other option” than to keep him in the country, lest he end up defecting to the West.

This scenario had played out countless times in Communist countries. In the Soviet Union, under Stalin, it often ended with the summoned party being sent to prison or shot. And the Communist regime in Poland, which had been installed by Stalin at the end of the Second World War, had reasons to be concerned about Milosz. For one thing, he had left his pregnant wife and their son in the United States, giving him a strong incentive to return. For another, he had never joined the Communist Party. He was allowed to serve the Polish government without a Party card, largely because his reputation—he had been a leading light of Polish poetry since the mid-thirties—was considered valuable to the new regime.

Far more damning evidence of Milosz’s disaffection with the regime lay in notebooks, full of poems that were not published until years later. What would Putrament have thought if he had read “Child of Europe,” written in New York in 1946?
Do not mention force, or you will be accused
Of upholding fallen doctrines in secret.
He who has power, has it by historical logic.
Respectfully bow to that logic . . .
Learn to predict a fire with unerring precision.
Then burn the house down to fulfill the prediction.
These lines mocked the Communist claim to rule, which was based on the theory of history as formulated by Marx. According to the concept of dialectical materialism—“diamat,” as its adherents often abbreviated it—the triumph of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Joseph Stalin was not a contingent event but the necessary result of an age-old process of class conflict. Milosz turned this presumption of “historical logic” upside down: if Communism now ruled Eastern Europe, it was not because of the laws of history but because the Russians had burned the house down. “Diamat is a tank,” Milosz confided to a friend in 1951. “I feel like a fly which wants to stand up against that tank.”

Andrzej Franaszek’s “Milosz: A Biography” (Harvard), edited and translated by Aleksandra and Michael Parker—a longer version appeared in Polish in 2011—tells the story of what happened next. Stuck in Warsaw, unsure if he would ever be allowed to leave or to see his family again, Milosz was despondent. A friend, Natalia Modzelewska, recalled that he “became mentally unstable [and] suffered from bouts of depression, which gradually got worse. . . . It was easy to discern that he was close to a nervous breakdown.” It wasn’t just his own fate that frightened him. Milosz had mostly been away from Poland since 1946, and had not witnessed the worsening climate of repression in the country. Now he could see. “I came across astronomical changes,” he wrote in a letter to another exile. “Peasants go mad with despair, and in the intellectual world state control is deeply entrenched and it is necessary to be a 100% Stalinist, or not at all. The so-called Marxists are highly depressed.”

It was thanks to Modzelewska that he had the chance to leave Poland and save himself. Her husband was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and she urged him to take up Milosz’s case with the President of Poland, Boleslaw Bierut. “Can you vouch that he will return?” Bierut asked. The minister could not, but replied, “I am deeply convinced that he ought to be allowed to go.” Whether this was a gesture of mercy, or of respect for a great writer, or even of contempt—if Milosz couldn’t serve the state, why should the state keep him?—it meant freedom. On January 15, 1951, Milosz was back in Paris. On February 1st, he slipped out of the Polish Embassy and headed for the offices of Kultura, an émigré publishing house, where he remained in hiding for the next three and a half months. He did not return to Poland until 1981, the year after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The summons to Warsaw in 1950 was one of many hinges of fate inMilosz’s life—moments when he could have become an entirely different person, or simply disappeared. Franaszek’s richly detailed, dramatic, and melancholy book is full of such close calls. Born in 1911 to an aristocratic Polish family in Lithuania, which was part of the Russian Empire at the time, Milosz was swept up in the maelstrom of the twentieth century from the beginning. When he was three, the First World War made him a refugee, as his family fled the advancing German Army. His father, an engineer, served first the tsarist and then the Bolshevik government, and the family spent the war years crisscrossing the region—Belarus, Russia, Latvia, Estonia. In a late poem, Milosz recalled an episode from 1918, when they were trying to get home to Lithuania during the chaos of the Russian Revolution. At one train station, he was separated from his parents:
. . . the repatriation train was starting, about to leave me behind,
Forever. As if I grasped that I would have been somebody else,
A poet of another language, of a different fate.
At the last minute, a stranger reunited them. But a sense of the caprice of fate never left Milosz. “The things that surround us in childhood need no justification, they are self-evident,” he wrote in “Native Realm,” a memoir. “If, however, they whirl about like particles in a kaleidoscope, ceaselessly changing position, it takes no small amount of energy simply to plant one’s feet on solid ground without falling.”

After the war, the family settled in Wilno—now Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, but at the time a majority-Polish city. Even as a boy, Milosz was passionate and ambitious, with an intense seriousness that made it hard for him to accept the conventional routines of church and school. A childhood friend compared him to “a tomcat, constantly tense and grumpy”; later in life he acquired the nickname Gniewosz, which blended his name with the Polish word for “anger.” In his teens, he was capable of gestures of melodramatic despair. On one occasion, edged out in a romantic rivalry, he put a single bullet into a revolver and, Franaszek writes, “spun the barrel, put it against his head and pulled the trigger.” He lost—or maybe won—this game of Russian roulette; but, in Franaszek’s telling, it’s clear that any kind of calm or satisfaction remained elusive to the end of his life.

Such a condition is hardly surprising for anyone of Milosz’s generation, in that part of the world. Millions of his contemporaries lived through, or died in, the First World War; the Lithuanian Wars of Independence; the Polish-Soviet War; the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R., in 1939; the Holocaust; the Eastern Front of the Second World War, which passed back and forth across the country from 1941 to 1945; and the postwar occupation by the Soviet Union. Milosz’s course was complicated by the fact that his class and national allegiances were anything but straightforward. He grew up speaking at least four languages, and, although his family belonged to the Polish gentry—and still owned a country estate in Lithuania, where he spent the happiest days of his childhood—they were, like most of their class at the time, quite poor. “My material existence was so primitive that it would have startled proletarians in Western countries,” Milosz reflected later.

As an aristocrat without money, and a Pole whose homeland was Lithuania, Milosz could not wholeheartedly embrace any of the political identities swirling around him. Postwar Poland, newly independent after more than a century of tsarist rule, experienced a sudden surge of chauvinist pride and annexed much of Lithuania, including Wilno. Milosz was repelled by the Poles’ religiosity and nationalism—their growing hostility to Lithuanian, Jewish, and Belarusan minorities. In 1931, Wilno University, where he was a student, was convulsed by anti-Jewish riots. Milosz, Franaszek writes, was “among the few defending the Jewish students.” (Jerzy Putrament, not yet a Communist, took part in the riots, beating Jews with a heavy cane.)

Milosz was at the university from 1929 to 1934, and he published his first collection of poems in 1933. He drew close to several left-wing student groups, but, although his anti-nationalism made the left a natural home for him, he could never bring himself to become a full-fledged Marxist, much less a member of the Communist Party. His sense of truth was too individual, too much a matter of poetic perception, to submit to the dictates of a party, even one that claimed to be acting according to the laws of history. “Reading articles by young Polish Marxists, one suspects that they really wish for this period to herald a future which sees the total demise of art and artistry,” Milosz observed in a 1936 essay. “They are preoccupied solely with sniffing out betrayal and class desertion.”

In 1937, Milosz moved to Warsaw to work for Polish Radio. There he fell in love with a colleague, Janina Cekalska. Janka, as she was known, was unhappily married to another man, a film director. She aspired to become a director herself, and had founded an organization to promote leftist filmmaking. But she soon put her ambitions aside, seeing her mission as the development of Milosz’s talent, and she became a crucial reader of his work. Milosz, who had already been through several stormy and bruising love affairs, worried that committing himself to Janka might compromise his artistic calling, but they soon started living together, and they married some years later. It proved to be a difficult marriage. “She was a rational person, but made a mistake choosing me,” he said late in life. He was, he realized, “not at all material to be a husband and father.”

By the end of the thirties, Milosz’s intellectual position was becoming intolerable. He was opposed to everything the Communists opposed, yet he suspected that a Communist takeover would be disastrous. At the same time, anyone could see that Poland’s future held war or revolution, or both. Contemplating the fate of his country, he wrote, years later, “I had a kind of horror, some basic dread.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Carol Ann Duffy and the Laureate's Curse

Carol Ann Duffy

Carol Ann Duffy and the Laureate's Curse

hen was the last time a Poet Laureate wrote something really worth reading? Carol Ann Duffy, the incumbent, is just over halfway through her allotted 10 years in the role. Earlier this year she was made a dame; now she publishes her Collected Poems. The new book spans her career from 1985 onwards, and includes the poems that won the Forward Prize, T S Eliot Prize, Costa Book Award, and an eternal place on the GCSE syllabus. It also includes her recent “public” poems, written as the first female Poet Laureate in British history.
The mantle of laureate isn’t easy to wear. The task of writing to order, in response to the issues of the day and always with a mind towards the approval of the monarch, seems to stifle creativity: some great poets wrote their very worst poems while receiving the annual stipend. How is Duffy coping with the threat of the so-called laureate’s curse, an affliction that plagued her predecessors, making their inspiration run dry and their poems worse than before?
Duffy has so far not admitted suffering any drawbacks. “I have found the experience energising,” she said in an interview last year. “So far it has been nothing but a joy.” Partly she relishes the buzz and responsibility of being the first woman to hold the post, but there’s also, perhaps, a sense of defiance. There were rumours that she was ruled out in 1999 because Tony Blair felt she was unpalatable to Middle England, being Scottish-born and a “lesbian single mother”, as the press sniffily described her (in fact she is bisexual, having had a stormy relationship with fellow poet Jackie Kay).

Carol Ann Duffy

She has seen her role as laureate as one of amplifying the national conversation about poetry, and has made it her job to visit schools to spread the gospel, and to promote the poets she admires. When I saw her at a literary festival a few years ago, she commanded the audience to buy tickets for Alice Oswald the following night, declaring: “As your Poet Laureate, I order you to go!” She has funded a new Ted Hughes Award for innovation in poetry, named for the laureate she most admires. So far it has rewarded pieces including a performance project from Kate Tempest and, in 2014, a radio work by Andrew Motion.
Motion (laureate from 1999 to 2009) seems to have returned to poetic abundance after a dry patch during his tenure. While he was laureate, he publicly complained about the demands placed on him, calling it a “thankless” task that he found to be “very, very damaging” to his work. The threat of establishment scrutiny was stifling. “A poet should be able to speak their mind,” he said. “I’m no Alastair Campbell.”
Could Campbell have written, as Motion did, a “rap poem” for Prince William’s 21st birthday? Possibly unwisely, Motion decided to channel youth music culture in 2003 for the occasion, beginning: “Better stand back/ Here’s an age attack,/ But the second in line/ Is dealing with it fine.” It was not Motion’s subtlest work.

Carol Ann Duffy

John Betjeman (laureate from 1972 to 1984) found the muse to be even less forthcoming, suffering periods of vivid writer’s block. A year into the role, he wrote to a friend: “Oh God, the Royal poem!! Send the H[oly] G[host] to help me over that fence. So far no sign: watch and pray.”
Duffy’s hero Hughes, a particularly patriotic sort, slipped more easily into the role and wrote monarchy-themed verse with gusto, but few would claim that his laureate poems are his best work either. His “Rain-Charm for the Duchy”, a ritualistic-style nature poem written for Prince Harry’s christening, still feels fleet-footed today. Less fruitfully, Hughes also compared the Queen Mother to a lion (a play on her maiden name of Bowes-Lyon), and ploddingly imagined the metalwork involved in making the royal crown. The poems have more of an air of subservience than muscle of their own.
True, Tennyson wrote “The Charge of the Light Brigade” while he was laureate, but this achievement stands out as rare. Wordsworth was made laureate in 1843, long after his most prolific period, and he only agreed to it on the understanding that he wouldn’t have to write anything. He duly published nothing at all between his appointment and his death.

But where do Duffy’s laureate poems sit in terms of the supposed curse? Some have already met a scathing response. Her 2012 poem about Stephen Lawrence was described as “patronising”, “poetically dishonest” and “embarrassingly bad” in a London Review of Books blog, though elsewhere she was praised for confronting a topic that still rides high in the national consciousness. She wrote a eulogy for Hillsborough in a similar mood, slightly more successfully.
Duffy has also been inspired by the crown itself, this time in marking the Queen’s diamond jubilee. But “The Crown” reads like a booklet about birth stones in a hippy gift shop: “Its jewels glow, virtues; loyalty’s ruby, blood-deep;/ sapphire’s ice resilience; emerald evergreen;/ the shy pearl, humility.” She ends with an extraordinarily limp comment on the Queen’s sense of duty, saying that Her Majesty’s crown is “Not lightly worn.”
In 2010, Duffy wrote a brief, deliberately overblown poem influenced by Homer in dedication to an injured David Beckham, whom she likened to Achilles in the Trojan War, except with football. It is the closest she has come to a Motion rap. Where Duffy’s work in promoting prizes and outreach looks like a vocation, these public poems feel more like obligation.
Though it would be sad to conclude that a Poet Laureate’s dip in quality after they are appointed is all but inevitable, Duffy’s work so far does little to break with tradition. Yet don’t let recent form stop you from taking the opportunity to revisit her earlier poems, presented in full bloom in this new edition.

Re-reading those confident, searching and strange verses from The World’s Wife and the TS Eliot Prize-winning Rapture, in particular, was revelatory, and I was struck afresh by their warmth and ability to drill deep into the core of the most complex human experiences.
Duffy’s poems are fascinated by lust and grief, and in paying attention to resonances of one in the other. “This love we have, grief in reverse, full rhyme, wrong place,” she writes in “New Year”. She finds aching sadness at the heart of erotic passion (from “Two Small Poems of Desire”: “It’s tough/ and difficult and true to say/ I love you when you do these things to me”), and paints bereavement as glamour mixed with visceral longing (from “Art”: “No choice for love but art’s long illness, death,/ huge theatres for the echoes that we left,/ applause, then utter dark”).
You can see Duffy’s earliest truly confident steps in “Warming Her Pearls”, a suspense-filled dramatic monologue redolent of Browning’s “My Last Duchess”. It’s a catlike, watchful poem about a lady’s maid’s yearning for her mistress: “And I lie here awake,/ knowing the pearls are cooling even now/ in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night/ I feel their absence and I burn.”
Duffy’s most famous poems are justifiably beloved. The entwining of rhythm with evoked silence in “Prayer” is sublime: “Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer/ utters itself… Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –/ Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.” In “Valentine”, she says, “Not a red rose or a satin heart./ I give you an onion./ It is a moon wrapped in brown paper./ It promises light/ like the careful undressing of love.” Here, again, Duffy sees love as not fairytale-perfect but sharp, sexy and terrible, and more desirable for that.
Her best poems are these searing earlier pieces, stamped right through with ecstasy and black despair. Her public poems feel stiff in comparison, a weakening where before there was strength. If Duffy’s works do resonate through history, they’re likely to be her neon-bright poems on love and devastation, not her placid verses about celebrities and jewels.

Carol Ann Duffy's Collected Poems is published by Picador at £25. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Pablo Neruda / “Ode to the Book”

Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to the Book”

“When I close a book I open life… I learned about life from life itself, love I learned in a single kiss…”

“A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic,” cosmic sage Carl Sagan memorably proclaimed. Books, indeed, are worthy of the deepest kind of cosmic awe, awe so profound it borders on the ineffable — so much so that only the most articulate of poets can fully capture its expansive magnitude. To celebrate National Poetry Month, I asked the inimitable Tom O’Bedlam — whose mesmerizing voice you might recall from “Gabriel” by Adrienne Rich and “Antilamentation” by Dorianne Laux — to read “Ode to the Book” by Pablo Neruda, translated by Nathaniel Tarn and found in the anthology Selected Poems (public library). Enjoy:
When I close a book
I open life.
I hear
faltering cries
among harbors.
Copper ingots
slide down sand-pits
to Tocopilla.
Night time.
Among the islands
our ocean
throbs with fish,
touches the feet, the thighs,
the chalk ribs
of my country.
The whole of night
clings to its shores, by dawn
it wakes up singing
as if it had excited a guitar.
The ocean’s surge is calling.
The wind
calls me
and Rodriguez calls,
and Jose Antonio–
I got a telegram
from the “Mine” Union
and the one I love
(whose name I won’t let out)
expects me in Bucalemu.
No book has been able
to wrap me in paper,
to fill me up
with typography,
with heavenly imprints
or was ever able
to bind my eyes,
I come out of books to people orchards
with the hoarse family of my song,
to work the burning metals
or to eat smoked beef
by mountain firesides.
I love adventurous
books of forest or snow,
depth or sky
but hate
the spider book
in which thought
has laid poisonous wires
to trap the juvenile
and circling fly.
Book, let me go.
I won’t go clothed
in volumes,
I don’t come out
of collected works,
my poems
have not eaten poems–
they devour
exciting happenings,
feed on rough weather,
and dig their food
out of earth and men.
I’m on my way
with dust in my shoes
free of mythology:
send books back to their shelves,
I’m going down into the streets.
I learned about life
from life itself,
love I learned in a single kiss
and could teach no one anything
except that I have lived
with something in common among men,
when fighting with them,
when saying all their say in my song.
Tom, whose exquisite spoken verse you can hear on YouTube, shares some words of wisdom on the fundamental challenge of reading poetry in translation:
Translations of free verse are particularly hard to read. The original poems have flow and melody — these are usually lost in translation. The translator creates phrases that are really difficult to utter with confidence and it’s always hard to choose a safe path through the syntax.
And yet the stroll along the path he takes us on feels effortless and beautiful — what a gift.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Against the Illusion of Separateness / Pablo Neruda’s Beautiful and Humanistic Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

Pablo Neruda

Against the Illusion of Separateness: Pablo Neruda’s Beautiful and Humanistic Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

“There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance…”

Against the Illusion of Separateness: Pablo Neruda’s Beautiful and Humanistic Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
The great Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda(July 12, 1904–September 23, 1973) was only a small boy, just over the cusp of preconscious memory, when he had a revelation about why we make art. It seeded in him a lifelong devotion to literature as a supreme tool that “widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.”
Although his father discouraged his precocious literary aspirations, the young Neruda found a creative lifeline in the poet, educator, and diplomat Gabriela Mistral — the director of his hometown school. Mistral — who would later become the first Latin American woman awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and Chilean consul in Madrid, a post in which Neruda would succeed her during his own diplomatic career — recognized and nurtured the boy’s uncommon talent. Fittingly, Neruda’s first published piece, written when he was only thirteen and printed in a local daily newspaper, was an essay titled “Enthusiasm and Perseverance.”
These twin threads ran through the length of his life, from his devoted diplomatic career to his soulful, sorrowful, yet buoyant poetry. His landmark collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, composed before he turned twenty, is to this day the most widely read book of verse in Latin literature and contains some of the truest, most beautiful insight into the life of the heart humanity has ever committed to words.
Pablo Neruda as a young man
By the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature less than two years before his death, Neruda had become an icon. Gabriel García Márquez, whose own subsequent Nobel Prize acceptance speech echoed Neruda’s humanistic ideals, considered him “the greatest poet of the twentieth century in any language.”
On December 13, 1971, Neruda took the podium in Stockholm to deliver an extraordinary acceptance speech, later included in Nobel Lectures in Literature, 1968–1980 (public library). He begins with a lyrical, almost cinematic recollection of his 1948 escape to Argentina through a mountain pass when Chile’s dictatorial government issued an order for his arrest on account of his extreme leftist politics — a long, trying journey which embodied for the poet “the necessary components for the making of the poem.” He recounts:
Down there on those vast expanses in my native country, where I was taken by events which have already fallen into oblivion, one has to cross, and I was compelled to cross, the Andes to find the frontier of my country with Argentina. Great forests make these inaccessible areas like a tunnel through which our journey was secret and forbidden, with only the faintest signs to show us the way. There were no tracks and no paths, and I and my four companions, riding on horseback, pressed forward on our tortuous way, avoiding the obstacles set by huge trees, impassable rivers, immense cliffs and desolate expanses of snow, blindly seeking the quarter in which my own liberty lay. Those who were with me knew how to make their way forward between the dense leaves of the forest, but to feel safer they marked their route by slashing with their machetes here and there in the bark of the great trees, leaving tracks which they would follow back when they had left me alone with my destiny.
Each of us made his way forward filled with this limitless solitude, with the green and white silence of trees and huge trailing plants and layers of soil laid down over centuries, among half-fallen tree trunks which suddenly appeared as fresh obstacles to bar our progress. We were in a dazzling and secret world of nature which at the same time was a growing menace of cold, snow and persecution. Everything became one: the solitude, the danger, the silence, and the urgency of my mission.
Through this dangerous and harrowing journey, Neruda arrived at “an insight which the poet must learn through other people” — a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of each life with every other, echoing his childhood revelationabout the purpose of art. In consonance with the Lebanese-American poet and painter Kahlil Gibran’s insight into why we create, Neruda writes:
There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song — but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.
Illustration by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown
Echoing physicist Freeman Dyson’s meditation on how our self-expatriation from history makes for a deep loneliness, Neruda adds:
Our original guiding stars are struggle and hope. But there is no such thing as a lone struggle, no such thing as a lone hope. In every human being are combined the most distant epochs, passivity, mistakes, sufferings, the pressing urgencies of our own time, the pace of history.
He concludes with a vision for what it would take to let go of our damaging illusion of separateness and inhabit our shared humanity:
It is today exactly one hundred years since an unhappy and brilliant poet, the most awesome of all despairing souls, wrote down this prophecy: “A l’aurore, armés d’une ardente patience, nous entrerons aux splendides Villes.” “In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities.”
I believe in this prophecy of Rimbaud, the Visionary. I come from a dark region, from a land separated from all others by the steep contours of its geography. I was the most forlorn of poets and my poetry was provincial, oppressed and rainy. But always I had put my trust in man. I never lost hope. It is perhaps because of this that I have reached as far as I now have with my poetry and also with my banner.
Lastly, I wish to say to the people of good will, to the workers, to the poets, that the whole future has been expressed in this line by Rimbaud: only with a burning patience can we conquer the splendid City which will give light, justice and dignity to all mankind.
In this way the song will not have been sung in vain.
Complement with Neruda’s beautiful ode to silence and this lovely picture-book about his life, then revisit other timeless Nobel Prize acceptance speeches from great writers: Toni Morrison (the first black woman awarded the accolade) on the power of language, Bertrand Russell on the four desires driving all human behavior, Pearl S. Buck (the youngest woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature) on writing and the nature of creativity, and Saul Bellow on how art ennobles us.