Hear Pablo Neruda Read His Poetry In English For the First Time, Days Before His Nobel Prize Acceptance (1971)


Image by Library of Con­gress, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

“It is good,” wrote Chilean poet Pablo Neru­da, “at cer­tain hours of the day and night, to look close­ly at the world of objects at rest.” I find myself aston­ished Neru­da him­self ever found time to rest, and to com­pose the hun­dreds of sur­re­al­ist poems that made him a nation­al celebri­ty at 20 years of age and an inter­na­tion­al­ly renowned Nobel Prize win­ner at age 67. In 1927, Neru­da began his long career as a diplomat—“in the Latin Amer­i­can tra­di­tion,” writes the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Poets, “of hon­or­ing poets with diplo­mat­ic assign­ments.” Through­out his life, his polit­i­cal com­mit­ments were intense and unswerv­ing. His many diplo­mat­ic appoint­ments (in civ­il war-torn Spain and else­where), his term in the Chilean sen­ate, his exile, and then his return to diplo­mat­ic ser­vice in his native land might have con­sti­tut­ed a life’s work in its own right.

But Neruda’s loy­al­ty to poetry—“a poet­ry as impure as the cloth­ing we wear, or our bodies”—defines his life and lega­cy above all else. “Of all the over­lap­ping and com­pet­ing facets of his life,” writes Erin Beck­er, “amidst all the con­tra­dic­tions and the hypocrisies, Neru­da was always a poet first… his belief in the beau­ty of life and words always comes through, even in his most polit­i­cal work.” Neru­da him­self declared, “I have nev­er thought of my life as divid­ed between poet­ry and pol­i­tics.” Instead, he believed that his work spoke not for itself, but for the peo­ple. As the Nobel Com­mit­tee put it, Neruda’s poet­ry com­mu­ni­cat­ed “with the action of an ele­men­tal force” that “brings alive a continent’s des­tiny and dreams.”

On Sep­tem­ber 5, 1971, just a few days before he accept­ed the Nobel, Neru­da gave his first pub­lic read­ing in Eng­lish, on the radio pro­gram Com­ment. You can hear him above intro­duce and read his very Whit­manesque poem, “Birth.” Neru­da had pre­vi­ous­ly addressed Eng­lish-speak­ing read­ers when, after a long­time ban, he vis­it­ed the states in 1966 and spoke to an audi­ence at New York’s 92nd St. Y. Then, he intro­duced him­self in Eng­lish but would only read his poet­ry in Span­ish. Here—“having entire­ly no con­fi­dence in my reading”—he nonethe­less reads trans­la­tions of his work by “some of my very best friends,” main­ly his pri­ma­ry trans­la­tor in Eng­lish, Ben Belitt. While Belitt has been “accused of tak­ing lib­er­ties” with Neruda’s verse, the poet him­self obvi­ous­ly endorsed his trans­la­tions.

Belitt’s ren­der­ings of Neru­da’s learned, yet earthy Span­ish have become the stan­dard way most of us encounter the poet in Eng­lish. The pub­li­ca­tion of the 1974 dual-lan­guage anthol­o­gy Five Decades: Poems 1925–1970, was to have been “fes­tive,” wrote Belitt in his pref­ace, in hon­or of the poet’s 70th birth­day. Sad­ly, instead, it was a posthu­mous cel­e­bra­tion of Neruda’s work. The poet died in Sep­tem­ber of 1973, two years after the read­ing above and just twelve days after the CIA helped over­throw Sal­vador Allende and install the bru­tal dic­ta­tor Augus­to Pinochet. As Oscar Guardi­o­la-Rivera writes col­or­ful­ly in The Guardian, the details of Neru­da’s polit­i­cal life are fod­der for activists, “Google-bombs wait­ing to be set off by a new gen­er­a­tion of net­worked free­dom fight­ers.” His poet­ic voice, how­ev­er, speaks to and for the mul­ti­tudes, with—as Neru­da wrote in “Toward an Impure Poet­ry”—“the man­dates of touch, smell, taste, sight, hear­ing, the pas­sion for jus­tice, sex­u­al desire… [and] the sump­tu­ous appeal of the tac­tile.”

Neru­da’s read­ing will be added to the Poet­ry sec­tion of our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

via Past Dai­ly

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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