I remember my own Lit. class as a senior. We walked in, sat down and were directed to, "open your notebooks and prepare to take copious notes." That was Mr. C's favorite line to commence class. Fortunately he was honest about the unpleasantness that faced us. We were informed we'd be explicating poetry by parsing it down to its minutest elements and that this was surely no way to enjoy poetry. In fact, he told us, it was the best way to make certain we hated the poems we'd have to read. I'm sure the eye rolling in the class was as audible as the groans of dread. He hastened to add that if we mastered our lessons in poetry explication well enough to regurgitate things for tests we could then toss them aside and go back to reading poetry for enjoyment. We were fairly well disarmed by his candor and his acceptance of the severity of our "senioritis." We explicated the hell out of everything from Shakespeare's sonnets to William Carlos Williams' Red Wheelbarrow. When we thought we had pulled out all the elements we could Mr. C. made us dig for more and told us we had miles to go before we slept. Drowsy students were brought to attention by loud rapping on the board or their desks as Mr. C. demanded they identify his beatings as iambs, trochees, or spondees. Always he'd remind us he knew this was no way to enjoy poetry.
After all that torment he made us composes sonnets adhering to the strict meter and rhyme scheme. What agony. Finally, the exams were complete. Our sonnets had been written and graded. We thought we were off the hook on this poetry bit. Anyone who had ever enjoyed poetry prior to this class pretty much never wanted to look at a poem ever again. Those who hated it to begin with had their biases confirmed...and then...Mr. C. told us the last few days would be given over to poetry for pleasure. We were to all come to class with at least one favorite poem, something we had not read in class. He didn't care who the poet was. We could even bring something we had written ourselves. All we had to do was bring the poem, read it, and explain why we liked it and there were no right or wrong reasons. If we had more poems than one class period allowed for he'd let us continue into the next one.
Bring a poem, read it, share why you like it, get full credit for the assignment, extra poems get extra credit. Man, this was going to be a breeze. We could all bring in a boatload of poems and read for a week and not have to do any actual work. We couldn't believe he was going to let us get away with this. Suddenly, thirty teenagers were scouring the library for poetry books. Some were determined to read epics just to waste class time. Others went straight for the naughty limericks in order to shock. We read, we commented, we didn't open a single notebook to take a single note. We were convinced we were getting away with a lot. Through it all Mr. C. sat in his chair smirking as he asked why each student picked each poem. Some pulled out all the fancy literary terms to explain their reasoning, others said they just liked it because it made them laugh or smile or it expressed their feelings better than they could. Others added their comments. Mr. C. told everyone they got 100 as they each finished. After it all he smirked again as he noted none of us rolled our eyes through this assignment and yet in our comments amongst ourselves we had voluntarily explicated the poems. That Mr. C., what a wily guy.
Ok, so that was a long lead in but here is Pablo Neruda's The Poet's Obligation as translated from the Spanish by Alistair Reid. I just plain like it. I hope you do too.
To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or harsh prison cell;
to him I come, and, without speaking or looking,
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a great fragment of thunder sets in motion
the rumble of the planet and the foam,
the raucous rivers of the ocean flood,
the star vibrates swiftly in its corona,
and the sea is beating, dying and continuing.
So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea's lamenting in my awareness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the autumn's castigation,
I may be there with an errant wave,
I may move, passing through windows,
and hearing me, eyes will glance upward
saying "How can I reach the sea?"
And I shall broadcast, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing,
the grey cry of the sea-birds on the coast.
So, through me, freedom and the sea
will make their answer to the shuttered heart.
Now tell me, which poets and poems fulfill their obligation to you?