Poetry & the Sea Liberate the Imprisoned

Thomas Moran, “The Angry Sea”

Thursday

I have been writing recently about how poetry pushes back against authoritarianism (here and here), a necessary reminder as the current administration challenges a free press, an independent judiciary, the separation of church and state, and other democratic norms. Today I share a Pablo Neruda poem that directly describes poetry’s power and “the poet’s obligation.” As I read it, I think of a quotation by Rita Dove in Tuesday’s post:

What a poem does is open something up inside…A poem is an experience, because when you experience, it allows you to become larger. It is not something that is quantifiable, and it is not something that you can encapsulate with the closure that you seek. That frightens some people.

“Some people” are those who collaborate with our imprisonment, whatever form it takes. The freedom of the poem and the freedom of the sea liberate “the shuttered heart”:

The Poet’s Obligation

By Pablo Neruda

Translated by Alastair Reid

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.

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