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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Number 46: Pablo Neruda"We Are Many"

We Are Many

Of the many men whom I am, whom we are,
I cannot settle on a single one.
They are lost to me under the cover of clothing
They have departed for another city.

When everything seems to be set
to show me off as a man of intelligence,
the fool I keep concealed on my person
takes over my talk and occupies my mouth.

On other occasions, I am dozing in the midst
of people of some distinction,
and when I summon my courageous self,
a coward completely unknown to me
swaddles my poor skeleton
in a thousand tiny reservations.

When a stately home bursts into flames,
instead of the fireman I summon,
an arsonist bursts on the scene,
and he is I. There is nothing I can do.
What must I do to distinguish myself?
How can I put myself together?

All the books I read
lionize dazzling hero figures,
brimming with self-assurance.
I die with envy of them;
and, in films where bullets fly on the wind,
I am left in envy of the cowboys,
left admiring even the horses.

But when I call upon my DASHING BEING,
out comes the same OLD LAZY SELF,
and so I never know just WHO I AM,
nor how many I am, nor WHO WE WILL BE BEING.
I would like to be able to touch a bell
and call up my real self, the truly me,
because if I really need my proper self,
I must not allow myself to disappear.

While I am writing, I am far away;
and when I come back, I have already left.
I should like to see if the same thing happens
to other people as it does to me,
to see if as many people are as I am,
and if they seem the same way to themselves.
When this problem has been thoroughly explored,
I am going to school myself so well in things
that, when I try to explain my problems,
I shall speak, not of self, but of geography.

--Pablo Neruda

Hap Notes: Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was born Ricardo Eliezer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto in Chile. His dad, a railway employee, didn't think much of his son's interest in poetry and literature so the boy changed his name to Pablo Neruda. ("Neruda" is in tribute to Czech poet Jan Neruda and "Pablo" possibly from Paul Verlaine.) He published his first book of verse when he was only 19. At 20 he published one of his most famous works, Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada ("Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair"). It probably won't surprise you that, at this age, it was a book of (somewhat controversial) sensuous and erotic love poems. The book has sold millions of copies since its original publication. (In one poem he says "I want to do to you what spring does with the cherry trees"- whoever said THAT better?)

Neruda was an ardent communist due to a lot of political factors, one of which was Franco's domination of Spain. I can't possibly do justice to politics in South America but let's just say that he was deeply involved in politics throughout his career. Suffice it to say he started out liking Stalin and Lenin and, like many of their supporters, grew to dislike them for various reasons. (Khrushchev (remember Nikita?) called this "the cult of personality"- idolizing these political figures) While Neruda grew to dislike his former communist idols (thinking of them as heroic Nazi-crushers at first) he never lost faith in the theories of communism. Neruda served in various political and diplomatic posts throughout his career and then had to been hidden away when various regimes toppled in that whole South/Central American game of political musical chairs. Politics were important to him- that's the condensed version of this paragraph.

Neruda won lots of awards for his work and received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. He has been called the "greatest poet of his generation" all over the world.

Here's my favorite story about Neruda. He was giving a reading to about 600 people in Venezuela (he gave hundreds of readings all over South America and they were very popular, by the way.) After the reading was done- the audience was allowed to make requests. The first request was for "Poem XX" (#20) from "Twenty Love Poems" which starts out "Tonight I can write the saddest lines..." Neruda apologized, he had not brought that poem with him. At which point 400 people in the audience stood up and recited it to him. How awesome is that?

"We Are Many" is a great poem but don't take it solely as the confession of a man who has has been chagrined by his lapses in times of stress. He's saying something about the geography of where you are at each moment- when you are reading this where are you? Not the self-conscious reader but YOU- the real you. And by the way, who is that? And how are you different from anyone else's "you"? And where are they all? Are you the sum of your influences? Are you what you want to be? Do you will yourself to be someone you are or are not? Who, as the caterpillar so famously asked Alice, ARE YOU?

Neruda writes poems that are full of luscious and juicy metaphors. He writes poems to tomatoes and lemons and a tuna sitting in the fish market. He uses every color, flavor and fragrance in the lush world that surrounds us. No subject escapes his scrutiny- old shoes to beautiful women to sea creatures to plump squash. Because of his extensive use of so many words, phrases and idoms which are common to Spanish but unknown to English (other languages often have words we don't have. You knew that, right?) Neruda is notoriously hard to translate. But what has been translated is a revelation- an amazing technicolor dream of beauty, despair, loneliness and ardor.

We will do a lot more Neruda this year, I think.

Here's a good (and relevant to the poem) Neruda quote: "Someday, somewhere - anywhere, unfailingly, you'll find yourself, and that, and only that, can be the happiest or bitterest hour of your life"

You can find more Neruda here:

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