Pablo Neruda: 1904-1973: Poet Biography
Known as one of the twentieth century's most important Latin American poets, Pablo Neruda was "the most frequently discussed Latin American poet of his time. Today, years after his death, his eventful life still evokes great interest, and his works arouse great admiration," according to The Scribner Writers Series. He was also an avid participant in the political arena. He is best known for his combination of the two—some of his best known poems were centered around political upheavals and issues, or his own beliefs, especially on Communist causes, ones that Neruda felt an especial affiliation with.
Born on July 12, 1904, in Parral, Chile, to Dona Rosa Basoalto and Jose del Carmen, a crew foreman on the Chilean railroad, Neruda was named Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes y Basoalto. A month after he was born Neruda's mother died of tuberculosis and his father moved the family to Termuco, a very small town, not long after her death. It is in Termuco that Neruda spent most of his childhood. Termuco was a frontier town at the time and was surrounded by thick forests and volcanoes. This wild beauty affected young Neruda very much, and it was this landscape that Neruda credits with inspiring him with his first poetic visions. Neruda wasn't a very studious young man, often skipping class to join his father where he worked, but it was one of his early teachers, Gabriela Mistral—a woman who also became a poet—who encouraged Neruda to start writing poetry. He was barely 15 years old when he became a published poet—he chose the pseudonym Pablo Neruda because his father did not support his literary dreams and he was hiding his publications from him. His concentrate on obtaining what he called a real profession, rather than wasting his energies on something as frivolous as poetry. Neruda changed his name legally to "Pablo Neruda" in 1946.
At age 16 Neruda started attending the Instituto Pedagogico, where he majored in French. After he graduated from there, Neruda attended the University of Chile in Santiago, where he continued his study of French, the language of prestige and culture at the time, so he could read the works of such French authors as Baudelaire and Rimbaud in their original forms. Neruda never received his degree, but it was these university years that introduced the world of politics to him.
In 1921 Neruda won Santiago's Spring Festival poetry contest, an award that resulted in his first published book of poetry, La cancion de la fiesta. After its publication Neruda started his ascent into the public eye. His second book of poetry, Crepusculario was a book that Neruda eventually ended up dismissing as trivial, but his admirers thought it a very important book in the growth of a poet. He had to sell most of his furniture to pay for it to be published. In 1924 Neruda published his book of poetry, Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair). This has often been said to be the first book that Neruda published in the bloom of his powers as a poet. Because of his success with this book, and the fact that he was an avid political activist, in 1927 Neruda was awarded a diplomatic post and was sent to Rangoon as a consul. From there he was sent to serve in Ceylon and the Dutch East Indies.
In 1930 he married Maruca Hagenaar Volgelzang in Bali. They had a daughter, but she died in childhood. In 1932, while he was sailing back to Chile, he wrote the poems for his next book, Residencia en la tierra. This book was filled with Neruda's ideas about a world that was dismal and inane and whose beauty was destroyed by mankind, and it was the first of his books to earn him international recognition. London Magazine wrote of Neruda's poems in this book, "As we open a Neruda book, we suddenly see going around us, in circles, like herds of mad buffaloes or distracted horses, all sorts of created things: balconies, glacial rocks, lost address books, pipe organs, fingernails, notaries public, pumas, tongues of horses, shoes of dead people.… and they are the greatest surrealist poems yet written in a Western language." In 1933 he was sent to Buenos Aires, after which he was stationed in Thailand, Cambodia, and eventually landed in Spain in 1935 where he met and befriended Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and a host of other poets. In 1936 Spain was thrown into Civil War and Lorca was killed. Neruda, without checking with the Chilean government, announced that Chile supported the side Lorca had been on, the Republicans, who were much supported by Communist and Socialist groups. He also wrote a book of poetry about the event, called Espana en el corazon: Himno a las glorias del pueblo en la guerra (Spain in the Heart: Hymn to the Glories of the People at War).
Because of his actions, Neruda was recalled to Chile, but was soon sent to Paris where he was asked to help organize the Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers. While there he also aided in the settling of Spanish refugees who wanted to resettle in Chile, who were treated very badly by the other Chileans at the consulate. In the early 1940s Neruda was sent to Mexico City. When he returned to Chile in 1944 Neruda joined the rapidly growing Communist party. In 1945 he was asked by mine workers in the Antofagasta and Tarapac areas to run for a seat in the national senate to represent them and other badly treated, and poorly paid workers. There was a new president in Chile at the time, one who denounced both the Communist party and striking miners, and it was against him whom Neruda became a stalwart enemy in the senate. According to The Wilson Quarterly, Neruda denounced the president. "He was accused of disloyalty, and a warrant for his arrest was issued." Unable to return to Chile for fear of arrest, Neruda traveled all over the world, including the Soviet Union and China.
Having divorced years before, in 1951 Neruda married Chilean singer Matilde Urrutia, and in 1953 he returned to Chile, his faith in Communism stronger than ever. At this time he published the book of poetry, Canto general (General Song), a book which has been called his masterpiece. It is a book about justice and freedom in South America. The book contains 340 poems about such things as Chilean history and culture, as well as their triumphs. Neruda remained one of Chile's most renowned and loved poets. He lived on Isla Negra, an oceanside retreat, where he continued to write. His style shifted towards things of simple beauty. His 1954 book Odas elementales was full of poems about such ordinary subjects as air and the ocean and their enormous, grand beauty.
Neruda wrote poetry until his death in 1973. He also managed to write a five-volume set of memoirs, published in 1964. Not content with this, Neruda was elected president of the Union of Chilean Writers, a post he filled for several years. And he was even nominated to run for president of Chile under the Communist platform, but withdrew and gave his support to the Socialist platform before election time when it was evident that most of the Chilean people supported them. Salvador Allende, the new president of Chile, made Neruda the ambassador to France, and while there he was awarded the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature. Neruda moved home soon afterwards, just in time for a military coup that ended up with Allende murdered. Neruda died of a heart attack a short time afterwards, on September 23, 1973, at a hosptial in Santiago, but he left a legacy of poetry behind. In an interview Neruda had with Robert Bly, of The New York Times Book Review, in 1967 Neruda described poetry in South America, "You see there are in our countries rivers which have no names, trees which nobody knows, and birds which nobody has described. It is easier for us to be surrealistic because everything we know is new.… And then everyone has to choose a road—a refined and intellectual way, or a more brotherly, general way, trying to embrace the world around you, to discover the new world." Then and still today Neruda opened a world of surrealistic beauty and deep emotions for the rest of the world to see. As the Wilson Quarterly said of Neruda, he "remains an immense presence in poetry … his overall achievement is stunning.… He was a great Chilean poet, a great Latin American writer, and, finally, a great poet of the Americas."
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—Catherine Victoria Donaldson