18 September 2001 | Keeping Quiet

Found myself reading poetry a few days back. I don’t remember taking the book from my friend’s shelf and opening it, but there it was, in my hands, being read. How else could it have gotten there unless I myself put it there?

I almost never read poetry anymore, having once read it all the time. In fact, I used to write poetry myself once, and even called myself a poet. Yes, back then, when people at parties asked what I did, I said, “I’m a poet. I write poetry.”

Which was true: I really was a poet! I really did write poetry!

And most of the people I knew were poets, and together we would attend poetry readings and host poetry readings and of course give poetry readings – reading mainly to an audience of our fellow poets. And then when these readings were over, we would go to a coffee shop and gossip about people we knew and maybe discuss poetry for a while, after which we’d head home and write more poems.

But as I’ve said, that was long ago, and feels longer ago still – so much so that I almost never read poetry these days, or even think about poetry, and certainly don’t write any.

Which is why it felt odd to find that book in my lap. It was by Ron Padgett and had a French title. I’d never read it before. I liked it. It featured a long poem about the author’s high school yearbook in which he provided a few juicy remembrances of each person pictured. Fortunately he had a small graduating class, perhaps forty students. He included his phone number in the poem so that one of his former classmates, a girl whose attractiveness he had inexplicably failed to recognize at the time, could call him. I laughed.

And then yesterday an old, dear friend, someone I met when I was still writing poetry, sent me a poem by Pablo Neruda. I know Neruda’s work well and immediately recognized the poem as his, although I’d never read it before. It’s called Keeping Quiet and it moved me – not to tears but to something else, a thing that only poetry can move me to. What is that thing? Tell me if you know, because I don’t know and never have.

I believe it’s related to music, to what music does, but it’s also different from music in some way. That’s all I know. I think it has something to do with it not being explainable.

My friend sent the poem for the same reason that other people are sending articles and petitions and such: as a response to the horrific events of the last week – first the attacks, then our president’s declaration of war and the ensuing avalanche of brainless nationalistic zealotry, to use three consecutive words that all mean the same thing.

I confess that I’ve been deleting many of the articles and petitions. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great that people are circulating articles and petitions; I just can’t bring myself to read them right now. I read Neruda’s poem, however, and it gave me something I needed, not knowing that I needed it.

This of course is what poetry does, when it works: it seeps into the parched places inside us and gives us what we don’t know we need.

Doubtless to talk about this, cheapens it, so I’ll end here.

Here’s Neruda poem:

Keeping Quiet

And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas,
wars with fire,
victory with no survivors, would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
(Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.)

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.