Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Poet's Obligation

I first posted this poem by Pablo Neruda three years ago for National Poetry Month. It is National Poetry Month again and since there has been a lot of turnover in my readership since that time I am posting it again. I don't know how many of you enjoy poetry. I am certain several do because I know they write it themselves. Others may regard it as something a bit poofty. Some may think it's a bit too highbrow or esoteric. Yet others may have at one time considered it and had every bit of joy from it sucked out in high school. That's a distinct possibility.

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?


S said...

Oh that is really very nice, thank you for sharing it.
I feel very blessed to have live by the ocean most all my life.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell....


Here is my favorite poem of all time and I know I posted it here last year as well.....I cut and pasted it, but I could have typed it out as I know it well.
Happy Poetry month!


I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread:
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

S said...

Oh and I am numero uno!

Cocotte said...

What a wonderful assignment from Mr. C. I would have been very interested to hear what some of my fellow students had chosen.

Desmond Jones said...

Here are a few of my favorites, that I've posted over the years. . .

I'm also a fan of Poe ('The Raven' and 'The Bells'), Longfellow (my grandma always used to recite 'Paul Revere's Ride' for us, and I read 'The Song of Hiawatha' in HS, as both poetry and 'Local Color'), and Dr. Seuss.

And the Puritan Anne Baxter wrote some lovely poetry about the love of a husband and wife. . .

But hey, engineers aren't supposed to like poetry, for pete's sake. . .

And your Mr. C was a genius. . .

KFarmer said...

I'm not much of a poetry reader, but I do enjoy it when I do. I really like that one. Maybe because it mentions corona? I'm teasing... or am I? :)

Good post, it got the noggin a knocking.

Suldog said...

I tend to prefer humor in my poetry, so Ogden Nash is a favorite. Theodore Geisel is right up there, too, of course. Lear's "Book Of Nonsense" was a childhood favorite.

Quite possibly my favorite poem of all-time is also the shortest. It was written by Muhammad Ali, and is entitled "Me".


Anonymous said...

Shakespeare's Sonnets, John Dunne are my two favorites :)

Wonderful teacher who actually brought learning to you in a fun way.

I also really enjoy song lyrics and think that's the modern day poetry which can reach the masses! :)

Shadow said...

wow, what a beautiful poem. the free feel is amazing! an your teacher, we should all have one like that...

Craver Vii said...

Audible eye groans? Crikey!!

Poetry is a thing that I have only slightly taken an interest in and only recently. Mostly, I just like poultry. ;-)

Good timing from you, Lime! I might offer one of my own. Last year I gave poetry a shot with a post about Good Friday.

I don't read much poetry, but I like what Roberto Benigni said in The Tiger and the Snow.

Finally, from Proverbs 25:11: "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver."

Craver Vii said...

By the way, that link to Benigni is not to a poem per se, but to the character's thoughts about poetry.

endangered coffee said...

I love Walt Whitman for dead guys, Philip Levine for not dead yet guys.

I also find that Garrison Keillor (even though his Prairie Home Companion appeals to me very little) picks a very high percentage of very good poems for his Writer's Almanac radiocast and Web site, with George Bilgere being a recent favorite

Beach Bum said...

This was a hard one. I've never been much into poetry, in fact the only time I ever really understood a poem with deep meaning was when my seventh grade English teacher held our hands and explained everything.
But I'm with endangered coffee, the stuff Keillor reads on his show is great.

truckdriver_sefl said...

I had a huge crush on my lit teacher. Somehow I managed to have classes with her all 4 years. Loved her!

Beautiful poem....

truckdriver_sefl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mona said...

That is a beautiful poem about freedom.
Yes all the tearing up and mutiliation of the piece ruins the enjoyment that comes with poetry reading!

I love Yeat's Second Coming and Ogden Nash's Prayer of the Unborn

Emily Dickenson is also my Favorite!

EmBee said...

Dr. Seuss will always be my favorite... Non-sensical poetry which everyone is capable of digesting, and always a greater, deeper meaning, it's quite subliminal really.

Oh the places you'll go!

Anonymous said...

Ah Lime, what a great post and what an inspirational and canny teacher you had; it should be obligatory for every child to have at least one such tutor during their early years. I am going to go away a have a think, as I adore poetry and have so many poems that I love. My first was Omar Khyam.
I'll will be back with my all time greatest.

Mike M said...

Great poet and a great poem indeed!

Jazz said...

I'm not a great poetry fan, but I do love the Raven and the poems of Emile Nelligan (a Quebecois poet from the early 20th century) I have no idea if he's been translated into English.

NYD said...

Heh, I had a teacher who we all called Mr.C But he was a technical drwaing instructor (I went to an engineering high school). That guy could make you want to do things better than you ever thought possible.

What is it with teachers whose name start with 'C'. I might just have to change my moniker to NYC. Shucks that ain't very original, is it?

Oh, if I am seeking fufillment- Mr. Whitman does a very good job, and not for the chocolate samplers, kiddo.

(M)ary said...

i like:
ee cummings
mary oliver
william blake
elizabeth bishop
robert penn warren
dorothy parker

i particularly like this poem:

the garden of love by william blake

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not' writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore,

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

Craver Vii said...

Since Truckdriver_sefl opened the way for true confessions, I will admit that there was this one... she was 50-ish, with children my own age, but to a goofy 17-year-old boy, she was the stuff of daydreams. To my way of thinking, she was the perfect lady. Now I can't remember much about her, except how I loved to see her smile.

Desmond Jones said...

And is it OK to add that one of the funniest things I've ever heard was a very stuffy-sounding British gentleman doing a 'poetic' reading of 'I Am the Walrus'. . . How he kept a 'stiff upper lip' thru it all, I have no idea. . .

misticblu said...

Sorry I am late here.... I believe the way my dad got a wiggly 8 yo to listen to anything from "America's Best Loved Poems" was to expose her to Robert Service, who could tell a rhythmic tale.
In my adult life I adore Richard Bach, some of his work is poetry, i think.

jillie said...

Well, here's my opinion on poetry...I sucked at it in high school. We had to write at least one. After my first attempt, my teacher that if I had any hopes and dreams of becoming an aspiring poet or writer, I had better find an alternative career and FAST...LOL. I don't get it when I read it nor can I even write it. I've envied a few of my friends that just whip something out at the drop of a hat.

cathy said...

I am inspired!

I sat down with a coffee while the mopped floors dry and popped in here to find this jewel of a post:)

As you know misery is my muse and I got to thinking it is about time I recovered some of the joy too. So I am going to search out some pleasure and I will be back soonish to join in.