Lecture Hopping: Martín Espada on Pablo Neruda

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Adam Katz brings us a discussion of the October 17th talk sponsored by the Poetry Society of America on the life and poetry of Pablo Neruda.

The Tribeca Performing Arts Center of the Borough of Manhattan Community College was set off by the blue and green lights to lend it the “wine-dark” appearance of a room being made to look subtly intellectual and portentious.  By the 7:00 start, the 250ish seat-theater had contained about 100 people. 

Executive Director Lee Briccetti of Poets’ House, the evening’s sponsor, introduced the speaker Martín Espada, an American-raised, Latino poet, to talk about Pablo Neruda the poet and the poetic influence: “What a pleasure to be here tonight to learn more about what it means to be alive,” she said.   

The Nobel laureate’s birth was 102 years ago; he died after the overthrow of socialist president Salvador Allende by Nixon-backed Pinochet.  When he died, fascist soldiers ransacked his home in Santiago before flooding it with a diverted canal and his widow held the wake in the flood. Pinochet left his Isla Negra home untouched, Espada says, “as if out of superstition.”

A devout leftist, (as Chilean Consulate in Spain, he watched the Spanish Civil War and witnessed the disappearance first of his Casa de Flores then of his friend Federico García Lorca) Neruda drew inspiration from the ordinary.  He wrote ode after ode to common objects and people, and he criticized the apolitical, lovelorn poet he had been before the Spanish Civil War.  It is impossible to separate Neruda’s politics and poetry.

A Neruda poem and more analysis after the jump.

From Neruda, Espada draws poetry as politics and celebrates the miniscule.  Like Neruda, he cherishes Whitman.  He sees the poet as a person who simply brings words to those who don’t have them.

Contrasted with our national view of poetry as a pasttime, he sees it as a tool, and to that end, quotes Bertolt Brecht from memory: “In the dark times, will there be singing?  Yes, there will be singing about the dark times.”

Your Feet

When I can not look at your face,

I look at your feet

Your feet of arched bone,

your hard little feet.

I know that they support you

and that your gentle weight

rises upon them

Your waist and your breasts,

the double-purple

of your nipples,

the sockets of your eyes

that have just flown away,

your wide fruit mouth,

your red tresses,

my little tower.

But I love your feet

only because they walked

upon the land and upon

the wind and upon the waters,

until they found me.

Donald D. Walsh, the translator of this edition of Versos Del Capitán writes in the introduction: “Since Neruda expresses his ideas simply and directly, it is possible to translate him quite literally with no loss of validity, as will be seen by any reader with a knowledge of the two languages.”  I think he overstates his case, but note the gently socialist undertones even of this personal poem: the feet do all of the walking and (in most cases, but not this one) the breasts and hair get the honor.

Neruda, Pablo.  Los Versos del Capitán.  Trans. Walsh, D.D.  (c) New Directions     1972     New York City.

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