Pablo Neruda's poetry

Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand's obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of the lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it.

It is because Pablo Neruda's poetry smells "of the lilies and urine" that he proves to be a popular poet with students: they find him accessible, enjoy the way he combines the earthy, the erotic and the beautiful, while also admiring the passion and principles conveyed in so many of his poems.   He often uses language in a deceptively simple yet incredibly powerful way so that, while students understand his work fairly quickly, it still yields rich discussions and debates in the classroom and complex, nuanced individual interpretations in writing.  

As with any poet, teachers can choose to study one collection or compile their own anthology of selected poems.  While there are advantages in studying a collection such as The Captain's Verses in terms of the way themes and motifs are developed across the book, our own preference is to give students a more varied experience so that they experience his versatility as a writer and can read his love poetry alongside other works such as his odes and his political poems.  This then gives students more choice when it comes to exploring his work further should they choose to wrote about him for their coursework.  

As such the following pages offer teaching and learning suggestions for a variety of poems from across his fifty year career as a writer.  

A note on translation

As with any text in translation, issues of what makes for meaningful analysis arise, and this area is even more pronounced with poetry. Students need to be aware of this from the outset and if you have any Spanish speakers in the class use them to read the original poems and discuss the differences in translation.  This can make for some fascinating discussions about language, connotations, idioms, imagery, tone and atmosphere.  Many books publish the Spanish and English side by side; try to give students these so that, even if they do not understand Spanish, they can at least see if points they want to make about sound, form and/or structure are valid given the original versions.  This is what Neruda said about his poems when translated into English:

"This means that the equilibrium of a Spanish poem, which may be written with verbal lavishness or economy, but has its own order and way of placing each word, can find no equivalent in . . . English. It's not a question of interpretive equivalents, no; the sense may be correct, indeed the accuracy of the translation itself, of the meaning, may be what destroys the poem. That's why I think Italian comes closest, because by keeping the values of the words, the sound helps reflect the sense. ... It seems to me that the English language, so different from Spanish and so much more direct, often expresses the meaning of my poetry but does not convey its atmosphere."  

And the following was written shortly after Neruda's death in a tribute published in The Nation:

"Neruda's poetry is in general ill-served by its English translations—through no fault of the scholars who have done the translating, some of them accomplished poets in their own right. The fault lies with the demotic speech that industrial society has fostered, and with the variant employed by literary men writing in English in our day. Poetry is above all the art of evoking powerful emotions through verbal music, and Neruda's exuberant Spanish has its counterpart in the English poetry of the Renaissance rather than in the sober dialect of our contemporary major poets—or the willful stridencies of some of our lesser writers. Neruda in translation tends to sound inflated and bombastic. Nothing could be less true of the original."

Of course none of this should stop us reading, enjoying or studying his work in English but it is important students are aware of the issues and complications in translation poetics.  

The quotation at the top of this page is taken from a short essay by Pablo Neruda, Toward an Impure Poetry.  The full text of the essay can be seen by clicking on the icon below. 

Toward an Impure Poetry

It is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels, and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter's tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all troubled lyricists. The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things---all lend a curious attactiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.

In them one sees the confused impurity of the human condition, the massing of things, the use and disuse of substance, footprints and fingerprints, the abiding presence of the human engulfing all artifacts, inside and out.

Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand's obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of the lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it.

A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denials and doubts, affirmations and taxes.

The holy canons of madrigal, the mandates of touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, the passion for justice, sexual desire, the sea sounding---willfully rejecting and accepting nothing: the deep penetraion of things in the transports of love, a consummate poetry soiled by the pigeon's claw, ice-marked and tooh-marked, bitten delicately with our sweatdrops and usage, perhaps. Till the instrument so restlessly played yields us the comfort of its surfaces, and the woods show the knottiest suavities shaped by the pride of the tool. Blossom and water and wheat kernel share one precious consistency: the sumptuous appeal of the tactile.

Let no one forget them. Melancholy, old mawkishness impure and unflawed, fruits of a fabulous species lost to the memory, cast away in a frenzy's abandonment---moonlight, the swan in the gathering darkness, all hackneyed endearments: surely that is the poet's concern, essential and absolute.

Those who shun the "bad taste" of things will fall flat on the ice. 

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