Pablo Neruda

On this date in 1904, Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto was born in Parral, Chile. He grew up in Temuco, Chile. His first poems were published under the pen name Pablo Neruda in 1918, in a Santiago magazine. His first widely-read book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada) was published in 1924, when Neruda was twenty years old. In 1927, he was made honorary consul of Chile to Rangoon in honor of his accomplishments in poetry. His work as an official representative of Chile continued, and he was sent to Spain in 1934, where he became involved with the revolutionaries and the republican cause. He was recalled to Chile in 1937, where he became deeply involved in local politics. In 1945, he joined the Communist Party and was elected to the Senate, fleeing the country three years later when the party was banned by the government. Neruda continued to travel the world, first in exile and after he was allowed to return to Chile in 1952. During this period, much of his poetry was political in nature, including the famous Canto general (General Song), an epic of the New World, which connected the Americas’ origins and conquest to their current political state.

Neruda was a confirmed communist, and was even awarded the Stalin Peace Prize and Lenin Peace Prize in 1953. He stated some philosophical views in his poetry, for example describing himself in his poem “A Dog Has Died” (“Un perro ha muerto”) as “I, the materialist, who never believed / in any promised heaven in the sky / for any human being.” He ran for president of Chile in 1969 as the Communist candidate, but withdrew in favor of Salvador Allende, the candidate of the unified left. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1970, but went on to represent Chile as ambassador to France. In 1971, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. He survived his friend, President Allende, by only twelve days, dying on Sept. 23, 1973. Eight books of his poetry which he had planned on publishing on his seventieth birthday were published posthumously. D. 1973.

Religion in the East

There in Rangoon I realized that the gods
were enemies, just like God,
of the poor human being.
in alabaster extended
like white whales,
gods gilded like spikes,
serpent gods entwining
the crime of being born,
naked and elegant buddhas
smiling at the cocktail party
of empty eternity
like Christ on his horrible cross,
all of them capable of anything,
of imposing on us their heaven,
all with torture or pistol
to purchase piety or burn our blood,
fierce gods made by men
to conceal their cowardice,
and there it was all like that,
the whole earth reeking of heaven,
and heavenly merchandise.

—"Religion in the East" (Religion en el Este) from Memorial of Isla Negra [Memorial de Isla Negra] (1964), trans. by Anthony Kerrigan in Selected Poems by Pablo Neruda [Houghton Mifflin, 1990]

Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

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