[Forthcoming in Multicultural
Review in December 2004]
BY JONATHAN COHEN
The multidimensional poetry of Pablo Neruda
(1904–73)—the sexy love poet, the hot surrealist poet, the blood-and-guts
political poet, the bardic poet of the American continent, the joyous
everyman’s poet, the final personal poet—is now enjoying a renewed appreciation
in the United States. The newly published selection, The Essential Neruda
(2004), and the most comprehensive collection ever published, The Poetry of
Pablo Neruda (2003), are expressions of this appreciation as much as they
are stimulators and purveyors of it. Their publications, of course, were timed
to coincide with the centennial of Neruda’s birth. The translations of both
these works have been made mostly by poets aiming to achieve fidelity to not
only the literal meaning, but the poetic quality of the original texts.
Although verse translations of Neruda’s poetry were published in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s,
they did not start to gain recognition here until the 1960s. The early
translations were largely ignored for both literary and political reasons. In
the first place, Neruda was a surrealist, and his style of writing was at odds
with the poetics of leading critics and poets. Secondly, Neruda was an ardent
communist who actively supported Stalin and the Soviet Union throughout the 1940s and
1950s. At the time some of the poetry that he produced was merely Stalinist
propaganda. Consequently, during the years of the Cold War and New Criticism,
the appearance of Neruda in English did little to establish his reputation as a
great poet or to influence poets in the United States.
The proper recognition
Neruda finally gained was fostered during the 1960s by the growing romantic
movement of U.S. poets emphasizing freedom
of form and feelings, and was accompanied by a revived interest in verse
translation—through which these poets sought new ways to create poetry in
English that would liberate them from the dominant formalist modes. In this
regard, Neruda had much to offer, and thus he began to receive serious
attention. For several poets, translating Neruda became part of their own
efforts to revitalize U.S. poetry. They were
especially interested in Neruda’s style of surrealism, as well as his poems of
social commitment. Starting around 1960, translations of Neruda’s poetry began
to flourish in the United States and became a mediating
force. Furthermore, the act of translating from Spanish led a number of U.S. poets to create original
poems in English.
Commenting on new trends in contemporary U.S.
poetry, in 1979, poet and translator William Meredith observed that “many poets believe that major directions for poetry in our country will derive from
the aesthetic innovations of Latin American poets (Meredith, 1979,
15).He referred to this cross-cultural
activity as “an American tradition,” and in this tradition, Neruda’s influence
has been more real than influences normally charted in comparative literature
studies, based only on a reading acquaintance; for, in having translated Neruda
themselves, several major U.S. poets were affected in their own poetry by what
they learned and did with “the poem in the act of translation” (Barnstone, 1973, 137). Consequently, Neruda’s poetry in
translation became a significant part of the literary heritage of U.S.
poets. Pulitzer-winning poet Anne Sexton, in an interview in 1970, emphasized
this point: “We [North American poets] are being influenced now by South
American poets, Spanish poets, French poets. We are
much more image-driven as a result Neruda is the great image-maker. The greatest colorist That’s why I say you have to start with
Neruda” (Sexton, 1970, 11–12).
The purpose of the present study, therefore, is to
elucidate the literary activity associated with the naturalization of Neruda in
English during the years of the 1960s, the decade his poetry finally
established itself, in translation, as a major new American voice in the
national literature of the United States.
first significant event must be attributed to Ben Belitt, a poet and English
professor, who published his important translation titled Selected Poems of
Pablo Neruda in 1961, the same year Carlos Lozano’s relatively literal,
though delightful, translation The Elementary Odes of Pablo Neruda (Odaselementales,
originally published in three successive volumes, 1954, 1956, and 1957)
appeared. For Belitt, his translation represented “an attempt to express [his]
own exuberance” as well as “[his] own sense of contact with things” (Belitt,
1978, 103). Politics did not motivate Belitt to translate Neruda. Instead,
Belitt was after “a special magic in the divination of surrealist metaphors . .
. a kind of irrational metaphysics or therapeutic shorthand: like reading
entrails or tea-leaves” (Belitt, 1978, 28).
One of the important
contributions of Belitt’s selection was his rendering of Neruda’s brief
statement on poetics, “Toward an Impure Poetry,” which Neruda had originally
published in 1935, and which first appeared in English in Belitt’s translation.
In this statement, Neruda advocated an art that “smells of urine and white
lilies,” a poetry on which “every human activity has imprinted its mark.”
He ended on this note: “Let no one forget them: despond, 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 the
hackneyed endearments: surely that is the poet’s occasion, essential and
absolute. [¶] Those who shun the ‘bad taste’ of things will
fall on their face in the snow” (Neruda, 1961, 40).
Thomas McGrath, who reviewed
the book for the leftist magazine Mainstream, regretted the lack of
Neruda’s social-political poems. This dimension of Neruda soon became more
important to U.S. poets in light of the
mounting protest movement against the Vietnam War, and the efforts by many to
recover the lost tradition of communal poetry and to write engagé
poems. Unlike poets in the United States, Spanish-speaking poets did
not have to convert their lyrical tools, because they never had that sense of
being foreigners in their own society, and it was natural and easier to strike
the required familial tone of the people of their society.
Many critics attacked the
peculiar method of Belitt’s translation (i.e., imitation). Robert Bly, an
outspoken poet, translator, and critic, who during the 1960s distinguished
himself as Neruda’s greatest champion in the United States, led the assault against
Belitt and other translators who failed to do what he considered justice to
Neruda. Bly argued that throughout Belitt’s translation “there is an inability
to see or take Neruda for the original man he is—he is constantly being
presented as stale Shakespeare, stale Lowell, or stale Eliot. Because he is
not, this book does him a severe injustice. In the original Spanish there is no
feeling of ‘I am sick, please help me’ such as we sense in Eliot and in this
translation. The original Spanish has a sense of energy, of joy in the
imagination, and an abundance of images.” Bly insisted that Belitt had
distorted Neruda because his poetic temperament was so unlike Neruda’s, and that he had weakened Neruda by “rewriting”
him. For Bly, many of Belitt’s translations ascended “beyond even literary
language to the realm of the Stuffed Owl” (Bly, 1962, 470). Nonetheless,
despite the peculiarities of Belitt’s approach, the genius of Neruda’s potent
voice still came through and quickly found an audience. (For the author’s
analysis of the bitter controversy over the methods of translation that
accompanied the various publications of Neruda’s poetry during the 1960s and
1970s, see: Cohen, J. . Neruda in English: The controversy over
translation poetics. Missouri Review 6: 176–192.)
early 1960s saw a great flourish of activity with Neruda’s poems. Literary
magazines printed English translations made by many poets, who often translated
the same poems, such as “Walking Around,” “There’s No Forgetting,” and others
from Neruda’s surrealist Residence on Earth (Residencia
en la tierra, originally published in two volumes
appearing in 1933 and 1935, plus Terceraresidencia, published in 1947). Clayton Eshleman, Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Kelly, James Wright, W.
S. Merwin, Selden Rodman, and Robert Bly, among
others, began to generate much excitement with their Neruda translations. By
1963, Neruda was being translated into English more widely than any other
contemporary poet. Both Belitt and Eshleman devoted
much of their energies to him. It was Bly, however, who became Neruda’s leading
advocate in the United States, for his special interests
as a poet and editor were in the areas of deep-image (surrealist) poetry and
political poetry. Bly energetically spread the word that Neruda was the
greatest living poet in the world, with “an imagination utterly unlike that of
any poet who has ever written in English” (Bly, 1962, 471).
In 1964, in the seventh
issue of his magazine The Sixties (formerly The Fifties), Bly
featured five of Neruda’s poems translated by Wright and himself (with the
invisible yet essential help of the translation genius named Hardie St. Martin—translator of Neruda’s Memoirs
he vivido; memorias,
1974]). He also published an essay titled “The Surprise of Neruda,” in which he
argued: “We tend to associate the modern imagination with the jerky
imagination, which starts forward, stops, turns around, switches
from subject to subject. In Neruda’s poems, the imagination drives forward,
joining the entire poem in a rising flow of imaginative energy He is a
new kind of creature moving about under the surface of everything. Moving under
the earth, he knows everything from the bottom up (which is the right way to
learn the nature of a thing) and therefore is never at a loss for its name.
Compared to him, the American poet resembles a blind man moving about above the
ground from tree to tree, from house to house, feeling each thing for a long
time, and then calling out ‘house,’ when we already know it is a house.” Bly
hailed Neruda as “wildly romantic, and more sophisticated than Hulme or Pound could dream of being.” Like many poets of
his generation, Bly was looking for an alternative to the dry, impersonal poems
of the modernists of the United States and England; and in Neruda’s work, he
found precisely what he was after: an unrestrained poetry “heavy with images
from the unconscious” (Bly, 1964, 18).
In addition to Neruda’s
brand of surrealism (more earthy and less random than that of the French), Bly
admired Neruda’s ability to deepen political awareness through poetry. Ranking
the Chilean with Yeats, he claimed Neruda had written “the greatest political
poetry of this century so far” (Bly, 1967, 523). For Bly, for instance,
Neruda’s poem “The Dictators” from Canto general (General Song, 1950)
was a masterpiece of the political poem. Unlike the bombastic U.S. agitprop poetry of the
1930s, this poem is not political in terms of opinions or propaganda. Instead,
its language demonstrates the psychic landscape of a South American country in
a dictatorship. It works with surprising images, as in Bly’s
rendering: “The tiny palace gleams like a watch / And
the rapid laughs with gloves on / cross the corridors at times / and join the
dead voices” (Neruda, 1971, 93). Working this way, it penetrates the cruel
reality of political life under a dictator. Without proclaiming a revolutionary
message or sounding the call to action, it uses objects abstractly for the
impact of their overtones; that is, the associational values of words, and the
social-political atmospheres that accumulate around them and that communicate
the feeling of what it is like to suffer a dictatorship.
Although Neruda did produce
a body of great political poetry, he also failed at times to measure up to his
own genius in this regard, writing verses that resembled bad agitprop. He
chanced falling into journalism when he wrote about political themes, but his
poetic successes well justified the risk. English translations of his less
successful efforts often lost the lyrical resonance of his Spanish, becoming
mere prose in disguise—a double defeat for Neruda.
Many U.S. poets became deeply
involved with translating Neruda in the 1960s because they wanted to provide an
alternative to the formal, rationalistic modernism that had dominated the
poetry scene in previous decades and that was aided and abetted by the
prevailing New Criticism. According to critic and translator John Felstiner, U.S. poets also wanted to share
Neruda’s “strong political vantage point, and to overcome the anti-Communist,
xenophobic isolation” that had kept poets like Neruda in the dark in the United States for so long (Felstiner, 1972, 231). By the mid-1960s, as the Vietnam War
was beginning to rage, growing numbers of poets here began to take part in the
nation’s political life, and at this time many flocked to Neruda’s work for its
nourishing political style. After all, U.S. poetry had been relatively
weak in the area of socially-committed verse. Neruda’s social context was
vastly different. Indeed, Latin American poets were generally not regarded with
the suspicion and tolerant indifference inhibiting our own poets.
English translations of
Neruda’s poetry enjoyed an ever-expanding popularity in the late 1960s.
Translators—predominantly poets, not Spanish teachers—were publishing their
efforts in all kinds of magazines, especially little magazines, and in
anthologies. At least a book or two of Neruda in translation
appeared each year, thus giving the English-language audience a more complete
picture of his entire canon. All the while, Neruda kept writing new
books and encouraging various translators in the United States and in England to translate his poems.
Nevertheless, apart from the poets themselves, who were reading and translating
Neruda, among other Spanish-language poets (e.g., Federico GarcíaLorca, César Vallejo, Octavio Paz—to name three of many), and who understood the
importance of the encounter, the wider reading public and critical audience had
little or no idea of the real significance of Neruda’s impact on U.S. poets. It
was just beginning to be understood.
In Poetry in 1967,
Willis Barnstone, a worldly poet, translator, and
scholar, pointed out that, through Neruda and others from Spain and Spanish
America, U.S. poetry was “revitalizing itself in many ways: finding a new
passion, a clear image, a new root in nature the energy and visual
floodtide of Neruda” (Barnstone, 1967, 47). Donald
Hall, another poet, translator, and critic of distinction, helped to define
this new movement among U.S. poets. They were “using
fantastic images, images from deep in the imagination, either to reveal an
inward world, or to understand our objective existence in the light of inward
knowledge.” Writing about the new “deep-image” poet, mentioning Bly and Wright
as prime examples, Hall explained: “His method is the image—not the objective
picture of the imagist movement, but the fantastic image that comes from the
unconscious mind” (Hall, 1964, 18–19). Describing the style
of this new U.S. poetry
that “eschews logic and other conventional structures,” Hall was also
describing very accurately, though indirectly, the style Neruda had perfected
in his Residence poems, which Bly and Wright were actively importing to
the United States.
By the early 1970s, Neruda’s
poetry in English translation—his love poetry, surrealist and political poetry,
bardic poetry, populist and inward poetry—had become
a significant part of the national literature of the United States. It had helped in a
powerful way “to induce a general change of direction in United States poetry, centering around
the ‘deep image’ writers, but branching out into other areas” (Cramer, 1976,
121). Largely through the efforts of Bly along with the other poet-translators,
Neruda became a model for poets looking for new directions. Translations of
Neruda’s poetry had extended the bounds of our own poetry. In the preface to
his anthology titled Contemporary American Poetry, published in 1972,
Hall acknowledged this contribution, emphasizing that the new movement of what
he called fantastic, or expressionist, poetry would become “such a cliché—bad
fantastic poetry—that it will be difficult to read the good things for a while.
You can tell the dominance of a school by the prevalence of bad versions of it
Now the magazines and publishers are overwhelmed by bad imitators of
Pablo Neruda” (Hall, 1972, 36).
1970s also saw Neruda in both Spanish and English become a source of strength
for a new generation of Latino poets in this country, such as (to name a few)
Julia Alvarez, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Julio Marzán,
Frank Lima, David Unger, Sandra Maria Esteves,
Marjorie Agosín, Aurora Levins
Morales, and Martín Espada. Among these poets Espada
would be the principal heir to Neruda’s tradition in terms of his own poetry’s
wildness, imaginative leaps in language, and political commitment. He would pay
frequent homage to Neruda in his work, as well as in accounts of his
development as a poet (see: Crohan, C., & Miller-Lachmann, L. . On poetry, war, language, and
baseball: An interview with Martín Espada.
Multicultural Review 13: 55–58).
Finally, at the end of that decade,
noted that Neruda—the poet most widely translated from Spanish to English—had
become a “household word” in the literary community in the United States (Wright, 1980, 50). Even
so, among critics here Neruda found both laudators
and detractors, friends and enemies. As poet H. R. Hays, an early translator of
Neruda, pointed out in 1974, “it took thirty years for the work of Neruda
to penetrate the North American literary establishment” (Hays, 1974, 32). The
translations made by Hays and others that were published in the 1940s and 1950s
found only a small audience. (It was, in fact, Hays’s
renderings in his 12 Spanish American Poets —an old copy in the
public reading room of the New York Public Library—that originally provided Bly with his first glimpse of Neruda.) But, in the 1960s,
the steady flourish of English translations finally enabled the Chilean master
poet to establish a permanent residence in U.S. poetry, and to confront
this establishment with unrelenting zeal. At present,
more than 100 books of his poetry have been
published in translation here, from slim volumes offering a broadsheet of a
single poem to last year’s 1,000-plus-page volume of some 600 poems—and the
number of new books continues to grow. At the same time, Neruda in English needs to
be more fully appreciated for having a marked influence on U.S. poetry; that
is, for extending the range and capacity of our own speech, our own art and
sensibility, through the very act of translation itself, and by opening doors
to new possibilities of poetry.
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poetry. Nation 204(17): 522–524.
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and Vallejo in contemporary United
States poetry.Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at
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