In 1939, the poet Pablo Neruda persuaded the president of Chile, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, that the country should offer asylum to left-leaning refugees of the Spanish Civil War. At the time, there was a push by Chile’s political right wing to keep immigrants out. Neruda, who was just 34 years old, was considered Chile’s greatest poet — and because poets were highly respected in Latin America, President Cerda listened to his plea.
“Time was short,” Ariel Dorfman wrote in the New York Times in 2018. “Through it all, Neruda was fueled by his love for Spain and his compassion for the victims of fascism.”
Neruda often acknowledged Walt Whitman as one of the greatest influences on his writing, calling himself “the humble servant of the poet who measured the earth with long, slow strides, pausing everywhere to love and to examine, to learn, to teach, and to admire.” Whitman, who died about a decade before Neruda’s birth, was known as the father of American free verse and for writing evocative love poems about men. Like Neruda, Whitman wrote with great political grandeur, with boundless affection for his country, and with a facility for speaking to enormous, as well as intimate, moments of human experience. He was also enthusiastically pro-immigration — an outspoken patriot who wanted all and sundry to know the succor of Lady Liberty.
This international, intergenerational crossover between the two poets is the organizing principle and momentum behind Word Over All: Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda, a multimedia poetry performance written and directed by Daniel Bohnhorst. Word Over All premiered in 2015 at Teatro Paraguas. A revival run begins Friday, Aug. 30.
To construct Word Over All, Bohnhorst spent more than a year cutting and pasting pieces of Whitman’s and Neruda’s poetry and prose into a dramatic arc, alternating between the writers so that a dialogue emerged. Actors perform Whitman’s poetry in English while Spanish translations are projected onto a screen behind them, and Neruda’s work is read in Spanish, with English translations projected. There are poems from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) and prose from the book’s preface. Neruda’s poems come from Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924), Canto General (1950), and Odes to Common Things (1954), among other works. Bohnhorst adapted some of Neruda’s prose from the poet’s memoirs, published in 1974.
“The language bounces back and forth,” Bohnhorst said. “Themes of wonder move into themes of love and Eros, which move into political poems and war poems — and into a celebration of nature with melancholy at the end. We have a section on eels because it turns out that Neruda and Whitman both wrote about eels.”
Whitman was born in 1819 and grew up in Brooklyn. His education was piecemeal, but it seems that he always had the illumination of the masses on his mind. In addition to writing poetry, he worked as a printer, schoolteacher, reporter, and editor. He self-published Leaves of Grass and went on to revise and republish it several times until his death in 1892. He did not earn much critical acclaim or popular readership during his lifetime. His long, non-rhyming lines eschewed formal rhythms and easily parsed subject matter, and he embraced what might now be seen as a socially liberal, populist view of America: He loved foreigners and steel mills, homoerotic imagery, and victorious marching armies.
Born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes y Basoalto in 1904, Neruda was raised in Temuco, a city in central Chile. He took on the pseudonym Pablo Neruda when he was a teenager and was first writing poetry. He had only just entered his third decade when he published Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which displayed a facility for weaving together themes of love with nature, personal memory, and Latin American identity. As public esteem grew for Neruda’s writing, he was named to honorary diplomatic posts, including Chilean consul to Rangoon in Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar), Batavia (now Jakarta) in Indonesia, Buenos Aires, and Barcelona. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971.
Neruda’s poetry grew even more concerned with social issues as he got older, although Bohnhorst said that Neruda didn’t make a firm distinction between the personal and political in his writing — and that being able to hold both of these threads is important in any era. “Both of these poets understood that these things balance each other out, so you don’t need to say, ‘I’m just going to be a political poet,’ and not write about the interior anymore, or ‘I’m going to be an interior poet and I don’t have anything to say to politics.’ That’s a kind of cutting-off of your power if you resort to that.”
Bohnhorst added, however, that for Whitman and Neruda, the passion their strong political convictions lent their to poetry also represented their greatest pitfalls. “Neruda believed so deeply in Communism that he made slip-ups like writing an ode to Stalin. And Whitman believed so deeply in the American vision that he wrote these odes to the great flowering of industrialism. We know how both of those things ended up.”
Word Over All is part of a long-running series at Teatro Paraguas, Poesía Viva (Living Poetry). The theater’s executive director, Argos MacCallum, is a cast member in the show, alongside Liza Frolkis, Jonathan Harrell, Alix Hudson, Paola Martini, JoJo Sena de Tarnoff, Xochitl Ehrl, Roxanne Tapia, and James Stake. The series presents actors reading and embodying work by Latin American poets. The most recent production in this series was Atravesada: Poetry of the Border, in January 2019, which explored immigration and border issues through the eyes of a dozen female writers. The series, and the theater itself, has its roots in Neruda’s poetry.
“My father called me in 2004 and told me it was the 100th anniversary of Pablo Neruda’s birth, and he’d like to read some poems,” MacCallum said. “I said to let me get some actor friends together. Four or five weeks later, we had a production with lights, sound, costumes, and poetry at El Museo de Santa Fe. We needed a name for who we were, so we became Teatro Paraguas.”
Whitman died of natural causes in Camden, New Jersey. Neruda died under mysterious circumstances in 1973, in Santiago, Chile. For years the official explanation was prostate cancer, but his body was exhumed in 2013 and examined for signs of poisoning, which would have occurred at the hands of the government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Findings were inconclusive.
Whitman’s and Neruda’s poetry remains relevant to contemporary audiences in part because it was stylistically groundbreaking — even revolutionary — for the times in which they lived. Their subject matter continues to resonate in a world still wrestling with international borders, authoritarian governments, and social progress. Bohnhorst said that he is seeing a public recognition that many of our national institutions are in crisis at once, and that poetry is a way of talking about many complex issues at the same time. But as much as he believes in the power of art to address serious matters, he is a realistic idealist.
“I don’t feel that Whitman or Neruda, or Dante and Shakespeare and Sappho, made their times less corrupt,” he said. “But they had profound political impacts on individual people.” ◀
▼ Word Over All: Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda
▼ Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie
▼ Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30, and runs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through Sept. 8
▼ $15 (discounts available); 505-424-1601, teatroparaguas.org