What can we learn about good living from Pablo Neruda, the greatest Latin American poet? Reading his autobiography I argue that at least for me the most important lesson is about learning to embrace the richness and beauty of life. From the way he depicts his life-story one can’t fail to see that here is a person who finds tremendous beauty in whatever he happens to encounter. Be it some person he meets or a snail shell he finds on a beach, Neruda is able to have his eyes open wide enough to capture the beauty that is inherent in it. When Neruda let his passion run free ”everything is seen in its best light, everything has value, everything deserves to be the subject of a poem”, as Strand so aptly puts it in the New Yorker. To let the poet speak for himself, here is Neruda getting ecstatic about a stamp album:
Album of perfect stamps!
sea shapes, corollas,
dark eyes, moist and
round as grapes,
in search of
distant pleasures, forgotten
of all earth’s
of the wind,
fruits and territories,
on its treasure,
Neruda’s autobiography starts with an exalted description of the Chilean forest. He describes its small details and smells, how ”the wild scent of the laurel, the dark scent of the boldo herb, enter my nostrils and flood my whole being.” In describing his encounters with nature words such as ”euphoric”, ”fascination” and ”miracle” are lined one after the other. He exclaims that if one wants to understand himself and his poetry one must understand where he came from; how he and the land were united: ”I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.”
Neruda extended the same enthusiasm that nature received also to the people he met. The book is filled with small odes to the greatness of certain poets, artists and politicians that Neruda had the honor of crossing paths with. As only one example, in describing his late friend and colleague Paul Eluard (in a section entitled ’Eluard the Magnificent’) he closes with the following words: ”Tower of France, brother! I lean over your closed eyes, they will go on giving me the light and the greatness, the simplicity and the honesty, the goodness and naturalness you sowed on earth.” I stopped counting how many times Neruda exclaimed how – sometimes after a brief meeting – he and someone he met became dear friends for lifetime.
All in all, his autobiography itself is not a chronological recounting of the major points of his life but rather a collection of small stories and snapshots from here and there along the path he walked. Small moments of beauty, encounters filled with wonder, tiny bits that make human life so beautiful. I guess that this was the only way a person like Neruda could write his memoirs.
Reading Neruda I feel myself to be an engineer cursed with the gift of ’concentrating on the essentials’; only taking into account the facts that matter and ignoring everything else. This might be an effective strategy when one wants to build a bridge or an airplane. But living one’s life in a way where all the unnecessary stuff is extracted out will miss out so much beauty in the world. Concentrating on the important facts might lead one effectively from one place to another. But life itself is not so much about getting from A to B than it is about enjoying the trip itself. And in here, embracement rather than ignorance of detail is the recipe.
What is thus the most standing legacy of Neruda’s life is the way he reminds all of us how beautiful even the small details of life can be – if we just watch them with eyes wide open. As Mark Strand writes: ”There is something about Neruda—about the way he glorifies experience, about the spontaneity and directness of his passion—that sets him apart from other poets.” The best way to make one’s life experience more aesthetic is to understand that richness of observation is as much the feature of the eye as it is a feature of the world. When we learn to look at the world in the right way, we can find beauty even in a plastic bag.
Neruda found his gift of appreciating the beauty of life early on: ”Along endless beaches or thicketed hills, a communion was started between my spirit – that is, my poetry – and the loneliest land in the world. This was many years ago, but that communion, that revelation, that pact with the wilderness, is still a part of my life.” We should make the same pact with the world promising to remain open for the beauty of it all to flow in. We should enrich our lives through embracing the inherent beauty of the world.
I’ll let the master himself close this post, describing how he felt when he wrote his very first poem:
And I, tiny being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss.
I wheeled with the stars.
My heart broke loose with the wind.