Tonight I Can Write

by Pablo Neruda

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Classification as a Modernist Text

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There may be no more beloved poem in all of Latin America than Pablo Neruda’s beguiling poem “Tonight I Can Write.” Written when Neruda was in his very early twenties, the poem perfectly captures the paradoxical emotions of recently lost love. On some level, this poem absolutely resists interpretation and analysis—it is so simple, so direct, so honest, that there is very little to unpack. Indeed, few students have difficulty understanding the poem, and few critics have made it the focus of their critical attention. The poem’s language is accessible, and unlike many modernist texts, it explores emotions that every reader can relate to. Instead of offering a reading of the poem itself, this essay will discuss the ways in which Neruda’s poem is profoundly unique for the era in which it was written. “Tonight I Can Write” both embodies many characteristics of modernism, the literary movement of which it is part, and eschews the typical conventions of the modernist poem. The fact that Neruda’s poem both participates in and refuses to participate in expected conventions of modernist aesthetics, grounds it in the temporal milieu of an era yet imbues it with a sense of timelessness. At once, the text feels shockingly unpoetic and overwhelming so. The “confusion” in the poem, its paradoxical nature, mirrors the confusion within the speaker of the poem and his own paradoxical stances on the woman who has left him. The poem succeeds because it, like love, like human emotion, cannot be quantified, classified or confined poem. In other words, “Tonight I Can Write” reflects High Modernist principles while simultaneously transgressing them.

To be sure, Neruda’s poem offers up for examination many of the most important characteristics underpinning the modernist lyric poem. For instance, the very genesis of the poem itself is utterly modernist in that the poem arises out of absence. One of the classic motifs of modernism is the presence of absence; that is, the realization that absence can become a palpable presence. Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Wallace Stevens’ “Snow Man,” William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say,” and T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” all create a landscape in which the absence of a head or plums or life itself morphs into a disturbing presence. In Neruda’s poem, the text’s very presence is contingent on the absence of the woman in question. If she and the poet were still together, there would be no need for such a poem. Indeed, Neruda spends the entire poem reminding us of the woman’s absence. As is the case in the poems mentioned above, the poem ultimately becomes a proxy for what is missing; thus, the poem becomes a stand-in, the presence needed to fill the void. But, at the same time, we are always aware that, in fact, there is a void.

If modernist writers feel anything, it’s alienation; hence, alienation has come to be one of the key concepts associated with modernism. Because of the increased urbanization of the west, the advent of telephones and radio, the residual fragmentation following World War I and the popularity of Freudian, Darwinian and Nietzschean thought, individuals, particularly artists, felt themselves alienated from the rest of society. In works like James Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening,” H. D.’s “Eurydice,” Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” an individual muses over his or her estrangement from either another person or society at large. In “Tonight I Can Write,” Neruda establishes the ubiquitous alienation of the...

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individual, a trope he will elaborate on in hisResidencia en la Tierra books. Not only is the speaker alienated from his love, but so is he divorced from nature, which is itself inscribed with her absence: “To hear the immense night still more immense without her … The night is starry and she is not with me.” Though the writer doesn’t seem to enjoy experiencing feelings of alienation, almost always it is the genesis for art. The writer uses his text as a means of connection and exchange otherwise unavailable to him. Neruda’s poem is no different here, though he uses the medium of poetry to convince himself that his isolation is not only temporary but an occasion to write the “saddest” lines possible.

One last way in which “Tonight I Can Write” embodies some basic tenets of modernism is through its autotelism (the belief that a work of art is an end in itself or its own justification). For better or worse, many modernist texts do not signify outside themselves. They are their own ends. Postmodern critics often criticize modernism because work produced during this period tends to apotheosize art and ignore the world and its problems. When Gabriel in Joyce’s short story “The Dead” claims that literature is above politics, he defines the view of a generation of writers. Later in his life, Neruda will completely reverse his stance, but in these early poems, the alpha and omega of poetry is the poem itself. Political concerns, cultural criticisms, economic warnings do not enter the poems at all. For many, there was no world outside of the text; indeed, for the speaker of the poem, there is no world outside of his emotional sphere. The obsessions, anxieties and desires of the individual almost always take precedence over the concerns of society, and while “Tonight I Can Write” does engage common private emotions, it does not necessarily engage larger public interests.

More interesting than exploring how “Tonight I Can Write” recoups modernism is examining how it eludes it. One refreshing distinction of the poem lies in its sincerity. High Modernism is not known for its honesty. On the contrary, most modernist poetic texts feature a prominent persona and emphasize a distanced irony or a diminished emotional landscape. Not so with Neruda. According to René de Costa, this attribute lends the poem a salient uniqueness: “The poem’s effectiveness, the reader’s empathy with the sincerity of the poetic voice, derives from the fact that this is a composition unlike any other.” Compare, for example, the voice of J. Alfred Prufrock with the voice of the speaker of this poem. Both poems attend to complex emotions surrounding romance and love, but Neruda’s is clearly more vulnerable. The distance between the poetic persona and the author is indistinguishable in Neruda (even more so than in a poet like Walt Whitman), whereas for Eliot, Pound and even Stevens and Williams, that is simply not the case.

Without question, Neruda was ahead of his time. In fact, in this poem and in others, he predicts certain aspects of postmodernism, most notably questions of textuality and referentiality. “Tonight I Can Write” is utterly aware of itself as a poem. It refers to its own poem-ness, it’s own composition. It repeatedly refers to itself as a poem in progress, not a finished piece. For the New Critics, the ideal poem is a “well-wrought urn,” an object d’art that is isolated, untouchable, perfect, flawless. Rarely will one find a modernist poem that not only mentions its own textuality but celebrates it. In other words, while we are reading this poem, we are always aware that we are reading a poem, unlike “Prufrock,” which is a kind of confession, or “In the Station of the Metro,” which works like a photograph. For Neruda, the poem is never a product, always a process.

Perhaps the most important way in which “Tonight I Can Write” averts the modernist impulse lies in its form. As mentioned above, the desired poem for most High Modernists and most New Critics is one that is clearly “made.” In poems by Pound or Stevens or Eliot or Hart Crane, one encounters some very difficult language and archaic allusions. Often, the tone is lofty, reverent, even scholarly. Such is the case in Eliot’s “The Wasteland” or Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly.” But in Neruda’s poem, his language is downright conversational. The poem is contradictory, and at times the speaker seems unsure of his emotions. In fact, the poem feels more like a journal entry than a finished art object. “Neruda has employed here a rhetoric that is not conventionally poetic,” argues de Costa. He goes on to contextualize Neruda’s text with preconceived notions of what a good poem might be: “The staggered repetitions, the poetic syntax, the irregularity of the temporal exposition are distinctive features to be sure, but features not normally found in ’good poetry.’” For de Costa, Neruda’s determination to write against poetic tradition gives the poem it’s appeal. Some readers would agree. To express such common and such strong emotions without succumbing to cliché or sentiment or cloying language is an amazing achievement.

There may be no more poignant statement on lost love than “Tonight I Can Write,” and, paradoxically, there may be no more accessible statement either. However, this paradox should not deter the reader; in fact, this paradox simply reflects the motif of contradictions inherent in human relationships and, for that matter, in all good poetry.

Source: Dean Rader, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Rader has published widely in the field of American and Latin American art and literature.

Sincerity, Simplicity, Honesty, and Directness in Neruda's Work

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Pablo Neruda’s “Puedo Escribir Los Versos” (“Tonight I Can Write”) has long stood the test of time as arguably the best poem in Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Cancion Desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) (1924), which has been called “one of the finest books of verse in the Spanish language.” For English readers, moreover, the 1969 translation of this poem by W. S. Merwin, one of America’s foremost poet-translators of the past fifty years, comes as an added boon, for Merwin captures beautifully—and faithfully—the poem’s musical and emotional nuances. In Merwin’s translation, one experiences the full cathartic brunt of Neruda’s complex, and even contradictory, feelings toward the loved one that he “could not keep.”

As the culmination of a score of poems that alternate between unbridled joy and overpowering sadness, “Tonight I Can Write” (known hereafter in this essay as “Poem XX,” per Neruda’s numerical sequencing) struggles to express the inexpressible, to articulate, in the most sincere and direct way possible, Neruda’s lyrical cry of the heart over the fact that he and his lover are no longer to- gether. Deeply personal yet piercingly universal, “Poem XX” derives much of its power from the naked, unadorned simplicity of expression that propels the poem forward. The poem is less ornate in imagery than those preceding it in the Twenty Love Poems sequence, almost as if Neruda understood implicitly that the denser, more heavily metaphorical and descriptive language of the preceding poems would no longer suffice in verbalizing the raw, intense emotional state he found himself in at the time of the composition of “Poem XX.” In essence, “Poem XX” cuts to the core of the matter in a way no other poem in Twenty Love Poems does.

Operating in a “less is more” vein, “Poem XX” actually derives more emotional power from its earthy directness and sparseness of descriptive adjectives than a more elaborate verbal treatment would have. As noted by Manuel Duran and Margery Safir in Earth Tones, their probing exploration of Neruda and his poetry, “[v]ery few words in Twenty Poems would not be found on a list of the two thousand most frequently used words in the Spanish language,” and this observation is particularly true of “Poem XX,” with its emphasis on such simple yet highly connotative nouns as “night,” “wind,” “soul,” and “love.” Neruda, in this poem, seems to be striving for an absolute purity of expression in which words fall “to the soul like dew to the pasture,” to quote one of the poem’s more powerful figures of speech. In a desire to approximate the crystalline purity of dewdrops on grass, Neruda keeps the nouns short, sweet, and largely free of adjectives and other modifiers. “The adjective is the enemy of the noun,” wrote Voltaire, and though Neruda may not have been aware of this quote at the time, subconsiously he seems to have composed “Poem XX” with the goal of paring down the language to the bare essentials. Indeed, such a raw, naked cry of sadness and loss, the kind that informs “Poem XX,” can only achieve its full effect with rigorous attention toward eliminating any surface pyrotechnics that may please the reader’s eye but interfere with the poem’s passionate outcry.

Be that as it may, Neruda does not suppress his powerful imagination entirely in “Poem XX,” although it is relatively subdued here when compared to the other poems in the collection. Vivid imagery and scintillant figures of speech are still on display in “Poem XX,” albeit in a less densely packed arrangement. Aside from the aforementioned brilliant simile in line 14, there are a number of striking metaphors throughout the poem, all of which synthesize Neruda’s heightened emotional state with the natural world. Almost immediately, in lines 2–3, the reader encounters a wonderfully ambiguous and resonant image: “‘The night is shattered / and the blue stars shiver in the distance.’ ” The first half of the image, “The night is shattered,” suggests a dual intent on Neruda’s part. On the one hand, this image could mean that Neruda himself “is shattered” because the awful realization that he and his lover have parted ways permanently has pierced him like a dart. On the other hand, the image could imply that the dark cloud, so to speak, that had hung over him like a black hole ever since the parting of ways has finally dissipated, and now he can see clearly enough to articulate the full depth of his anguish. It could mean, in fact, that he has reached a state of such intense clarity that he can actually see “blue stars shiver in the distance.” Along with its striking beauty, this second half of the image communicates the deep chill he feels now in relation to the loss of his lover. That the stars are “blue” is significant, for the color blue connotes not only sadness (i.e., “since my baby left, I’ve been so blue”) but extreme coldness, such as when lips turn blue in the winter wind. And as if these distant, blue stars aren’t cold enough already, they’re shivering. This verb not only adds to the sense of biting coldness (the kind that can numb the human heart when it is broken) but also personifies that deep chill in such a way that the reader can feel it and identify with it. Neruda here is inferring that his sadness is so immense that it is causing distant stars to freeze. One could say that he is grossly overstating the intensity of his emotional state, but try telling that to someone who has lost a lover.

This powerful image is immediately followed by another key figure of speech: “The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.” Often in poetry, mention of the night wind signifies a dark, turbulent time in the speaker’s soul, and sure enough, that the night wind is in motion in “Poem XX” connotes a certain turbulence. However, this night wind is not howling but singing, which definitely undercuts the usual associations that the night wind delivers in poetry. Here, perhaps, Neruda is implying that since the night has been “shattered,” and, to quote a popular song in America, he “can see clearly now,” the speaker (as represented by the night wind) can finally give lyrical voice to the tempestuous state of his soul, can sing that soul into rejuvenation. This interpretation is bolstered by the placement of the next line (“Tonight I can write the saddest lines”), which repeats the poem’s opening statement and reinforces the idea that the poet is finally able to begin the process of healing his anguish. Like the night wind, the speaker has in a sense been going around in circles and getting nowhere, but now he is ready to sing of the loss of his lover in an attempt (perhaps a doomed one) to exorcise her memory so he can move on with his life. This notion is further reinforced later in the poem, when the speaker says in line 24: “My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.” In other words, although he has finally broken through his pain enough to articulate that pain, the one whom he really wants to hear his lament, his lost lover, no longer wants to listen.

Yet another vivid image, line 21’s “The same night whitening the same trees,” is the most perplexing of all in “Poem XX.” On the surface, this line strikes one as utterly irrational; after all, how can night, with its deep blackness, whiten anything? The only time when night can whiten trees is during an overnight snowfall, and while this suggestion seems in keeping with the earlier image of blue stars shivering in the distance, it doesn’t really fit into the context of the poem, given that a night when one can see blue stars in the sky couldn’t be the same night when snowfall is obscuring the stars from one’s vision. The image is a tough one to crack, and after much pondering, some readers might still find it somewhat impenetrable. The only explanation that makes even the slightest sense is that the speaker can see so clearly now— after a time of great darkness, presumably—that pitch-black trees look as bright to him as do “the blue stars shiver[ing] in the distance.” In other words, with absolute clarity, he can now see his way through the dark woods that had surrounded him in the wake of the rift between the loved one and himself. Yet even this explanation of the image seems inadequate, and chances are that Neruda himself had no rational understanding of its implications. Sometimes an image just feels right, and ultimately a poet must trust this intuitive feeling. Fortunately for us, Neruda learned to trust his intuitive side at a very young age (he would have been no older than twenty when he wrote “Poem XX”), and this was an early indication of his budding genius.

The poem’s figures of speech (what few there are) resonate deeply in the reader’s psyche, but ultimately what impresses one about the poem is the undaunted honesty and lyrical intensity of Neruda’s voice as he struggles for closure in a situation where closure is difficult, if not impossible. Neruda’s stirring combination of colloquial simplicity and use of repetition in key lines such as “Tonight I can write the saddest lines,” “The night is shattered,” and “I no longer love her, that’s certain” helps create an impassioned sincerity and haunting mood not easily forgotten by the reader. While it is true, as noted by René de Costa in The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, that ““Poem XX” closes a series of unsuccessful attempts to communicate with the loved one,” we, as readers, should be thankful that Neruda at least made the attempt. For although he may not have succeeded in reaching the ears of his former lover, he has very much succeeded in reaching ours. Given the lyrical honesty of Neruda’s poetic voice, how could we not listen?

Source: Cliff Saunders, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Saunders teaches writing and literature in the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina area and has published six chapbooks of poetry.

Love and Loss

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Neruda is well known for his love poetry, yet a lesser known fact is that Neruda, as a young boy, was so painfully shy that he feigned indifference to girls. Fearing that he might somehow embarrass himself, Neruda lived his early years as what he called a kind of “deaf-mute.” In his Memoirs, Neruda elaborates saying that

instead of going after girls, since I knew I would stutter or turn red in front of them, I preferred to pass them up and go on my way, showing a total lack of interest I was very far from feeling. They were all a deep mystery to me. I would have liked to burn at the stake in that secret fire, to drown in the depth of that inscrutable well, but I lacked the courage to throw myself into the fire or the water. And since I could find no one to give me a push, I walked along the fascinating edge, without even a side glance, much less a smile.

Neruda sought refuge in poetry, publishing his first book, Crepusculario, in 1923. Because of its traditional meter, fellow Chilean poet Marjorie Agosin observes that this book “follows the patterns set by Chilean romantic poetry of the last century, mixed with traces of modernism—that Spanish- American literary current that swept the continent from 1888 to 1916 and that was the first original literary movement originating in Spanish America.” In this early collection, Neruda frequently used Alexandrine meter (lines consisting of six iambic feet), as he began to explore the fleeting quality of love and the loneliness that the absence of love can produce. Having invested a great deal emotionally and financially in the book, Neruda was elated when Crepusculario was first published.

The joy of publication, however, was soon undercut by Neruda’s deep poetic anxiety about the direction of his verse. He apparently felt constrained by traditional forms, yet was apprehensive about breaking free of the kind of verse which was readily accepted. Neruda took short trips to the southern part of Chile attempting to renew his creative powers. In his Memoirs he describes “a strange experience”:

I had returned home to Temuco. It was past midnight. Before going to bed, I opened the windows in my room. The sky dazzled me. The entire sky was alive, swarming with a lively multitude of stars. The night looked freshly washed and the Antarctic stars were spreading out in formation over my head. I became star-drunk, celestially, cosmically drunk. I rushed to my table and wrote, with heart beating high, as if I were taking dictation … it was smooth going, as if I were swimming in my very own waters.

Neruda tells of how he then “locked the door on a rhetoric” that he “could never go on with, and deliberately toned down” his style and expression.

The result was Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair), published in 1924. This is one of his best-known and most translated works. In this collection, Neruda begins to develop his own voice, leaving behind the regular rhyme and measured verses. The result is astonishing. As Agosin notes, “Neruda’s simplicity, sparse imagery, and above all, unabashed expression of amorous statements were innovations that immediately commanded the attention of the reading public.” By Neruda’s own description, this is “a painful book of pastoral poems filled with [his] most tormented adolescent passions, mingled with the devastating nature of the southern part of [his] country.” Neruda elaborated in his Memoirs, saying that the collection captured his love affair with the city of Santiago, the “student-crowded streets,” the University of Chile and the “honeysuckle fragrance of requited love.”

Indeed, because of the amorous and erotic nature of the poems, Neruda was often asked what woman inspired his Twenty Love Poems. In his Memoirs he acknowledged that this is a difficult question to answer, then gave the following explanation:

The two women who weave in and out of these melancholy and passionate poems correspond, let’s say, to Marisol and Marisombra: Sea and Sun, Sea and Shadow. Marisol is love in the enchanted countryside, with stars in bold relief at night, and dark eyes like the wet sky of Temuco. She appears with all her joyfulness and her lively beauty on almost every page, surrounded by the waters of the port and by a half-moon over the mountains. Marisombra is the student in the city. Gray beret, very gentle eyes, the ever-present honeysuckle fragrance of my footloose and fancy-free school days, the physical peace of the passionate meetings in the city’s hideaways.

Despite this explanation, many of Neruda’s readers are not satisfied. There is ongoing voyeuristic speculation about the specific identity of the women who might be the subject of these poems. Exposing the actual women, however, is not necessary to understand the universal sense of passion and loss which permeates the verse.

“Tonight I Can Write” is the twentieth love poem in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. The preceding poems are often lavish and sensual often comparing the female body to a lush landscape and the vastness of the natural world. “Tonight I Can Write,” however, marks what has often been described as a “shipwreck” in the couple’s relationship. The entire poem is a deeply felt elegy for lost love. The first line of the poem begins by repeating the title and adding the characterization “the saddest lines.” This suggests a meditative creative place in which the poet can channel his painful resignation into verse. The next threeline stanza sets forth examples of such lines: “‘The night is shattered / and the blue stars shiver in the distance.’ / The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.” The romance is destroyed utterly and the speaker seems to be both isolated from and taunted by the natural world.

The remainder of the poem consists of fourteen two-line stanzas. In these lines, readers learn that their love was both requited and unrequited: “I loved her, and she sometimes loved me too” and “She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.” Despite this ambivalence, the affair was passionate. He says “I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.” He feels the immensity of loss, and admitting his “love could not keep her.” Unable to accept the loss, he says, “My sight searches for her as though to go to her. / My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.” He is trying to come to terms with the end of their relationship. Attempting to convince himself that he is over his lover, he twice repeats the line “I no longer love her, that’s certain.” Each time, however, his assertion is undercut by his acknowledgment of the extent of his romantic entanglement. He first says “but how I loved her,” then later backpedals pondering “but maybe I love her.”

The speaker is tormented by the thought of his lover in the arms of another:

Another’s. She will be another’s. As she was before my kisses. Her voice. Her bright body. Her infinite eyes


The difficult process of moving on is underscored: “Love is so short, forgetting so long.” This is a long, lonely night which reminds him of other nights when he held her in his arms, one in which his “soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.”

In the final stanza, Neruda enjambs the two lines: “Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer / and these the last verses that I write for her.” The result is to connect unequivocally the pain the speaker feels with the creative impetus for the poem, suggesting that the production of the poem will somehow eradicate the pain. Yet, readers who have experienced the pain of lost love know better; there is a lingering sense of torment in these last lines.

Moreover, because “Tonight I Can Write” is followed by “The Song of Despair,” there is a clear indication that the pain continues. Here the speaker is left with the surging memory of his lover in a deep lament expressed in terms of coastal, sea imagery. Great anguish is expressed for the woman he has lost. He implores “Oh flesh, my own flesh, woman whom I have loved and lost, / I summon you in the moist hour, I raise my song to you.” He continues, “Deserted like the wharves at dawn. / Only the tremulous shadow twists in my hands.” In the somewhat ambiguous concluding line, “It is the hour of departure. Oh abandoned one!” the poet seems to simultaneously grieve for himself and the woman. Their once passionate relationship is over.

Throughout his career, Neruda sought to write poetry which would be accessible. He believed that “A poet can write for a university or a labor union, for skilled workers and professionals.” As he also stressed in his Memoirs, he saw poetry as a “deep inner calling in man … Today’s social poet is still a member of the earliest order of priests. In the old days he made his pact with the darkness, and now he must interpret the light.” Neruda does, indeed, shed light on the darkest moments of the soul.

Source: Marisa Anne Pagnattaro, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Pagnattaro has a J.D. and Ph.D. in English and is a freelance writer and a Terry Teaching Fellow in the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia.


Critical Overview