"The style, with its sweeping hyperboles and celebratory tone, typifies many of the early poems in the “Canto”
and reaches its limit in the breathtaking section called “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” in which the poet invites
the continent’s victimized dead to express themselves through him. He will be their champion, speaking eloquently not
only for the victims but for the continent itself. “Canto General” has rarely been matched in its range of subjects,
its energy, its imaginative power. It falls down where Neruda substitutes the language of politics for the language of imagination.
Even those who agree with his condemnation of the United States, say, and what he believes has been its role in a century-long
regime of exploitation and despoilment, will likely feel betrayed by the cornball language of his complaint. Such criticism,
however, may be beside the point. Neruda is not a philosophical or meditative poet but one of allegiances and opinions, especially
in politics, always wanting us to feel that he identifies with the poor and defenseless, that he knows what is good for them
and what is not.
After “Canto General,” Neruda’s books appeared with greater frequency. Although Chilean authorities rescinded
his arrest warrant in 1952, he continued to travel: to Eastern Europe, to the Soviet Union (where he had the dubious honor
of winning the Stalin Peace Prize and later served as one of its judges), to Italy (the movie “Il Postino” was
inspired by one of his visits there), to Mexico (where he never ceased to feel at home), to France (where he was the Chilean
Ambassador in the early seventies), and to many other countries. In the poems he wrote in those years, his largeness of spirit,
which in “Canto General” was sometimes cramped by ideology, was given free rein. The “Elemental Odes,”
three books published between 1954 and 1957, were like nothing else people had seen. With them, Neruda hoped to reach a wider
audience than he already had, and his hope was realized. The “Odes” gained immediate and universal praise. They
are about the things of everyday life: a lemon, a dead carob tree, a boy with a hare, a stamp album. And they were read by
people who had never before paid attention to poetry. Written in very short lines, some as short as a single word, the “Odes”
tumble effortlessly down the page in chainlike sentences. Everything is seen in its best light, everything has value, everything
deserves to be the subject of a poem. The rhetoric of the “Odes” is as democratic as that of Whitman’s “Leaves
of Grass.” ....There is something about Neruda—about the way he glorifies experience, about the spontaneity and
directness of his passion—that sets him apart from other poets. It is hard not to be swept away by the urgency of his
language, and that’s especially so when he seems swept away, as in this passage (courtesy
of Alastair Reid) describing what he felt when he wrote his first line of poetry:
And I, tiny being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
myself a pure part
of the abyss.
I wheeled with the stars.
My heart broke loose with the wind.