Me gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente
y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te toca
parece que los ojos se te hubieran volado
y parece que un beso te cerrara la boca
— Pablo Neruda, Soneto XV2

Arguably, Neruda's best known work is Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada ("Twenty love poems and a song of despair") which is exactly what it says on the tin: twenty sonnets and one poem. Neruda is one of those examples of writers that play wonderfully by the rules. I mean, just look at the excerpt above: those fourteen syllables per line can really roll off one's tongue.

Native Spanish speakers like me will always remember Neruda: he's one of those poets that will be in Spanish class until the day it dies as a language. His works are every teacher's dream and serve perfectly to give examples of rhyming patterns and metric. He's revered along Miguel de Cervantes and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz as the classical writers we all aspire to be one day.

But I think there's something fundamentally wrong about it all.

Sure There's lots of things to learn from Neruda, but rhyme and metric are the lesser of them all. For starters, the images he conjures are wonderful. A teacher of mine urged us to never use the phrase "dark night". What kind of night is not dark? The word "night" itself gives the idea of darkness. Neruda is a great example of not being redundant, of using words to create something else. How is this night different than others? Why am I calling attention to it? Neruda taught me to not be painfully obvious:

...eres como la noche, callada y constelada3

On a "higher" level, Neruda taught me about expression. If you ever hear the man reciting his own poems, you'll immediately notice that he speaks slower than anyone else, and certainly unlike any poem-night attendee I've ever heard. Even though his rhymes roll out of your mouth with ease, he always made a point of being delicate with his poems, to have some consistency between the written and the oral expression. This is why romantic poems like Sonnet XV were always recited slowly.

Go on, read the poem in its entirety. Learn some spanish or hear someone else reading it. Savor the rhyme and keep this poem in a warm place and don't read it to your heart's fancy.


1: A rather liberal translation would be: "I like  you when you're silent, because it's like you're absent // and you hear me from the distance and my voice cannot touch you // it's as if your eyes have flown away // it's as if a kiss has sealed you mouth"

2: Copyright law is weird and people everywhere seems to interpret it in their own way. The full text of Sonnet XV (and several other poems) can be legally accessed at the Universidad de Chile website here "for educational purposes and may not be reproduced (...) for public use". Even though it was published in 1924, "Veinte poemas..." is apparently still under copyright and the Fundación Pablo Neruda holds all its rights. I won't quote the whole thing just in case, but you can read it in the link above.

3: "You are like the night: silent and starry"

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