Like most of the 102 poems appearing in “Memorial to Isla Negra, “Poetry” is reflective in content. It starts with the conjunction “And” as if it were a part of an ongoing discussion that the poet has been having with his readers. Again, he assumes that we know what “that age” was when he first began to write poetry – Neruda started writing poetry in the early 1920s as a teenager).
What is amazing is Neruda’s deliberate inversion (this is a poetic talent or inspiration (described here in the form of a person – who comes looking for someone that will compose verses, rather than vice versa) in the very first line when he tells us that poetic inspiration came looking for him and impelling him to compose verse, rather than the poet looking for and pursuing her.
He isn’t very sure whether the poetic inspiration came to him through the elements of nature or such vital images in his mind. He is unable to understand whether it was an inaudible call or its absence or the solitude surrounding him. The meaning of “from winter or a river” refers to the elements of nature which inspire poetry and such vital images in a poet’s works. On the other hand, the meaning of “violent fires” is unrest, quarrels or emotional upheavals.
Thus, the very first stanza of the poem, which you can read in full here, tells us that the poetic instinct can come any time; it is not a matter of time. As we know some are born poets, while some become poets with the passage of time. It is only the time and tide that brings the poetry out of a person.
In this second long stanza of the poem, the poet talks about the way he wrote his first line, and what made him to compose his “first faint line”—which means his initial, hesitant verses though the poet lacks in confidence when writing them. He says that there was something that started in his soul, it was either the “forgotten wings”—which means hidden or nameless emotions that could take flight or fever/fire that helped him make his own way and led him to write the first line. Through line 27: someone who knows nothing – the poet means a novice. The poet here acknowledges his ignorance before his muse, whereas through the line 30, he means the outpouring of inspiration which is described as though it were a miracle.
The inaudible voice of the poetic muse might have come from the pathways or avenues of the silent night that appeared to him like a tree spreading out its branches in various directions. However, the very “first faint line”, the poet wrote was the result of poetic inspiration searching him out as the favored one. Poetry appeared, almost literally, at his doorsteps like a long-lost friend or a sudden guest. The line 22: deciphering/that fire –refers to understanding that burning passion, while line 26: nonsense/pure wisdom – means the opposition between immaturity that conceals the maturity and seriousness that is about to come in his poetic endeavors.
Was she the poet’s mistress with whom he was destined to have a long and stimulating love affair?
Neruda’s poem reads like a flashback from a movie, filmed during his days at Temuco. His technique of repetition is more pronounced here, and it is a repetitive negation, such as, “No, they were not voices, they were not/words, nor silence. “There is something threatening about this visitor in his life, for the poet was “summoned” and he stood in his naked silence, divested of any identity: “there I was without a face/and it touched me.”
The poetic inspiration invested an identity on the poet – a moment when he felt knighted or honored in some very significant way.
In the same stanza we find those aspects of Neruda’s style that we are familiar with. There is love of the word play and the alternative phrase –“fever or forgotten wings” – to denote the turmoil created in him. Again, there is the play of opposites in “pure/nonsense/pure wisdom” when he wrote his “first faint line”. A little later, there are: “palpitating plantations/shadow perforated/riddled/with arrows, fire and flowers. /the winding night, the universe.” The verse: “palpitating plantations” – means cultivated fields which has so far been barren, but are now reverberating with life. The poet has used alliteration in this 33 line.
In this third stanza, the poet says considers himself an infinitesimal being- which means minute or insignificant (as compared to the universe). He says that he is intoxicated (drunk) with the great starry void—meaning—great expanse of endless empty sky filled only with the constellations—likeness—meaning similarity –image of poetry –meaning representations of the unknown and abyss – which means bottomless chasm or deep gorge.
There is wonder as the poet perceives a new world opening up before him, and it is significant that he should use words that are, once again, a reminder of the American colonies, and thereby the master-slave relationship. In a sense, the poet is also a slave to his muse and he must suffer the pain of arrows before he can find the pleasure of flowers, i.e., poetic recognition.
The fire implies that a poet’s talents are truly tested before he gains popularity and, as Neruda writes these lines retrospect, he can portray such modesty and humanity. The poem, which is relatively calm in the beginning, suddenly gathers momentum and there is, once again, drunken revelry and surrealism in—“I wheeled with the stars/my heart broke loose on the wind.”
Thus, when the poet started writing poetry, he reached other world that was full of mystery and imagery, he wheeled with starts and his emotions started flying with every word of poetry that he wrote. His heart in fact started flying without bridle and his feelings had no bounds, and whatever he felt or experienced he poured it out in the verse of poetry.
About Pablo Neruda and His Poetry
Pablo Neruda belonged to a group of Spanish poets, called the Generation of 1927. 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 perceptive about his country and its poets. Yet others have found him generous but derided him for his loyalty to Communism. But he remains an all-time favourite of his readers.
Pablo Neruda published some 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 popularity far surpassed any of his contemporaries in his own or even in other countries. Neruda’s poetry has been translated into several languages, and in India alone he has been translated into Hindi, Bangla, Urdu and other regional languages.