Classification as a Modernist Text
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 individual, a trope he will elaborate on in his Residencia 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...
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