Monday, May 11, 2020

Neruda establishes indefinitely sad clauses and Salinas lives in pronouns - some 1930s international surrealism

I’m going to try to grind through everything I read in April.  I have never thought I had to write about everything I read.  It is a valued luxury to have nothing to say, although I could just say that.  If I am lucky I will kill off some half-baked posts I feel I should write but never will.  Some of this will be a little more doughy in the middle than usual.  And it will be many posts, obviously, not one giant one.

Beginning in the 1920s and into the 1930s. I detect a trend I call “international surrealism,” by which I mean many poets, all over the world, not just those associated with French Surrealism, are experimenting with some combination of dream-like imagery, radical gaps or jumps between images, and non-referential obscurity, the latter meaning as opposed to the kind of difficult historical or literary references I associate with Pound and Eliot, a separate trend.

Complex, disconnected images with private meanings or with the logic of the meaning deliberately obscured – I do not understand a lot of the poems I have been reading.  That is what I am saying.  That is all right.  I am surveying the field.

A good example is the first part of Pablo Neruda’s Residence on Earth (1933), poems written when he was in the diplomatic service in Asia, not that I could have guessed that from the poems.  Let’s look at a fragment chosen almost at random:

from Dream Horse

Unnecessary, seeing myself in mirrors,
with a fondness for weeks, biographers, papers,
I tear from my heart the captain of hell,
I establish clauses indefinitely sad.  (tr. Donald Walsh)

I love that last line, especially, but as Neruda piles on the phrases – “superstitious carpets of the rainbow,” “the wasted honey of respect,” “a lightningstroke of persistent splendor” – I lose the thread, if there is one, and what if there is not?

One good way to learn to read a poet like Neruda is to read more Neruda, and Residence on Earth has three more parts (1935, 1937, 1947), so we will see how that goes.

A big part of my difficulty with international surrealism is my preference for the material, for things.  This poetry is often pretty abstract.  For example:  My Voice Because of You by Pedro Salinas (1933, tr. Willis Barnstone) which is a book-length poetic sequence about a love affair, so in a sense we have two characters, the poet and his beloved, and in a sense there (probably?) is a narrative as the affair unfolds, but Salinas is in search of essences:

from Poem 13

To live, I don’t want
islands, palaces, towers.
What steeper joy
than living in pronouns!

Just “I” and “you.”  The nouns are often presented plainly, but spin into strange conceits, like in Poem 19, where is all about, and against, math:

Let ciphers burst
and foul the calculation
of time and kisses.

Direct and intense, but also distant and misty if my concentration is not up for it.

The poems of Vicente Aleixandre would fit well here, too, but I read him in May.

At this rate – no, tomorrow I will blast through the British and American poets I fail to understand.


  1. i've been interested in stuff like this... what is meaning? and how does it happen? the limitations of words in conveying sense are apparently superseded by something else: rhythm, meter, or what? i read a bio of Neruda and it was, not a revelation, but intriguing; but it didn't clue me in to the sense of his poems in anyway... sooo, what do you think?

  2. My sense is that these poems in fact contain quite a lot of meaning in the ordinary sense, but it requires more experience on my part with the more private side of the poet's language. This image or even word has this association. Whenever the poet writes "horse," there is association with life and energy and eternity. Or whatever. I made that one up. But that is one way poets like Salinas and Neruda create meaning.

    How it works within an individual poem is still a puzzle to me. It usually take many poems to decode.

    Rhythm and meter can have their own meaning. Different readers can associate different meanings to different images or rhythms. Which is a pain!

    The Surrealists, the real ones, are looking for the meaning behind the surface (unconscious, in dreams), or the meaning hidden in language or images, or the meaning in the absence of meaning. My opinion is that they rarely find it! But maybe sometimes they do.

    I will note that for Neruda, the surrealist poems are a phase. He wrote more directly when he wanted.

    1. tx. interesting: it's as i suspected: there's an ocean of understanding re lit that i'll never plumb...

    2. Very true. It is endless. There is no bottom, there is no top.