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Nobel Prize Winning Poet Pablo Neruda’s Twilight (Crepusculario)

Special To Topanga Journal

Nobel Prize Winning poet Pablo Neruda sold his poet’s “suit” to publish his first poetry book, translator William O’Daly tells us in his introduction to Pablo Neruda Book Of Twilight (Crepusculario). This is the ninth Neruda translation from O’Daly published by the independent publisher, Copper Canyon Press. Suprisingly, the printing of this book was funded in part by the right-wing poet, and this is very surprisng since Neruda was known for his left-wing views, Hernan Diaz Arrieta, O’Daly tells us. These are just a few of the tidbits we learn about this master poet’s life in the introduction to Twilight. This is the first time this book has been published in its entirety in the United States

Kriss Perras headshot by Alan Weissman

By Kriss Perras

Pablo Neruda is a pen name. His legal name was Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto. He was born in Parral, Chile July 12, 1904. Neruda was awarded the Nobel in 1971. He died September 23, 1973, after which there were investigations into whether he might have been poisoned.

Even at the tender age of 19, Neruda’s poetic work in Twilight was bold, evocative, sexy and dark. Neruda delves into the rich world of emotional love, not skin deep, but passionate and alluring, sensual and arousing devotion found in the darkest corners of our mythos. Controversial from the very beginning, he aroused an entire nation behind him with his words. Poets can be dangerous for the politician. He lost friends to political upheaval. He lost romances to love’s political woes. In the end, he rose up to become a Nobel Prize winning poet. Though he never forgot his humble beginnings. In Twilight, we see the maturation of Neruda as a rising poetic star in Chile. The removal of his poet’s suit is a metaphor for the reveal of his poetic prowess.

“They had little money, but I think Mistral, at least by osmosis, opened his eyes more widely to social injustice, as well as to the breadth and scope of poetry.” William O’Daly

Topanga Journal conducted a Q&A with O’Daly on his translation of Pablo Neruda Book Of Twilight (Crepusculario). In this session with O’Daly we find out more about Neruda’s love affairs, his ability to use poetry to his advantage in love and the fleetingness of love in Neruda’s life.

TJ: You mention in the introduction, Neruda sold his poet’s suit and cape and nearly all his possessions to publish Twilight. Can you tell us more about this story, and his first effort to publish his poetry?

BILL: In 1920, at age 16, Neruda rode by train to Santiago from what was then the “frontier” town of Temuco. Already having published individual poems, he arrived in black pants, black shirt, and black cape and hat. He called it his “poet’s suit.” Very dramatic. In that sense, he played the role of poet. Baudelaire was a big influence. He was already writing some of the poems that would become Book of Twilight. Claridad, a journal he wrote for and the publishing house of the University of Chile, accepted the book. At that time it was common for a young poet to pay for printing. There was no money for first books, and the printer insisted Neruda pay for the entire print run before he would release any copies to him. So the young Neruda sold his poet’s suit, his father’s watch, which he had received as a parting gift, and sold much of the little furniture he had acquired. He was studying to be a teacher of French and existed largely on the allowance his father sent. Once that stopped, because his father didn’t think he was applying himself toward his studies, which was true, he would hit up relatives or friends for money. He wrote articles and picked up a little money in other ways. It was hand to mouth, but often there was red wine, passionate literary discussion with friends, the reading to one another of favorite poems and passages and political camaraderie.

TJ: Can you tell us more about Neruda’s relationship with his poetic mentor, the rising star Gabriela Mistral?

BILL: What I’ve always found fascinating is Gabriela Mistral was the first Nobel Prize winning poet of Chile. Many years later Neruda was the second. In addition to being a marvelous, emotional, darkly lyrical poet, Mistral was a dedicated educator and would make a lasting mark in Latin American education. She also was an advocate for the poor and especially for women, and worked against social injustice, most notably as wreaked on the Mapuche people. Beginning in 1918, she spent two years teaching in the small town of Punta Arenas. Then, before Neruda left for Santiago, she was transferred to serve as principal of the Liceo de Niñas in Temuco. Neruda was in his final year at the Liceo de Hombres. When they met, he asked if she would mentor him. Neruda would visit her after school, and she would steer him toward certain poets and writers whose work she felt would be helpful to him. She encouraged and advised him to meet other poets. He needed a cultural milieu, which at that time in Chile meant Santiago. The teenage Neruda shared Mistral’s concern for the plight of the Mapuche, and he himself had been raised by a railroad worker and stepmother. They had little money, but I think Mistral, at least by osmosis, opened his eyes more widely to social injustice, as well as to the breadth and scope of poetry.

TJ: Can you tell us a bit more about how the execution by Falangists of his good friend Federico Garcia Lorca influenced his thinking and poetry?

BILL: After Neruda first arrived in Santiago and started studying at the Pedagogical Institute, he spent a lot of time listening to anarchist speeches instead of going to class. There had recently been strikes and protests by workers and students against the oligarchy, and he was thinking about those issues. He wrote political articles for Claridad, as well as published his poems there. Then, as Chilean consul in Ceylon, Burma, and elsewhere, he was quite lonely and witnessed devastating poverty on a mass scale.

Jumping ahead, he was living with his first wife and his daughter in Madrid before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Lorca became a great friend, and he championed Neruda’s work among the Spanish poets. When Lorca, against nearly all better judgment, decided to return to his family’s summer home in Granada as the war was breaking out, it seems Neruda respected his decision, even as he feared for him. After Lorca was assassinated near Alfacar, Neruda felt he had lost a brother. There’s nothing like losing a close friend or family member to brutal political violence to clarify one’s commitments. Neruda would publish the third Residencia about 10 years later, with its poem about the civil war: Come and see the blood in the streets. / Come and see / The blood in the streets. / Come and see the blood / In the streets. Politics isn’t ever present in Neruda’s middle work, but it imbues Canto General. In the late work, you’ll find laments and invective about colonization and war, the inhumanity and smallness of politicos and the vulnerability of humankind. In his poetry book World’s End, he apologizes for his support of Stalin, which took him too long to renounce. So profound was his hope that he chalked up news of the atrocities to Western disinformation, fake news. He didn’t want to believe it.

TJ: How did Neruda’s poetry skill affect his love life?

BILL: It helped immensely. The young poet friends he made after arriving in Santiago told themselves, and each other, that the only reason the tall consumptive-looking poet did so well with the young ladies was because of his poetry. What else could it be? And I don’t think they were deluding themselves. But he was a good-looking guy, not unhandsome. I’ve heard from reliable sources that, at times, he was capable of tenderness beyond his age. He was described by some women later in his life as timid. He was high maintenance at times, in fact, often in his marriages. He was a romantic, and young women loved him.

TJ: What do you see in the poem Bridges? What is its intent?

BILL: In a way, when Neruda talks about the loneliness of bridges, he’s talking about himself. The poet depends on them, creates them, and yet many take them for granted. They welcome us with open arms. We pass over them. Trains pass over them. We say good-bye before departing over them. The birds fly over them. We are indifferent to them, coming and going without so much as a wave. In their slight movements they are forever stationary, always there. They exist purely to connect us to one another, to the surfaces of the earth, and the earth to itself. They’re fascinating structures. When they connect person to person, they are constructs of the heart. Jumping to the opposite end of his career, in The Hands of Day he calls himself a “poet of bridges.” Both Bridges and The Curved Bridge of the Maldonado Bar in Uruguay, in Hands, serve loosely as ars poeticas (the art of poetry). The poet is a bridge.

TJ: The poem The Head of Hair seems to have themes about the cycles of creation and destruction, built on the mythic characters Melisanda and Pelleas. But knowing Neruda, what was going on around him during the time he wrote this poem?

BILL: Among other things, he was developing a tragic sense of love, set against an ideal of love. I’m not sure of the exact timing of the composition of Melisanda and Pelleas, but as Twilight was being readied for print, he was still mourning the loss of his relationships with two women whom he loved intensely, among his many girlfriends and sexual encounters.

I was returning to him as a different poet and human being than when I had started translating him. Though much older, I was somehow younger than I had been, more agile in some ways. Many have pegged me as an “old soul.” The Actor’s Studio, teaching, some hard knocks and a whole bunch else taught my inner life how to be young. It’s how I responded to those karmic lessons. I couldn’t pass up the marvelous symmetry and was finally ready to translate Neruda’s first book. At the end of the day, the translation turned out to be the most challenging of them all.

TJ: In Book of Twilight, you acknowledge the poet and Spanish-language editor Paco Márquez for assisting your translation. How did you work with Paco to complete the translation?

BILL: I have always had a Spanish-language editor review my translations of Neruda. It’s best practice and honors the quality of Neruda’s work, as well as the difficulty of translating it accurately, particularly the music, the tone, the spirit. Paco is a wonderful poet and a careful reader. Paco had been a student in a poetry and translation workshop I’d taught at UC Davis. I had a strong sense of what he was capable of. He would walk with me to my car after class, just as I had done with Philip Levine when I studied with him many years before. Our poetries are quite different, but we share many values in our approaches to poetry and translation. We became friends. I asked him to be my Spanish-language editor on a manuscript of Neruda’s work that, as it turned out, was not published. But in working together on that manuscript, we established a process that worked beautifully for Twilight. I would send Paco a section of the book in an advanced draft. He would comment and make suggestions. His judgment is balanced, and given the difficulty of some of the passages in Twilight, with its aspects of Latin American modernismo, even Paco would say, “well, it could be this or could be that, but I think your translation nails it or misses it in this way.” He made some excellent suggestions, but even he, whose first language is Spanish, was initially mystified by a few of the passages. I was really grateful for his participation, his good spirit, for how fully he invested himself in the work. That was no less true when we interpreted things differently. We had a great time, and in the end I made the choices I believed in. I did my best to inhabit young Neruda’s world and to reinvent the music of the original.
O’Daly presents the English translations en face with the original Spanish.

Pablo Neruda Book Of Twilight is available for purchase from Copper Canyon Press: 

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Pablo Neruda: Fin de Mundo or World’s End Translated by William O’Daly

It is not often you hold in your hands the works of a poet of this caliber. Malibu Arts Journal had the privilege of reviewing Neruda in 2008 with the Copper Canyon Press release of The Hands Of Day, with translation by the Neruda guru William O’Daly. It is the Journal’s distinct pleasure to once again review the world renowned poet Pablo Neruda in his book-length poem Fin de mundo, or World’s End. William O’Daly’s eighth and final translation of Neruda’s late and posthumous work, he writes in his Translator’s Acknowledgements, “has its roots as far back as 1976, and in certain ways earlier than that.” The fastidious level of work O’Daly put into Fin de Mundo is obvious. The work is in its original form on the left hand side of the page, and on the right, the English translation.

Neruda was always known as the people’s poet, venerated throughout Latin America and later in the States, as one of the all-time greatest poets. He begins World’s End with “What a ceaseless century!” then works his way into “When the Bomb dropped / (people, insects, incinerated fish) / we thought to leave with a hobo’s bundle / for a change of heavenly body and race. . .” and soon we find ourselves in the middle of an open air love affair, of “open and sudden sex” – a Neruda hallmark, to speak so fluently of sex, and passionately. We read on to find ourselves in a “Metamorphosis,” where “Everything began on Sunday / which instead of feeling golden / repented its joy. . .”

This one-time candidate for the Chilean Presidency, Senator and Nobel Laureate, also exiled into Mexico, is internationally acclaimed in the literary world. Yet the poet never forgot those who worked with their hands, always aware of the privilege he had to write. Neruda then takes us into the darkness of the century in which he lived, the one now dubbed by sociologists as the Century of Genocide. Neruda digs deep into his once very stern political beliefs in The Enemy where he so eloquently writes:

The Enemy

Today an enemy came to see me
this is a man locked
in his truth, in his castle
as in an iron box,
with his own breath
and his singular swords
that he suckled as punishment.

I saw the years in his face:
in his eyes of weary water,
in the lines of loneliness
that climbed to his temples
slowly, from his pride.

We spoke in the clarity
of a swarming noon
the wind scattering sunlight
and sunlight battling in the sky.
But the man merely held out
the new keys, the pathway
to all the doors. I believe,
that within he was silence,
unable to share himself.
He had a stone in his soul :
he was keeping the hardness.

I thought about his paltry truth
buried with no hope whatsoever
of hurting anyone but himself,
and I watched my poor truth
treated poorly inside of me.

There we were, each of us
with his sharp conviction,
and hardened by time:
like two blind men defending
each other’s darknesses.

Even a quick comparison of other translations of Neruda’s work shows the insight O’Daly had, the keen eye for the fluidity of the poet’s words. Some of the lesser translations do not capture the true spirit of this highly praised poet. It is no easy task to translate a poem into another language. The words, incites and intuitiveness that come with the language can be lost in the conversion. O’Daly’s delicate handling of the lines, phrases and shaping of the poem let the rhythm of the original work present itself as the true intent of Neruda, the master salonnière for the people.

Fin de mundo, or World’s End, by Pablo Neruda is available from Copper Canyon Press for $15.

For more information see

Pablo Neruda: The Hands Of Day Review Translated By William O’Daly

Pablo Neruda The Hands Of Day From Copper Canyon Press

The people’s poet. Pablo Neruda was a venerated poet throughout Latin America and across the world. A one-time candidate for the Chilean Presidency, Neruda was sensitive about his advantages in life. His evocative verse never finds ends to his political potency, romanticism and often antipodean points of view. He was a master salonnière for the people.

The Hands Of Day, published by Copper Canyon Press, contains sixty-seven of Neruda’s poems. Despite his 1941 Nobel Prize in Literature, these poems are expressions of grief about how the poet felt his hands had created nothing useful. All poems in The Hands Of Day are presented in both English, and the original Spanish. This represents the seventh translation of this master poet’s work for William O’Daly, and comes forty-years after its original publication in Spanish as Las Manos del Dia (1967-1968).

Q&A with William O’Daly on Neruda’s The Hands Of Day

MAJ: Pablo Neruda was heavily criticized for his economic position and how he lived, which seemed to translate for him into guilt about not making things with his hands as the labor force did. Wasn’t the criticism of Neruda more about his Communist beliefs than about his lifestyle and economic position?

BILL: Neruda was criticized for belonging to the Communist Party of Chile, an allegiance whose groundwork was formed after he witnessed extreme poverty, not only in his own country but in places such as Ceylon, Burma, Sri Lanka and Singapore where he served as consul as a young man. The tragedy of the Spanish civil War, losing close friends to the Falangists and Franco’s prisons, also sent him to the left. He was dirt poor himself in his early adult years, but as his work grew in popularity and was translated into dozens of languages, he lived more comfortably. But he was never what we might call “wealthy.” And yes, there were some who criticized him for belonging to the Communist Party and yet owning more than one house, and so on. But his guilt regarding not having made things with his hands, particularly in The Hands Of Day, comes less from that kind of criticism and more from having represented as a Senator those who scrape by, making a minimal living with their calloused hands, who make the world comfortable by the fruits of their underpaid labor. Of course, Neruda made poems almost every day with his hands, with green ink and paper, and he acknowledges that in the book. He was a hard worker, a dedicated representative of his constituency and a daily literary toiler.

MAJ: Why and when did he choose to change his name to Pablo Neruda?

BILL: He published his poetry under the pseudonym Pablo Neruda so that his father, a rather stern ballast train engineer, wouldn’t know that he was publishing poems. His father couldn’t stand that his son, Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, was writing poetry, a frivolous pastime, one for sissies. José del Carmen even burned some of his son’s poems. In 1921, Neftali published six poems in a university magazine, Claridad, which I believe was the first time he signed his work with the “Pablo Neruda.”

MAJ: It is said Neruda was denied entry into many countries. Why?

BILL: I’m not sure that he was denied entry into many countries. In fact he was one of the most traveled poets or writers of the twentieth century, visiting many of the countries that might have been opposed to his politics. His Visa application was denied by the U.S. in 1966, probably because of his membership in the Chilean Communist Party. Arthur Miller intervened on his behalf and managed to get him a waiver of inadmissibility. So, Neruda was able to attend the International PEN Conference in New York after all. Let’s see, he was arrested in Buenos Aires in 1957 and released a day or two later; he was almost expelled from Italy once, but a huge crowd in Rome essentially took him from his police guard, showering him with flowers, and the expulsion order was rescinded.

MAJ: What is the significance to Neruda of Jorge Sanhueza, the object of J.S., a poem in this translation?

BILL: Jorge Sanhueza was Neruda’s archivist at the University of Chile, and he was writing a biography of Neruda when he died. Sr. Sanhueza, by all accounts, was a quiet, unobtrusive presence in Neruda’s life, a shy man. Apparently he was seeking little more than the satisfaction of preserving Neruda’s work and life.

MAJ: Didn’t you recently make a trip to Chile?

BILL: Yes, I spent a month in Chile and on Easter Island, from late February to late March. It was my first visit, delayed for many years due to the dictatorship, other projects on my plate and the requirements of employment. I wanted to spend time in Chile before finishing the Neruda series, thus the timing. The main purpose was to visit Neruda sites, his three homes, now museums, in Santiago, Isla Negra and Valparaíso. I also went south to Neruda country, starting in Valdivia on the coast and traveling inland to Pucón in the Lake District, the Andean foothills and to Temuco, where he was raised. It made for a good balance between Neruda’s built environment, and the landscape that nourished his love of nature, which was enhanced by a huge amount of specific knowledge.

The journey had a human rights component and an archeological component. I’ve written about poetry and torture and about human rights, both in the context of Neruda and Chile, as well as more generally. The Chilean musician and artist Felipe Moreno took me to many of the coup-related sites in Santiago, the Palacio de La Moneda, which is the presidential palace, the General Cemetery, and the Villa Grimaldi, which was General Pinochet’s main torture center, among other sites. It was one of the most wrenching and inspiring days of my life. I visited the old prison in Valparaíso on my own.

The second Neruda book I translated, The Separate Rise, is set on Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, the island’s indigenous name. Ever since I began researching the island to inform the translation and my writing of the introduction, I’ve been fascinated by the ethnography, archaeology and history. Neruda and his third wife, Matilde, visited the island in 1971 with his main documentarian, Hugo Arévalo, just before Neruda was appointed ambassador to France. Older Rapa Nui people still fondly remember his visit, and the documentary is still shown on Chilean television. I was on the island for eight days and nights. A couple of highlights were watching the full moon set and sun rise from atop the Northeastern rim of the volcanic crater, Rano Raraku, the main quarry for the maoi, or stone statues, and an archeological horseback tour of the west and north coasts. Spending a day and a half with the granddaughter of William Mulloy, one of the first archaeologists to accomplish significant restoration, and visiting various sites was amazing. It was an extraordinary experience, the whole journey, one that will continue to breathe in my imagination for a long time.

MAJ: So may critics have tried to classify Neruda’s immense volume of work. Rather than categorize this master’s poetic art into pat classifications, what about Neruda’s work moves you so deeply that you have been motivated to create so many volumes of translations?

BILL: When World’s End is published late next autumn or early winter, it will be my eighth Neruda translation. I intend for it to be my last. I suppose I would say that his sensibility and mine rhyme, in poetry, in certain ways and terms that defy expression. Isn’t that something of what love is? Neruda is one of my favorite poets, he and Kenneth Rexroth, and okay a few others. Still, I am enamored of his breadth, his gift for revealing who he is as he addresses the world and its processes, with self-possession but without loss of scope. His intuitive sense of material world and his passion attract me, as does his orientation toward the role of a poet in society. His investiture as a poeta del pueblo, poet of the people, was very real, not self-ordained, not conceit, and he was both humbled and inspired by their trust and belief in him. As he tells the reader in one of the late books I’ve translated, Winter Garden, Neruda says, “I always call myself by your name.” It’s that level of commitment I admire, where one’s commitment to oneself cannot be fulfilled without fulfilling one’s commitment to others.

This historic master poet concluded his Nobel banquet speech stating he would “return to my work, to the blank page which every day awaits us poets so that we shall fill it with our blood and our darkness, for with blood and darkness poetry is written, poetry should be written.”

The Hands Of Day is available for purchase at Copper Canyon Press $17{0A026AD8-E1E5-43EF-8552-8CAA77D1F041}

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