Pablo Neruda's Reflections On Poetry Upon Receiving The Nobel Prize
A journey through dream and utopia: Neruda’s proposal upon receiving the Nobel Prize.
In a chapter of his exquisite Memoirs, Pablo Neruda described his adscription to the communist party with certain resignation. “Simply, a path had to be chosen” he apostrophized, and thus made it clear that his social conviction had to join the force with one of the trends that at the time seemed like the only one willing to fight the progress of fascism. And he never regretted it; regardless of the criticism, the Chilean always felt his destiny was inexorably tied to that of other men, and his condition as a poet, a great poet, was equally conditioned by the vicissitudes of his fellows.
Jorge Luis Borges once argued that Neruda had benefitted from devoting his poetry to social change, since he had gone from being a mediocre sentimental poet to an enormous revolutionary poet. It seems Borges was right. From his ultra-popular Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which he saw reproduced in so many sweetened love letters, to his Elementary Odes, where Neruda made clear his poetics’ change in direction —Thirty years had passed, thirty years in which he witnessed the shift of his activity as a poet towards commitment, as it could not be in any other way before the atrocities perpetrated in the century he had to live.
During his reception of the Nobel Prize in 1971, Neruda wanted to signify the tumultuous life that as a man of his era and as a poet he was forced to transit. The consciousness of his origin, the profound bond he had to his native country and pained continent, took the floor before a Europe that was awarding him its most notable literary distinction. As if it were a journey, Neruda announced his speech, and it was a journey indeed for his listeners and for those of us who read his words today. The poet narrated, before the fashionable audience, the difficult transit beyond the borders of his beloved Chile. In his exile to Argentinean lands, Neruda saw his life in danger and he witnessed fundamental incidents that would later give shape to his Canto General.
Everything became one: the solitude, the danger, the silence and the urgency of my mission.
In the danger of the journey the poet finds the forming experience of poetic instinct; in communion with his companions, Neruda penetrates the sense of human-communion and the ultimate reason of the poem.
Dimly I understood, there by the side of my inscrutable companions, that there was a kind of link between unknown people, a care, an appeal and an answer even in the most distant and isolated solitude of this world.
Tired and injured, mounting bleeding and trembling animals, the five pilgrims reach the warmth of a fire and, gathered with strangers that offer them shelter, celebrate the ecstasy of reunion and brotherhood. Neruda, surprised by the kindness of his hosts, questions for a moment his anonymity:
These men did not know who we were, they knew nothing about our flight, they had never heard either my name or my poetry; or perhaps they did, perhaps they knew us?
If Neruda decided to share his experiences in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, it was done to clarify what poetry meant to him. Not the poetry of books, not the poetry of academia: a living poetry, born from human contact, forged by the blow of a hammer on the burning anvil of collectivity.
I did not learn from books any recipe for writing a poem, and I, in my turn, will avoid giving advice on more or style which might give the poets even a drop of supposed insight. When I am recounting in this speech is something about past events, when reliving on this occasion a never-forgotten occurrence, in this place which is so different from what that was, it is because in the course of my life I have always found somewhere the necessary support, the formula which had been waiting for me not in order to be petrified in my words but in order to explain me to myself.
“The poet”, Neruda sentences, “is not a little god”. And comparing the poet to a baker that kneads dough every day and provides bread to his fellows, Neruda defines his idea of poetry and his idea of commitment.
Only in this indispensable way of being ordinary people shall we give back to poetry the mighty breadth which has been pared away from it little by little in every epoch, just as we ourselves have been whittled down in every epoch.
Facing the solemn congregation, Neruda dares to denounce —and perhaps justify the award to himself—Latin America’s situation, lacerated still with the half-opened wounds of colonialism:
We have inherited this damaged life of peoples dragging behind them the burden of the condemnation of centuries, the most paradisiacal of peoples, the purest, those who with stones and metals made marvelous towers, jewels of dazzling brilliance —peoples who were suddenly despoiled and silenced in the fearful epochs of colonialism which still linger on…
How should I then have been able to raise my brow, illuminated by the honor whish Sweden has conferred on me, if I had not been able to feel some pride in having taken part, even to small extent, in the change which has now come over my country?
Neruda closes his speech by remembering a prophecy by Rimbaud:
In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter splendid Cities.
“Only by being armed with a burning patience”, Neruda says, “can we conquer the splendid City which will give light, justice and dignity to all mankind.”
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