The unknown Neruda

Translator and scholar Ilan Stavans on the discovery of 20 new poems by the acclaimed Chilean poet

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who was then residing in Italy, leaving for Capri in 1952.
Keystone-France / Getty Images

Some 20 previously unknown poems by Pablo Neruda have been discovered inside a forgotten box in Santiago, Chile. Pere Gimferrer, an editor with the Spanish publisher Seix Barral in Barcelona, calls this “a literary event of universal importance.” Apparently, the series displays “richly imaginative use of language and imagery.” The finding ought to be approached with caution.

While I haven’t seen them, my hesitation isn’t about authenticity. The material was found in the headquarters of the Fundación Pablo Neruda. Criticism of the organization has been abundant for years, the result of inefficient management. But its archival department is in fine form. My doubt relates to Neruda himself. Not only is he one of the most significant poets of the 20th century — in fact, of any century — he was also among the most prolific, leaving us with approximately 3,500 poems.

They range enormously in quality. Such is the beauty of pieces like “I Explain a Few Things,” in which Neruda viscerally denounces the crimes committed during the Spanish Civil War (it includes references to Federico García Lorca, among others), that, in my impression, the Spanish language was created for this poem to exist and not the other way around. Likewise, the inspiration of some of the “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair” (1924), including poems XV (“Me gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente”) and XX (“Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche”), seem — there is no better way to put it! — eternal.

The 225 odes he composed are, collectively, an astonishingly intimate diary about the state of our complicated world. In them he pays tribute to items that accompany us daily yet we seldom notice: a pencil, shoelaces, tomatoes, the waves, a decrepit movie theater. His partners in this genetic tradition represented are Catullus, John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Read his “Ode to the Watermelon,” “Ode to the Dictionary,” “Ode to the Onion” and “Ode to Walt Whitman” and you’ll be transformed.

And then, of course, there is “Canto General” (1950), in which he set for himself an almost impossible task: to tell the entire history of Latin America, from the shaping of its fauna before it was inhabited by humans to its pre-Columbian period (“Heights of Macchu Picchu” is a favorite sequence of mine), from its struggle for independence to its ruthless dictators and its drive for autonomy, equality and freedom. This volume is to the region what “Leaves of Grass” is to the United States: its bible.

The Chilean thoroughly reinvigorated the way we understand love, always driven by wholesome passion in a landscape of relentless war.

Needless to say, 3,500 are a lot of poems. Neruda himself was aware of the pitfalls of excess, choosing sometimes to exile a verse from his collected works. It would be unrealistic to expect uniform quality in such abundance, let alone artistic consistency. A man of endless energy, in his frantic drive to record every emotion, every thought that defined him, Neruda produced lots of second-rate stuff. An example is “Invitation to a Nixonicide,” known in Spanish as “Incitación al nixonicidio y alabanza de la revolución chilena” (1972), in which, among other agendas, he denounced Nixon’s actions in Vietnam. It feels derivative, pamphleteering — less poetry than ideology. His odes to Stalingrad and the railway system in China are equally forgettable.

The discovery of 20-plus poems might reveal unforeseen aspects of Neruda, although frankly I am skeptical. To me it smells more like an editorial marketing strategy. Apparently these pieces were written after “Canto General.” Gimferrer publicly inserted them in the creative period that encompasses the odes as well as “Estravagario” (1958) and “Isla Negra” (1964). He even offered a peek, quoting a line: “Reposa tu pura cadera y el arco de flechas mojadas / extiende en la noche los pétalos que forman tu forma.” “Let your pure hip and the bow of wet arrows rest / extend at night the petals conforming your form.”

This, unquestionably, is Neruda’s voice. Love and politics, politics and love — these were his lifelong themes. Indeed, the Chilean thoroughly reinvigorated the way we understand love, always driven by wholesome passion in a landscape of relentless war. But does the verse amount to an aesthetic repositioning? I don’t have enough to judge. The process by which he put together his poetry collections was sometimes haphazard, dumping in a single book whatever he was able to harvest over the years, then finding a suitable title to describe them. My question isn’t about the quality of the recently discovered poems but about why Neruda separated them, why he left them out of his various collections. Did he forget about them while harvesting? Did he judge them inferior? Or might someone else have recommended he put them aside? Did he give them to someone as an individual present, as he was prone to do?

The answers shall come in due time. Borges, Neruda and García Márquez, arguably the most eminent writers from Latin America in the last 50 years, have become cultural commodities, generating insatiable hunger. Whatever artifact emerges about them becomes instant news. Probably with the exception of Gabo (as the author of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was known), who died just a few months ago, their canon is already rock solid. Any hoopla about unearthing a forgotten portion of it, of suddenly seeing it differently, is the stuff of bounty hunters.

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