Neruda as a Whitmanian

This week we dived into the work of some Latin American poets, but the one that stood out the most to me personally was Neruda’s. As per usual, we discussed the various ways in which Neruda’s work could be considered ‘Whitmanian,’ for its subject matter, its style, and even for his frequent nods to Whitman in his work. One of my favorite poems of his, “I can write the saddest verses tonight,” was described in class as being extremely Whitmanian by many students. I, however, would like to contest these claims.

Of course, there are certain concessions to be made. He does have his existential moment of self-reflection and lamentation at night beneath the stars, but apart from that I find very little trace of Whitman in this poem. Apart from his connectedness with nature and his use of its imagery to give the reader a sense of his grief, there is very little connection to Whitman. Might I add that Whitman was not by any means the first poet to utilize nature imagery in his poetry to bring about an emotional stake in the language and communicate it to the reader.

I find several things in this poem that set Neruda apart. While there is a sense of crisis-and-recovery, Whitman’s favorite formula, the recovery at the end of the poem is not at all sure. As Neruda writes that these lines “may be the final sorrow she causes me, / and these the last verses I write for her.” While this does offer the reader a certain modicum of closure, it offers just as much uncertainty in my opinion. Also, rather than listing qualities about her or their relationship, he simply lists his emotions. Neruda makes his slow, rather painful recovery evident in these pages, illustrating the step-by-step process as he labors through the lines, often repeating lines or images as he circles back to something that he’s already established (presumably because it is something he finds comforting and something he can hold on to). This tactic feels more confessional than any catalog that Whitman penned, thereby creating distance between the two poets. While I wouldn’t label Neruda as merely a “confessional poet,” for I believe his work is much more complex and multifaceted than that, it does separate him from Whitman. His lines “She loved me, at times I loved her too” and “Love is short, and forgetting is so long” do more to establish the poem’s lamentable tone for me than anything else.

While there are obvious surface-level connections to be made between the two poets, I do not believe that this poem can be taken as a Whitmanian piece at face-value. Though Neruda may certainly have been influenced by Whitman’s work to turn to nature in his time of strife and stress, I don’t think that primary quality in the poem is enough to qualify it as Whitmanian. Likewise, the notion that Marco mentioned in class that “all poetry is about the process of forgetting” does not feel as though it can be applied to many of Whitman’s poems as it may be applied here.

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