Here With Us Still

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Review of 'Memoirs', Pablo Neruda, Souvenir Press £12.99; 'Pablo Neruda', Adam Feinstein, Bloomsbury £25; 'Selected Poems', Pablo Neruda, Penguin £9.99; 'Isla Negra', Pablo Neruda (translated by Alastair Reid), Condor £14.99

There are very few poets of the 20th century who have made their voices heard in public places - but Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean writer, can claim his place among them. His early poetry, the writings of the thin and rather shy son of a railwayman, focused on the peaks and the disappointments of the discovery of sexual love. Later, as an underpaid consular official in Burma, he veered between the same extremes: passion for his irrepressible Burmese lover, and a deeper feeling that the world was a hostile and unstable place. Although Neruda became an enormously important political figure, the living example of a poet with a strong conviction that he had a social role to play, that would all come later. For now he was self-consciously an individual poet, writing to probe into and beyond his own private experience to find the powerful hidden forces that moved things. All this was captured in the collection called Residence on Earth.

What changed Neruda was the Spanish Civil War. Appointed a Chilean consul, Neruda went first to Barcelona and then to Madrid in 1935. There he renewed an old and important friendship with the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca and his circle. Lorca was an important figure in the life of the Republic - and an object of particular hatred for Spain's fascists. When he was killed in August 1936, his murderers left a note on his body denouncing this gay artist of the left as everything they most hated. For Neruda, Lorca's murder marked a crossroads. To stand back from the horror seemed to Neruda to deny the responsibility of every artist and writer:

You will ask why does his poetry no longer speak
Of dreams and leaves
And the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets
Come and see the blood
In the streets.

Neruda returned again and again to Spain. 'I saw it. A million dead Spaniards. A million exiles. It seemed as if that thorn covered with blood would never be plucked from the conscience of mankind,' he wrote in his Memoirs. The cause of the war against Franco moved many artists and writers - and many of them attended the anti-fascist cultural festival in Madrid, which Neruda had helped to organise and where he read his poetry. Yet the congress was also a battleground where the political struggles between Stalinism and the revolutionary left in the wider war were reproduced in the cultural debates.

Neruda claims that this was when he became a communist - though he did not get his party card until 1945. But from now on he would be increasingly active in public in campaigns orchestrated by the Communist Party. He was instrumental in shipping thousands of Spanish republican refugees to Chile before returning home himself in 1937. Three years later he was sent to the Chilean embassy in Mexico where he provided visas to Siqueiros, the Mexican mural painter who had led the first attempt on Trotsky's life in the Mexican capital. There is no suggestion that he was involved in the assassination attempt. Yet there is a curious naivety in Neruda's relationship with Stalinism which Adam Feinstein, his most recent biographer, underlines a number of times.

Perhaps Neruda's role was a little like that of Picasso, who was a great friend. The reputation of both men gave them great stature and influence - and their support for Stalin's causes might well have been greater for their role as fellow travellers. Certainly there is some of Neruda's poetry from this period on that has a ring of propaganda and straightforward political purposes. Elected a Communist senator, he was forced to flee Chile after the passage of a law that made the party illegal. Yet it was during that epic journey of escape that he wrote most of his glorious poem celebrating the history and landscape of Latin America - the 'General Song'. It's a huge, two-volume epic - and at its heart is a kind of rediscovery of the anonymous men and women who forged the history of the continent. Like Che Guevara, he found its most powerful and moving expression in the abandoned Inca city of Machu Picchu, high in the Andes.

The 'General Song' is the high point of one side of Neruda's poetry - the flamboyant tones of his public performances, ringing with rhetoric and great sweeping gestures. The other voice of Neruda spoke with the intimacy of ordinary things. His Elemental Odes found poetry in the ordinary and the everyday - socks, a salad, a suit lying on a chair, bread and onions. His performances of these intimate and sensitive poems on public stages drew thousands of workers and peasants to his spellbinding performances.

In the end that was why Neruda won such an extraordinary reputation: because he could write as passionately about public events as about the apparently less important details of ordinary life; because he embraced great sweeps of history and expressed the most intense, personal and childlike love, as in 'The Captain's Verses'. If any proof were necessary, it came weeks after his death, when 10,000 people marched in defiance of Chile's new military rulers to accompany his coffin and to shout 'Neruda presente'-'Neruda is here with us'. And the most moving thing of all was that he was 'with us' as a poet.