Advice from Dead Poets (and Some Living): Pablo Neruda on creating space

Last summer, a few of my friends and I decided to start a book club. It was nothing original — mainly an excuse to get together once a week and eat brownies. The club withered after we made our first selection (a 600-page novel, which only half of us even started). After that, we hung out and snacked without pretense.

My favorite meeting was the first and only one, when we sat in my living room late at night and read our favorite passages of all time aloud.

My friend Emma read a translation of a sonnet by Pablo Neruda: “XVII” in his series of “One Hundred Love Sonnets” (1959). Neruda begins by shunning the traditional imagery used to describe love — gems and flowers — and says instead:

“I love you as one loves certain obscure things, / secretly, between the shadow and the soul. / I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries / the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself.”

Sometimes, when you read or listen to a poem, a certain image creates a feeling of space inside of you, like taking a breath.

I hardly listened to the rest of Emma’s reading after those lines; I clung to the image of the stunted plant. I thought it spoke to every time in my life that I had hovered close to what I wanted without reaching it, to every time I had folded inward in conversation or expressed feelings that weren’t returned. I thought it was the saddest, sweetest thing I’d heard in a long time: “the plant that doesn’t bloom, but carries / the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself.” For me, the personal resonance of the lines had nothing to do with the feeling of loving someone, but I loved the lines immediately.

This week, I have felt overwhelmed by my classes and jobs and activities. I have wanted to say what my iPhone says to me all the time: “Not Enough Storage.” Please make some space.

For me, poetry is a way of creating space. I return to those Neruda lines again and again. I know I’m not really understanding them in the way he intended. But I need that image of a sad little plant that never blooms or becomes what it should have been. I need it as a balm for living.

“In Poetics of Curriculum, Poetics of Life” (2016), Mary-Elizabeth Vaquer writes, “Most poems cannot be digested in one cursory read. It is only through lingering and searching through possible meanings that personal spaces are carved out within the poetic boundaries.”

Vaquer places a lot of emphasis on the concept of lingering. I think it’s a way of experiencing something so that it becomes part of you. It’s a way of taking ‘obscure things’ you find in the world and making them into a light that you carry, hidden, within you.


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