Clash of literary titans.
"It can take me months to write a poem! I correct it endlessly," Octavio Paz once confessed to Argentine photographer Sara Facio, when she was taking his portrait for a book about writers. That was in 1970, and he was marveling to Facio about the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, during a conversation at Cambridge University in England. Paz found it incredible that Neruda had written a poem dedicated to the Chilean singer-songwriter Violeta Parra during the short trip from Isla Negra to Valparaiso. And Neruda's work would go straight to the printer without major corrections.
Pablo Neruda was ten years older than Octavio Paz and one of his intellectual mentors. Neruda had invited the Mexican poet and essayist to participate in the Second International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers in Madrid in 1937; the first such event was in Paris in 1935. Neruda saw a great future for Paz, as he indicated in the only paragraph about him in his Memoirs (Confieso que he vivido): "Along with the Norwegians, the Italians, the Argentines, the poet Octavio Paz arrived from Mexico, after a thousand adventures and misadventures. I was proud of having brought him. He had published just one book [Raiz del hombre], which I had received two months before and which seemed to contain genuine promise. No one knew him yet."
Paz and Neruda, who had met in Paris in the 1930s, nearly came to blows in 1942, when Neruda was a consul in Mexico. The story of that encounter appeared 40 years after the fact, in an essay on modern poetry ("Laurel en la poesfa moderna") that Paz wrote for Vuelta magazine in 1982. What set off the cultural sparring between Neruda and Paz was Laurel, an anthology of modern Spanish-language poetry published in 1940 by the Mexican publisher Seneca. The Spanish writer Jose Bergamin, who was an editor at Seneca, had assigned the task of compiling the anthology to two Mexican poets, Xavier Villaurrutia and Octavio Paz, and two Spanish poets, Emilio Prados and Juan .Gil Albert. Neruda was invited to contribute but refused, due to differences between him and Bergamin. Paz never knew what was behind Nernda's refusal, although it is believed the problem had to do primarily with Bergamin's exclusion of the Spanish poet Miguel Hernindez from the anthology. In fact, there's a coded allusion to the Laurel anthology in Nernda's Canto General, in the poem "To Miguel Hernindez, Murdered in the Prisons of Spain." Nernda writes:
Let the wretches who today include your name in their books--the Damasos, the Gerardos, the sons of bitches, silent accomplices of the executioner-know that your martyrdom won't be expunged, that your death will fall on their entire moon of cowards. And to those who denied you in their rotten laurel....
According to Neruda biographer Adam Feinstein, literary critic Enrico Santi said that Paz began to distance himself from Neruda because he was furious that the Chilean had refused to participate in that anthology; the Spanish poet Leon Felipe had also declined to participate. Laurel was See:: as Paz's "personal baby." Mexico City literary circles began to divide into Nerudistas and anti Nerudistas (that is, pro-Paz writers).
Paz's version of the rupture with Neruda differs from Santi's interpretation. In November 1939, Neruda was happy to contribute to Paz's magazine Tatter, and he offered him his unpublished poem "Discurso de las liras." In 1940, Nerada also gave him another text: a short introduction to the then-unknown Uruguayan poet Sara de Ibanez, in which he also criticized the Spanish poet Juan Ramen Jimenez, who had been a contributor to the magazine. The editorial board of Taller rejected the text, but Paz published the piece anyway. However, due to an "unforgivable error," Neruda's text was not mentioned on the cover. The same issue included some poems by Rafael Alberti dedicated to Neruda's enemy Bergamin. Neruda called Paz and told him, "Alberti is my brother, and those sonnets were dedicated to Bergamin before Alberti found out what had happened. You have been an accomplice in a plot against me."
Neruda and Paz then went a long time without seeing each other. Paz admitted that he didn't like certain of Neruda's personality traits: his heated jealousies, his reproaches, his aesthetic arguments (which were in fact political), his Stalinist "sickness." And according to Paz, Neruda considered anything that wasn't in line with his political convictions to be reactionary. That led to the final blowup, which took place in 1942, in the Centro Asturiano in Mexico City. It was a dinner in Neruda's honor. Among those in attendance were the writers Jose Luis Martinez and Enrique Gonzalez Martinez and the painter Jose Clemente Orozco. Neruda drank too much at the dinner. At the end of the evening, the writers and artists lined up to bid farewell to the Chilean poet. When it was Paz's turn, Neruda complimented him on his shirt, calling it "whiter than your conscience." He then insulted Paz's mother and grabbed the Mexican writer's shirt collar so hard that he tore part of it; then he started in on the authors of the "damned anthology." They almost came to blows. Poet Enrique Gonzalez Martinez took Paz by the arm and they left the Centro Asturiano with the writers Ali Chumacero, Jose Luis Martinez, and Jose Iturriga. Martinez invited everybody to a nightclub in vogue at the time and they ordered champagne that, according to Paz, was !carisima!--very expensive.
After the incident, Neruda did not keep quiet. When he was about to return to his home country, in August 1943, he gave an interview to the magazine Hoy in which he said that the best thing Mexico had was its agronomists and that Mexican poetry lacked a civic ethic. He also said that the Mexican novel was represented by great writers (Juan de la Cabada, Emilio Abreu Gomez, Jose Revueltas, and Andres Henestrosa) who had expressed a new form of classicism--and that by contrast, the essay in Mexico had been perverted by an anemic generation.
That same month, Paz responded with a farewell to Neruda in a piece called "Despedida aun consul," published in the magazine Letras de Mexico. The Mexican writer said that what separated them was not political conviction but vanity, the vanity that caused Neruda to accept, every six months, banquets and tributes from the same people he accused of moral shortcomings.
According to Paz translator Jason Wilson, Paz thought pamphleteering poetry was useless. Poetry, he believed, was incapable of producing political change; a text of Lenin's was better than a bad poem by Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovski or Neruda. Of course, Paz wrote political poetry in certain very specific situations, such as in response to the October 2, 1968, killings on Mexico City's Plaza de Tlatelolco.
Paz and Neruda didn't speak to each other for 25 years. Some writers tried to intercede to bring about a reconciliation; according to Carlos Fuentes, Neruda called him to set up a meeting. However, the Chilean poet showed such little enthusiasm to make it happen that Fuentes preferred not to run the risk.
In 1963, it was widely rumored that Neruda was going to win the Nobel Prize in literature. That year Artur Lundkvist, a member of the Swedish Academy, writer, and translator of Neruda into Swedish, published an article in a Stockholm literary magazine in which he sang Neruda's praises. Lundkvist (who is said to have been one of the key people responsible for Paz's being awarded the coveted prize years later, in 1990) strongly pressured the Swedish Academy to give the prize to Neruda at that time. However, there was a concerted effort to make sure he didn't get it. In fact, it was hard to please anybody. On the one hand, Neruda had been strongly attacked by Cuban intellectuals, supporters of Fidel Castro, for being an imperialist; groups in the United States, on the other hand, attacked him for being a communist.
The main source of the anti-Neruda attacks was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist group that was active in 35 countries, including many in Latin America. A vigorous campaign was undertaken to discredit Neruda, with the Congress for Cultural Freedom claiming that Neruda the poet could not be separated from Neruda the political propagandist. Around that time, certain individuals were sent a report written in English and French in which Neruda was accused of being an accomplice, along with the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, In the first, failed attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky in Mexico. Neruda had previously denied the accusation published in that report.
As part of the anti-Neruda campaign, it was rumored in Mexico that Octavio Paz was also doing everything possible to ensure that Neruda did not win the Nobel Prize. In a letter made public in 1999 by the magazine Letras Libres, Paz wrote to his friend Efrain Huerta, a poet who had defended Paz against attacks in an article published in the newspaper El diario de Mexico. After thanking his friend for his solidarity, Paz wrote that he couldn't imagine "that such a man and poet as Neruda could believe such stupidities and, what is even more childish, could think that I have any influence over the judges of the Swedish Academy. I don't know any of them. And now that I'm on the subject, I should tell you my opinion: I sincerely believe that two Latin American writers deserve the prize: Neruda and Borges. If I feel that way, how could I plot against a poet I admire? An admiration, it seems unnecessary to add, that does not imply approval of everything he says or does...." Paz's admiration, as one would suppose, was always tempered by Neruda's political stance toward Stalin.
Paz finally reconciled with Neruda in 1967, at the International Poetry Festival in London. When Paz and his wife, Marie Jose, came to greet Neruda in his hotel room, Neruda treated him with his old closeness and familiarity: "What a joy to see you, my son!" According to Paz, they looked at each other askance, realizing how much they had aged. After that brief encounter, they never saw each other again. Later Neruda sent him his book Stones of the Sky with a short inscription expressing warm regards and saying, "I want to hear from you." It was dated 1971, the same year Neruda won the Nobel Prize. Paz's magazine Plural published essays, articles, and stories about the Nobel laureate, always pointing out the dichotomy between Neruda the poet and Neruda the admirer of Stalin.
However, Paz never stopped admiring Neruda. In fact, when Sara Facio was photographing him at Cambridge University for her book Foto de escritor 1963/1973, Paz quizzed her endlessly about his colleagues' habits and obsessions. The first writer he asked her about was Neruda. In his memoirs, Chilean novelist Jorge Edwards recounts a long telephone conversation he had with Paz, in the mid-1990s. Paz told him, "Last year, I reread the complete works of Neruda, from the first page to the last.... My conclusion is that Neruda is the greatest poet of his generation. By far! Better than Huidobro, better than Vallejo, better than Borges. And better than all the Spanish poets."
In September 1993, on the twentieth anniversary of Neruda's death, Paz again remembered Neruda with admiration in the pages of the magazine Vuelta. He wrote about the poem "Discurso de las liras," which the author of Canto General had published originally in Paz's Taller. For the Mexican poet, "there is a sustained feeling to the form--stanzas of four verses each--tied to that somnambulant vision of the world that gave his poetry, during those years, a gravity that distinguishes all he wrote at that time."
The relationship between Paz and Neruda was difficult; Paz himself said in his essay for Laurel that the friendship was "as overwhelming as a mountain." This is how Paz put it: "Pablo was very jealous of his friends. He put on the airs of a big fish, an enormous fish from the depths, with an odd sense of humor that, many years later, would be reflected in a book that is one of my favorites of his: Extravagario. He showed that sense of humor in his conversations." The partisan tendency of literary criticism also separated the two writers.
Could there also have been, beyond the political differences, some professional jealousy between the poets? Perhaps. Paz never stopped talking or writing about him, particularly about what he considered Neruda's lack of political prudence with regard to his pro-Soviet commitment.
Despite the distance between the two poets, both politically and in terms of the profound literary beliefs they both held sacred, in his essay "Homenaje" Paz affirmed that the break with Neruda had hurt him and added that he would like to think that it hurt Neruda too. Paz ended the short piece with the following lines: "I utter Pablo Neruda's name and tell myself: you admired him, you cared for him, and you fought him. He was your dearest enemy."
Jaime Perales Contreras holds a doctorate in Latin American literature from Georgetown University. His book on Octavio Paz and the writers of Vuelta magazine (Octavio Paz y el circulo de la revista Vuelta) will be published this year.