The Toughest Critic for Pablo Neruda was Family

He won the Nobel Prize, and served as a senator and an ambassador in his native Chile. By the time he was 19, he had already published a hugely successful collection of poetry. He lived a large life, befriending Trotsky, Picasso and Gandhi, and was said to be “super-endowed, not just as a poet,” by one of his many lovers.

Given all that Pablo Neruda accomplished in his life, it’s now easy for us to assume his success was a guaranteed conclusion. Yet, as a young boy, Neruda’s future career was anything but a sure bet.

Neruda wrote his first serious poem when he was just nine years old. Yet, according to his memoirs, Neruda’s father tried to undermine his passion from the start. When Neruda showed off his first poem, his father scolded him, asking “Where did you copy this from?”

That could very well have been it for the young poet, if not for his stepmother who nurtured his hobby for several years. He continued to write, but only under the pseudonym Pablo Neruda (his real name was Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto) so his father would not find out.

Four years later, he had his first taste of success. He wrote some articles for La Manana, a local daily paper, and eventually had one of his early poems published there. That first published work was called Entusiasmo y Perseverancia, which translates to Enthusiasm and Perseverance, two traits he must have learned long before he saw his name in print.

While being published is a big event in any artist’s life, it was another encounter that officially transformed Neruda into a poet. When he was 16, he decided to show the poems he’d written until that point to Gabriela Mistral, the head mistress of his high school. Besides being in charge of his school, she was also Chile’s Nobel laureate (the only one until Neruda won the prize years later). As the story goes, she gave him her verdict just a few hours later. Neruda was, according to her, “indeed a true poet.”

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