No, I don’t wanna sit still look pretty
~Daya, Sit Still, Look Pretty
My whole life, any time I have mentioned that I loved poetry, people ask me if I had read Neruda. As in Pablo Neruda, widely considered Chile’s greatest and most prolific poet. Neruda, who in 1971 became only the second Chilean awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Neruda, who the literati assumed enlightened … until allegations of sexual misconduct arose during the #MeToo era. It is now clear he raped a Sri Lankan cleaning woman in 1930 and then wrote shamelessly about it; it is also clear that he understood she did not give consent. “She was right to despise me,” he wrote afterward. He left his only child and her mother because his daughter had hydrocephalus. A 2018 decision to rename Chile’s busiest international airport after him was met with so much outrage from human rights activists that it was quickly shot down.
So it seems that Mr. Neruda, born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, and dying a mere month after my birth in 1973, has been canceled. In many ways, many still applaud his talent and (perhaps?) excuse some of his more unacceptable behavior. His behavior, by 2023 standards, was definitely not the standard mores for a very famous, (basically white) South American man in the early 1900’s. He was a dark, complicated, privileged, white misogynist, but then why wouldn’t he have been? Of course he was.
My fellow feminists will be disappointed to learn that this isn’t the main reason I despise him. I have literally never liked him (my yoga students are realizing in real time that I have never read a Neruda poem at the end of class, even though his mundane poetry is considered standard in the wellness world).
I remember memorizing part of Neruda’s Poem XV in college, circa 1993. The first line went:
I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent.
My initial response was barf then and remains barf today. Even in 1993, I was sick and tired of being told to sit still, look pretty. He wants her, his love, to bear witness to his greatness, as long as she remains quiet and compliant. It seemed Neruda was just another in a long, boring line of male writers looking to make all women their personal fetishes. Snore.
My disdain also comes not from the fact he was a died-in-the-wool communist who lionized Stalin (in 1949, he escaped Chile by horseback across the snow-capped Andes Mountains to Argentina to escape arrest). It isn’t his flaws as a human I reacted to all those years ago. It was always his poetry, which seemed to me to be cliched at best and hackneyed at worst (though I do admit a fondness for his Ode to Tomatoes).
Consider this line from Neruda’s Ode to Some Yellow Flowers:
We are dust and to dust return. In the end we’re neither air, nor fire, nor water, just dirt, neither more nor less, just dirt, and maybe some yellow flowers.
Nope. We’re air. And fire. And water. And dirt. And yellow flowers. We’re all complicated and layered beings, full of all the things and all the feelings. It’s far too Nietzsche’s God is Dead for me, too bleak, too much of a one-note treatise on the human condition.
And what about Poem XX?
She loved me, sometimes I also loved her. How could he not have loved her big staring eyes?
Again, barf. He sort of loved her, but only because she stared at him with big (and we can assume adoring and love-haunted) eyes. His love was only a reflection of her obsession with him. His love poems reek of reciprocity rather than selflessness. He will love deeply, but only as long as he gets what he wants from the relationship.
Consider this line: If suddenly you forget me, do not look for me, for I shall already have forgotten you.
Was Neruda the People’s Poet or a complete asshole? The wonderful thing about poetry is that we each get to interpret it as we want. As we are. So all of your persuasions that he is incredible shall fall on my deaf ears. Just as this writing will be quickly disregarded by most Neruda lovers.