Few public figures of the 20th century are as dear to the hearts and minds of Latin America as Chilean poet Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto -- AKA Pablo Neruda. He became famous for his writing before he was 20 years old and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. In between, he wrote surrealist poems, Whitmanesque epics and political manifestos. Fellow Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Marquez called him “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.”
Yet Neruda was known almost as much for his politics as for his writing. After Franco’s forces executed his friend Federico García Lorca during the Spanish Civil War, Neruda shifted hard to the left. In the 30s and 40s, he publically supported Joseph Stalin at a time when his triumphs were obvious and his crimes were hidden. Neruda even wrote a couple odes to the strongman. When Neruda was stationed as a diplomat in Mexico City, he reportedly helped muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros flee the country after he led an assassination attempt against Stalin’s rival Leon Trotsky.
So it isn’t surprising that Neruda’s politics would make him unpopular in some corners of Washington. He was officially barred from coming to the United States and he was reportedly at the center of a CIA smear campaign. But, in 1966, the poet was invited to the International PEN conference in New York City by Arthur Miller. When the playwright beseeched the White House, President Johnson, displaying far more political courage than is imaginable today, granted Neruda a visa.
The poet was treated like a rock star. He gave a reading of his poems with translation, at the 96th St. Y. in Manhattan to a packed audience on June 11th of that year. You can listen to it above, or download the audio here. After an introduction by Archibald MacLeish, Neruda begins speaking at the 9:00 mark.
When the New York Times asked what he thought of America, he said, “Your country – how shall I say it? – seems more prepared for peace than for war. Peace and poetry…”
Neruda died in 1973, twelve days after a CIA-backed coup in Chile overthrew Neruda’s political ally Salvador Allende and installed General Augusto Pinochet.
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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.