I Speak of the City: Pablo Neruda


pablo neruda
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[It’s been good to finally catch up on text like Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and then to read Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist. I don’t have any aspirations to write the Great American Novel but I am trying to be the best writer I can be and Llosa’s work not only works off of Rilke’s title–though Llosa’s approach to novel writing basics and the way he focuses on good and bad examples of time-tested prose formulas is much more hands on than Rilke’s advice about poetics–but also ends up in the same destination: Take this advice and forget it, find your own way to your writing home.

The same sentiment echoes in Neruda’s Towards the Splendid City but this time with a more naturalistic approach where every river is a mouth, every tree branch an arm, and every rock a monument you must conquer to reach the end of your writing road. It’s all very dangerous and ominous and well it should be, if the end of the road is to find rubble that you have to make sense out of. The idea that the end of any writing quest would end in a happy tale with a shining Camelot waiting is the stuff of privilege and entitlement. To think we can build a city in our letters and expect it to produce its own fresh water and police itself is more like building a cardboard cutout of a city and having it on display as a highway billboard for other tourists to admire from their speeding cars. Maybe I’m reacting from contests that actively seek to promote bad poetry, not the kind that is a marvelous leap that doesn’t quite reach to the other side, but the kind of bad poetry that we’re supposed to be writing against. Maybe I’m being a Romantic, feeling that poetry can be the road to a splendid city–not a perfect or even beautiful one–just one where at least people lived enough of a life that someone cared enough to write down a good poem.

Yes, I’ll say I am crazy and reactionary and romantic, but in reading the works of Rilke, Llosa and Neruda, at least I won’t feel alone.]

excerpt from Towards the Splendid City

Further on, just before we reached the frontier which was to divide me from my native land for many years, we came at night to the last pass between the mountains. Suddenly we saw the glow of a fire as a sure sign of a human presence, and when we came nearer we found some half-ruined buildings, poor hovels which seemed to have been abandoned. We went into one of them and saw the glow of fire from tree trunks burning in the middle of the floor, carcasses of huge trees, which burnt there day and night and from which came smoke that made its way up through the cracks in the roof and rose up like a deep-blue veil in the midst of the darkness. We saw mountains of stacked cheeses, which are made by the people in these high regions. Near the fire lay a number of men grouped like sacks. In the silence we could distinguish the notes of a guitar and words in a song which was born of the embers and the darkness, and which carried with it the first human voice we had encountered during our journey. It was a song of love and distance, a cry of love and longing for the distant spring, from the towns we were coming away from, for life in its limitless extent. These men did not know who we were, they knew nothing about our flight, they had never heard either my name or my poetry; or perhaps they did, perhaps they knew us? What actually happened was that at this fire we sang and we ate, and then in the darkness we went into some primitive rooms. Through them flowed a warm stream, volcanic water in which we bathed, warmth which welled out from the mountain chain and received us in its bosom.

Happily we splashed about, dug ourselves out, as it were, liberated ourselves from the weight of the long journey on horseback. We felt refreshed, reborn, baptised, when in the dawn we started on the journey of a few miles which was to eclipse me from my native land. We rode away on our horses singing, filled with a new air, with a force that cast us out on to the world’s broad highway which awaited me. This I remember well, that when we sought to give the mountain dwellers a few coins in gratitude for their songs, for the food, for the warm water, for giving us lodging and beds, I would rather say for the unexpected heavenly refuge that had met us on our journey, our offering was rejected out of hand. They had been at our service, nothing more. In this taciturn “nothing” there were hidden things that were understood, perhaps a recognition, perhaps the same kind of dreams.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I did not learn from books any recipe for writing a poem, and I, in my turn, will avoid giving any advice on mode or style which might give the new poets even a drop of supposed insight. When I am recounting in this speech something about past events, when reliving on this occasion a never-forgotten occurrence, in this place which is so different from what that was, it is because in the course of my life I have always found somewhere the necessary support, the formula which had been waiting for me not in order to be petrified in my words but in order to explain me to myself.

© Pablo Neruda

Full text can be found here/Texto completo se encuentra aquí.

Audio can be found here. (Requires RealPlayer)

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1 Comment

  1. What a beautiful speech. Neruda had a talent for finding himself in the “other,” be it a person, place, or object. He writes of everything, from the Spanish Civil War to artichokes, from passion to washing a child, because all of these things revealed him to himself.

    If you really like Neruda, check out Red Poppy at http://www.redpoppy.net/pablo_neruda.php. It’s a non-profit set up to create a documentary about Neruda, publish his biography, and translate his works into English. To see our blog on Neruda’s literary activism, click on “Journal.”

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