Pablo Neruda’s Historic First Reading in the US (1966)

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.

You can find oth­er poet­ry read­ings in our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“The Me Bird” by Pablo Neru­da: An Ani­mat­ed Inter­pre­ta­tion

Poems as Short Films: Langston Hugh­es, Pablo Neru­da and More

Read 10 Short Sto­ries by Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez Free Online (Plus More Essays & Inter­views)

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.

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