by David Shames
Thursday, April 24, 2014
The first time I really connected to Pablo Neruda's poetry was the summer before my junior year of college. Reeling after a bad breakup, I was going through the Spanish section of the library when I came across a black book with gold lettering on the front - Residencia en la Tierra. At this point I was familiar with Neruda's poetry but just barely. The poems I knew were the ones that, if there was a billboard chart for poetry, would be considered Top 40 material, the types of poems that are anthologized in the intermediate level Spanish lit readers. Don't get me wrong, these are great poems, iconic poems like “Poema XX.” But they only show the side of Neruda that most people are familiar with - his romantic poems. And while, say, “Poema XX,” with its heart on its sleeve, with its “another’s. She will be another's,” may seem like the perfect break up elegy, I shortly found out that the poems in Residencia express a whole other level of anguish. For example. The heartbroken man in “Poema XX” can sing the saddest verses on this night. Whereas the man who is tired of being a man in “Walking Around” in Residencia finds the atomic film separating his skin from the horrible space around him melts away, leaving him wide open to the onslaught of reality. Poema XX is a lyrical sublimation of heartache. Walking Around is a howl at the moon. And sometimes a howl at the moon is what you need.
When I first looked over Red Poppy’s Neruda documentary footage something clicked when one of the interviewees said that Neruda himself was going through a break up when he wrote the Residencias, (as well as feeling estranged, depressed, lost in solitude). I didn't know this beforehand but it made perfect sense. While the poems are not overtly about a long gone lover, the undercurrent of loss is there, a loss of human contact, and what more is a break up than losing your closest human contact you have? Neruda gives voice to that loss. And that voice, that articulation, is exactly the answer I have started to give to my friends working as engineers and lab techs when they ask me, Why Poetry? or its sister question, that resilient New York Times Op-Ed impetus, Why the Humanities? Poetry can be a great many things and defies definition. It can be puzzle to unlock with another person. It can be an epic story. It can be a historical testament. But to me, most of all, poetry is just a human voice that refuses to fade away.
Red Poppy’s important work focuses on collecting these outspoken voices. At present the nonprofit is engaged with projects including a documentary on Pablo Neruda's poetic activism, and an anthology entitled Poetry in Resistance that challenges readers to consider art as a vehicle for demanding social justice. Every day we can read about the civil war in Syria, about turmoil in the Ukraine, about genocide in the Sudan, about Pussy Riot being shipped to the gulag, about mortgage holders illegally foreclosed upon and every single person oppressed by these forces needs a voice beyond the sterilized sentences of The News. That is where poetry comes into play. Poetry can bridge contexts and cultural divides because emotions are universal. Neruda's poem indicting the United Fruit Company, for example, is just as much an indictment of subprime lenders, because the cannibalistic effects of unregulated capitalism endure, and so does our outrage. Similarly, the poets featured in Poetry in Resistance voice dissent against oppressive and authoritarian forces which still persist to this day. And one day we hope to listen to the Syrians voice their own laments over the conflict. Because that should be the project of poetry. Understanding human conflict, and fighting for social justice. That's Why Poetry. And that's also Why Red Poppy.
by David Shames
by David Shames