Pablo Neruda and Derek Walcott, both ‘poets of the Americas’ as the title of the book edited by Ajanta Dutt proclaims, can be considered contemporaries in several ways: they are both poets of the twentieth century, with Neruda only two decades Walcott’s senior in age and three in terms of their first publications; they both are post-colonial poets, dealing with issues of alienation, displacement, conflicts of race arising out of the complex colonial histories of Chile and the Caribbean; they are both poets of the Americas, representing voices and cultures of the mixed identities of people in the two continents. Through the poetry both writers produce run the common themes of portraying socio-political conditions of their countries, dealing with war and colonisation as destructive forces for the human psyche, and discussing language as well as racial identity as necessary for a culture’s survival. However, this is where the similarities the two share end, as the effect of their poetry differs vastly. In their poems, such as ‘The Way Spain Was’ (Third Residence, 1947) and ‘Ode to the Tomato’ (Elementary Odes, 1954) by Neruda, and ‘A Far Cry from Africa’ (In a Green Night, 1962) and ‘Names’ (Sea Grapes, 1976) by Walcott, the political and poetic inclinations of each writer can be examined.
From their language itself, Neruda’s and Walcott’s differences begin, not only literally in that the Chilean Neruda writes in Spanish and has been translated into numerous languages with English being just one of them, while the West Indian Walcott considers English, Creole and French his tongues (while still being an English writer due to the colonial invasion that brought his forebears to the Caribbean), but also in the political affiliation implied by their choice of language. Neruda’s concern is with European Spain, sharing many thoughts with the writers of Spain as well as South America. With the loss of appeal to surrealism after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), in which he supported the left-leaning Republicans against the Nationalist colonisers, he moved from a self-reflexive mode to realism portraying the complexity of the class struggle, refusing to read his old love poems at public events. According to him, “The poet who is not a realist is dead. And the poet who is only a realist is also dead”. His poetic form became charged with avant-gardism and grew more accessible, making him a true common people’s hero, because of its emphasis on social content. Walcott’s preoccupation however, like that of met Caribbean writers, is history, reflecting his mixed ancestry (as he is of African and European descent), colonial heritage, cultural disparity and isolation.
Their language styles, furthermore, differ greatly as well; Pablo Neruda on the one hand is celebrated for “the grace of his poems laced with intellectual word play, bouts of nostalgia and confusions regarding time and birth” as critic Ajanta Dutt puts it whereas Derek Walcott uses the literary devices of the coloniser with little cleverness or originality, in strictly patterned verse. Neruda creates excesses that collude violently, attempting to produce the primordial sound that does not collapse into meaning, such that his words exceed language itself. For instance, in ‘Ode to the Tomato’ he writes, “The street drowns in tomatoes”, suggesting a carnivalesque atmosphere as in La Tomatina, a festival of Spain, when “the streets / run / with juice.” This is also reminiscent of “the blood in the streets” in ‘I’m Explaining a Few Things’ (1947), with violence juxtaposed against a cheerful atmosphere of revelry. His unique syntax and writing style reinvent language in a wholly new manner. However, Walcott’s use of alliteration, a strongly English device, in lines such as “charred candelabra of cocoa” (which repeats not only the ‘c’ but also the ‘a’ and ‘r’ sounds) prevents his works like ‘Names’ from becoming truly radical; they remain relatively tame poems that have a radical potential, of which they fall short. This using of imperialist modes in his struggle to form anti-imperialist ideas in his poems represents truly the lack in Walcott’s writing.
However, while he tries to bring racial, cultural and economic problems to the fore, he chooses to take a neutral position on colonisation, which attempt fails since neutrality is impossible to maintain on an issue as grave as this. When Walcott professes that he cannot choose “Between this Africa and the English tongue I love” in his ‘A Far Cry from Africa’, he takes a problematic stand that implies equal violence on the part of both the colonisers and the Kenyan Kikuyu tribe. Walcott tries to posit that the deaths of 32 settlers who were killed in rebellions can be compared to the millions of Kikuyu people massacred in combat, hanged and killed in detention camps, drawing up sensational images of isolated incidents like the killing of 6-year-old Michael Ruck “hacked in bed” as an excuse for the brutality committed against Africans by the British officials. Even after beginning the poem by writing of the history of violence imposed upon Africa, referring to the scene of “corpses” and “carrion”, Walcott refers to the British rule as a “drunken officer” as though it were a mistake they did not intent to commit, as though the savage oppression of a race was tantamount to a misdemeanour such as an officer being drunk on duty. He therefore trivialises the matter and occupies a biased position while attempting to remain neutral, since the colonial conquest of the continent is itself unequally balanced. Even poets such as Auden refused to maintain an indifferent stand during the Second World War, and Neruda could not keep silent about the Spanish Civil War, refusing to write love poems for which he was so in demand and, “explaining a few things”, he says that he cannot write of “the lilacs / and the poppy-petalled metaphysics” when “from every house burning metal flows / instead of flowers”. As Brecht writes, “What a cruel world it is that I cannot write a poem on the beauty of the trees” because it would imply his silence on injustices, that is, on the “woods full of policemen”.
Walcott, further, not only domesticates the violence of imperialism but also turns it into a delicate drama about himself, wondering what language he should use, torn between his tongues of Creole, French and English. He therefore tries to make his poetry a neutral, transparent conduit through which to talk about himself; however, it is neither neutral nor transparent, and his failure to choose a side is symptomatic of his distancing himself from the issue, as a distanced observer surveying it, while also actively making it about himself, whereas Neruda makes language the subject of his poems in his poems like ‘Tonight I Can Write’ where he deals with how he can in fact write lines so deeply sad that they move the reader, and ‘Ode to the Tomato’ where his lines become fragmented and distorted. Walcott’s contemporary Edward Brathwaite, to whom he dedicates his poem ‘Names’, had a similar issue with language, using creolisation in literature by using a uniquely-Caribbean, grammatically-simplified (for example, the pronoun ‘me’ is used in place of ‘I’) style of pidgin English, to reclaim the language of the coloniser and write back to the Empire. Jamaican contemporary writers Marlon James and Kei Miller also use this Rastafarian, ‘dread’ language (coming from dreadlocks) in their novels A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) and The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (2014), both reclaiming their tongue and writing back in their own adapted English to the Empire. Franz Fanon writes of this as well, in his Black Skin, White Masks (1952), where he responds to the racist mocking of the pidgin dialect in everyday situations. Therefore, in Brathwaite’s and Fanon’s writings, language is dealt with so as to make its own political statement, but Walcott’s treatment of it falls short of this, and becomes more of a personal identity crisis.
The use of multiple languages at once in ‘Names’, in lines such as “Listen, my children, say: / Moubain: the hogplum, / cerise: the wild cherry, / baie-la: the bay”, commenting on the names imposed on the colonised so that the meaning becomes abstracted from the word itself. In this way he comments on the history of alienation, by which the settlers imposed language with words such as “bay”, as though the bay they arrived upon did not exist before they declared it as such, and condemning the object as outside of one’s self, as the other. It is this liberty the colonisers bestow on themselves with which they refer to Native Americans as Indians, since the ‘great explorer’ Christopher Columbus intended to ‘discover’ India; it does not matter to him that he arrived elsewhere as he does not care who the other is: they are moors nonetheless. He uses a metaphor to compare the African condition to “fireflies stuck in molasses”, as they continue to glow even though they are unable to escape to freedom. Critic Paula Burnett writes that, in this powerful symbol, he achieves the task of the postcolonial writer to map “the universe in the locale”, with the pain of the image dissolving like sugar on the tongue. His expressive, beautifully visual line underlines the African struggle as Walcott tried to depict it; and yet, his criticism falls short, as he fails to recognise that, as Derrida puts it, “History has always already begun”, in that even before the moment of the colonial conquest, which Walcott identifies as the ‘Fall’, the circumstances were not ideal, and so it is not possible to go back to an Edenic time, because no such time can be said to have existed: there is no point in history where history had not yet begun. Therefore the colonised and the coloniser both seek to return to a primordial, prelapsarian time (with the coloniser looking for a virgin land no other human has discovered before as a new Garden of Eden, with their definition of people of course not including the ‘savage’ natives of the land, and with the colonised looking to go back to a time before hegemonic oppression), but neither can do so, since the world is lost as soon as it comes into being. Or, better still, the world is lost precisely in coming into being. This is comparable to Mary Shelley’s work Frankenstein (1818) in which a disapproval of the new capitalistic system is expressed with a desire to go back to the time before; however, feudal England had its own share of problems and had its own system of hegemonic oppression in place.
Neruda’s poetry accepts this and he does not endeavour to travel back in time; rather, he reaches the masses with his simple yet succinct words in ‘The Way Spain Was’ where he captures the disparity between the Spain of the past and that which has been created out of war, without longing to undo time. He mourns the evanescence of Spain’s rich, glorious past, referring to Fascist forces as “an imbecile God”. He asserts his sympathy and solidarity with Spain’s “barren soil” and “rough bread”. In ‘Ode to the Tomato’, he refers to two halves of a tomato, that represent his dual affiliations to Chile, his home, and Spain, where he represented his country as an attaché and became friends with Federico García Lorca, Rafael Alberti, Miguel Hernández and the Peruvian poet César Vallejo, who had political leanings and were staunch Communists. He talks further of fresh vegetables and spices native to Spain coming together to form a salad, such as olive oil, pimento, parsley, onion and olive. In this manner he replaces the melting pot of culture of America with the concept of the salad bowl where all the colours can mix “without any losing their original shape, form, individuality and identity”, as Ajanta Dutt puts it. He undercuts this immediately however with a knife piercing the flesh of the tomato so that its red bleeds into the streets as if “veined with [the] blood” from his ‘The Way Spain Was’. The two flavours of Spain—the celebratory culture and the violence and poverty—flow together like “harsh wine and sweet wine”. Preceding this union of His writing therefore makes the impact that Walcott’s attempts to, since the latter compromises his radical promise.
However, Walcott’s poem ‘The Sea is History’ is said by some critics (Carolyn Cooper, 1997) to be “redemptive,” as he responds in it to racist claims of colonised land having always belonged to the coloniser and that it just took them a while to see it. As Robert Frost puts it in his ‘The Gift Outright’, “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” Walcott refuses to give evidence of the land belonging to the natives, but professes that the proof is in nature, which carries history with it. Nature is however shown to be indifferent, in opposition to the Romantic idea of a benevolent nature, and the proof becomes illegible with “the ocean […] turning blank pages.” He therefore refuses to paint a positivised, sanitised, exoticised picture of the land, putting it like it is, much in the way that Chinua Achebe treats his Nigerian tribe of Umuofia when he unapologetically displays the violence existing in the Igbo culture so as not to claim that pre-colonial times were entirely perfect.
Pablo Neruda’s poetry is therefore intertwined with the culture and politics of Spain and, by extension, of Latin America as well. He makes political thought accessible to the common public through his simple yet vibrant poetry that focuses on concrete particulars. The radical mood in Latin-American poetry is summed up by Neruda in his memoirs, I Confess That I Have Lived (1974), where he says that “poetry should not be confined to the narrowness of a room, but that it should venture upon the open road.” Derek Walcott on the other hand struggles to truly capture the complex revolutionary thought he endeavours to produce, losing sight of his aim by attempting to remain ‘neutral’ (which he fails to recognise as an impossibility) and shifting the focus constantly on himself as a subject. Therefore while the two share a common poetic ambition of commenting critically on horrors of colonisation (as well as, in the case of Neruda, the Spanish Civil War), only Neruda successfully achieves this aim, with Walcott only becoming a true radical in his ‘The Sea is History’. Even though Walcott “handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most, if not any, of his contemporaries” and “gives us a sense of infinity embodied in the language” as Robert Graves writes, his revolutionary intention suffers in his attempts to remain politically neutral.