I was introduced to Pablo Neruda’s poetry by way of an Italian film, Il Postino. I had seen the film in an old movie theatre in a small town in New Jersey, while I was studying Italian Literature and dreaming about being in Italy instead of New Jersey. The story was set during Neruda’s exile from Chile, and the movie was filmed on two tiny islands just off the coast of Sicily. The story follows a young man from the village who becomes Neruda’s postman and wins over the heart of the woman he loves with poetry—Neruda’s poetry, which gives the uneducated but innately poetic young man an outlet for his aesthetic yearning. I remember the lines of Neruda’s poetry accompanying the beautiful and tragic story—the images of his poems and the images on the screen seemed to perfectly capture the beauty, melancholy, and ancient magic of love. There was something in the language that seemed to go beyond my youthful understanding of “poetry.”
I rushed out to buy a CD recording of actors reading his poems set to the sad, sweet music from the movie, and about a week later, I happened upon a copy of Residence on Earth at a used book store. In Neruda’s lines, I felt I had touched the heart of love—love as an ancient truth and love made more beautiful by its ephemeral quality in poems like “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines”—which I read over and over. An ocean seemed to form in my heart each time I read those lines, and I felt the depth of poetry for the first time. I was 22 years old, and I had not experienced anything like that in all of the literature I had read up to that moment. It was very close to the transcendental experience Emerson described in “Nature,” and that I had not understood until then: “I am glad to the brink of fear” (Chapter 1). That is when I decided I wanted to be a poet.
I had studied and even written poetry, but in reading Neruda’s work, I began to see that “good” poetry was more than an arrangement of lines or rhythm or rhyme scheme on a page, more than merely a message of love or heartbreak, or the expression of one’s emotions. There was a magic in the way the images and lines worked together to create sound and silence, light and shadow, the material and the abstract, substance and emptiness. It was a language that far from mundane, even when he was writing about something seemingly simple, like salt in “Ode to Salt.”
Writing teachers will often say, “Be specific” and “Show, don’t tell!” These are basic lessons imparted to beginning writing students to teach the art of creating that experience and moving the language itself beyond trite expressions in our mundane lexicon; often, these initial lessons result in work replete with run-on descriptions and synonyms. Neruda’s work had something more than that. Even after having studied and written poetry for twenty years since that first experience, it is difficult for me to nail down an “aesthetic process” or some kind of rule for reaching a reader/listener the way Neruda’s work impacted me, but reading his Memoirs has helped me to understand a little better the soul, as well as some craft elements, inherent in his poetry, and it all comes down to language.
According to Neruda, there are no set rules for creating poetry, except within the writer himself:
Who sets up the rules about shorter or longer, narrower or wider, yellower or redder lines? The poet who writes them is the one who determines what’s what. He determines it with his breath and his blood, with his wisdom and his ignorance, because all this goes into the making of the bread of poetry. (265)
It can be understood that Neruda is suggesting that poetry, as he knows it, comes not from rules and forms but springs organically from within the poet; therefore, ideally, the form follows from the rhythm of the poet’s own life and breath and experience, not from forcing the language into a schematic box. In fact, Neruda writes:
There are no hard and fast rules, there are no ingredients prescribed by God or the Devil, but these two very important gentlemen wage a steady battle in the realm of poetry, and in this battle first one wins and then the other, but poetry itself cannot be defeated. (265)
Neruda, in making up his mind to maintain the integrity of his poetry, discovered that this attitude “[...] stopped fools from laughing at me. And afterwards, the fools who had a heart and conscience accepted, like the good people they were, the grim realities stirred up by my poetry. And those who were ill-willed gradually became afraid of me” (265).
How, then, if not bound by the confines of external structure and instead led by the organic matter that Neruda feels makes up the “bread of poetry,” does one write a poem with integrity? I believe the key ingredient is language, by which I mean the full musicality of words and sentences and how they work together to create meaning: not just diction, which entails choosing the correct word, though word choice is a perfect starting point for this discussion.
In examining language, then, the first thing I thought of was Gustave Flaubert and the concept of le mot juste: the precise word. According to Richard Goodman, in his book The Soul of Creative Writing, the attribution of the expression to Flaubert can be found in a letter Flaubert had sent to the critic Sainte-Beuve; in the letter, Flaubert writes, “If I put ‘blue’ after ‘stones’ it is because ‘blue’ is le mot juste, believe me” (Goodman 19). Economy of expression, a mark of sophisticated and masterful writing, is dependent primarily on diction: that is, instead of constructing a line or sentence replete with descriptors, choosing the word that inherently conveys meaning. Flaubert argued, “All talent for writing consists, after all, of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power” (Schoenecker 19). This is a fine art with consequences, as Neruda writes: “The poet who is not a realist is dead. And the poet who is only irrational will only be understood by himself and his beloved, and this is very sad. The poet who is all reason will even be understood by jackasses, and this is also terribly sad” (265).
Yet, while arguably the most important building foundation of writing, choosing what you feel to be “le mot juste” is not enough. Flaubert wrote of a deeper alchemy, one that I would argue Neruda achieves in his poetry and—via Hardie St. Martin’s translation in the edition I read—his Memoirs: “there has to be a rapport between le mot juste and le mot musical, that is, between the meaning and the music of a word” (Goodman 19).
I believe it is this relationship, which Neruda carefully cultivated, that I experienced the first time I encountered his poetry. There was a deeper magic in his words and, by extension, in his poetry. I felt this magic again when I read his Memoirs. For it is not only in poetry that the writer is concerned with such decisions.
In CNF, this is particularly important: the difference between a diary entry, meant only for oneself, and a narrative essay intended to reach a wider audience, is the ability of a writer to convey his or her vision of the world in a manner which others may understand and, in reading the piece, have their own emotional experience of it as well. With study and practice, one learns that it is the crafting of the language that differentiates the journaled memory from the memoir. The extraordinary narrative blooms when the writer is able to not just choose the correct word to describe his or her world, but create the special alchemy between, as Flaubert has said, the meaning and the music of a word.
It is difficult to write of word choice and the alchemy of meaning and music when reading in translation, and the reader can only experience a glimpse of this magic as it is conducted through the medium of Hardie St. Martin’s translation, but I will highlight a few of the vignettes in Neruda’s Memoirs, nevertheless, with the understanding that the original word choice has inherently the same meaning and bearing in mind that the translator also made some decisions as to “le mot juste” (though that is a concept for another paper).
One of my favorite vignettes is “My First Poem,” which begins “Now I am going to tell you a story about birds” (18). It is not a story about birds, but about a bird—a swan, specifically, that young Pablo had been brought when it was “half-dead” and suffering from injuries inflicted by swan-hunters in Lake Budi, at the seaside in Puerto Saavedra, Imperial del Sur. Neruda describes the swan beautifully; for me, this vignette provides an excellent example of the use of the le mot juste and the alchemy between meaning and music, in these lines:
It was one of those magnificent birds I had not seen again anywhere in the world, a black-necked swan. A snowy vessel with its slender neck looking as if squeezed into a black silk stocking, its beak an orange color and its eyes red. (18)
With imagery this vivid, it is easy for the reader to not just see the swan but to sense its magnificence. “Snowy vessel” with a neck “squeezed into a black stocking”—those descriptions have not just meaning, but music and also, deeper significance. The sense of the words go beyond a mere physical description—there is beauty and magic for young Pablo in that swan. The swan heals, then becomes homesick as young Pablo carries it to the water every day, then grows “dreamier,” which the boy Pablo does not yet understand is a harbinger of the bird’s imminent death. Indeed, the dying swan is described with a graceful sadness:
One afternoon, it seemed dreamier; it swam near me but wasn’t entertained by my ruses for trying to teach it how to fish again. It was very still, and I picked it up in my arms to take it home. But when I held it up to my breast, I felt a ribbon unrolling, and something like a black arm brushed my face. It was the long, sinuous neck falling. That’s how I found out that swans don’t sing when they die. (19)
I find myself thinking about this particular vignette almost obsessively; it is an excellent example of the beauty in Neruda’s writing. For me, there is first an aesthetic perfection in Neruda’s initial description of the swan. Moreover, there is a tension of contrast between the hopeful boy who “bathed its wounds and stuffed bits of bread and fish down its throat” and befriended the bird once it started to recover and the swan’s death. And finally, there is a graceful sadness in the description of the bird’s death: “I felt a ribbon unrolling, and something like a black arm brushed my face”; along with a loss of innocence inherent in the meaning of the last sentence: “That’s how I found out swans don’t sing when they die” (19).
While this particular vignette, for me, is the most captivating, there are many other segments in the book that stand out because of Neruda’s facility with diction and his synergy of image and meaning.
In “Life in Colombo,” Neruda describes the violent jealousy and the “uncontrollable behavior” of Josie Bliss, his Burmese lover, who causes conflicted feelings in Neruda (tenderness and fear). She is dangerous to the point where Neruda says, “I didn’t dare let her set foot in my house. She was a love-smitten terrorist, capable of anything” (96).
Yet, it is the description of her upon her departure that resonates:
When it was time to weigh anchor and I had to go ashore, she wrenched away from the passengers around her and seized by a gust of grief and love, she covered my face with kisses and bathed me with her tears. She kissed my arms, my suit in a kind of ritual, and suddenly slipped down to my shoes, before I could stop her. When she stood up again, the chalk polish of my white shoes was smeared like flour all over her face [...] That unrestrained grief, those terrible tears rolling down her chalky face, are still fresh in my memory. (96)
What further enhances the impact of this passage is that later in the book, when Neruda returns to Colombo, he finds that nothing is the same. No one can tell him any news of Josie Bliss—whether she lived or had died, and there is a sadness about it in the writing that is already experienced, in some way, in the image of her departing, in the anguished, suffering face streaked with chalky tears. In fact, Neruda writes, upon his return after the people’s uprising, “[Colombo] was a half-empty city now, with bare shop windows, and filth piled up in streets [...] Not a trace of Josie Bliss, my pursuer, the heroine of my ‘Tango del viduo.’ [...] The neighborhood where we had lived together no longer even existed” (231).
Again, we have meaning and music in these lines—not only are the descriptions painfully beautiful, but they carry a deeper message, which we experience more fully only later in the story. Nothing is as it was—not the city, not the neighborhood, not the dangerous tango of their two lives, not the author, and not even the country as he had known it in the past.
There are several more descriptive passages which, for me, have provided examples of how a writer can describe mundane occurrences or everyday life, without using trite language and in blending the quotidian lexicon with carefully chosen descriptive words that convey not just a visual but an emotional experience. Two stand out as relevant here.
The first I’d like to highlight is a passage from “Singapore”:
Solitude in Colombo was not only dull but indolent. I had a few friends on the street where I lived. Girls of various colorings visited my campaign cot, leaving no record but the lightning spasm of the flesh. My body was a lonely bonfire burning night and day on that tropical coast. (99)
The second passage is in the vignette “Miguel Hernandez,” in which Neruda comes to equate this young poet with poetry itself: “In all my years as a poet, as wandering poet, I can say that life has not given me the privilege of setting eyes on anyone with a vocation and an electrical knowledge of words like his” (118). Neruda meets Hernandez in Spain, publishes his poetry and even takes him in to live in his house as he has no paying job. As far as physical description, Neruda describes him thus: “Miguel was a peasant with an aura of earthiness about him. He had a face like a clod of earth or a potato that has just been pulled up from among the roots and still has its subterranean freshness” (117). The word choice here allows the reader to experience not just this young poet’s physical traits but his very aura, his beginnings, his simplicity, his earthy scent. Hernandez seems to have sprung organically as a root from the earth, pulled up into the realm of humans but retaining all of the secrets of the soil in his appearance and his entire composition. This harmony of meaning and musicality effectively sets up the next paragraph, in which Neruda writes of Hernandez:
He told me earthly stories about animals and birds. He was the kind of writer who emerges from nature like an uncut stone, with the freshness of the forest and an irresistible vitality. He would tell me how exciting it was to put your ear against the belly of a sleeping she-goat. You could hear the milk coursing down to the udders, a secret sound no one but that poet of goats has been able to listen to. (117)
The strange earthy beauty in Hernandez’s act is difficult to reproduce in words, but Neruda creates a wonder for the reader, especially when he writes that the sound is secret and only heard by that “poet of goats”—the reader has just enough of an image from Neruda’s careful word choice and his initial description of Hernandez to believe in the possibility and the sacredness of Hernandez’s affinity for the earth and her creatures; his purity and earthiness created a memory of Hernandez for Neruda that, he writes, “can never be rooted out of my heart” (118).
Perhaps here, one can return to Flaubert and his idea about the meaning and music of the word. Hernandez, for Neruda, represents this magical alchemy. It is an alchemy that is not forced but a sacred outcome, one the poet determines “with his breath and his blood, with his wisdom and his ignorance because all of this goes into the making of the bread of poetry” (265).
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” James Munroe and Company, 1836.
- Goodman, Richard. The Soul of Creative Writing. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2009.
- Neruda, Pablo. Memoirs. Trans. Hardie St. Martin. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.
- Schoenecker, Mary F. “Le Mot Juste.” Author Expressions, 24 August 2012, authorexpressions.blogspot.com/2012/08/le-mot-juste.html. Accessed 20 February 2016.
holds an MFA in Creative Writing (dual concentration in Poetry and Creative Non-Fiction) from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She also holds an MA in English Literature and BAs in Italian Studies and Political Science from Rosemont College. Her work has been published in Serving House Journal, Hippocampus, Red River Review, Philadelphia Stories, Perigee, Bucks County Writer, and Schuylkill Valley Journal. She is a high school teacher and lives in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.