#13: Read poetry by Pablo Neruda
According to the cover of my newly purchased book of poetry, Gabriel Garcia Marquez once called Neruda “the greatest poet of the twentieth century—in any language.” Now, that’s quite a compliment. Unfortunately, I have no idea if I agree since I couldn’t tell you who my favorite 20th century poet was if you held a gun to my head. I’d probably blurt out something like “Emily Dickinson!” (who was dead by 1886 . . . but I did always like her quirky style and short lines) or “e. e. cummings?” (right century this time but maybe I’m just being superficial about his affinity for lowercase letters and lack of punctuation). But the truth is: I don’t really care for poetry.
I know it seems somewhat blasphemous for someone with a bachelor’s degree in English to be so indifferent about an entire literary genre, particularly one with such a long history and critical impact on so many other cultural forms and ideas. I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on why, but if you look at my not-insignificant bookshelves, you’ll find an amazing dearth of poetry amongst a sea of memoirs, art catalogs, feminist theory, scuba manuals, classic and contemporary novels, and do-it-yourself guides to home renovation.
I’m sure one reason Emily Dickinson and e. e. cummings were the first poets to come to my mind has to do with memories of first encountering their work in school. These were writers I didn’t mind reading in class because their poems seemed short and sweet (at least compared to, oh I don’t know, Ovid? Homer? Spenser? Blake?) It isn’t that I don’t like long literary pieces—although I really did have a hard time knocking back some of those voluminous Victorian novels that my dearest friend, also majoring in English as an undergrad, gulped down faster than a cup of joe. Come to think of it, she also consumed astonishing quantities of coffee—I think you really need that type of massive caffeine dosage to get through the likes of The Mill on the Floss. I’d think, “700 pages!?! . . . the title has already put me to sleep!” But I digress. It can’t be that I don’t enjoy poems because they are long; short works outnumber epic poems by far and I’ve enjoyed magazine articles longer than many poems.
No, there must be something else besides length that puts me off. I would say that they feel too formal . . . but there is a lot of really awful poetry that is quite casual. I would say that poets take themselves too seriously, imagining that every word they choose is a deep well of meaning and that this arrangement of words is the cleverest, or saddest, or most evocative. Ever. But surely novelists and songwriters (and political speechwriters!) fall into that trap just as often.
Maybe the truth of it is that poetry makes me feel, well, kind of dumb. There is a lot of it that, frankly, I just don’t get. Why the heck is there an albatross taking up so many pages in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? Did Keats not have inspiration more engaging than an urn about which he could craft odes? And is all that rapping and tapping just designed to annoy the reader as much as the writer in “The Raven”? (And why are there so many creepy birds in the Western canon, anyway?)
All of this is simply to say that I came to today’s task of reading a bit of Neruda poetry with a bit of, well, baggage. But someone suggested it, I haven’t ever done it, and it just struck me as the right time to give poetry another try. So what did I do when I went to the bookstore to pick up “a bit” of his writing? I bought the biggest assemblage of his works that I could find. Why? It was only $3 more than another Neruda book about 800 pages shorter.
When I got home this evening I flipped the book open and went right for the first poem (I usually take my time and read the introduction, or at least the inscription). But this time I felt something pulling me right to the meat of the thing. And there it was: “Love” from Farewell and Sobs, right on page 5. It stopped me in my tracks (or it would have had I not already been sitting on the couch). I actually looked around the room after reading it and, finding only my dog for company, said “Wow!” out loud to him. His eyes suggested that he understood, maybe even agreed. But then again, you could read anything you want into those big brown pools of puppy love.
I decided to read it again. Here’s how it goes (translation by Ilan Stavans):
Woman, I would have been your child, to drink
the milk of your breasts as from a well,
to see and feel you at my side and have you
in your gold laughter and your crystal voice.
To feel you in my veins like God in the rivers
and adore you in the sorrowful bones of dust and lime,
to watch you passing painlessly by
to emerge in the stanza—cleansed of all evil.
How I would love you, woman, how I would
love you, love you as no one ever did!
Die and still
love you more.
love you more
Now, only 935 pages to go!
Lesson learned: Wow. Pablo Neruda is my. favorite. poet. ever.