Always Writing: An Interview with Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda

Interview Excerpt : Pablo Neruda, The Art of Poetry No. 14

Interviewed by Rita Guibert – The Paris Review

INTERVIEWER

I’ve seen you writing in the car.

NERUDA

I write where I can and when I can, but I’m always writing.

INTERVIEWER

Do you always write everything in longhand?

NERUDA

Ever since I had an accident in which I broke a finger and couldn’t use the typewriter for a few months, I have followed the custom of my youth and gone back to writing by hand. I discovered when my finger was better and I could type again that my poetry when written by hand was more sensitive; its plastic forms could change more easily. In an interview, Robert Graves says that in order to think one should have as little as possible around that is not handmade. He could have added that poetry ought to be written by hand. The typewriter separated me from a deeper intimacy with poetry, and my hand brought me closer to that intimacy again.

INTERVIEWER

What are your working hours?

NERUDA

I don’t have a schedule, but by preference I write in the morning. Which is to say that if you weren’t here making me waste my time (and wasting your own), I would be writing. I don’t read many things during the day. I would rather write all day, but frequently the fullness of a thought, of an expression, of something that comes out of myself in a tumultuous way—let’s label it with an antiquated term, “inspiration”—leaves me satisfied, or exhausted, or calmed, or empty. That is, I can’t go on. Apart from that, I like living too much to be seated all day at a desk. I like to put myself in the goings-on of life, of my house, of politics, and of nature. I am forever coming and going. But I write intensely whenever I can and wherever I am. It doesn’t bother me that there may be a lot of people around.

INTERVIEWER

You cut yourself off totally from what surrounds you?

NERUDA

I cut myself off, and if everything is suddenly quiet, then that is disturbing to me.

INTERVIEWER

You have never given much consideration to prose.

NERUDA

Prose . . . I have felt the necessity of writing in verse all my life. Expression in prose doesn’t interest me. I use prose to express a certain kind of fleeting emotion or event, really tending toward narrative. The truth is that I could give up writing in prose entirely. I only do it temporarily.

INTERVIEWER

If you had to save your works from a fire, what would you save?

NERUDA

Possibly none of them. What am I going to need them for? I would rather save a girl . . . or a good collection of detective stories . . . which would entertain me much more than my own works.

INTERVIEWER

What advice would you give to young poets?

NERUDA

Oh, there is no advice to give to young poets! They ought to make their own way; they will have to encounter the obstacles to their expression and they have to overcome them. What I would never advise them to do is to begin with political poetry. Political poetry is more profoundly emotional than any other—at least as much as love poetry—and cannot be forced because it then becomes vulgar and unacceptable. It is necessary first to pass through all other poetry in order to become a political poet. The political poet must also be prepared to accept the censure which is thrown at him—betraying poetry, or betraying literature. Then, too, political poetry has to arm itself with such content and substance and intellectual and emotional richness that it is able to scorn everything else. This is rarely achieved.

INTERVIEWER

You have often said that you don’t believe in originality.

NERUDA

To look for originality at all costs is a modern condition. In our time, the writer wants to call attention to himself, and this superficial preoccupation takes on fetishistic characteristics. Each person tries to find a road whereby he will stand out, neither for profundity nor for discovery, but for the imposition of a special diversity. The most original artist will change phases in accord with the time, the epoch. The great example is Picasso, who begins by nourishing himself from the painting and sculpture of Africa or the primitive arts, and then goes on with such a power of transformation that his works, characterized by his splendid originality, seem to be stages in the cultural geology of the world.

INTERVIEWER

What were the literary influences on you?

NERUDA

Writers are always interchanging in some way, just as the air we breathe doesn’t belong to one place. The writer is always moving from house to house: he ought to change his furniture. Some writers feel uncomfortable at this. I remember that Federico García Lorca was always asking me to read my lines, my poetry, and yet in the middle of my reading, he would say, “Stop, stop! Don’t go on, lest you influence me!”

INTERVIEWER

About Norman Mailer. You were one of the first writers to speak of him.

NERUDA

Shortly after Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead came out, I found it in a bookstore in Mexico. No one knew anything about it; the bookseller didn’t even know what it was about. I bought it because I had to take a trip and I wanted a new American novel. I thought that the American novel had died after the giants who began with Dreiser and finished with Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner—but I discovered a writer with extraordinary verbal violence, matched with great subtlety and a marvelous power of description. I greatly admire the poetry of Pasternak, but Dr. Zhivago alongside The Naked and the Dead seems a boring novel, saved only in part by its description of nature, that is to say, by its poetry. I remember about that time I wrote the poem “Let the Rail Splitter Awake.” This poem, invoking the figure of Lincoln, was dedicated to world peace. I spoke of Okinawa and of the war in Japan, and I mentioned Norman Mailer. My poem reached Europe and was translated. I remember that Aragon said to me, “It was a great deal of trouble to find out who Norman Mailer is.” In reality, nobody knew him, and I had a certain feeling of pride in having been one of the first writers to allude to him.

INTERVIEWER

Could you comment on your intense affection for nature?

NERUDA

Ever since my childhood, I’ve maintained an affection for birds, shells, forests, and plants. I’ve gone many places in search of ocean shells, and I’ve come to have a great collection. I wrote a book called Art of Birds. I wrote Bestiary, Seaquake, and “The Herbalist’s Rose,” devoted to flowers, branches, and vegetal growth. I could not live separated from nature. I like hotels for a couple of days; I like planes for an hour; but I’m happy in the woods, on the sand, or sailing, in direct contact with fire, earth, water, air.

INTERVIEWER

There are symbols in your poetry which recur, and they always take the form of the sea, of fish, of birds . . .

NERUDA

I don’t believe in symbols. They are simply material things. The sea, fish, birds exist for me in a material way. I take them into account, as I have to take daylight into account. The fact that some themes stand out in my poetry—are always appearing—is a matter of material presence.

INTERVIEWER

What do the dove and guitar signify?

NERUDA

The dove signifies the dove and the guitar signifies a musical instrument called the guitar.

INTERVIEWER

You mean that those who have tried to analyze these things—

NERUDA

When I see a dove, I call it a dove. The dove, whether it is present or not, has a form for me, either subjectively or objectively—but it doesn’t go beyond being a dove.

INTERVIEWER

You have said about the poems in Residence on Earth that “They don’t help one to live. They help one to die.”

NERUDA

My book Residence on Earth represents a dark and dangerous moment in my life. It is poetry without an exit. I almost had to be reborn in order to get out of it. I was saved from that desperation of which I still can’t know the depths by the Spanish Civil War, and by events serious enough to make me meditate. At one time I said that if I ever had the necessary power, I would forbid the reading of that book and I would arrange never to have it printed again. It exaggerates the feeling of life as a painful burden, as a mortal oppression. But I also know that it is one of my best books, in the sense that it reflects my state of mind. Still, when one writes—and I don’t know if this is true for other writers—one ought to think of where one’s verses are going to land. Robert Frost says in one of his essays that poetry ought to have sorrow as its only orientation: “Leave sorrow alone with poetry.” But I don’t know what Robert Frost would have thought if a young man had committed suicide and left one of his books stained with blood. That happened to me—here, in this country. A boy, full of life, killed himself next to my book. I don’t feel truly responsible for his death. But that page of poetry stained with blood is enough to make not only one poet think, but all poets. . . Of course, my opponents took advantage—as they do of almost everything I say—political advantage of the censure I gave my own book. They attributed to me the desire to write exclusively happy and optimistic poetry. They didn’t know about that episode. I have never renounced the expression of loneliness, of anguish, or of melancholia. But I like to change tones, to find all the sounds, to pursue all the colors, to look for the forces of life wherever they may be—in creation or destruction.

My poetry has passed through the same stages as my life; from a solitary childhood and an adolescence cornered in distant, isolated countries, I set out to make myself a part of the great human multitude. My life matured, and that is all. It was in the style of the last century for poets to be tormented melancholiacs. But there can be poets who know life, who know its problems, and who survive by crossing through the currents. And who pass through sadness to plenitude.

From Wikipedia:

Pablo Neruda (Spanish: [ˈpaβ̞lo̞ ne̞ˈɾuð̞a]; July 12, 1904 – September 23, 1973) was the pen name and, later, legal name of the Chilean poet, diplomat and politician Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto. He chose his pen name after Czech poet Jan Neruda. In 1971 Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Neruda became known as a poet while still a teenager. He wrote in a variety of styles including surrealist poems, historical epics, overtly political manifestos, a prose autobiography, and erotically-charged love poems such as the ones in his 1924 collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. He often wrote in green ink colour as it was his personal symbol for desire and hope with his poetry.

Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez once called him “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.”

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