Saturday, June 9, 2018

Ten Greatest Poets – Pablo Neruda, the Greatest Poet of the Twentieth Century


Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, Pablo Neruda, pen name—and later legal name—of Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, has been hailed as “the greatest poet of the twentieth century” by Gabriel García Márquez, himself winner of the same prize in 1982. Although the title’s bestowal by Márquez is debatable, there is no doubt that Neruda is one of the most important poets of Latin America in the twentieth century. In this respect, he could also be considered the greatest.

Choosing a recent or contemporary figure by declaring their lasting relevance to future generations is always tricky because we lack the perspective of long history, but if we don’t make a choice, we end up settling for our unsatisfactory reluctance to risk premature judgment.

More than a handful of poets of the last century, some still living, could qualify, besides Neruda, for inclusion in the top ten. Among them, we are inclined to mention Edward Estlin Cummings, or “e. e. cummings,” all lower-case letters, as his name was often printed in his published works. Cummings passed away in 1962. He introduced his highly innovative poetry at the beginning of the last century, the influence of which extends to the present day. He entirely broke free of nineteenth-century conventions of Western Romanticism, especially those concerning form, experimenting with grammar, syntax, diction, meaning, and particularly the visual arrangement of words on the page, effectively engaging and often delighting the reader, and successfully creating his own unique, instantly recognizable voice. Cummings was a revolutionary in the best sense of the word. Nearly half a century after his demise, his cleverly inventive poetry remains memorable, and it is especially popular among the young.

Cummings was not selected for inclusion in the top ten for two reasons. First, we already have an American, Walt Whitman, in the list. Second, it is only appropriate that a worthy representative of the rich, expansive culture and heritage of Spain and the colonies of the former Spanish Empire, Central and South America in major measure—as a whole, populous, important, and influential—should make the list. If we add up the various populations of this grouping of countries, excluding the 18 present-day U.S. states that were formerly Spanish, the total equals approximately 850 million today.

Neruda is recognized as a master of the lyric and the epic, but critical reviews of his work tend to judge him a better lyric poet than epic.

One of his earliest works, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, published in 1924 when he was only 19 years old, established his reputation as a poet. He would return to the motif of romantic love multiple times, notably in One Hundred Love Sonnets, published in 1959. “Sonnet XVII” in this collection illustrates well his mastery of the lyric.

Our appreciation of any poet not writing in the English language depends substantially on the quality of the translation. Fortunately, the English translation of this poem by Mark Eisner is excellent.

Original language Spanish
Translated by Mark Eisner

I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz,  
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:  
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,  
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries  
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,  
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose  
from the earth lives dimly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,  
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,  

so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,  
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.

Each line of this splendid poem harbors a trove of meanings, imaginings, and feelings. They inhabit, as it were, a tenuous penumbra wherein figurative language simultaneously communicates and obscures. How does love exist “between the shadow and the soul”? Is there space in between? “Your hand on my chest is mine”—do these words express oneness of being with the beloved or do they describe some mysteriously separate union?

Neruda’s epic masterpiece, Canto General, published in 1950, is political poetry. Concerning this work, some have disputed his ideological claims besides his overall vision. After all, Neruda was a Communist.

Neruda is at his best in the lyric. Published in 1958, “Keeping Quiet,” for example, shows his lyrical flair. At the same time in this poem we come across the political Neruda. We encounter his deep passion for things political as well as his activist social vision.

KEEPING QUIET by Pablo Neruda
Original language Spanish
Translated by Alastair Reid

And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Let’s “all keep still,” Neruda urges, so that “those who prepare green wars” would “walk about with their brothers.” “I want no truck with death,” he intones.

From his twenties into his thirties, Neruda was, we might say, a political mute. The turning point in his political development was the execution in 1936 by a Fascist militia of the leftist Federico García Lorca, a fellow poet and dear friend. Thenceforth, Neruda turned into an anti-Fascist, which in the calculus of the Spanish Civil War meant that he became a Communist. He maintained this ideological position the rest of his life.

When in 1973 Augusto Pinochet instigated a successful coup d’état against the regime of Marxist President Salvador Allende of Chile, Neruda was a prominent target. The circumstances surrounding his death indicate that he had been poisoned, probably on Pinochet’s orders. Neruda died soon after he had been injected in the stomach by a doctor.  

Pablo Neruda, 1963

Ten Greatest Poets – Walt Whitman, America’s Poet


The twentieth century has been described as America’s century. And so it is. The century began with the cresting of the imperialist powers of Europe and saw the rise of Imperial Japan, taking its newfound place as a world power after defeating the Russian navy. Emerging from rapid industrialization during the nineteenth century, the U.S. joined the ranks of the imperialists. After two world wars, the U.K. and France slowly declined to the status of middle-level powers, while the U.S. and the Soviet Union squared off in the so-called Cold War. The U.S. got the better of the ideological rivalry because of its superior economic system, and when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it seemed as if the U.S. as the leader of the Western bloc had indeed established a new world order in which liberal democratic ideology had become normative. We know today it is not the case.

America’s rise as a world player the beginning of the last century and its continuing position today as a leading great power, are among the bases for its major ongoing influence on world culture. Hollywood is known—if not always welcomed—worldwide, for example, and English, especially American English, is the lingua franca of international business. Contemporary conditions of world culture, we might describe it as a type of cultural hegemony, logically persuade us to include at least one American poet in our list of the ten greatest.

Walt Whitman, a consummately American poet, represents an astute choice. He has been called “America’s poet” by Ezra Pound, more to the point, “He is America.” Whitman sought to encompass the breadth and height and depth, indeed, the very being of America, the enthusiastic idea of it as well as the expansive reality, in his person qua poet, and from the standpoint of the poetic imagination we could say that, strangely enough, he succeeded, or very nearly so.

To be continued

Walt Whitman, 1887

Ten Greatest Poets – Matsuo Bashō, the Greatest Master of Haiku

Portrait of Bashō (late 18th century) by Hokusai

Ten Greatest Poets – William Shakespeare, England’s National Poet

William Shakespeare (c. 1667) by Gerard Soest

Ten Greatest Poets – Dante Alighieri, Quintessential Poet of the Middle Ages

Dante Alighieri, detail (1865), Piazza Santa Croce, Florence, Italy by Enrico Pazzi

Ten Greatest Poets – Rumi, Sufi Mystic

A Sufi in Ecstasy in a Landscape (c. 1650-60), The Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection

Ten Greatest Poets – Li Po, China’s Greatest Poet—Not


Truth is, China has two greatest poets—Li Po, also known as Li Bai, and Tu Fu. If we had to choose between the two, it’s a toss-up.

Li Po edges out Tu Fu for trivial reasons—Li Po is slightly more entertaining. He writes about his tipsy spells and bouts of drunkenness with playful humor. Drawing us into almost mystical contemplation, he surprises us by his notably simple, keen, direct, and unaffected powers of observation.

Tu Fu is neither a tippler nor a mystic. He comes across as a little square. Chinese historian William Hung describes him as “a filial son, an affectionate father, a generous brother, a faithful husband, a loyal friend, a dutiful official, and a patriotic subject.” Honored by the Chinese as “poet sage,” Tu Fu is also acknowledged for his technical mastery of classical Chinese forms.

Mountains are a favorite motif of Li Po.

To be continued

A Painting of Li Bai with his poetry (c. 1800), Huaijiu Gulangyu Museum, Xiamen, Fujian, China