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Vous consultezWalt Whitman and Pablo Neruda, American Camerados
A visit to Pablo Neruda’s houses is quite a fascinating experience. There are three of them, one in Santiago, one in the hills of Valparaiso, and one overlooking the sea, in the small village of Isla Negra, on the Chilean coastline. They all seem to belong to the same realm, they carry the same peculiar atmosphere and have a unity that somehow mirrors the work of Neruda. They contain the miscellaneous objects that his poetry bristles with: glasses, figureheads from ships, maps, seashells and artefacts he brought back from his travels. Somehow, they give the impression of being a physical equivalent of his work, and walking through Neruda’s rooms is quite like wandering through his verse. Among other things, these places reveal the importance of the writers, mostly poets, to whom Neruda claimed allegiance, or whom he simply liked. Of all the ghosts from the past who haunt these houses, Whitman seems to be one of the most welcome, not to say honoured.
2 The first place to look for him is obviously in Neruda’s library,  The books have now been removed from the houses, many of...
suite where the Whitmanian collection is impressive. As he himself confessed, Neruda just could not resist a copy of Leaves of Grass: whenever he came across one, he would buy it, whatever the quality or the price. Neruda was thus one of the happy few to own a copy of the first edition of 1855. But there is one even more visible sign of Whitman’s presence. Every house has a portrait of Whitman overlooking one of the rooms. At Isla Negra, the portrait that hangs amid the numerous masks which Neruda collected from all over the world inspired this rather effusive commentary: “among those silent witnesses [the masks], you will see Walt Whitman’s beard flowing, wiping out each night’s darkness. My fellow  I translate from the spanish “compañero. ”...
suite bard stands by me at the dawn of each day.”  Pablo Neruda, De Paris a Isla Negra: el último regreso,...
suite Neruda likes to point out how the huge picture that hangs in Santiago matches the portrait of Maiakovski and the image of Rimbaud that stand on either side of it, how the three of them fit, how meaningful and congruent it is to bring them together.  See Dos retratos de un rostro, OC 5, 182-183. ...
suite But the most interesting is probably the portrait in Valparaiso, so large that the visitor always stands puzzled in front of it and is invariably told an anecdote to satisfy his curiosity. When the house was being decorated, the worker who was hanging the picture was so impressed that he turned to the poet and asked him whether this was his grandfather. Neruda said it was indeed. Whether it is true or not is hard to know, but regardless of this, it retains strong meaning as a parable. It is meaningful because it obviously reveals Neruda’s desire to establish a filial relationship with Whitman, to consider himself the heir of the North American bard. But beyond that, the lie itself is very revealing. Neruda continually paid homage to Whitman: he was almost eager to claim his allegiance to him. However, this insistence might be something of a decoy, and Neruda’s relationship to Whitman is much more complex than his tributes to him suggest. It is also a sometimes deceiving, if not dishonest, relationship.
3 Neruda was never reluctant to expatiate upon Whitman, to give rather lengthy commentaries of his poems and above all, to admit his debt to Whitman. He considered Whitman as a pioneer, as the poet who opened the door for American poetry. One of the things Neruda focuses on is what he calls “Whitman’s vital lesson”: his embrace of the world, of the whole world.  To quote Neruda from an interview he gave, the lesson consists...
suite In 1971, in New York, at the Pen Club, he delivered a speech entitled “I come to renegociate my debt with Walt Whitman.” He stresses again Whitman’s endeavour to seize life, all forms of life, without establishing hierarchies: “to tell the truth he was neither afraid of being moralistic or immoralistic, nor did he want to separate the territories of pure and impure poetry. He is the first totalizing poet” (Discurso en el PEN Club de Nueva York, OC 5, 358-359). In his assessment of Whitman’s achievement, Neruda resorts to his own poetic categories, namely the idea of “impure poetry.” This is a concept typically his own, and it has a history. In the 1930’s, Neruda strongly opposed a dominant trend on the European poetical stage, based on the idea of the purity of poetry, which, in somewhat sketchy terms, stemmed from Mallarmé and found one of its most prominent advocates in Paul Valéry. He published a highly polemical text, called “Sobre una poesía sin pureza” (OC 4, 381-382). The choice of impure poetry is the choice of referentiality over pure construction and musicality, and it is the choice of a referent that spans the whole spectrum of life, regardless of any hierarchy. This is indeed a strong connection between Whitman’s and Neruda’s poetics, and Neruda’s words echo the preface of the first edition, which discards as irrelevant the idea of triviality or pettiness in poetry, since everything “dilates with the grandeur and life of the universe” (Preface [Whitman 715]) when uttered by the poet. Neruda’s impulse was always to assert the dignity of all things and to welcome them in the poetical realm. The elemental odes are poetical catalogues that state the dignity and beauty of familiar objects, from the onion to the watermelon. Like Whitman, Neruda believes that “the tree-toad is a chef-d’œuvre for the highest” (“Song of Myself” [Whitman 59]).
4 The second feature Neruda finds he shares with Whitman is an appetite for space: “In truth, it was he, Walt Whitman, the protagonist of a truly geographical personality, who stood up for the first time in history with a continentally American name.” (OC 5, 359) Neruda develops this point in his memoirs, I Confess That I Have Lived: “if my poetry has any meaning at all, it lies in this unlimited thirst for space, which cannot be quenched in a room. I had to cross this frontier of mine by myself. I had to be myself, to try and spread out like the very lands where I chanced to be born. I was helped on this path by another poet of this continent. I refer to Walt Whitman, my comrade from Manhattan”(OC 5, 688). Again, Whitman is referred to as a “compañero.” This confession is also an acute commentary of Whitman’s work. What Neruda grasps here is the link between two major aspects in Whitman’s poetry: the taste for space and the obligation to see it for oneself. This text strongly echoes a passage in Leaves of Grass, and I believe the reference to be relevant since the poem was translated by Neruda himself, long before he wrote his memoirs. “Pasto de llamas,” published in a Spanish review at the time Neruda wrote his manifesto for impure poetry, is a very abridged version of “Song of Myself” (OC 5, 1239-1242). The quote from Neruda’s memoirs echoes the second section of “Song of Myself,” which states that poetry should not be confined to the narrowness of a room, but that it should venture upon the open road:
6 The contact with space precedes the revelation of the self. Space should be apprehended directly and should not be seen through anybody else’s eyes:
8 Whitman incites the reader to follow his example, but it is an example of self-reliance. He is the tutor who teaches a refusal of any form of tutorship, and Neruda was extremely sensitive to this assignment. On the front page of his copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, he wrote down a line from “A Song of Joys”: “‘Nothing exterior shall ever take command of me.” In his memoirs, Neruda comments on this line that must have impressed him strongly: “Nothing exterior shall ever take command of me,’ said Walt Whitman. And the paraphernalia of literature, with all its merits, should never be a substitute for raw creation.” (OC 5, 772) This is the paradox of anyone claiming Whitman’s influence: to understand his “lesson” is precisely to accept that there shall be no lesson to follow. In other words, the spirit of Whitman’s legacy prevails over any specific recommendation or advice. Neruda actually admits: “Walt Whitman was a great comrade for me. I haven’t been very Whitmanian in my style, but I am profoundly Whitmanian in receiving his vital lesson.” (OC 5, 1154) Whitman’s influence cannot be traced precisely: it is a spirit that spurs and infuses creation.
9 Indeed, Neruda’s poetry is very spatial, but it is a different form of spatiality that his work delineates. To put it in a rather schematic way, Whitman’s space is horizontal: it is a largely empty space, unfilled, yet to be marked out and to be shaped by those who will take possession of it. It is a space which opens onto the horizon and stretches out ahead. Neruda’s landscape is quite different: filled long ago with human presence, it is loaded with history. The South American territory as it appears in Canto General consists in layers of space that are also layers of history and time; it is a sort of archaeological palimpsest to be deciphered. To put space into words for Whitman is somehow to outline it, to project its form, to sketch it. For Neruda, it means digging up the soil to bring buried history to the surface. In other words, his space is vertical rather than horizontal. It even shows on the page: Neruda’s short lines stand as columns of words, whereas the long Whitmanian line stretches across the page (Nolan 16). This also shows in the two poets’ stylistic apprehension of space: Whitman’s space is metonymic, made of a juxtaposition of details, of a whirl of representative things. Neruda’s poetry on the other hand is largely metaphorical, since metaphor is a very apt device to convey the density and depth of space.  For a different comparison, see Fernando Alegria, Walt Whitman...
10 The process of assimilation of Whitman’s two-fold lesson, i.e. the appetite for space and the necessity of a personal contact with it, is eminently displayed in “Ode to Walt Whitman.” This ode is a tribute to Whitman’s pioneering role, and the beginning of it echoes the Pen Club speech. In the latter, Neruda dated his first reading of Whitman back to when he was fifteen years old; the ode blurs that precision but the idea is essentially the same: Whitman takes Neruda’s hand and guides him on the path of nature:
13 The ode stresses the Whitmanian idea that space should always be first-hand knowledge, and not bookish second-hand knowledge:
16 The book is only a springboard that gives access to more beyond it: “a los libros, hacia los cereales.” And indeed the ode pays homage to Whitman in a language that belongs to Neruda and owes nothing to his predecessor. The landscape is typically Chilean: the alfalfa and the poppies are recurring motifs throughout Neruda’s lines and they are always strongly associated with Chile. Whitman is a guide in a country that is not his own: he is at ease in the wet region where Neruda was born and he teaches him to see the beauties of his land. The style of this ode, patently metaphorical, written in very short lines, is distinctively Nerudian.
17 This ode bears witness to the paradox Neruda was confronted with: he was eager to be Whitman’s counterpart, but the better Whitman’s lesson was understood, the less visible the connection was, the more Whitmanian he was, the more untraceable Whitman became in his verse. I suppose this could explain why Neruda needed to clearly acknowledge his debt to Whitman, which he did in a very explicit way, in his prose, but also in a number of his poems. But this insistence might serve another purpose. There is somewhat of an excess of fervour in “Ode to Walt Whitman,” a form of feigned naivety in featuring this innocent bucolic scene, in setting up Whitman as a benevolent patriarch. This blatantly naïve icon functions as a decoy, as a back up for the radical use Neruda makes of Whitman elsewhere.
18 As a matter of fact, beyond the real, yet untraceable poetical influence that Neruda acknowledges, his work reveals a much more patent form of being “Whitmanian”: this is not poetical influence any more, but political and polemical use, if not manipulation. Far from always being depicted as an ingenuous bard, Whitman often takes on a very different face. Most poems where the reference to Whitman is explicit are indeed rather weak poems, overtly militant and zealous. Interestingly, these poems have little to do with the poetical tributes to Whitman as a space opener. They are very Whitmanian in their specifics, but not in their spirit this time, as if a sort of ostensible fidelity was a shield used to screen the distortion of the spirit.
19 One of these conspicuously Whitmanian poems, as far as form is concerned, belongs to Canto General, this “new epic of Latin America,” as Neruda called it. Section 9, entitled “Que despierte el leñador,” “Let the woodcutter awaken,” is dedicated to countries beyond Latin America, namely the United States and the USSR. The idea developed in this section is very Whitmanian in its general outline, in its logic. The text begins with an evocation of 19th-century North America, a land of peace, harmony and thriving beauty:
22 The second poem in this group depicts contemporary America and shows how the ideals of the past have been betrayed: the tone is fierce, not to say violent, and the harmonious vision of the American landscape gives way to a brutal denouncing of American politicians. In the third section, however, the text settles back into eulogy: the poet has shifted from America to the USSR, and it looks as if the Soviet Union were the refuge of past American values, the place where the hopes that once belonged to America could now be fulfilled. This poem is a mirror image of the opening one, it displays the same words carrying the same sense of home, peace and prosperity:
25 This set of poems epitomizes the idea that each era has its values incarnated in one privileged country, that power moves from one nation to another through time, a scheme that lies at the basis of Leaves of Grass’s conception of history and progress, justifying America’s leading position in the 19th century. Whitman’s appeal to the muse to migrate to America, to this “new empire grander than any before” (“A Broadway Pageant” [Whitman 245]), becomes an appeal to migrate from America to the USSR where the ideals of mankind will be brought to an unprecedented degree of achievement. Neruda is therefore very faithful to Whitman’s idea of progress. What is more dubious as a rereading of Whitman is the choice of the USSR as the place where Whitman’s ideals are enshrined and brought into full bloom.
26 As if to cover up the trick, to justify this rather devious interpretation, Neruda writes a text very close to Whitman’s in its style. The lines are unusually long. The “I,” rather scarce in Canto General, is showcased in a manner somehow reminiscent of “Song of Myself.” The opening poem is a Whitmanian landscape of the United States. The second stanza reveals an approach to space that belongs more to Whitman than to Neruda:
29 It is a metonymic vision of the land, seized in a fragmented juxtaposition of characteristic details, the swamps at West Palm and the pinewoods at Tacoma. The third stanza goes even further in pointing out the Whitmanian reference:
32 The expansion of the self, the dilatation of the body on a cosmic scale is redolent of Leaves of Grass; even more so is the enumeration that follows, a catalogue of images borrowed from Whitman, such as the locomotive, which Neruda considered as emblematic of his “compañero”’s world.  I started by mentioning Neruda’s houses; for the record,...
suite The moon on the boat in Manhattan is an obvious reference to “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” while the song of the machines evokes “I Hear America Singing.” Neruda next resorts to devices that are highly characteristic of Whitman’s, like the insertion of a foreign word, “farmer,” or the use of parentheses:
35 The American landscape is clearly seen through the prism of Leaves of Grass. This overtly Whitmanian text is sprinkled with a few Nerudian patterns, such as the cup and the bell, recurring motifs throughout his work, or, in the fourth stanza, the alfalfa and poppies.  I already pointed out these motives as typically Chilean...
suite There are also a number of metaphors that are quite alien to Whitman’s style. The poem is written in an openly Whitmanian manner, with some Nerudian images grafted onto it here and there. In other words, two poems overlap, as if they were superimposed: they are entwined rather than merged. The Nerudian touch is like the signature of this homage to Whitman: the heir bows to the pioneer in this text and gives way to him almost completely. This is where I think Neruda’s tribute is a bit deceptive: he hides behind Whitman somehow as if to use him for his own purposes more easily. The fidelity to Whitman in various details is a sort of back-up: it vouches for the betrayal of the spirit, for the distorted use of Whitman that Neruda is about to make in setting him up as the bard of the Soviet Union.
36 The beginning of the third section, which transplants the ideals of 19th-century America into the USSR, is again stylistically Whitmanian. And then, as if imitation wasn’t enough to cover up the ploy, Neruda evokes Whitman and quotes him directly:
39 “Qué ves allí, Walt Whitman?” is a direct translation of a line from “Salut au monde!”. And the quote goes on, with only a few substitutions, since the passage is based on the exact pattern of “Salut au monde!”, with the anaphoric “I see.” Whitman speaks through Neruda’s voice; he rises again from the dead to sing the song of Stalingrad. Neruda asks him to infuse his own poem with his presence and power, to lend him the strength of his voice and to credit him with his bardic authority: “give me your voice and the weight of your buried breast.” Neruda yearns to take over from Whitman, and his appeal is a quest for legitimacy. The two voices actually merge a few lines below in a song to Stalingrad: “We sing together…” Some five years later, Neruda made a comprehensive translation of “Salut au Monde!”, a text he had already partly transcribed in Canto General. This translation (“Saludo mundial,” OC 5, 1242-1251) is somehow a restitution, as if Neruda was rendering unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, namely giving back to Whitman the ownership of his own verse, of a poem which had been borrowed and used for dubious purposes.
40 This appropriation for partisan use is not unusual in Neruda’s work. It even seems to be the natural turn his tributes to Whitman take on. The Pen Club speech goes down that road: it starts with a recognition of the poetic sea-change that Whitman brought about and then carries on to conjure up Whitman for political ends: “We still live in a Whitmanian era, we witness, however painful the engendering process, the rise and the emergence of new men and new societies” (OC 5, 359). The “Ode to Walt Whitman,” which is the poetical version of this text, reveals the very same twist. The last stanzas desert the ground of spatial, cosmic poetry to focus on current events: they denounce the betrayal of Whitman’s legacy in contemporary America and yet assert the everlasting power of the bard’s voice, the potential political effectiveness it still has:
43 Again, Whitman is brought back to life to serve as support for certain lines. The strongest act of appropriation of Whitman’s authority to partisan ends is Neruda’s last text, Invitación al nixonicidio y alabanza de la revolución chilena, (Incitation to Nixonicide and Praise for the Chilean Revolution), a very violent piece in which Neruda explicitly presents his words as ammunition, as bullets to be fired at Nixon. This fierce pamphlet begins by “invoking Walt Whitman.” The “compañero,” the fellow bard, has turned into the “camarada,” the communist comrade.
44 One of Neruda’s most prominent scholars, Saúl Yurkiévich, wrote a famous article about Canto General, “Mito e historia: dos generadores del Canto General”, in which he expounds on the idea that the work is the battlefield of two conflicting poetics that Neruda never quite manages to blend: one is the cosmic, mythic approach to the world, as in the sections devoted to the American genesis, and the other is the testimonial, militant approach of other sections, especially “Let the woodcutter awaken.” It is debatable whether those apparently contradictory poetics are merged or not, but it is hard to deny that very often one prevails over the other, and that Canto General is indeed a problematic work, where diverging trends interplay. It is remarkable that Whitman should be conjured up in both ways, as the custodian of space who introduces the reader to the secrets of the land and guides him on a cosmic, mythic path, and as the authoritative bard who is summoned to disparage 20th-century America and to strike up the praise of the Soviet Union. The “camerado” Whitman longed to be for his readers is split between the benevolent figure of the “compañero” and the more dogmatic “camarada.” Just as the two poetics at work in Canto General can be jarring, however creative the tension might be, there is probably no easy way to reconcile the two faces Whitman shows in Neruda’s work. They simply bear witness to the complexity of Neruda’s relation to Whitman and evince contradictions Neruda always struggled with. In his eagerness to be Whitman’s counterpart, Neruda projected an image of his “mentor” which resembled himself and was somehow shaped by his own poetical conceptions and inconsistencies.
45 If Neruda’s relation to Whitman was not completely devoid of bad faith, if it is torn between poetical influence and political enrolment, or polemical distortion, my contention is that it still remains a very productive relationship. Neruda’s tributes always show a will to establish a dialogue with Whitman that makes his work endure. The beginning of “Ode to Walt Whitman” is an echo chamber, a sounding board for Whitman’s verse. Whitman urges his reader to take his hand, and Neruda answers “I touched a hand and it was / Walt Whitman’s hand.” At the end of “Song of Myself”, Whitman takes his leave:
47 A century later, Neruda answers:
49 However contradictory, Neruda’s answer to Whitman always attests to his endeavour to be one of the “poets to come” Whitman called for to justify himself. To Whitman’s question “Do I contradict myself?” Neruda’s answer would certainly be: “Please do, for you are my greatest support.”
ALEGRIA, Fernando. Walt Whitman en Hispanoamérica. México: Ediciones Studium, 1954.
MILLARES, Selena. “Bajo el signo de Whitman”. Boletín de la Fundación Neruda, 8. Santiago: Fundación Neruda, 1991.
NERUDA, Pablo. Obras Completas, 5 vol. Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, 1999-2002; Canto General, translation Jack Schmitt. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.
NOLAN, James. Poet-Chief, The Native American Poetics of Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1994.
PEREZ, Floridor. “Neruda, Lector de Whitman, Testimonios en su biblioteca personal”. Cuadernos de la Fundación Neruda, 37. Santiago : Fundación Neruda, 1999.
WHITMAN, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley & Harold W. Blodgett. New York: Norton, 1973.
YURKIEVICH, Saúl. “Mito e historia, dos generadores del Canto General”. Pablo Neruda. Ed. Monegal y Santi. Madrid: Taurus, 1980.
[ 1] The books have now been removed from the houses, many of them donated by the poet to the university of Chile, others looked after by the Fundación Pablo Neruda in Santiago.
[ 2] I translate from the spanish “compañero.”
[ 3] Pablo Neruda, De Paris a Isla Negra: el último regreso, in Obras Completas, vol. 5, 387. I will refer to this edition as OC. Unless otherwise indicated, translations from Neruda are mine.
[ 4] See Dos retratos de un rostro, OC 5, 182-183.
[ 5] To quote Neruda from an interview he gave, the lesson consists “in welcoming, embracing the world, life, beings, landscapes” (OC 5, 1154).
[ 6] For a different comparison, see Fernando Alegria, Walt Whitman en Hispanoamérica, 315-334. In the pages he dedicates to the two poets, Alegria shows that their works appear to be very similar, but that such similarities are “optical illusions.” He finds Neruda and Whitman share an erotic approach to natural elements. On the other hand, his contention is that there is an “abyss” separating Whitman’s mysticism from Neruda’s materialism. Also see Selena Millares, “Bajo el signo de Walt Whitman,” 12-13.
[ 7] I use Jack Schmitt’s translation, 255-258.
[ 8] I started by mentioning Neruda’s houses; for the record, there is a locomotive in the garden at Isla Negra, about which Neruda wrote: “It is so powerful, cereal laden, so fruitful, so piercing, so roaring, so rumbling! […] The reason I love it so much is that it looks like Walt Whitman”, “El locomóvil”, in Una casa en la arena, OC 3, 133.
[ 9] I already pointed out these motives as typically Chilean in “Ode to Walt Whitman.”
Pablo Neruda s’est toujours réclamé de Walt Whitman, son « compañero » américain, qui l’a, dit-il, introduit sur le chemin d’une poésie « continentale ». Il retient surtout l’exigence d’une appréhension de l’espace sans médiations, par delà tout prisme littéraire. L’influence bien comprise est donc aussi une nécessaire mise à distance de l’œuvre du pionnier : l’esprit de l’héritage whitmanien doit l’emporter sur la lettre. Pourtant, la ferveur des hommages de Neruda ne doit pas faire oublier qu’il tend aussi à s’approprier Whitman dans ses poèmes politiques : l’imitation du style sert alors de caution à une utilisation très partiale. La figure de Whitman est au fond à l’image de l’œuvre de Neruda, lieu de tension entre un imaginaire mythologique de l’espace et une pratique très militante de l’écriture.
Mots-clésW. Wthiman, P. Neruda, space, landscape, America, legacy, militant poetry
POUR CITER CET ARTICLE
Delphine Rumeau « Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda, American Camerados », Revue française d’études américaines 2/2006 (no 108), p. 47-62.
URL : www.cairn.info/revue-francaise-d-etudes-americaines-2006-2-page-47.htm.