Ars Poetica by Pablo Neruda

The poem, ‘Ars Poetica’ is from the Residency Cycle, where the verses still glint with intense energy but are full of suffering about the contemporary social order. The poem was written when the poet was in his diplomatic years. Neruda brings to light subjects like time, death, chaos and the past. Critics are of the opinion that his preoccupation with history, especially Chile’s relationship with Spain through the process and aftermath of colonisation gave a free rein to certain uncertainties in the poet that led to a fragmented style.

Critics have tried to interpret ‘Ars Poetica’ by drawing on numerous different theories and approaches. These comprise stylistic, metaphysical, materialist and biographical analyses. The result is many widely divergent interpretations. What she labels as a metapoetic reading of the poem.

While she assures to solve what she refers to as a literary conundrum, finally her reading of ‘Ars Poetica’ does little more than providing yet another illustration of how the poem becomes “an open, multivalent text whose complexity shows how critics arrive at such diverse readings of the work.”

 

Ars Poetica Analysis

The title of the poem, which you can read in full here and is full of anguish about the contemporary social order, had “Arte Poetica” as its original Spanish title, which could have been translated into English more simply as “The Art of Poetry” or “The Poetic Art”. However, the translator, Nathaniel Tarn, chose the title ‘Ars Poetica’ which distances itself from the English Language and invests classical connotations to the concept of poetry followed by the Romantics and the Neo-Classicists.

Neruda’s art, however, belongs to neither, and it is especially distant from Spanish neo-classical characteristics. He is, therefore, very definitely announcing his break with traditional forms by presenting a series of disjointed images framed together to herald what is clearly emblematic of the twentieth century.

Neruda is of the view that poetry is an art that is not created by beauty or beautiful things; it is born out of suffering. It is like the pangs of labour of a woman during childbirth that has to pass through a sort of “devious anguish” and even “a noise in labour” before delivering a baby. He deliberately juxtaposes the crude against the beautiful to shock the reader out of complacency. He brings together “girls and garrisons” to force us into a realisation of youth and freshness moving towards destruction that all battles cause.

The comparison of his own sentiments to “a widower’s grief” and “a humiliated scullion” are unusual to say the least – and very uncommonly domestic metaphors.

The poet is pre-occupied with the history of Chile and of the aftermath of violence against colonisation, which unleashed uncertainties in the mind of the poet and led to his fragmented style. That is why there is a kind of vagueness in all his images and phrase. For instance, “a name I can’t make out” is quite vogue and confusing, as is “a lurch of objects calling without answers” or “the unbounded expanse of night collapsing in my bedroom.”

The entire poem is suffused with hints of death, and there is violence I the “wind that whacks at my breast”. Even the drunken stupor the poet finds himself in comes very close to the ultimate sleep (death), like the metaphysical conceits of John Donne.

Neruda then talks of a haunted house where the people have been so intoxicated that they have no sense of communication with one another. The “stench” of the discarded clothes in that haunted house awakens in the poet “a yearning” for the sweet-smelling flowers, as though the scent of one can drive away the odour of the other. Similarly, the images of the outside environment entering the house and the “the night collapsing in my bedroom” is reminiscent of the surrealist image where the action of “collapsing” points to the general decay surrounding the poet. The surrealist influence has been borrowed from French literature, especially Baudelaire, and the nature imagery from Walt Whitman, the American poet.

The poet drowns himself in the subconscious of female dishwater or “a humiliated scullion” surrounded by the dirty items of kitchen in the so-called deserted house. He faces a battery of drunken guests at night but still years for the flowers of hope to blossom the next-morning. Even in his present state of wretchedness, the poet is quite optimistic. And that is his ‘Ars Poetica’: poetry must emerge of a state of deep anguish and suffering and humiliation.

 

About Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda belonged to the Generation of 1927, a group of Spanish poets. Some Spanish critics have found it hard to believe that Neruda became a much greater poet than Vallejo who deserved recognition more. Other critics think that Neruda lacked the ability to be critical and discerning although he was sometimes quite observant about his country and its poets. Yet others found him liberal but derided him for his loyalty to Commission. But he remains an all-time favourite of his readers.

Pablo Neruda published a few of his early poems in the 1920s in the student magazine Claridad at the Santiago University. However, it was Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair that made him the much-quoted Latin American poet. His fame outshined any of his contemporaries in his own or even in other countries. Neruda’s poetry has been translated into a number of other languages, and in India alone he has been translated into Hindi, Bangla, Urdu and other regional languages.

 

Personal Comments

In ‘Ars Poetica’, the poet, Pablo Neruda has depicted that poetry is the result  of  suffering, which results out from the  pangs  of  labour  of  a  woman when she is about to give birth to a new child on this earth planet. Like poetry, the woman too has  to pass  through a kind of  devilish  anguish  and  even  a  noise  in  labour  before the delivery of baby.

Actually he wants to make his readers realize that all youth and fresh are moving towards destruction that all battles cause. The emblematic condition of twentieth century is shown by different images.

Between shadow and space, young girls and garrison,

saddled with a strange heart, with funeral dreams,

taken suddenly pale, my forehead withered

by the rage of a widower’s grief for each day of lost life.

The main point to be noted here is that there is not much about art in the poem. The poem is more a portrait of the self. Yet that self is both curiously evasive and urgent. The effect is partly syntactic- the twenty-one lines run as a single extended period and the reader is frequently required to make leaps forward or take steps back to clarify the status and import of different exclamation.

It also resides in the poem’s persistent use of metaphor and, more surprisingly, conceptual abstraction – words like extension, ausencia –meaning absence in line 14 and substancia-meaning substance in line 17. This elusiveness is what justifies the “art” of the title. The poem is not a manifesto statement but a snapshot of the poet grappling with the linguistic means at this disposal as he attempts to gain a hold on his experience.

There is certainly something much more satisfying about a line like “in the enveloping shell, rooted, profound”. And roots provide one of the  recurrent images of Residencia en la tierra. However, the strategy of making Neruda’s language  more  physically evocative, and more explicitly metaphorical, includes outcomes for the meaning of the poem.

The effect is evident in the sequence from lines 6 to 10 where the speaker enumerates his sensory engagement with the world.

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