News your connection to The Boston Globe

A people's poet

TODAY IS the centennial of Pablo Neruda's birth. And while the Chilean poet died in 1973, his poems remain, word-built warehouses of objects. Neruda was a literary champion of stuff. Nothing was off limits. He wrote odes to his socks, to a lemon, to a girl gardening, to ironing, to bees and bicycles, to a stamp album.

In his poem "Ode to the Atom," he wrote (translated from the Spanish): "Infinitesimal / star, / you seemed / forever / buried / in metal, hidden, / your diabolic / fire. / One day / someone knocked / at your tiny / door: / it was man . . ."

And this atom, "terrible fruit / of electric beauty," seems a striking cousin to Neruda's "Ode to the Artichoke" about a tender-hearted artichoke dressed as a warrior offering "the peaceful flesh of its green heart."

In an essay titled "Toward an Impure Poetry," he wrote, "It is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest." His list includes wheels that have crossed long dusty distances, sacks from coal bins, baskets, barrels, and the handles found in carpenters' tool chests. Anything that could be read to see the contact between people and the earth would be "a text for all troubled lyricists."

Neruda's real name was Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto. His pen name was a nod to the realist Czech poet Jan Neruda. Pablo Neruda was both a poet and a statesman, navigating rough political seas. He was appointed to several honorary consulships. He supported the anti-Fascist Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and in France. In 1945 he was elected a senator of the republic in Chile and joined the Communist Party. In 1947 he criticized President Gonzalez Videla's treatment of striking miners and had to go underground.

Days before Neruda's death from cancer, Chile's president, Salvador Allende, died in a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. Neruda's funeral turned into the first public protest following Allende's demise.

Although the poet died witnessing the start of years of political oppression in Chile, his work and spirit transcend death and politics. In 1971 he gave a stirring account of his thoughts and work when he accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature.

"I believe that poetry is an action, ephemeral or solemn, in which there enter as equal partners solitude and solidarity, emotion and action, the nearness to oneself, the nearness to mankind and to the secret manifestations of nature . . . all this is sustained -- man and his shadow, man and his conduct, man and his poetry -- by an ever-wider sense of community, by an effort which will forever bring together the reality and the dreams in us."

For the ardent fan, the indifferent listener, and the harsh critic, the message is the same: Read the world and recite its hopes and struggles out loud. 

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months