Two days ago at the Montreal Film Festival, saw Pablo -- The Poet's Lives, an impressionistic documentary of his life as seen through the eyes of friends of the poet, other poets and artists, and people of Chile. A warm, earthy Chilean/Italian production directed by Dario Baldi (movie credits in Italian, oddly enough, with voice over/subtitles in English). Good views of the desert at Palo Alto, the ocean at Isla Negra, Santiago and Valparaiso accompanied by voiced over readings of Neruda's poetry. Loved his poem about the stairs of Valparaiso, accompanied by panning of those stairs and the breathaking views of that cliffside city and the sea. (Never knew, though, that Valparaiso was so seedy -- it looks about as bad as Havana or Managua...)
I of course have lots of bilingual editions of Neruda -- translated by Bly, Wright, Belitt, Walsh, Merwin, Reid, etc. It was because the power and richness of Neruda's and Vallejo's poetry that I went down to Mexico and Guatamala umpteen years ago -- actually 19 years ago now -- to learn Spanish, so I could appreciate those poets in the original, and get a taste of the tremendously variagated world that inpired them. Neruda was one of those hugely prodigious geniuses, comparable to Balzac or Beethoven or Michealangelo: his collected works amount to over 3000 pages, much of it fabulous, none of it weak. I think it was Bly who described him as a skindiver of the subconscious who never needed to surface for air, so confident and rich his surrealistic mastery, from the lush and dense Residence on Earth to the spare and simple Elemental Odes. He did it all -- fantastic love poems, ferocious political poems, the history of all of Latin America in verse, + poems about socks or shoes or a watermelon -- a poet whose expression came out of his entire being. One of the commentators in the movie -- his biographer, forgot his name -- said he was an extremely useful poet: that people quoted lines of his poems to seduce their lovers. How many poets can call themselves useful? One reader, though, evidently had hanged himself over a copy of one of Neruda's darkest poems -- this, the film said, drove home a lesson to the poet about his responsibility. I guess it would... (I do have trouble, though, that Mr. Neruda accepted the Stalin Prize, and remained strangely silent about the abuses of the USSR -- where was his entire being then? Or as Irving Layton put it in one of his poems, Pablo, what happened to your bullshit detector? Neruda, though, was what I'd call an oyster communist: a communist who loved oysters....)
On the way down to the movie, I took and read a copy of his Captain's Verses, just to get in the mood. What struck me once again was that through all the highs and lows and passions he expresses, was the peculiar even-temperedness, an absence of vulnerability. It's like riding on a journey through mountains and jungles on a Rolls Royce with the most cushy shock absorbers imaginable. Or like watching a cartoon character who has ten ton weights crush him, runs up mountains, falls off cliffs, and yet comes out in the next scene bouncing along as exuberant as ever. A huge contrast can be made with, for instance, a Vallejo or Jiminez. I'd like to illustrate that with an example or two, but I'm getting tired, and have a long -- but pleasant -- day tomorrow. (After a Buddhist meeting, I'm taking off to a cottage again for a couple of days...) Be it known that the film was a somewhat tedious pleasure -- all these people praising the poet to the skies! I'm reminded though of one of the charms of Latin America. Tell a pretty, unread girl you're a poet, and she's likely to say, "You must be a very sensitive person." (This actually happened to me, in Guatemala.) How often will you get that in North America?