An Introduction to Chilean Poet Pablo Neruda: Romantic, Radical & Revolutionary

Does pol­i­tics belong in art? The ques­tion arous­es heat­ed debate about cre­ative free­dom and moral respon­si­bil­i­ty. Assump­tions include the idea that pol­i­tics cheap­ens film, music, or lit­er­a­ture, or that polit­i­cal art should aban­don tra­di­tion­al ideas about beau­ty and tech­nique. As engag­ing as such dis­cus­sions might be in the abstract, they mean lit­tle to noth­ing if they don’t account for artists who show us that choos­ing between pol­i­tics and art can be as much a false dilem­ma as choos­ing between art and love.

In the work of writ­ers as var­ied as William Blake, Muriel Rukeyser, James Bald­win, and James Joyce, for exam­ple, themes of protest, pow­er, priv­i­lege, and pover­ty are insep­a­ra­ble from the sub­lime­ly erotic—all of them essen­tial aspects of human expe­ri­ence, and hence, of lit­er­a­ture. Fore­most among such polit­i­cal artists stands Chilean poet Pablo Neru­da, who—as the TED-Ed video above from Ilan Sta­vans informs us—was a roman­tic styl­ist, and also a fear­less polit­i­cal activist and rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

Neru­da won the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 1971, and, among his many oth­er lit­er­ary accom­plish­ments, he “res­cued 2,000 refugees, spent three years in polit­i­cal exile, and ran for pres­i­dent of Chile.” Neru­da used “straight­for­ward lan­guage and every­day expe­ri­ence to cre­ate last­ing impact.” He began his career writ­ing odes and love poems filled with can­did sex­u­al­i­ty and sen­su­ous descrip­tion that res­onat­ed with read­ers around the world.

Neruda’s inter­na­tion­al fame led to a series of diplo­mat­ic posts, and he even­tu­al­ly land­ed in Spain, where he served as con­sul in the mid-1930s dur­ing the Span­ish Civ­il War. He became a com­mit­ted com­mu­nist, and helped relo­cate hun­dreds of flee­ing Spaniards to Chile. Neru­da came to believe that “the work of art” is “insep­a­ra­ble from his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal con­text,” writes author Sal­va­tore Biz­zarro, and he “felt that the belief that one could write sole­ly for eter­ni­ty was roman­tic pos­tur­ing.”

Yet his life­long devo­tion to “rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideals,” as Sta­vans says, did not under­mine his devo­tion to poet­ry, nor did it blink­er his writ­ing with what we might call polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. Instead, Neru­da became more expan­sive, tak­ing on such sub­jects as the “entire his­to­ry of Latin Amer­i­ca” in his 1950 epic Can­to Gen­er­al.

Neru­da died of can­cer just weeks after fas­cist dic­ta­tor Augus­to Pinochet seized pow­er from elect­ed pres­i­dent Sal­vador Allende in 1973. Today, he remains a beloved fig­ure for activists, his lines “recit­ed at protests and march­es world­wide.” And he remains a lit­er­ary giant, respect­ed, admired, and adored world­wide for work in which he engaged the strug­gles of the peo­ple with the same pas­sion­ate inten­si­ty and imag­i­na­tive breadth he brought to per­son­al poems of love, loss, and desire.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Pablo Neruda’s Poem, “The Me Bird,” Becomes a Short, Beau­ti­ful­ly Ani­mat­ed Film

The Lost Poems of Pablo Neru­da: Help Bring Them to the Eng­lish Speak­ing World for the First Time

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

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

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