This past week found me somewhat under the weather and of low spirits for a number of reasons. After a day at work I must confess the last thing I wanted to do was go along to poetry group and chat away, my brain was shouting loudly that going home, pulling my duvet around me and escaping from the world was what I needed. I ignored this voice and took myself off to the group, and how glad I am as the dose of friendly chatter and poetry wrapping itself around me was actually the best tonic.
I must admit I had a vested interest in this months meeting as it was actually my choice that had been pulled out of the hat for this months collection/poet up for discussion. I had chosen the one and only Pablo Neruda. I first came across Neruda through a podcast that actually stopped me in my tracks. The producer of the show had arranged for an actor with a deep, smooth baritone voice to read a handful of Neruda’s poems while the Spanish guitar played on in the background. It was absolutely entrancing and I urge you all to have a dig around on YouTube and the like to listen to similar, the other readings I found are not performed by the same actor but the effect is just as beautiful. I then went on to find a collection of his works and happened upon a gorgeous book of his, ‘Odes to Common Things’. This treat quickly cemented his place as a real favourite of mine, a man who can see the beauty in the every day, an avocado, a chair, a chestnut. So it was with a hopeful heart in last months poetry group I scribbled his name on my suggestion slip and popped it in with the rest of the groups. Here was a chance to look at more of his poems and talk about them with a selection of people who never fail to open my eyes to a new angle to a poem that I had completely missed. And Lo! Out his name came, the book was picked and the reading began in time for the next gathering in the pub.
‘The Essential Neruda’ is a dual text, with nearly all of the poems being in his original Latin American Spanish tongue and one other in the European Spanish vernacular. With 8 translators involved the reader was encouraged to still attempt to read the original piece so that they could feel the language and rhythm. To be honest I don’t hold much sway with that opinion, it is all very well and nice if you have a grasp of the language but if, like me, you would find yourself guessing how to pronounce words and making a right old hash of it, then I really don’t think it lends much to the experience of Neruda or any other poet. When I have read Neruda in the past his poetry has flowed so easily for me, he strikes me as somebody who writes poetry for the people, using language that is accessible to all. Not far in to this collection I found a poem that I really faltered with, it jarred and I wasn’t really taking anything from it. This surprised me so I decided to have a look online and quickly came across another translated version of this poem. The difference was astonishing. The second version of the poem sat so well with me and I could grasp what Neruda was saying to me. The poem is from ‘Twenty Love Poems’ and is called ‘I can write the saddest verses’ in this collection. Here is a small section from this poem in the book we looked at:
Write, for example, “The night is full of stars, twinkling blue, in the distance.”
The night wind spins in the sky and sings.
I can write the saddest verses tonight.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.
And here is the other translation I found:
Write, for example,’The night is shattered
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.’
The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.
It is fascinating to see the extent a translation can change your reading of a poem, and it is a job I admire and respect as I imagine it to be impossible to satisfy every reader, especially with language being ever evolving. We are very lucky in our poetry group as our Mighty Leader, Jess, not only worked at The National Poetry library in Edinburgh so has a head stuffed full of wonderful knowledge, she is also half Columbian and capable of reading the dual texts complete. When reading the collection she actually found the same poem (above) to not quite flow as she thought it should have and passed comment that the translator appeared to almost want to make the poem more complex by their choice of words (Jess – I know you’ll be reading so feel free to give your take on this in the comments below!) Otherwise I would say we all felt comfortable with the translation carrying on from here.
The passion on the page is something that really knocked us all for six. Whether talking about politics, love or the ocean Neruda seems to almost overwhelm your senses, his poetry is visceral and intoxicating. We couldn’t help but wonder about the man himself, I imagine him almost as the poets answer to Pablo Picasso, and I can imagine him during his time in Spain holding court with a glass of red wine in one hand, pipe in the other.
I did find my first niggle with Neruda when reading this book, and that came down to the way he discusses women. One of the earlier poems featured is titled ‘I like it when you’re quiet’ and as an unquiet woman this bristled with me. A member of the group pointed out that they had read it as Neruda meaning he was pleased he could enjoy comfortable silences with this woman, which made it easier to swallow, however this cropped up in a later poem:
To whomever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whomever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or hard prison cell:
Now I don’t know about you but I prefer not to be discussed as one with so little individuality I can just be lumped under the term ‘woman’ and then be compared to a mine or prison cell! Neruda very much seems to be writing for men here and looking at them as individuals and as complete humans, where as women are simply ‘other’. As uncomfortable as this makes me it sadly seems to be a product of a time and culture that we hope has passed, but Jess informed us can still very much be seen lingering about in more modern works.
I then played a bit of a sneaky move and put Jess on the spot, asking her to read one of the poems in Spanish, and oh it was a treat listening to the rise and fall, the lyricism, just as he had intended.
When your suggestion is picked by the group to be looked at more closely you always feel some pressure, but I came away delighted at how this collection had been received, those who hadn’t read Neruda prior were now fans and those who had dabbled were happy to add this compilation, taking bits and bobs from different periods of his output, on to their bookshelves. In a small corner of a dark pub in Bath the great Chilean stamped his rhythm and words so that waves were created in each of us.
The Essential Neruda, Selected Poems Edited by Mark Eisner £12.00 (Bloodaxe Books)
Have you read Neruda before? Get involved in the comments below! Could you provide the Ode I would like to be written for him?!
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