Keeping Quiet by Pablo Neruda
I am sharing this poem, “Keeping Quiet,” with my sophomores this week as a writing catalyst. I like the way it has the potential to open up a pool of quiet in the middle of things.
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
Not instructions for counting to ten—that common advice for dealing with rising anger before reacting. No, this is longer—just a bit longer—stretching the silence out two beats longer. Now we will count to twelve.
The opening reminds of something a teacher might say—a pre-school teacher? Or perhaps something a parent might say to a child before some kind of game. I think that’s what makes the line evocative—as if it holds the echo of something we’ve heard before. Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.
The poem continues:
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.
No language. No large gestures. What then?
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
A pause for not-harming?
A pause for looking at our own hands and seeing why they might hurt?
A pause to simply look at what we’re doing and ask why we’re doing it?
And to ask whether in fact it makes sense?
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
We would not be doing nothing
We would be doing something.
It’s a bit like meditation what he’s suggesting.
Or perhaps writing.
Not doing nothing.
Doing something different.
And then, he tells us, this might become possible:
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
Who would not want this?
The poem ends:
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
Do you feel it?
A sense of a vast space opening up.
The poet has left—and we are here—in the quiet.
The full text of the poem is here. The poem is from Extravagaria and is translated by Alistair Reed
A short video of the poem being recited is here.
The photo is from the video.