“Poetry is like bread,” Neruda wrote. “It should be shared by all, by scholars and peasants, by all our vast, incredible, extraordinary family of humanity."
The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was called "the greatest poet of the twentieth century in any language" by Columbian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Neruda began writing poetry at an early age and had his first published poem at age 13. His real name was Ricardo Eliecer Nefali Reyes Basoalto, but at age 16 he started to use his pseudonym, Pablo Neruda. Neruda's best known work was Veinte Poemas de amor y una canción desesperada.
Neruda was barely able to make a living in his homeland. His needs led him to work and travel overseas. This contributed an international quality to his work. He served as a diplomat in the South Pacific and briefly in Mexico City before returning to Chile. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.
His political sympathies were with Communism which was outlawed in Chile under President González Videla, and Neruda was forced to flee to Argentina.
Neruda died of heart failure in Santiago in 1973, only 12 days after being diagnosed with cancer.
While touring Peru, Neruda visited the Inca monument Machu Picchu. The beauty of the mountain-top citadel inspired his book-length poem Alturas de Macchu Picchu, completed in 1945. In this work Neruda celebrates the achievements of the Incas but also condemns their use of slave labor to build the ancient fortress. This marked the beginning of Neruda's interest in the pre-colombian civilizations of the Americas, an interest that he would continue to explore in Canto General. In the Canto XII (below), he calls upon the dead of ages past to be born in him and to speak through him.
Martin Espada, poet and creative writing professor at the University of Massachusetts, hailed Canto General as a masterpiece, declaring that "there is no greater political poem."
Canto XII from The Heights of Macchu PicchuPablo Neruda
Arise to birth with me, my brother.
Give me your hand out of the depths
sown by your sorrows.
You will not return from these stone fastnesses.
You will not emerge from subterranean time.
Your rasping voice will not come back,
nor your pierced eyes rise from their sockets.
Look at me from the depths of the earth,
tiller of fields, weaver, reticent shepherd,
groom of totemic guanacos,
mason high on your treacherous scaffolding,
iceman of Andean tears,
jeweler with crushed fingers,
farmer anxious among his seedlings,
potter wasted among his clays--
bring to the cup of this new life
your ancient buried sorrows.
Show me your blood and your furrow;
say to me: here I was scourged
because a gem was dull or because the earth
failed to give up in time its tithe of corn or stone.
Point out to me the rock on which you stumbled,
the wood they used to crucify your body.
Strike the old flintsto kindle ancient lamps, light up the whips
glued to your wounds throughout the centuries
and light the axes gleaming with your blood.
I come to speak for your dead mouths.
Throughout the earth
let dead lips congregate,
out of the depths spin this long night to me
as if I rode at anchor here with you.
And tell me everything, tell chain by chain,
and link by link, and step by step;
sharpen the knives you kept hidden away,
thrust them into my breast, into my hands,
like a torrent of sunbursts,
an Amazon of buried jaguars,
and leave me cry: hours, days and years,
blind ages, stellar centuries.
And give me silence, give me water, hope.
Give me the struggle, the iron, the volcanoes.
Let bodies cling like magnets to my body.
Come quickly to my veins and to my mouth.
Speak through my speech, and through my blood.