“Pablo Neruda’s Dilemma”

 “Pablo Neruda’s Dilemma” was first published in the fortieth              
anniversary issue of The Massachusetts Review: Winter 1999-2000 (40 Years of Diversity From the Start) [Vol. XL, No. 4].  Eds. Jules Chametzky, and Mary Heath, Paul Jenkins. In 2002, the essay was reprinted in Pablo Neruda and the  U..S.   Culture Industry by Teresa Longo (Editor)  Pub. Date: May 2002 Publisher: Taylor & Francis, Inc.

Author’s Note: The essay is a contemplation of the day that I attended a press conference given by Pablo Neruda, who had recently been awarded the Nobel Prize, and an expected encounter, face to face, with the great Chilean poet. He was visiting the U.S. despite having long been denied entry because he was the head of the Communist Party in Chile. The Chilean government under Salvador Allende, however, had named him Ambassador to France, and so he was able to visit the U.S. As part of his tour, he visited Columbia University. I had just graduated from Columbia’s ’s School of the Arts and,  thinking that Neruda would read poetry, attended the activity with a woman companion.

The event, however, was a political affair, a press conference, and he was asked questions on Viet Nam, Cuba, the Cold War, and–according to my recollection–my friend suggested that I ask him to speak about Puerto Rico’s political status. (Later she corrected that I had asked her to make the request.) Eventually I did ask, not realizing that my question was so explosive. What occurred is described in the essay and resulted in the end of the event.  The following Sunday The New York Times reported that my question and what happened subsequently was would become the most controversial moment in Neruda’s entire tour. [The entire Times report follows.] In a summarizing coverage of Neruda’s visit, reporter Henry Raymont subtly expressed his disdain of Neruda and chose to  interpret my request for a statement from him as an assault by a “group of Puerto Rican nationalists”:

Mr. Neruda made headlines in France a few month ago for his fierce attacks against the United States…But he generally confined his remarks….The only exception came at a symposium at Columbia University Thursday night after a group of young Puerto Rican nationalists inisted that he read one of his poems in which Puerto Rico is portrayed as suffering under the “colonial oppression” of the United States. When he sought to avoid the request, saying the had not brought the poem alone, one of the youths produced a copy and Mr. Neruda felt compelled to read it, drawing a long ovation.

Actually, as questions on Cuba and Viet Name seemed appropriate knowing his leftist position, I had simply asked Neruda in Spanish to  remark on Puerto Rico’s political status. Raymont could not claim that he did not know what I had asked because someone in the audience yelled out that I should translate my question and so I did. When Neruda demurred by responding as if I had asked him to read his poems on Puerto Rico (claiming that he didn’t have them), I asked again for a brief statement. Neruda was now an official Chilean ambassador and not free to speak his mind on Puerto Rico’s political status that the U.S  publicly downplays in importance but that in fact is a quite sensitive issue to his host country. I never asked him to read any poem nor did I know the person who in the back of that Butler Library room shouted that he did have them. Neruda read one poem and when he finished, the security and administration personnel on his right and left stood up, surprising Neruda, who looked left and right, figuring out that they were ending the event. From what transpired Ramont invented an organized scenario and published his  politicized report. On Sunday evening the late Frank MacShane–then the chair of Graduate Creative Writing Program of the co-sponsoring School of the Arts–called me at home to ask if I had read the report and to share his amazement at how the Times’  reported what had actually taken place. But what moved me to write the essay took place at the door, as Neruda exited surrounded by security. Amid a crowd, I shouted my thanks for his reading of the poem and he recognized my voice, left behind his entourage and came up to me.

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