Ars Poetica: Shelley and Neruda


Can we have a non-ideological poetry of the oppressed? One that is no longer aligned with the outmoded idealism-as-materialism, or inverted Hegelianism of Marx and his descendants? Can we divest ourselves of the theological conceptual matrix  implicit within Marxism? Badiou followed Plato into a mathematical philosophy of subtraction, while those like Zizek and Johnston seek out a philosophy of the Void and Life. Materialism is itself in a state of confusion these days. Meillassoux in his speculative materialism speaks of a god(s) that might one day arise from hyperchaos. De Landa and the new materialists seek a vitalization of matter in the post-Deleuzian flux. Where does poetry fit in? Below I take a look at that skeptical idealist Shelley whose secret history of the cyclic poem of humanity pervades us still; and, that of the Marxist poetics of the ‘impure poetry’ of Pablo Neruda who fused earth and politics in a collective poetry of people and land.

Even yesterday when I was reading Badiou’s essay Poetry and Communism on Lana Turner what struck me sadly is how even this late and belated defender of materialism is mired in Platonism and Rousseauism. I wrote a post of it. Of course in the essay he is speaking of Paul Eluard where Badiou tells us that “for him, as for Rousseau, humanity is fundamentally good natured, with a good nature that is being destroyed by oppression through competition, forced labour, money. This fundamental goodness of the world resides in the people, in their obstinate life, in the courage to live that is theirs”. In another place he’ll say of Eluard’s poetry:

This is what we can call poetic communism: to sing the certainty that humanity is right to create a world in which the treasure of simple life will be preserved peacefully, and that, because it has reason on its side, humanity will impose this reason, and its reason will overcome its enemies. This link between popular life, political reason and confidence in victory: that is what Eluard seeks to confer, in language, upon the suffering and heroism of the Spanish war.

This whole notion of a new world, an Adamic world of simplicity based on reason, popular imagination, and the confidence of the Good Life. Idealism pure and innocent, but hopeless. Yet, Rousseau was not totally to blame for this erroneous conclusion which seems to have become a part of the false mythologies surrounding his life and writings.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, like Shaftesbury, also insisted that man was born with the potential for goodness; and he, too, argued that civilization, with its envy and self-consciousness, has made men bad. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men (1754), Rousseau maintained that man in a State of Nature had been a solitary, ape-like creature, who was not méchant (bad), as Hobbes had maintained, but (like some other animals) had an “innate repugnance to see others of his kind suffer” (and this natural sympathy constituted the Natural Man’s one-and-only natural virtue). It was Rousseau’s fellow philosophe, Voltaire, objecting to Rousseau’s egalitarianism, who charged him with primitivism and accused him of wanting to make people go back and walk on all fours. Because Rousseau was the preferred philosopher of the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution, he, above all, became tarred with the accusation of promoting the notion of the “noble savage”, especially during the polemics about Imperialism and scientific racism in the last half of the 19th century. Yet the phrase “noble savage” does not occur in any of Rousseau’s writings. In fact, Rousseau arguably shared Hobbes’ pessimistic view of humankind, except that as Rousseau saw it, Hobbes had made the error of assigning it to too early a stage in human evolution. (wiki)

As A.O. Lovejoy will relate it for Rousseau, man’s good lay in departing from his “natural” state – but not too much; “perfectability” up to a certain point was desirable, though beyond that point an evil. 1  The point Lovejoy makes is that for Rousseau the remedy was not in going back to the primitive but in reorganizing society on the basis of a properly drawn up social contract, so as to “draw from the very evil from which we suffer [i.e., civilization and progress] the remedy which shall cure it.” (ibid.)  So it was the notion of civilization-as-progress that Rousseau and Hobbes were against as if the civilizing and educational process could legislate and mandate the Good Life.

Yet, the notion of “perfectability” of Man is itself another of those Protestant inheritances  we need to expunge. All of our moral and ethical notions need to come under scrutiny and as Nietzsche once concluded we need a full and complete revaluation of values in our time. Does the poet have a place in this process of revaluation? Shelley the poet, skeptic and Platonist had his own issues, yet his defense of poetry still brings with it one of the most powerful truths – that poetry is about invention; in fact, that it is “inventive and creative faculty itself” (Shelley, Defense of Poetry). As Shelley in an opportune moment states it:

We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave. (see Defense of Poetry)

Here he is critiquing Immanuel Kant’s notion of finitude and the circumscribing of the limits of thought, etc. The notion that we are bound to our own limited notions and slaves of our facticity. German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) discusses facticity as the “thrownness”  (Geworfenheit) of individual existence, which is to say we are “thrown into the world.” By this, he is not only referring to a brute fact, or the factuality of a concrete historical situation, e.g., “born in the ’80s.” Facticity is something that already informs and has been taken up in existence, even if it is unnoticed or left unattended. As such, facticity is not something we come across and directly behold. In moods, for example, facticity has an enigmatic appearance, which involves both turning toward and away from it. For Heidegger, moods are conditions of thinking and willing to which they must in some way respond. The thrownness of human existence (or Dasein) is accordingly disclosed through moods.

Shelley against facticity would offer the inventive faculty, Imagination, saying that it reproduces the “common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration”. For Shelley poetry was about change and transformation, about disturbing the minds and awakening the sleepers from their lethargic enslavement to facticity. To do this he felt that the “most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature”.

For me the key is in this “accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions”, which aligns well with much of Nietzsche, Bataille, and others who investigate the power of active willing, of that excess and wastage, of communication and reception. One must counter all these idealizations with a materialist practice that as Pablo Neruda once sang to us brings us those “banging of objects that call without being answered”:

Between shadow and space, between garrisons and virgins,
endowed with a singular heart and fatal dreams,
impetuously pale, withered in the forehead
and in mourning like an angry widower every day of my life,
oh, for every drink of invisible water I swallow drowsily
and with every sound I take in, trembling,
I feel the same missing thirst and the same cold fever,
an ear being born, an indirect anguish,
as if thieves were arriving, or ghosts,
and inside a long, deep, hollow shell,
like a humiliated waiter, like a bell gone a bit hoarse,
like an old mirror, like the smell of an empty house
where the guests come back at night hopelessly drunk,
and there’s an odor of clothes thrown on the floor, and an absence of flowers
—or maybe somehow a little less melancholic—
but the truth is, suddenly, the wind lashing my chest,
the infinitely dense nights dropped into my bedroom,
the noise of a day burning with sacrifice
demand what there is in me of the prophetic, with melancholy
and there’s a banging of objects that call without being answered,
and a restless motion, and a confused name.

– from Ars Poetica, Pablo Neruda – (The Poetry of Pablo Neruda)

Here the poet delivers us a poetic testament in the tradition of Lucretius and Ovid that shifts us between darkness and the emptiness, between the void between things and the subtraction of being from nothing. Here the poet is the conduit for that which is in process of farewell, an elegiac and nostalgic wisp of that restlessness and confusion that is the world in all its burning and prophetic clamor. Yet, the poet is keeper of this knowledge – of earth in its never-resting motion and its sensual and experiential materiality; its physical and mimetic, mirrored powers and dispositions. All this density drops down from an ‘eternity of death’ (Eluard) where the poet “hopelessly drunk” in time receives the dead wisdom of ancient poets and makers who would reinhabit the house of the living poetry with communication, with messages of other days “burning with sacrifice” in an excess and exuberance of the common life of earth. The demand of poetry for Neruda is that it awaken the “banging objects”, – the voices of the oppressed, the excluded, the forgotten of the world who “call without being answered” to a new time, a new collective life in love and liberty. Here in the poetry of our residence on earth comes the “restless motion” of a “confused name” – a name that will know itself as the victory of a retroactive nostalgia from the future that lives in the present triumph of collective necessity. (Badiou)

Neruda’s poetry was seeking  a project for an anti-modernist strategy, ‘Toward an Impure Poetry,’ targeting the elite aesthetic modernisms of Wallace Stevens, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Octavio Paz, and others: ‘Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand’s obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it’ (Neruda 1961, 39). But this is not naive empiricism or vulgar pragmatism. What Neruda accomplished in this ‘impure’ craft is the discovery of ‘anticipatory illumination,’ or, in Ernst Bloch’s words, the Marxist poet ‘makes the world become aware of an accelerated flow of action, an elucidated waking dream of the essential’ (1996, 88). In the artistic dream-work, absence and presence are articulated in a productive synthesis. Rene Jara calls Neruda’s quest for the presence of what is absent, that call for a more intense life, the key to the principle of composition in his major works: ‘The world takes on form through a mechanism of contiguities and displacements that arises from the polyvalence of worlds and the constitution of an alternate symbolic process that springs from a preconscious figurative plane prior to the semantics of definition’ (1992, 149). (see A People’s Poet)

Ultimately Neruda would say of his craft and poetry: So let no one worry when I seem to be alone and am not alone, I am nobody and I speak for all…”. He tells us he is of another order of poetry and poets:

Perhaps my destiny is different
My militant fighter’s chest
moved me toward guerrillas in the government

to gain with the ardent patience
of truth and the working class

the Law of the poor.

  – from The Sea and the Love of Quevedo

 Maybe this is what we need now in our dire moment, a militant poetry, a fighter’s poetry that moves in the motion of the restlessness of things and people, that seeks out the ‘Law of the poor’ and the ‘patience of truth’ that comes with a deep solidarity among the working classes of the world united by a poetry and voice of awakening to change, real change. But one that is no longer bound to vanguards and elite intellectuals, but rather of the people and their struggles round the world to create a world worth living in rather than this hellish paradise of the rich and tyrannical archons of a fetid wealth system of systematic accumulation without expenditure.

Against the poetry of the Sublime and Solitary Neruda offers the base materialism of “human connections” where poets and our “earthly struggles” share the common way of men, women, and children walking alongside each other in the struggle to create a new life among equals and friends, brothers, sisters, and comrades sharing in the destiny of things. We do not seek some ‘other’ world, some elsewhere beyond. No. We seek only to retake what is the common world of all, rather than the property of a few. We empower the multitudes and the multiplicity of humans in solidarity to live in acknowledgement of this monstrous universe, not to cower before it or fear it but to know it as it is rather than to change it into what it is not. We are not Idealists seeking estrangement from the world, but are materialists seek to live and exist in the universe on its terms without the support of some big Other (i.e., God or Nature). Not some pie in the sky idealism of afterings and more-than-human knowledge of some divine order; but, rather of the common life of the world – of men and things, the place we live and breath in, now and always.

Liberty is your own forest
dark brother, don’t lose
the memory of your sufferings…

 – from Canto General, Toussaint L’Ouverture


  1. Originally published in Modern Philology, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Nov., 1923):165-186, Lovejoy’s essay was reprinted in Essays in the History of Ideas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, [1948, 1955, and 1960], is also available on Jstor

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