A New Perspective

Sea Workers

In Valparaíso, the workers of the ocean

invited me to join them: they were small and hard,

and their burned faces were the geography

of the Pacific Ocean: they were a current

inside the immense waters, a muscular wave,

a branch of seaweed in the wind.

It was beautiful to see them as small poor gods,

half-naked, malnourished, it was beautiful

to see them fight and pulsate with other men beyond the ocean

with other men of other miserable ports, and to hear them,

it was the same language of the Spanish and the Chinese,

the language of Baltimore and Kronstadt,

and when they sang “The International” I sang with them:

a hymn rose up in my heart, and I wanted to say to them: “Brothers,”

but I had nothing but tenderness that became song

and that went with their song from my mouth to the ocean.

They recognized me, they embraced me with their powerful gazes

without saying anything, looking at me and singing.

 

What you have just read is the poem “Sea Workers,” from Pablo Neruda’s Canto General. We recently read this piece in my Global Journeys class, which is going to Chile in March. Pablo Neruda was a Chilean writer whose vivid poetry and distinctive passion has made him essential to any study of Chile’s literary culture.

 

When I first read this poem, I felt that Neruda’s romanticization of the poor and malnourished sea workers was somewhat ridiculous. Why would a man with three houses, considered mansions by his peers, glorify these poverty-stricken workers without providing tangible help? It seemed unhelpful and pretentious. Beautifying these people does not make their lives any better or more bearable.

However, when I brought this up, my professor proposed a different view. Neruda was lifting up and acknowledging people who were normally ignored by those in power. By elevating them to a place of high status and admiration, he is going against the power structures of his society. Instead of asserting his power and status over them, he instead elevates their status, placing them on higher footing. He feels a deep connection with them as people and as brothers instead of any feelings of contempt or superiority that would not be amiss in his time. His communist ideology is also a key piece in understanding the context in which the poem was written.  In his own way, Neruda could be considered a revolutionary instead of merely an observer of the sea workers’ daily lives.

This point threw into stark relief the differences between contemporary American and historical Chilean viewpoints. The contrast of these two ideas made me once again realize the importance of cultural and historical context. One cannot truly and deeply understand something from only a single point of view. It must be looked at through its time and place and through eyes of others. Each person has unique experiences that inform their perceptions and each culture and moment in time is tied into a patchwork of thousands of components that inform its existence. This is especially visible within art and poetry because the creator’s experience is such an important factor in the creation of art. However, this can be said of all things- nothing exists in a vacuum, or even in the perception of only one person. To truly understand something, we must look at it through the eyes of many. We must be willing to listen and to learn if we ever want to understand deeply. Perhaps this is why Agnes Scott created Journeys- to force us all to reach outside the realm of our experience and our own context, if only for a while.