A special project for the Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Edith Grossman writes about a recording of Pablo Neruda reading from his work. Recorded at 92Y on June 11, 1966, it was Neruda’s U.S. debut. The reading is introduced by Archibald MacLeish. The English translations of Neruda’s poems are read, in this excerpt, by Clayton Eshleman, James Wright and Ben Belitt.
Posted on Nov 21, 2013
The impact of Pablo Neruda on my life has been immense. Reading his poetry for the first time was a revelation. My name didn’t change from Saul to Paul, but the effect was—and still is—blindingly intense.
In 1960 I was a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, recently arrived from the University of Pennsylvania. The study of Romance Languages at Penn in those bad old days—the 1950s—was rigidly traditional and Eurocentric; professors of Spanish literature seemed not to acknowledge the existence of Latin American poetry or fiction after 1910, the start of the Mexican Revolution. But I was fascinated by the poetry of the seventeenth century and thought I would probably write my dissertation on Francisco de Quevedo, one of the brilliant giants of baroque writing in Spain. And then, one sunny afternoon, under a tree on the Berkeley campus, where it was possible to take classes on contemporary Latin American writing, I read “Walking Around,” from Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra. It was the first poem I looked at because I was intrigued by its title in English. I couldn’t believe what I had just read. I devoured poem after poem, incredulous. I remember thinking to myself: “This man is alive now, walking the earth, living in the same world I live in, writing this astonishing poetry. What am I doing in the seventeenth century?” That was when I essentially abandoned the study of Peninsular writing and refocused on Latin America. I didn’t return professionally to the Spanish baroque until I translated Don Quixote in 2003, and I’ve been visiting there happily ever since.
I moved to New York in 1964, and the first program I ever attended at the 92nd Street Y was Pablo Neruda’s reading in 1966—his first-ever in the U.S. I once said in another context that deep inside me lives a seventeen-year-old romantic. She rose to the surface that night and seized control of all my responses. I wanted great poets to look like Byron and sound like Dylan Thomas. But what I saw and heard that night was an unprepossessing man who could easily have played The Penguin in a Batman movie, whose thin, high voice seemed to fluctuate between a drawl and a whine as he declaimed poetry in full mid-nineteenth-century sentimental mode. It took me some time to recover from my shock and disappointment, and I had to confront head-on the embarrassing superficiality of my reaction, which seemed particularly unattractive in a woman who was no longer a teenager. The process was painful but necessary, and in retrospect I count the experience as one of those tentative, difficult steps we all have to take if we are, with any legitimacy, going to call ourselves adults.
Pablo Neruda’s poetry still overwhelms me. It has the kind of power and beauty that few other poets achieve, and each time I read it—or listen to it—I feel a sense of privilege at being allowed entry into the prodigious world he created.
Edith Grossman has translated innumerable works from Spanish into English, most recently The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico García Lorca Ascends to Hell, by Carlos Rojas.