A Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, Neruda is best known for his early masterpiece Residencia en la tierra and Twenty Love Poems and One Song of Despair. Neruda has been called the "Latin Walt Whitman" for his epic poem Canto General, and he is considered one of the finest surrealist writers of all time. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 45-48.)
The Nobel Prize in literature is perhaps best known for the writers who never won it…. It was, therefore, to the company of non-winners, the most distinguished writers truly associated in our minds with the prize, that Sartre aspired when he recently rejected the honor, saying it should have gone to Pablo Neruda. Each time Neruda doesn't win, it becomes more obvious that he is too big for the prize and that the only way for the Swedish Academy to achieve literary dignity is for it to accept the largesse Neruda's name could bestow on its award. [Neruda was awarded the prize in 1971.] …
In our country, Neruda is still largely unknown for two reasons that are the main weaknesses of this present volume [A New Decade: (Poems 1958–1967)]: one, a problem in the poet's art; the other, a difficulty in the translator's practice. Neruda is an openly Communist, often eloquent, sometimes flatulent, revolutionary writer whose politics disturb some Americans, offend others. For this reason he has never been properly taught in the schools where foreign poets may gain a base for their reputation here. (p. 383)
The best things in this selection … are the implicit lyric autobiography and esthetic credo of an aging poet. It is not a volume to win a Nobel Prize, nor is it half so good as The Heights of Macchu Picchu …; but it may, after all, introduce Americans to one of the biggest and most powerful of poetic voices, a voice so vast, even in its later days, that it encompasses its own failures as part of a personal authenticity and derives highest praise, perhaps, from accolades withheld. (p. 384)
Ronald Christ, in Commonweal (copyright © 1969 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 26, 1969.
Neruda's poems are spoken by a generic "I" who is not quite the living man Neruda, they describe a generic landscape and are addressed to a generic "people." There is a great deal of idealization in his work, and of attitudinizing. He makes a penetrating statement about this in his own prefatory note to Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta: "This is a tragic work, but it is also, in part, a jeu d'esprit." (p. 197)
Neruda writes fluently, easily, abundantly, a poetry of enthusiasms and attitudes that are ready at hand in the world, not a poetry of facts, perceptions, and difficult knowledge. Vallejo's poetry was an event in the Spanish language; and like MacDiarmid, Vallejo has written for the life and spirit of his people. Neruda works in the middle style, with a middle consciousness, and what he writes belongs to literature…. (p. 198)
Richard Pevear, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1973.
After reading the ample selections from the Residencia [in Selected Poems] there can be little doubt that, as Robert Bly has said, Neruda has given us "the greatest surrealist poems yet written in a Western language." The surprising thing is that one could even speak of Breton and Aragon as Neruda's peers. Nor can one come away with anything but great admiration for the Odas. The things ensnared there—chestnuts, books, tomatoes, and so forth—are given fresh, original poetic life.
Unfortunately, the weakest part of the book happens to be its translations of Neruda's greatest poem, the Canto General. It is not that Anthony Kerrigan's efforts are poor; the failure, rather, arises from exclusiveness. Something essential is lost in this section of the book and underplayed through the entire book: the...