Parts of this interview were first used in a 1-hour radio program entitled, “Neruda, poète des Amériques,” broadcast by Radio-Canada in the fall of 1971. The interview was conducted in French, a language Neruda knew well, having studied it first at the University of Santiago in the early 1920’s. It is published here for the first time in its entirety.
Eric Bockstael: Those who have read your poems note immediately the presence of the world of work, and some consider you a political poet.
Pablo Neruda: I insist on telling you that I am not a political poet. I detest that classification which insists on designating me as the representative of an ideologically committed poetry. My ambition as a writer, if there is an ambition, is to write about all the things that I see, that I touch, that I know, that I love, or that I hate. But in pointing out to me “the world of the workers” you make me, in an unconscious and generous way, the spokesman for the anxieties of the masses or of the legions of organized workers, and that’s not the case. I am only the echo in a certain part of my poetry of the anxieties of the contemporary world, of the anxieties of the Latin American world. But I refuse to be classified as a political poet.
Poets who have not, who have never, made contact with the feelings of their people, or who have continued to be indifferent, or who have promoted or preached a poetry far removed from a certain pressing reality, can be qualified as the most political poets of our era. Because of that abstention of their poetry from the general movement of civilization, the development of the world, they have contributed to the holding back of that development. Which means the real ones—the poets who are the political poets—are the reactionary poets and writers.
For me, writing about the workers, writing about the masses, is a consequence of my emotions. It’s not a dictatum, and has nothing to do with an ideologically committed direction in my poetry. I became aware of the social order of Latin America and of the world as I became aware of the ocean, or of flowers, or of life. Naturally, that spectacle being more moving, and more developed, and grander—which engages all humanity—that has constituted a committed part in my poetry. But in general if you take the political part of my works, the part of my work that one can call political or social, it doesn’t make up a fourth or a fifth part of that work. So I always refuse to be classified. This classification that they want to give me is an antagonistic classification, a hostile classification. I am the poet of the moon, I am the poet of the flowers, I am the poet of love. Meaning I have a very old conception of poetry, which does not contradict the possibility that I have written, and that I continue to write, poems that are dedicated to the development of society and to the power of progress and of peace.
EB: You have just said that you are the poet of the stars, of flowers, and of love. One could add: of the stones, the trees, the rivers, the mountains of this new continent. I often think of the first Europeans trying to describe this world: Hernando Cortez writing from Mexico to Charles the Fifth that he could hardly continue to describe what he was seeing because he didn’t know the words. How important a problem has it been to name this “new” world?
PN: Let me say it was not a problem; it was our duty. The duty of the Latin American poet is to name, meaning to complete the creation of the world. Since the name, the word, is the first thing that existed without the knowledge or the name of the fundamental things. So we have at our disposal a material extremely obscure and mysterious. And this knowledge of our own continent posed itself as a duty especially in the last years of the era in which I began to write, after the twenties, when I was a young university student, a young poet.
The great, the magnetic attraction was European culture, and especially French culture. And we even had writers, very gifted writers moreover, who hadn’t written except in French. Ecuadorians who so much despised their continent, which they didn’t know, that they not only changed direction, but they changed their language as well. As a reaction to this aesthetic position, which was moreover a class position, the great oligarchs of Latin America always presented themselves as representing high culture and wanted to align themselves with the latest of European society and its people.
At the time a certain kind of art for art’s sake predominated in Latin America. I did not invent, nor did those who began writing at the same time, that which motivated our determination to concern ourselves with our countries, with our peoples. We were not the inventors of this theory. It existed from the very beginning, even with the first poet to come out of the conquistadores, the conquerors: we have the example of the poet Ercilla. The founder of poetry in my country was a Spaniard, a page of Charles the Fifth, who came with the first wave of the conquerors. And it was he who wrote the most dramatic and the most interesting things about Chile, about its primitive Indian peoples who defended their liberty for three hundred years. It’s Ercilla who already had the germ of our determination.
But in the 19th century we have the enriching of the oligarchs, the exploitation of our continent by capitalism, that allowed an aristocratic stratum to come out of the great exploitation of our people, and that made fashionable only the European style of life. And pliant to this influence—and that influence persists into our own day in a conscious or unconscious fashion—many poets have wanted only to be cosmopolitan figures and to merge themselves through European culture with the universal culture. But we have followed the example of our great predecessors, and we have cast our view on life, on the misery and the suffering of our peoples, and on the grand geography and the grand spaces, the grand historical events and the grand natural phenomena of our America. This wasn’t new, but given that we belonged to a new generation where class conflicts were surging more and more pressingly, we also took on the personal struggle, isolated or collective, of the workers. And in doing that we broke the ties that bound us to that layer of the oligarchy and definitively with that Europeanist mode which is not dead evidently, and which moreover it’s necessary to save, because one must not put in the same basket the good and the bad of that situation.
That means we have also the great heritage of European culture, which we appreciate and we admire, and without which we would neither be able to live nor to develop as writers, as thinkers. We owe European culture enormously. We have to create our own culture, meaning to pay attention to our continent, to be ourselves, and that is a more difficult path. It’s a more original path, and it’s a path that leads sometimes to vulgarity. Well, we are afraid neither of vulgarity nor of reality, but we accept also the possibility of cultural relations with all the countries of the world, naturally while recognizing something indispensable in European culture.
EB: Was that the goal of Canto General?
PN: The Canto General has no theory. From the time I started to work, I found the subjects that were already there. In general, I am opposed to theory. The Canto General is an organic work that took a certain form that I wouldn’t wish to place in the context of the classical poem. But finally it has a form all the same, though its generality is not only a matter of sudden awareness. Rather it’s the organic life of each day of my life, when in enlarging that awareness I was able to write that book with the same sincerity, with the same love for all the regions and countries of the American continent. I note that it is not only the product of a detached examination, of an analysis, that can lead to the carrying out of a work. It’s rather that the book began with my own birth, or with my sudden awareness of myself as a writer. The Canto General has in effect the ambition to enlarge itself into everything, in taking all the phenomena of our American continent. And there are even parts on the United States, on North America. But in general it’s the growth of a personality, of a poet of Latin America, who knows his continent and who wants to enter into that which he does not know. It’s a poem that is not finished and that can be continued by all the other poets; it’s not a closed work; it’s an open work where all the currents and all the new creations, and all the new problems of this new continent can circulate.
EB: How would you explain this emerging continental awareness?
PN: That corresponds historically to the great importance—to the development—of the oligarchs and of the classes, of the great bourgeoisie of Latin America during the time of Ruben Dario. There was a sentiment that one could call counter-revolutionary in that society. If we wish to use another word, it would be the word “anti-Bolivarian.” Bolivar thought in terms of the whole continent, and the liberators like San Martin, and like Sucre, and like O’Higgins thought always of Latin America as a single great continent, almost a single country. The independence movements intermingled with one another. And Bolivar, who was born in Venezuela, set out for Peru; San Martin, who was an Argentine, went as far as Ecuador; O’Higgins, who was Chilean, formed the liberation fleet of Peru. At the time, feelings of nationality were very powerful, but they poured themselves out in a continental patriotism. But the bourgeoisie, the grand bourgeoisie Latin America brought forth after independence, contributed with a certain effectiveness to the isolation of the countries of Latin America. It’s a very long process which is evidently tied to feudalism, which is tied also to imperialism. And then Latin America became a collection of boxes closed off from one another, meaning a politics of local subjugation where the imperialist influences of England and Germany or later of the United States had the greatest potential in that isolation, that practically choked off communication between countries that spoke the same language and had the same origins.
That isolation continues even now. Between our countries we now have only earthquakes or revolutionary movements, or terrorist movements. But about North America, we know everything. The vulgar reader, the contemporary reader, knows all about the divorces of Hollywood actresses and naturally everything about the Princess of Monaco. But the whole worker’s struggle or the social development of affiliated trade unions, the work of the universities, and even books by difficult writers, scarcely cross the borders.
But in any case, according to Mariartegui, the great materialist philosopher and writer of Peru, our movement and this generation thought anew with Bolivarian ideas that the cause of the Latin American people is a single cause. Then we produced works that followed his example and these new discoveries. And the Canto General is one of these works. But I think that political thought is continental, and that the sentiments of our new generations of writers, after almost thirty years, resemble one another enormously and give rise to a single line of thought—naturally with very great differences—but like a single continent that has the same problem of illiteracy, of ignorance, of underdevelopment.
EB: The Spanish Civil War seems to have had a similar impact.
PN: Indeed, the Spanish war gave a new perspective to literature and enormously moved the writers of Latin America. It’s very clear that there is no phenomenon as profound for the writers and for the peoples of Latin America in contemporary history as the war in Spain, and that the war in Spain taught us a greater and more collective pluralist conception of our problems and of our ideas. It has been a moment of rapprochement among the writers of Latin America. The fact that we were over there, Vallejo, Paz, me, that didn’t prevent differences in our ideas and in the production of each of us. But in any case I believe it is proper for you to point that out, because as I say the war in Spain for the first time presented the unity of Latin American writers towards a historical phenomenon whose effects naturally continue to develop themselves on the Latin American continent.
EB: There are those who would speak of that poetry, qualifying it as materialistic or even as historical materialism.
PN: I don’t believe that poetry can be made from historical materialism. That’s to say that historical materialism is a scientific and philosophical possibility which includes all sorts of phenomena. If someone finds historical materialism in my poetry, it’s a thing completely external to me. I’m not looking for anything in my work, neither materialism, nor materialistic, nor historic spiritualism. I only write. The only thing I need to write is the will to write and a paper and a pencil. And all the theories that one makes about my poetry are completely external for me. If one finds philosophical connections, it’s not my responsibility. I leave the door open for all that, but in general I could say that I am materialist in the sense of visible poetry, which is to say I can’t speak or sing or write except about things that are extremely visible and touchable. If one calls that materialism, I am a materialist.
You have only to go over my poems, only the title of my poems. I write on everything imaginable, and on the revolt of man as well. That’s important; it’s a part of the poetry. Very important, and very honorable. It’s not all the poetry; one has to clarify that. I was going to tell you that I am the oldest of poets. I want to sing about the stars, the moon, the flowers, about love, exactly like Sully Prudhomme, like Victor Hugo, or like, before all else, all the poets of all time. I don’t want to be a revolutionary in poetry; I don’t have a poetic doctrine; I don’t have a poetic ideology. I am a poet by vital, biological need, and that is my whole doctrine. And I detest in general philological interpretation. No, the philological is rather an external matter, but I detest the extra-philosophic interpretation of poetry in general, not only my own. I believe that it is enough that poets only exist—it’s good that poets exist—but if to forty books by poets one adds forty thousand books of poetic interpretation, where are the poets going to live, I ask you? I am a poet in this absolutely elemental sense: I go no further in the interpretation of my poetry than my need to sing, to express myself, to regard the wonder of the world. And in the marvelousness of the world I find also cataloged the struggle of mankind for a future. For to change the destiny of humanity is a great part of life, and so I consider it.
EB: I have a sense here that you consider these discussions about mankind a rather facile evasion in the face of real life.
PN: I have no theory about man. I have theories on the shoes I am going to buy when mine are worn out or that my clothes are already getting threadbare. I don’t know what man is. And I am a living man, and life is not for thinking about what substantially is “Man,” in that sense. Perhaps it is a thing that interests me less than the profession of a mechanic or of a geologist; that’s more important. But this interminable debate on what is man is so much talk that it doesn’t interest me. We know that we are born, and that we are going to die, etc. But between all that it’s very difficult, or it’s very easy to say things. And I have nothing to do with that; I don’t know what it’s all about. It is perhaps a realization of what is most distinguished about philosophical idealism: to discuss eternally things that have no solution. In general I am a practical poet. Poetry in a certain sense ought to be practical too. Why not? Why not practical poetry like useless poetry, why not matter, and why not dream? But to try to find a contradiction between these different senses, that’s what I don’t understand. As for the evasion which leads to certain philosophical systems or to interminable conversations and stylization of arguments, that’s perhaps a necessity like religion; that’s perhaps the attraction of the abyss, the attraction of the mystery. But we are so busy in this world that if we show that an investigation is useless across many centuries, then why continue it in a form of torture for others? I leave the philosophers free to continue to ask themselves what is it that man is. But don’t ask me, because I am completely ignorant on that question.
EB: I would like to go back to what you were saying about the contradictions of poetic language, between practical and impractical poetries.
PN: First it would be necessary to consider that there is a place for simple and direct poetry and there is a place for the experimental, for experimental poetry, for the changes in language, and that poets and writers in general feel as if the measures of language or expression at a given moment are not sufficient to their thought at the frontiers of their thought. Out of that are born the perpetual changes, the perpetual schools and literary movements. One cannot refuse to an aesthetic system, to an art, a change of clothes. But then, in responding to a student, I would say that even if it’s a little bit of a negative reaction, a nihilistic and destructive reaction, there is a certain ethos which goes not only to the limits of poetry, but to all the arts, and especially to painting.
But let’s speak only of painting and poetry. With the development of the bourgeoisie, with the formation of the great metropolises, writers and painters have become far removed from the understanding of the people, the common people, everybody. Since the beginning of this century of the great industrial bourgeoisie that phenomenon has existed. We can not not see it. We can not refuse to look at and to examine the consequences that this can have. But the role of the romantic poet, of Goethe, or of Schiller, or of Keats, or of Byron, or of Victor Hugo, was lost with the beginning of the century, with the great development of the industrial bourgeoisie. The poets transformed themselves, the poets and the painters transformed themselves into specialists. The knowledge and the emotions which are channeled across written or figurative expression, represented in painting, escaped. At the time, they had already made a place for art as a specialized thing for a certain cultivated layer of the grand and the petty bourgeoisie. The petty bourgeoisie in its own way wanted to assimilate the lesson from the grand bourgeoisie through the spirit of class abstention. The petty bourgeoisie didn’t align itself with the workers but with the great financiers.
This entire economic phenomenon has had its repercussion. How are we going to lead ourselves, to lead ourselves back into a new state of things by changing economic history and class relations? How are we going to lead ourselves back to that which has traveled so far away, making use of all the methods of propaganda like abstract painting, etc., which has produced great works, but works which are very far removed from popular sentiment? Who is right, the people or the abstract painters? Or the most hermetic poets?
I don’t set myself apart from this problem, because my poems have been especially very difficult to understand. But I can say one thing: that my poems are the expression of an absolute sincerity. That is perhaps the case of other poets as well. But as a school of painting, of theater, of films, of poetry, of prose, or of music separates itself entirely from the people, I find that it’s on a mistaken path, I find that it is in a blind alley that does not lead very far. But on the other hand, I do not refuse myself—it would be absolutely absurd to refuse oneself—the constant investigation, the enlargement of our possibilities of expression. So these are problems that can’t be reached by criticism, not even by our observations, and not even by our production, but by the correlation of social forces. When the class struggle, when the human condition will universally take on a new sense not only in certain countries—and let’s speak clearly, when the West will be socialist—then perhaps we are going to see a different formulation, or an orientation where a popular literature will be able to come to light without populism, and artistic investigation and experimentation without egotism and extreme individuality, but will be able to give the human community the essential contribution of art, of contemporary art and of the art of the future.