Whitman and Neruda as Grassroots Poets
“The familial bond between the two poets [Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda] points not only to a much-needed reckoning of the affinity between the two hemispheres, but to a deeper need to establish a basis for an American identity: ‘roots,’ as Neruda referred to his fundamental link with Whitman” (Nolan 33).
Both Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda have been referred to as poets of the people, although it is argued that Neruda with his city and country house, his extensive travels, and his political connections, was never really “one” of the mass. Nonetheless, his work and energies went into supporting the common working man, and not the elite. By the late 1940’s Neruda had openly defined himself as a communist, looking for the equal treatment of all citizens of Peru. Whitman, though not overtly political like Neruda, did emphasize the equality between all in his writing. The appellation, “poet of the people,” is used to indicate their sympathies towards a commonality in humans, if not the “common man”. As the term “commoner” carries various connotations and needs much explaining, I prefer to discuss the two authors as grassroots poets. “Poets of the people” and “grassroots poets” have many similarities, but by using the term grassroots I draw on grassroots theater studies which illuminate certain artistic purposes and themes. Thinking of Whitman and Neruda as grassroots poets can deepen our understanding of their personas and their work, and especially indicate a similarity of purpose between the two poets who employed different structural styles of writing.
First and foremost, the term “grassroots” hinges on a sense of community. It implies a political motivation from the bottom up. Neruda’s and Whitman’s common search for identity, both on a personal and especially a larger scale, is closely tied to ideas of community. Through their writings these poets explored the meaning of being American (North and South), and managed to evoke a feeling of oneness, of community between fellow countrymen that had been fragmented and lacking previously, due largely to colonialism and ties to European dominance. In Poet-Chief, James Nolan writes: “It was Whitman who, above all else, infused Neruda with the courage and direction to dispel the dominant European cultural models of his own era and to look to his own American landscape and language as a source for the music, voice and persona of his poetry” (33).
The term “grassroots” is additionally appropriate for the purposes of this analysis when we break down the word into its component parts. Whitman used the imagery of grass (recall his famous Leaves of Grass), whereas Neruda uses the imagery of the tree with its intertwining roots to call up a sense of connected oneness between people in general, but specifically used to unite the people of America. In his chapter “This Ecstatic Nation: Tribe, Mask, and Voice,” James Nolan explores Whitman’s...