In his poem, “Poet’s Obligation”, Neruda expresses his desire to bring poetic freedom to those who are not able to reach it. He longs to bring the sea to the prisoner, the career person, and the factory worker–people stuck at home or in the office, women, and people in the street. He artfully shows his pleasure in being the liberator to “arrive and open the door of his prison” so that “freedom and the sea will make their answer to the shuttered heart”. Neruda has clearly found peace through poetry and feels obligated to extend that same gift to others.

Then, I consider Whitman’s, “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life”, and I see his pain from being the liberator. He expresses here that he has tried his hardest to give his understanding to the world, but his reception has left him wounded. He writes:

I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, and that no man ever can,
Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart upon me and sting me,
Because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all

Perhaps the difference is that for Whitman, the poet also has an obligation to be empathetic. In “Song of Myself” he says, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person, My hurts turn livid upon me as a I lean on a cane and observe”. If we can learn one thing throughout his catalogues, it is that he fearlessly takes on everyone’s persona and everyone’s pain—so observation becomes active.

In “Poet’s Obligation”, Neruda suggests that his connection to the reader is not based on an ability to empathize. In fact he says that “eyes will glance upward saying: how can I reach the sea?” And rather than answering with words, he would transmit the things he has experienced and seen. So instead of taking on another’s sorrow, he would be so confident and aware of his freedom, that other’s would sense it and adopt it.

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2 Responses to Obligation

  1. AVZ says:

    Great post! I love that you bring up “As I Ebb’d,” a crucial crisis poem, and a crucial sea poem that I hear everywhere echoed in the poetry we’re read (Hughes writes of the sea as well in a poem I assigned but we didn’t have a chance to discuss).

    You make a fine distinction here between these two great poems of the sea: where Neruda proclaims his obligation is to be a poet whose vision offers hope to the downtrodden, Whitman doubts his visionary status here, and can only descend amongst the fragments themselves.

  2. Olivia James says:

    Jenny, this is an amazing reading of Neruda and also connection to Whitman. I loved your point about the poet’s obligation to be empathetic – it’s interesting to see the difference in the ways Whitman and Neruda approached that idea.

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