Pablo Neruda, a Few Sad Lines, and a Fight

by Matthew Koslowski on January 6, 2010
in Anecdotes

In This Essay

Love: Ten Poems by Pablo Neruda (various trans.)
100 Love Sonnets: Cien sonetos de amor (Bilingual Edition) by Pablo Neruda (Stephen Tapscott, trans.)

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry by Pablo Neruda in translation. And whenever I read Pablo Neruda, I wish that I were fluent in Spanish so that I could understand what he wrote.

I rediscovered, “Tonight I Can Write…”, a poem I have struggled with since college. My first reading of this poem lead to a fight with one of my favorite professors, Dr. K–.

And I learned a lot from the experience.

Writing Before Reading

I read little poetry, let alone study it, before college. And yet, I wrote a lot of “poetry” in high school, calling it free verse and the like. Like my friends who wrote poetry, I could not be bothered with such trivial things as rhyme and meter and form.

The Modernist poets of the early twentieth century liberated us from that, right?

But what makes the Modernist poems of those great poets masterful in their free verse is that they had studied verse and meter, had mastered those forms before departing from them. The followed the adage that you must know the rules before you can break the rules effectively. They did away with form and meter but they kept the focus of intense imagery that lead to meaning.

Concrete: It’s Not Just for Building Architecture

When I shared some of my “poems” with Dr. K–, he told me they were drivel. I have mentioned this story before, and talked a bit about its aftermath. What he criticized in my poetry was my failure to use concrete imagery to give shape to the abstract concepts that invoked.

But he failed to be concrete in his criticism. We did not discuss my poems themselves, nor what I was trying to convey. For example, he might have pointed out that I did not give shape to “love”, for example, — it is a small word, after all, that tries to capture galaxies of experiences — and pointed me to poets who had given shape to “love”. Use poets to learn poetry.

Rather, he stated that my poems were nothing and that he had read plenty of better poetry from his other students. He encouraged me to focus on my expository writing and become an essayist. If you’re reading this, you can thank Dr. K– in part.

I think he believed in the myth that genius comes to the young and, if you do not have it by your early twenties, you will never have it. And I believed it too and still fight with that, though my friend helped me see that not all geniuses achieve their greatness young.

An Abstract Sadness

Shortly after telling me that my poems were “abstract” and that they would never amount to anything, I came across “Tonight I Can Write…” by Pablo Neruda.

Neruda indulges in every fault which Dr. K– had called a failing in my work.

Tonight I Can Write…

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example,’The night is shattered
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.’

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is shattered and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight searches for her as though to go to her.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that’s certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another’s. She will be another’s. Like my kisses before.
Her voice. Her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

–Pablo Neruda (W.S. Merwin, trans.) from Love: Ten Poems by Pablo Neruda

What so surprised me about this particular poem was how it differed from the other work by Pablo Neruda that I knew. Although I did not read much poetry in high school, I did read many poems from Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets. When Neruda writes to his wife Matilde, he writes of the items that inhabited their lives and that created her. He wrote of her hair, her breasts, her hands, and through those we come to see her as Neruda did.

I grew angry that Neruda could write the abstractly in “Tonight I Can Write…” but I could not in my works.

Beware of Falling Insults

For Dr. K–’s class, we had to keep a public journal of our thoughts and reflections on our class readings. Periodically he reviewed our journals and used them to lead class discussions. Although not assigned reading, I included what I wrote on “Tonight I Can Write…” in my journal.

From a well of raw feelings and disappointment, I wrote. And wrote. A diatribe, much of invective against the professor. Dr. K– was smart enough to ask us to write our journals on computers so that if we had reactions that we wanted to keep private, we could easily copy those to a different file. But I was not discerning enough at that time to leave what I wrote about “Tonight I Can Write…” in a private file. Nor did I have the discretion at that time to keep the discussion private.

After this Dr. K– took me aside and made me aware just what I had done.

Professors are just people, men and women, with their own opinions. And they are no more immune to being hurt by criticism than undergraduates are themselves.

“Striking out is short, but forgetting is so long…”

Sometimes the best lessons are the most painful to learn. Dr. K–, if you are reading this, let me thank you now for what I could not thank you for then.

I learned that I had not yet overcome acting childishly. Since that incident, I have striven to never let anything like it happen again.

And, if I am honest, there is plenty that I failed to learn. When I brought my poetry to Dr. K–, I wanted guidance. He gave me his opinion. Rather than listen to his opinion for what it was, I felt as if a sentence had been handed down. Then, I struck out. Now, I would have asked questions to seek more specific instruction. Now, In turning to other professors and other writer friends, I would seek models whose writing had the qualities I was seeking for my own work.

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2 Responses to “Pablo Neruda, a Few Sad Lines, and a Fight”
  1. John Spencer says:

    I loved this post, especially:

    And yet, I wrote a lot of “poetry” in high school, calling it free verse and the like. Like my friends who wrote poetry, I could not be bothered with such trivial things as rhyme and meter and form.

    That was me. I read cummings and thought “dammit, I can write free verse, too.” But I found that the deepest part of my soul needed structure to slow me down. Jeremiah sucks but I love Lamentations. Moses (or whoever it really was) is lame in Numbers, but the lyric poetry of Genesis 1 is profound to me.

    I quit poetry after high school, believing it to be something I had to master and display publicly. Then I came back to it and it was awkward at first (like reconciling with an angry spouse) but now I write poetry on a regular basis. I just can’t go public with it and probably because it’s like running naked or something.

  2. lee marcotte says:

    I think the reason your posts speak so strongly to your following is that you have the courage to run naked whereas most of us do not.