And Neruda was such a Chilean, such a Latin American, in how much he cared for his country, continent and its people. They were his cause, his pride and the most important audience for his poetry. Though he constantly traveled, he would always return to Chile (only living abroad while serving diplomatic positions).
Neruda's masterpiece, Canto General, is emblematic of his passion for his continent. The epic poem-- Canto, as in song-- is a class-based Marxist and humanistic interpretation of the history of the Americas, written as Neruda was developing his burgeoning pan-American consciousness and perspective.
“I live, I still live, and I think many of us live inside the world Neruda discovered,” Ariel Dorfman told me on a warm spring day on the Duke campus, where he is a Distinguished Professor of Literature, Latin American Studies and Theater. We had been discussing Canto General, in which, as Dorfman put it, “He basically named Latin America in a new way, and he claimed for Latin America the possibility of being lyrically and epically in a story of resistance. And what was very special about that for me was that he managed to understand that the struggle of the people for their liberation, for their full humanity, was parallel to the struggle of the nature of Latin America to be expressed, to be freed. . . to be shown.”
“From the political aesthetic point of view, Canto General has no equal,” Dorfman, who was exiled from Chile after Pinochet's 1973 coup, continued, “There's not one bad verse in Residencia en la tierra, but Canto General is full of verses I would sort of say, well hey, ‘they’re too propagandistic, bombastic.’ But when he hit the target in the Canto General, what he did was he redefined what America meant. América. Even North America, but particularly Latin America.”
Awesome in scope and simultaneously deeply probing, Canto General is considered by many to be one of the more important books in the whole cannon of the world’s poetry. And it extends well beyond the world of well-versed lovers of literature and academic scholars. In 2003, I went to a construction site on a new line of Santiago’s metro in order to interview workers about their thoughts on Neruda. There, José Corriel told me that Canto General was his favorite book by Neruda because it’s “la parte combativa de Neruda,” the combative side. “The importance of Canto General,” he said, “is that it shows us the Américas’ history from a different point of view.” Canto General, he explained, is told from “the point of view of the people themselves, not the history told by the conquerors. Yes, we could call it the ‘history told by the conquered.’"
The Canto's opening poem is appropriately titled, “Amor América (1400)”
Before the powdered wig and the dress coat,
were the rivers, arterial rivers,
were the cordilleras, on whose worn ripple
the condor or the snow seemed immobile:
there was humidity and thickness, the thunder
still without name, the planetary pampas.
Man was earth, earthen pot, eyelid
of tremulous mud, shape of clay—
he was Caribbean pitcher, chibchan stone,
imperial cup or Araucanian silica.
Tender and bloody he was, but in the hilt
of his moistened crystal weapon
the earth’s initials were
No one could
remember them later: the wind
forgot them, the language of water
was buried, the keys were lost
or inundated by silence or blood.
Life was not lost, pastoral brothers.
But like a wild rose
a red drop fell on the thickness,
and a lamp on earth was extinguished.
I am here to tell the history.
From the peace of the buffalo
to the beaten sands
of the land’s end, in the accumulated
foam of the Antarctic light
My land without name, without América,
equinoctial stamen, purple lance,
your aroma climbed to me through my roots
into the goblet that I drank, into the thinnest
word still unborn in my mouth.
He indeed drank deeply from that cup, as Latin America's poetic essence flowed through the book's two hundred and thirty more poems, in which he named so much of both America's integrities and its external evils.
Canto General's literary roots are the lyrics of his hero Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Mayan’s Popul Vuh and, as seen in “Amor América (1400),” the literature of the Bible. “Amor América (1400)” lays out Neruda’s idea of the American Genesis, a pre-Columbian Eden, before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores and the subsequent “imperialistic” foreign powers' injustices. In this Eden, as Neruda described it, all was pure, so natural that “Man was earth, earthen vase.”
The Europeans extinguished the ancient "lamp on earth," according to Neruda's thinking. He portrays the Spanish Conquest as a tragic injustice forced on “his” people, despite his European heritage. The Europeans, to him, were barbarous and ruthless. “Like a wild rose, a red drop fell on the thickness”--so ended America’s Edenic first phase of history. (The poet doesn't mention, though, the barberry that many pre-Columbian societies had ruthlessly enacted on others within the continent: the blood let by the Inca’s imperialism, the Aztec love of war, the Mayans` human sacrifices, the violence of Apache warriors. . . For he is not just invoking the peaceful indigenous of his land which would be called Chile, he is talking all of the Americas, “from the peace of the buffalo / to the beaten sands of the land’s end.”)
Neruda identifies himself with the indigenous people. “I searched for you, my father, young warrior of darkness and copper,” he writes in “Amor América (1400)”. In the poem, all indigenous people, peaceful and belligerent alike, are his “fathers”; he is their son. Pablo Neruda, though, was actually born Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, with no native names in his lineage, but rather Spanish family names, with Neftalí, from his mother, suggesting some Semitic roots.
In Canto General, the “pastoral hermanos” are his brothers, presented as the land itself:
My Araucanian fathers had no
crests of luminous plumes,
they did not rest on nuptial flowers,
they did not spin gold for the priest:
they were stone and tree, roots
"Earth and Man Unite"
Neruda is here to tell their story, to give name to that which was “without name, without América,” before the Spanish came.
Canto General attempts to find "the earth's initials," to uncover and display the lost keys to the conquered, to open new doors to justice. He is making a literary effort to give people back their lost voice.
* * *
When the bestselling Chilean novelist Isabel Allende fled her country after Pinochet's coup, she couldn't take much with her, "some clothes, family pictures, a small bag with dirt from my garden, and two books: Eduardo Galleano’s seminal Open Veins of Latin America, and an old edition of Pablo Neruda’s poetry. Like the bag of earth, with Neruda’s words I was taking a part of Chile with me, for Neruda was such a part of my country, such a part of the political dreams destroyed that day."
Neruda is one of history’s greatest examples of a soul rebel who used his pen as his sword in his constant fight for a better world. At his political core was a populism based on his fundamental belief that the common man, the worker, the poor, deserved a seat at the table as much as anybody else:
…Let us sit down soon to eat
with all those who haven’t eaten;
let us spread great tablecloths,
put salt in the lakes of the world,
set up planetary bakeries,
tables with strawberries in snow,
and a plate like the moon itself
from which we can all eat.
For now I ask no more
than the justice of eating.
(translated by and (C) the late great Alastair Reid, from "Extravagario", Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)
Neruda's communism was not based on egalitarianism, but rather the equality of possibility.
Even as a teenager, witnessing the injustices against the indigenous and working class to which he was exposed, Neruda felt the poet’s calling-- el deber del poeta: an obligation, a duty, a debt he owed to give voice to the people through his poetry. He promised a commitment to humanitarianism, using literature to enrich, empower and engage in the pursuit of progressive social change.
To dive deep into Neruda's life and poetry, may we suggest Mark Eisner's award-winning Neruda: The Biography of a Poet
"Reads like a beautifully written novel: attentive to scene, momentum, and rich with evocative details.”
— Cristina García, Dreaming in Cuban