Today in Literary History – September 23, 1973 – Chilean poet Pablo Neruda dies

The Nobel prize-winning Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda died on September 23, 1973, just 12 days after the murder of his friend President Salvador Allende in a right wing coup.

There have been persistent rumours that Neruda, a leftist, was poisoned on orders from the new Pinochet dictatorship. In 2013 Neruda’s body was exhumed and tests were done, but the verdict was inconclusive.

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Neruda was born as Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto in 1904. He adopted the pseudonym Pablo Neruda because his father disapproved of his poetic vocation. He later had his name legally changed.

He began writing poetry as an adolescent and by the age of 20 he had published two well received books. He was lucky to have had as a mentor the principal of his school, who wrote poetry under the pen name Gabriela Mistral and who would herself win the Nobel Prize in 1945.

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Neruda decided early to devote himself entirely to poetry and supported himself by translation work. He eventually became wealthy from his writing but faced many hardships in the early years.

He spent much of his life outside of Chile on various diplomatic postings, beginning in 1927 when he took up an unpaid position as honorary consul in Rangoon, Burma. This was followed by postings in Java, Ceylon and Singapore. He later said he was often lonely in these postings but they gave him plenty of time to write.

In the 1930s he was named as the Chilean consul in Madrid. He befriended many Spanish poets, including Garcia Lorca, and immersed himself in the literary scene.

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Neruda with his friend President Salvador Allende

During the Spanish Civil War Neruda became politicized and aligned himself with the Communist Party, to which he would remain loyal for the rest of his life.

His final posting, shortly before his death, was as Ambassador to France, by which time he was a world famous poet. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1971.

Neruda wrote in many modes — lyric verse, surrealist poetry, explicitly political poems and deeply personal love poetry.

He is often criticized for his devotion to Communism (he wrote many poems praising Stalinism) but his writing was always passionate no matter the subject.

As poet Mark Strand wrote, “There is something about Neruda—about the way he glorifies experience, about the spontaneity and directness of his passion—that sets him apart from other poets. It is hard not to be swept away by the urgency of his language, and that’s especially so when he seems swept away.”

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