I have long been ambivalent about Neruda. Sure, youthful readings of Residencia en la tierra and Canto general helped shape my sense of what poetry could be, existentially and politically. Over time, however, I have become suspicious of the plenipotentiary poetics he embodies. I am using the term “plenipotentiary” in its double sense, as “fully empowered” in a general sense and as “fully vested” or “fully authorized,” like a diplomat. (Neruda’s emergence as a political poet is inseparable from his long career as a diplomat.) Of course “fully empowered” is also Alastair Reid’s shrewd translation of the title of Neruda’s 1962 collection Plenos poderes, a book that unsurprisingly celebrates the heights of the poet’s powers in unabashedly Romantic/Rimbaudian terms: “y canto porque canto y porque canto” (“and I sing because I sing and because I sing”). I wonder how we might think about Neruda’s legacy across and along these two modes of plenipotentiary poetics. Does the diplomat (legal plenipotentiary) authorize the visionary (Romantic plenipotentiary)? What do we make of Neruda’s longstanding investment in the realpolitik of modern poetics?
Analogously, how do we reconcile the capital-P-Political-Poet with the work of poets who remained and/or remain fitfully empowered (or simply disempowered) in the hegemonic order? How plenipotentiary is, say, Whitman, the self-publishing freelancer, or Anzaldúa, a longtime contingent faculty member? In her classic “La Prieta,” from This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), Anzaldúa warns that “we [Third World peoples and women] pay homage not to the power inside us but to the power outside us, masculine power, external power,” and thus brings us back to that unresolved tension between the two plenipotentiary modes. Ana Castillo makes the contrast clear in a 1990 interview with the late Hector Avalos Torres (2007), where she distinguishes between Neruda’s privileged status as a man and an ambassador supported by his government and women of color such as herself who are “the very last permitted a voice” (165).
To be fair to Neruda, there is irony/nuance in Plenos poderes, a book whose title poem works as both a shout-out to the powers of poetry and a meditation on powerlessness and death. The book’s famous poem “Deber del poeta” (“The Poet’s Obligation”) balances its Romantic insistence that the poet make those around him listen to the sea with images of everyday struggle—even as it characteristically depicts women as “other” that must be redeemed by the capital–P–Poet. (Communism, alas, will get the capital–P–Poet only so far.)
The ultimate irony is that while Plenos poderes is a perfectly lovely book, it is far from the height of his powers, and that arguably 1960s Neruda matters far more for his politics than for his poetry, for carefully networking a hemispheric poetics in the context of the Cold War and CIA machinations. As a poet who claims no embassies except the spiritual/conceptual kind, I am both grateful for the promise of a plenipotentiary poetics and wary of the powers that make it fully legible.