Pablo Neruda delivered a Nobel Lecture in 1971 on receiving the Prize for Literature. It is an amazing statement about poetry and life in community, and worth quoting from at length.
“I have often maintained that the best poet is the one who prepares our daily bread… The baker does majestic and unpretentious work of kneading the dough, consigning it to the oven, baking it in golden colors, and handing us our daily bread as a duty of fellowship. And if the poet succeeds in achieving this simple consciousness, this too will be transformed into an element in an immense activity, in a simple or complicated structure which constitutes the building of community, the changing of the conditions which surround humankind, the handing over of human products: bread, truth, wine, dreams. If poets join this never completed struggle to extend to the hands of each and all their part of the undertaking, effort and tenderness to the daily work of all people, then the poet must take part, the poet will take part, in the sweat, in the bread, in the wine, in the whole dream of humanity. Only in this indispensable way of being ordinary people shall we give back to poetry the mighty breadth which has been pared away from it little by little in every epoch, just as we ourselves have been whittled down in every epoch.”
I can imagine my friends Fleda, Devon and Tom kneading the dough of daily poetry-bread, building community thereby, and restoring the whole dream of humanity. I can, on a good day, imagine myself kneading such bread. But more I can imagine “the work of all people” contributing to the bread, truth, wine, dreams, of the whole community, and in that can imagine taking my part in the restoration of human community as priest, printmaker, poet, and struggler with all the normal foibles of life, including the cancer that now preoccupies my time.
This last week was difficult for me on many fronts:
We elected a President in that awkward sort of way, where we give our popular vote to a gang of electors who are in turn pledged (mostly) by states to vote for the statewide winner in the Presidential election. And after all the rationale of just why we do this and how we do this we end up with someone who has a majority of electors, never mind who won the popular vote. It is a strange way of doing things, but there it is. So we have a new president elect – Donald Trump – with a small majority of electors apparently to his side. He will, without question, be kneading bread of some sort or another in the coming days. Secretary Clinton with the popular majority will be looking elsewhere for how she will contribute to the “bread, truth, wine, dreams of the whole community.” But I am not easily confident that either will be able to nourish the whole dream of humanity very much, at least right now.
Leonard Cohen, whose poetry and song have been part of my life even before Pablo Neruda wrote his essay, died this week. “Suzanne takes me down…” to “Hallelujah…” to the wonderfully dark and twisted workings of his mind and soul have fed me as bread and wine for a new communion in apocalyptic times. Fortunately, there is so much, because he fed himself and us almost every day, and we can always return to his poetry for nourishment.
More locally and precisely, concerning my cancer treatment, the radiation treatments this week have begun to affect my sense of taste. At least for a while bread and wine will fail the test as sacraments of community. So truth and dreams will have to come in other ways. I am learning to eat not for pleasure, but of necessity. But what kind of community does that entail? Sure, “we do not live by bread alone, but by every Word.” But how is the word made tasty? So I am afraid I am losing a grip on community as I lose taste. And I am longing for new words and signs. (Sigh.)
And this last Thursday I had to have a feeding tube put in so that as the tastiness of bread disappears and it becomes more difficult to swallow, I can circumvent the whole thing, and find nutrient without even pretending to eat.
It was, in other words, a week in which I have not been feeling very nourished at all… not the bread of politics, or the bread of singers, not the taste of common food or even the commonality of eating seemed immediately available.
And yet there has been nourishment of human community, of love, of support, even as we all have come to grips with the great puzzlements of increasing impairments.
And then I remembered Neruda’s essay, Toward the Splendid City. I remembered that Neruda began the lecture by recounting a difficult journey across the Andes between Chile and Argentina. He was, as many of us are now, on the lam. He spoke of strange small rituals in the mountains, where he and his companions left markers, as had so many others, in small sacred spaces, and how he joined in a dance high in the night sky, and how very small things – a bit of bread and some wine – made for humanity in a torturous time in his life.
So I got a copy and read it again. And there, almost at the end, Neruda quotes a prophetic utterance from Rimbaud the visionary. “In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities.”
He says at the close, “I wish to say to the people of good will, to the workers, to the poets, that the whole future has been expressed in this line by Rimbaud: only with a burning patience can we enter in triumph the splendid City which will give light, justice, and dignity to all people.” (translation my own).
A BURNING PATIENCE
So I say to my friends it is indeed a time for burning patience. The necessities of bread, truth, wine and dreams are all there, they are our gifts to one another.
And they are sufficient.