Posts Tagged ‘Rabindranath Tagore’

Pablo Neruda: Greatest pick-up artist evah?

Thursday, January 12th, 2012
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The conversation erupted on my Facebook page, debating the eternally recurring subject of unjust Nobel awards. It’s recently been revealed that J.R.R. Tolkien had been snubbed by the Nobel committee because his writing wasn’t up to snuff.

Other poor Nobel choices came to mind among my FB friends – the 1971 Nobel to Pablo Neruda over Tolkien?  Or over W.H. Auden, for that matter?  Or Jorge Luis Borges?  Or Vladimir Nabokov?

Another Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz called Neruda “the greatest bad poet of the century,” a much-repeated soundbite that sticks.  Yet Nobelist Gabriel García Márquez called him “the greatest poet of the twentieth century – in any language.” To which one can only reply Osip Mandelstam, W.H. Auden, Marina Tsvetaeva, T.S. Eliot, Czeslaw Milosz.

Our view of Neruda is now inevitably colored by his Stalinist politics.

Apologists say the Stalinists couldn’t possibly have known about the murderous excesses of the U.S.S.R.  Couldn’t possibly have known?  Despite a generation of slaughtered, imprisoned and exiled writers from Russia?  Despite a man-made famine that starved millions?  Despite the writings of Robert Conquest?  If Neruda had any questions, all he had to do was ask Czeslaw Milosz, who defected in 1950.  Instead, he infamously penned a denunciation of Milosz as “The Man Who Ran Away.”

There is nothing so dangerous to us as the thing we do not want to be true, the thing we turn our backs to.

Not bad for a dumpy-looking guy

In time for the 2004 Neruda centenary, Stephen Schwartz (not a literary critic, but a conservative political commentator), wrote in a seminal article that has been cited all over the internet:

There is probably no more chance of halting this current binge of Neruda worship than there is of banishing the cicadas, but, still, the truth does need to be said: Pablo Neruda was a bad writer and a bad man. His main public is located not in the Spanish-speaking nations but in the Anglo-European countries, and his reputation derives almost entirely from the iconic place he once occupied in politics – which is to say, he’s “the greatest poet of the twentieth century” because he was a Stalinist at exactly the right moment, and not because of his poetry, which is doggerel.

So does Neruda’s poetry have a future?

Eternally.  On Facebook, my friend Kevin assured me that Pablo Neruda has enduring market value in the Spanish-speaking world for his … pick-up lines. Not bad for a dumpy-looking guy (see right).

Hard to argue that point – an award-winning film was made on precisely that subject, Il Postino/The Postman.  The plot: nerdy Italian postman wants to pick up pretty girl.  He befriends the exiled Neruda and voilà!  Plagiarism is born in a small Italian village.

As Schwartz himself admitted:

Yes, his work is still plagiarized by teenage boys in Latin America, who see his Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song and figure there is nothing wrong with borrowing from it–just as one poem in the book is itself stolen from Rabindranath Tagore – and presenting its overwrought lines to their girlfriends. But if those boys grow up to be serious writers, they leave Neruda behind.

No luck with the line

But Kevin had a story of his own.  During a summer studying at the London School of Economics, an attractive young Spanish woman caught his eye.  How to attract her attention? His friend Pedro (there were a lot of Spaniards around that summer)  said it was very important to open with a sure-fire line.  Neruda was the ticket.

A dormitory lunchroom discussion of Neruda and the art of line-by-line seduction followed.  The young woman demanded an example of a florid Iberian pick-up line: “Let me hear it.”

Kevin recalled the line Pedro had taught him:  “The sentence would be something like “Oh, cielito mío, que Dios me dió” [Oh, my little heaven, given to me by God].

“It’s the cheesiest thing in the world.  And she said, ‘Wow, that’s really good.’”

Did he get the date?  No.  But he learned his lesson: “That’s how it’s done in España.”

 

Korczak in Warsaw: “I do not know why our hearts did not break.”

Friday, May 20th, 2011
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From Andrzej Wajda’s 1990 movie

Among my first errands in Warsaw was delivering several DVDs of Mary Skinner’s In the Name of Their Mothers to Warsaw filmmaker Leszek Cicirko, who worked with Mary in Poland, and Hana Rechowicz.  She is the daughter of Sendler’s co-worker,  Jadwiga Piotrowska – I wrote about her here.

On the train from Kraków to Warsaw, I finally got back to Anna Mieszkowska‘s  Irena Sendler: Mother of the Children of the Holocaust.  It’s a problematic book, crying out for a good editor and better organization, but it’s all we’ve got in English or Polish on the woman who saved 2,500 Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto from certain death.  It’s filled with long excerpts from Sendler’s own writings, which redeems its many flaws.

I reached the point in the book where Sendler describes the Polish Jewish pediatrician and children’s author, Janusz Korczak, who had established a Jewish orphanage along the lines of his educational theories.  (Culture.pl, an online magazine promoting Polish culture, has a biographical article here.) Sendler had of course worked worked with the doctor in the Ghetto, after the orphanage was moved inside its walls in 1940. Korczak refused many offers to be smuggled out of the Ghetto – he would not abandon the children in his care. And so he died with them.  On August 5, 1942, Korczak joined nearly 200 children and orphanage staff members were rounded up for deportation to Treblinka, where they were all put to death.

In Sendler’s words:

“He walked at the head of this tragic procession.  He held the younger child in his arm and with his other hand he was leading another infant. That’s how various people have recorded it in their memoirs, whereas others record it differently, but this doesn’t mean anyone has made a mistake.  One has only to remember that the route from the orphanage to the Umschlagplatz was long. It lasted four hours. I saw them when they were turning from Żelezna Street into Leszno Street.”

Curiously enough, Korczak was the subject of a recent email from Helen Pinkerton, who had seen my posts on Mary Skinner’s PBS film, which reminded her of Edgar Bowers‘ poem, “In Defense of Poetry,” in his Collected Poems. The poem ends:

An old light shining new within a world
Confusing and confused, although their teachers
Deny the worth of writing – my latest colleagues,
Who hope to find a letter in the mail,
Are happy if their children study Shakespeare
At Harvard, Penn or Yale, write articles
To prove all writing writers’ self-deception,
Drive Camrys, drink good wines, play Shostakovich
Or TV news before they go to bed,
And when their sleeping or their waking dream
Is fearful, think it merely cinema,
Trite spectacle that later will amuse.
But when my mind remembers, unamused
It pictures Korczak going with his children
Through Warsaw to the too substantial train.”

Curiously, too, this poem was also the subject of a recent post by Patrick Kurp in Anecdotal Evidence, who compared its quiet power to Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, where “Every frame is too emphatic, too loud, too cartoonish, too insistently certain of its own bravery in the face of evil.”

Andrzej Wajda also made a movie, Korczak – so Korczak’s story has entered the world of art.

But I’m always a little uncomfortable when suffering of this magnitude gets turned into a poem or painting or even movie – it’s too easy to appropriate the suffering of others to give massiveness to one’s ideas, and to subtly enhance oneself.  Regardless of the artistry of the result, the process is morally questionable.  I know Czesław Miłosz felt much the same way about his own “Campo dei Fiori.”  As I noted in an article a few years ago, “The Doubter and the Saint“:

“Later, in Conversations with Czesław Miłosz, the poet called it an ‘immoral’ and dishonest poem, ‘because it was written from the point of view of an observer about people who were dying.’ It was too easy, he seemed to be saying: the poet observes an atrocity, writes a poem in protest, and is pleased at having written a beautiful poem; conscience slackens.”

The real Korczak

Moreover, it’s a strange process by which we begin to prefer the glossiness of the artistic version – in fact, I just proved it.  While looking for a photo, I quickly latched onto Wajda’s movie image of Korczak, which was much preferable to the real doctor at right, who wasn’t an actor and didn’t have a cameraman.

Sendler, who was on site for the unspeakable event, recalls that Korczak had, a few weeks before, directed the children to perform Rabindranath Tagore’s play,   Post Office,  which describes how a child striving to escape his sickroom confines, ultimately dies, with death seen as, in Tagore’s words, “spiritual freedom” from “the world of hoarded wealth and certified creeds.”

But I think Sendler’s artless words are simplest and best when describing the atrocity:

“I was at the orphanage to see that play. And then, when on August 6, 1942, I saw that tragic parade in the street, those innocent children walking obediently in the procession of death and listening to the doctor’s optimistic words, I do not know why for me and for all the other eyewitnesses our hearts did not break.”

“But our hearts remained intact, and what also remained were thoughts that to this day cannot be understood by any normal person.”