Book Review: Readings

Pablo Neruda

Readings

The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems

edited by Mark Eisner

City Lights, 234 pp., $16.95

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) published his first book of poetry at the age of 19 (which he financed by selling all of his possessions), and by 20 – with the publication of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair – he was a celebrity. His Complete Works stands today at nearly 4,000 pages. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 (celebrated in Chile as a national holiday), Neruda was called by Gabriel García Márquez "the greatest poet of the 20th century – in any language." He was probably the most widely read and, many claim, the most loved.

The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems – the beautifully executed outcome of a collaboration among noted poets, scholars, and translators, including Alistair Reid, Robert Hass, and Stephen Mitchell – is actually only one element in a much larger project, "One Hundred Years of Pablo Neruda," organized to celebrate the centennial of Neruda's birth. In conjunction with the book, a feature-length documentary film is being made about Neruda by the book's editor, Mark Eisner. The project also includes worldwide public readings of Neruda's poetry during April, National Poetry Month. (For more information, go to www.nerudadoc.org or www.dialoguepoetry.org.)

Though not without its flaws, The Essential Neruda will prove to be, for most readers, the best introduction to Neruda available in English. In fact, I can think of few other books that have given me so much delight so easily. At only 234 pages (bilingual), it somehow manages to convey the fullness of Neruda's poetic arc: Reading it is like reading the autobiography of a poetic sensibility (granted, the abridged version).

Neruda's poetry is characterized by passion – in love and in politics – as well as by compassion. He referred to himself as an "anti-intellectual" and called on the "poet's responsibility ... to defend the people, the poor, the exploited." Commonly referred to as the "people's poet," he believed in the power of language, especially of poetry, to make visible the "quiet dignities" of the ordinary person.

And while Neruda's poetry leaves no subject or emotion untouched, he tends to be at his strongest when at his quietest, when describing "the soul's word, melancholy," or when admitting, simply: "Comes a time I'm tired of my feet and my fingernails/and my hair and my shadow./Comes a time I'm tired of being a man." In "Ode With a Lament," he writes of his mortally sick daughter: "You stand your ground, chock/full of teeth and lightening./You propagate kisses and clobber the ants./You cry from vitality, from an onion, a bee."

W.H. Auden famously wrote, "poetry makes nothing happen." It would seem that Neruda spent his entire life trying to prove this wrong. In awarding the Nobel Prize to him, the Swedish Academy declared: "In his work a continent awakens to consciousness." Thirty years later that continent, and the world, continues to awaken through him. This book is probably your best chance to become a part of it.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by Dominic Luxford
Readings
No Man's Land: Selected Stories
The 10 stories comprising 'No Man's Land,' all of which are set in Mexico's northern borderland, are inhabited by transsexual prostitutes, petty clerks, dusty pickups, broken bottles, sadistic police officers, and wind-blasted prairie

Sept. 17, 2004

The Latest in Paper
The Latest in Paper
Based loosely – very loosely – on the Seventies German film actress and cabaret singer of the same name, Ingrid Caven's is a world psychologically damaged, and perpetually haunted, by the horrors of the 20th century

July 9, 2004

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Pablo Neruda, The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems, City Lights, Mark Eisner

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle