Friday, April 11, 2008

Pablo Neruda - Tonight I Can Write

TONIGHT I CAN WRITE


Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, ‘The night is starry
and the stars are blue and 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 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 starry 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 tries to find her as though to bring her closer.
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. As she was before my kisses.
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, translated by W.S. Merwin


Pablo Neruda’s Tonight I Can Write

If you never read this poem before today, well, then, you’re welcome. If you read this poem before today, you’re still welcome. There are pieces of writing that every person in this world would read if I had my way; Tonight I Can Write would be on the very top of my list. I have recently taken to memorizing my favorite poems and this was the first poem I set to memory. I feel immensely challenged to say anything new about a poem that has had nearly everything said about it. Published in Neruda’s breakthrough collection Veinte Poemas De Amor y Una Cancion Desesperado (Twenty Love Poems and A Song Of Despair), this poem is, ironically, not the song of despair---it is the ultimate love poem.

I have to share two brief stories about Pablo Neruda, a remarkable character with some of the greatest natural poetic skill this world has ever seen. Neruda began writing as a child growing up in rural Chile. In Memoirs he describes the circumstances that led to some of his first poems. He mentions writing love poems in grade school that his male classmates used to woo and court the girls in their school. Neruda charged the boys a nominal fee for his words and started a rather lucrative business, and, I would imagine, became one of the more popular boys in his grade school. From these humble beginnings, Pablo went on to write some of the most important poems of 20th Century. He was a dynamic reader and his poetry readings were standing room crowds with the atmosphere of a rock concert or jubilant soccer stadium. The poet Stephen Dobyns recalls a story that he heard from a friend who had attended a Neruda reading in Venezuela in the 1960s: “The audience was well over six hundred people. When Neruda finished, there were requests from the audience. The first was for Poem 20, Tonight I Can Write. Neruda apologized. He had not brought that particular poem with him. At which point, four hundred people stood up and recited the poem to him.”

In the clearly memorable Poem 20, Neruda wastes no time letting us know this is a different type of love poem. This is a poem of longing. He tells us “Tonight I can write the saddest lines,” and proceeds to fulfill that prophecy with lines like: “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 verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.” Love and pain move together in these words and stanzas like the in and out motions of a breath. They are sightless, yet clearly felt; they are necessary and omnipresent. Neruda does not set out to earn this love through the course of the poem, as some love poems and poets do; his method for convincing us of his love’s purity is dragging us through the depths of his longing. It’s a painful journey and as I read this poem for the God-knows-how-many-time, I jump at the chance to suffer with Neruda. The greatest thing I could wish for anyone is that they love someone in the same fashion that Neruda loves his woman in this poem.

Ages could be spent (and have been spent, I think) dissecting this poem line-by-line, but rather than continue that noble practice I’m inclined to pick out a few of the lines that stir me when I read this poem. “What does it matter that my love could not keep her.” Notice there is no question mark at the end of this sentence. No answer is required; no answer will do, because, as he replies in the next line “The night is starry and she is not with me.” It is a simple concept, but I’m amazed how Neruda continually juxtaposes the beauty of the stars and the night sky with this woman he loved and still loves. He’s utterly engaged in the process of untangling his love, so it’s only natural that he has to remind himself “I no longer love her, that’s certain, but how I loved her.” Even these attempts are futile; his love for her can never reside firmly in the past. His is a youthful and hopeful love (Neruda published this poem when he was a mere nineteen years old! Another reason he, and this poem, are mind-boggling.) and the youth and hope in this love allows Neruda to look to the past for inspiration, while concurrently looking to the future for possibility. “I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her. / Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” I wake up sometimes in the dark hours of the early morning and these are the words on my lips. If I’m having this reaction to Neruda’s writing, I can only imagine how these words must have plagued and haunted him. “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” It’s the type of line that deserves to be repeated.

3 comments:

andrew said...

I have a similar regard to this poem, one of the first I read in High school that really touched me. It has haunted me since, within each Autumn I am reminded of the past lovers of my life, whom have left me alone to roam about the timeless moments we once shared. to recall love, for me, is to recite this poem through living.

Megha Pande said...

Neruda is one poet who is akin to wine. As I have grown up I have read this poem again and again. The lines remained the same my pasiion towards them has grown with the passing of every year. The love he talks about is not plagued with doubt, regret or sadness. It is coloured with desire, passion, longing ....Love that is only pure love and nothing more or less than that.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thank you Andrew and Megha for your comments. I love how reading each of your comments illuminates one of the central dilemmas that I struggle with when reading this poem. Is it an expression of sadness or true, passionate love? I'm not sure there is an absolute answer. Based on its length, I thought it would take me long to memorize this poem, but the words seemed to fall into my brain in connected clumps, like snuggly fitting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.