When I first embarked on writing a biography of Pablo Neruda over a decade ago, I wanted to explore the political power of poetry and its capacity to inspire social change. Neruda’s social verse was an integral part of the humanity he expressed; even without pen in hand, he boldly inserted himself into direct action.
I happened to finish the book—Neruda: The Poet’s Calling—at the end of Trump’s first hundred days in office. As a result, the questions that I’d been exploring for years suddenly took on new urgency. As resistance increasingly becomes the operative word in our current political reality, what can one of the most important and iconic resistance poets of the past century offer us? What might he give us as we continue to shape the next chapter in our own cultural story? Some answers, or at least perspectives, can be found in the vivid details of Neruda’s life and work.
Neruda’s legacy was directly shaped by the historical events in which he played a part. In his early youth, during Chile’s revolutionary student movement, he played the role of an activist-writer, the voice of a young generation challenging the country’s controlling aristocracy. In his final years, he vigorously defended Chile against U.S. intervention and, as ambassador to France, represented Salvador Allende’s historic socialist government. His relationship to readers and to his own writing was shaped by these periods of acute political crisis and authoritarianism.
When the Cold War hit Chile in 1947, Gabriel González Videla—the country’s devious, unpredictable president—turned against Neruda and the others who had helped elect him. He enacted oppressive measures against workers and the left: he shut down the communist newspaper, jailed three hundred striking coal miners on an island of Patagonia, and sent labor leaders and other “subversives” to a concentration camp directed by a thirty-three-year-old army captain named Augusto Pinochet. Neruda, a senator at the time, denounced the situation, both through his writings and his actions. He took to the senate floor and raised his voice: “Now even Congress is subject to censorship. You can’t even talk now … There have been murders in the coal-mining region!” González Videla would hear no more. He accused Neruda of treason and ordered his arrest, forcing him into exile.
Neruda responded by developing an aesthetically and conceptually daring new poetic voice, which would narrate his monumental book Canto General. It recasts and reclaims the history of the Americas in a new way, as an epical, lyrical story of resistance. Fifty years later, in 2003, a construction engineer working on Santiago’s metro told me that the importance of Canto General is that it “shows us the history of the Americas … [from] the point of view of the people themselves, not the history told by the conquerors.”
At no time was the relationship between Neruda’s poetry and his experience of social upheaval so directly on display than at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Neruda arrived in Madrid in 1934, as a Chilean consul, just before his thirtieth birthday. The Spanish monarch had finally fallen just three years earlier, and an idealistic, progressive spirit invigorated the writers and intellectuals, especially the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, who Neruda had met the year before. Lorca was waiting at the train station for Neruda when he first arrived in Madrid.
Neruda, emerging from the tortuous period of depression and isolation—“luminous solitude,” as he described it—that he underwent while serving in a series of consular posts in East Asia, was thirsty for this fraternity. His poetry became deeply introspective during that period, though he wasn’t just focused on his inner life: while serving his consular posts, and off the written page, he actively participated in denigrating and subjugating women, native people of color, and the poor. Years later, in his memoirs, he even described raping a Tamil servant in Sri Lanka, adding a disturbing layer to his future legacy as an activist on behalf of the oppressed.
When he arrived in Madrid, Neruda’s spirits were invigorated by a thriving, exciting fellowship of activists and artists. But Spain’s social and political situation was tense and complicated. As the historian Gabriel Jackson wrote, Spain in 1930 was “simultaneously a moribund monarchy, a country of very uneven economic development, and a battleground of ardent political and intellectual crosscurrents.” As Hitler and Mussolini gained power nearby, Spanish Fascists asserted themselves more directly and violently. The progressive government struggled to survive. Beginning in March, 1936, members of the Fascist group Falange rode ostentatiously through Madrid in squads of motorcars, wielding machine guns and firing at alleged Reds in working-class neighborhoods. By June, many members of the Communist, Socialist, and Anarchist parties were publicly promoting a revolution, while the right-wing press was instilling in the middle class a fear of a Communist state and promoting the idea that only a military coup could save Spain. Rumors of a Fascist revolution swirled, petrifying Lorca, who was gay and a leftist and had become increasingly outspoken in defense of the republic. He fled to his hometown of Granada, hoping his influential, conservative family would protect him.
On July 17, 1936 the Fascist general Francisco Franco led a military uprising, sparking the Spanish Civil War. Mussolini and Hitler supplied him with planes and weapons. The insurgents, known as the nationalists, advanced quickly toward Madrid, where Neruda and his friends were living. Those friends had recently formed the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals and were determined to wield their intellect and creativity in support of the Republic. They brought popular theater to the people—plays from Cervantes to Lorca that espoused their ideology while invigorating culture in a demoralizing time. The Alliance also published a small magazine, written primarily for Republican soldiers. One member of a unit would read it out loud for those who were illiterate. The list of contributors was extraordinary, including Antonio Machado and Rafael Alberti.
A month into the war, nationalists arrested Lorca. When asked what crime Lorca committed, the officer in charge answered, “He’s done more damage with a pen than others have with a pistol.” Three days later, Lorca and three other prisoners were shot beside a stand of olive trees.
The news shook Neruda to the core. Beyond the horror of a friend’s assassination, Lorca’s death represented something more: Lorca was the embodiment of poetry; it was as if the Fascists had assassinated poetry itself. Neruda had reached a moment from which there was no turning back. His poetry had to shift outwardly; it had to act. No more melancholic verse, love poems dotted with red poppies, or metaphysical writing, all of which ignored the realities of rising Fascism. Bold, repeated words and clear, vivid images now served his purpose: to convey his pounding heart and to communicate the realities he was experiencing in a way that could be understood immediately by a wide audience.
This is nowhere better exemplified than in his poem “I Explain Some Things.” The title alone conveys the poem’s urgency to be heard and understood, as was evidenced when, on Martin Luther King Day this year, the writer Kwame Alexander read the poem on NPR:
You will ask: And where are the lilacs?
And the metaphysics laced with poppies?
And the rain that often beat
his words filling them with holes and birds?
I’ll tell you everything that’s happening with me.
I lived in a neighborhood
of Madrid, with church bells,
with clocks, with trees.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My house was called
the house of flowers, because everywhere
geraniums were exploding: it was
a beautiful house
with dogs and little kids.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Federico, you remember,
from under the earth,
do you remember my house with balconies on which
the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?
And one morning everything was burning
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and ever since then fire,
gunpowder ever since,
and ever since then blood
Bandits with airplanes and with Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars making blessings,
… kept coming from the sky to kill children,
and through the streets the blood of the children
ran simply, like children’s blood.
You will ask why his poetry
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!
Neruda went on to write a total of twenty-one poems in reaction to the war, contained in his book España en el corazón (Spain in the Heart), which would form part of The Third Residence. This poetry was meant to reach outside the cultured, intellectual readership of his prior, more hermetic books. Now, Neruda’s poetry was printed by frontline soldiers who used old clothing and, supposedly, an enemy flag to make the pulp. Republican soldiers set the type, printed the finished copies, and delivered them to those fighting. Poetry, in other words, was fuel for the resistance, and Neruda was only one part of a sweeping movement: so many poets had such deep impact on the Spanish Civil War that it has been called the “Poets’ War.”
As the Fascists’ bombs fell over Madrid, Neruda moved to Paris, where he helped organize a monumental gathering of writers to express solidarity for the Republic. Ernest Hemingway and Langston Hughes were among the participants. Neruda also embarked on a number of activist publishing ventures in support of the Republican cause. Along with the British activist Nancy Cunard, he published The Poets of the World Defend the Spanish People. Cunard had a printing press in her house; Neruda helped set the type. The money from the sale of the magazine went to support the Republican soldiers battling Franco’s troops. The funds raised were not significant, but the dedicated, unabashed support from contributors spoke volumes.
Meanwhile, Chile’s foreign minister said he “disapproved” of Neruda’s partisan activities in France. The poet was ordered home; he returned in October, 1937. Franco declared victory on April 1, 1939. His final offensives to capture Barcelona and all of Catalonia had forced over half a million Spanish refugees to flee across the Pyrenees into France, where they languished in camps, subject to starvation and disease. Neruda’s friends in Paris wrote him of the situation, begging him to do something. The poet sought help from the newly elected leftist Chilean president, who appointed him as consul to Paris.
In Paris, Neruda secured an old cargo ship, the Winnipeg, and organized an immensely ambitious transport of over two thousand refugees to freedom in Chile. The feat was lauded in headlines across the world. As recently as February 2018, Ariel Dorfman, alarmed by the strong anti-immigration sentiment behind Sebastián Piñera’s victory in Chile’s presidential election, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on Neruda’s legacy. While rising xenophobia and nativism isn’t unique to Chile, Dorfman noted that its history holds a model of “how to act when we are confronted with strangers seeking sanctuary.” He recounted the experience of the Winnipeg and ended the piece asking, “Where are the Nerudas of today?”
As we face our own era of rising authoritarianism and new sets of complexities and injustices to resist, the question remains: Does poetry have the power to effect change? We can write “drop poetry not bombs” on fliers, but the hard truth is that one poem alone cannot protect dreamers from being deported or restrain an unfit president. And yet, Neruda illuminates how poetry’s poignant nature—its unique power of distillation—can create change through a cumulative, collective effort: one by one, like gathering drops, each time a poem comes into contact with a person’s consciousness—whether read by a 1930’s Spanish Republican soldier or heard on the radio or penned afresh—it incites the possibility for a shift in perspective or an urge toward action. Poetry can energize, inform, and inspire. This alone won’t stop bombs, but when taken together with all the direct actions of a social movement—marches, relentless grassroots organizing, seven thousand shoes placed on the U.S. Capitol lawn—Neruda has shown us how poetry can be an emotionally potent ingredient in the greater transformative efforts of resistance.
The effectiveness of Neruda’s poetry is proven by its endurance, how often people reach for and evoke his works as a tool to galvanize, to awaken, to sustain. In San Francisco, during the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Neruda’s words were draped on banners over the streets: “Tyranny cuts off the head that sings, but the voice at the bottom of the well returns to the secret springs of the earth and out of the darkness rises up through the mouth of the people.” Nearly a decade later, the Egyptian art historian Bahia Shehab spray-painted Neruda’s words on the streets of Cairo during the Arab Spring: “You can cut all the flowers, but you can’t stop spring.” Five years later, during the January 2017 Women’s March, those same words of Neruda that had appeared in Cairo would grace posters bearing the original Spanish:“Podrán cortar todas las flores, pero no podrá detener la primavera.”
Instances of social injustice, war, and the los of liberal democracy call us off the sidelines and into action. Neruda drastically adapted his poetry in response to crisis. At the start of the Spanish Civil War, he abandoned his desolate, introverted experimental poetry in favor of a decisive style, one that would compel others into action.
Whether we’re poets, teachers, readers, activists, or ordinary citizens who care about the world, we, too, can transform the way we express ourselves. In the era of social media, we don’t need to make pulp out of flags to transmit our message to the troops of resistance. We can all speak. We can all be part of the dialogue. And poetry can be part of the collective way we, in Neruda’s words, “explain some things.” From Neruda and others we can see how the act of expressing ourselves, and the act of hearing, are core components of resistance—and of poetry’s unique, enduring power.
Mark Eisner is the author of Neruda: The Poets Calling. He conceived, edited, and was one of the principle translators of The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems. He is producing a documentary film on Neruda, with support from Latino Public Broadcasting. An initial version, narrated by Isabel Allende, won the Latin American Studies Association Award of Merit in Film.
Translations from The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems by Pablo Neruda. Copyright (c) 2004 by City Lights Publishers.