THERE IS A STORY told about Pablo Neruda. In a concert reading in his later years, the Chilean poet stumbled while reciting a poem and lost track of the words. He could be forgiven; the man produced so many hundreds of poems that by the time he was an old man in the 1970s, he would certainly have forgotten a line or two along the way.
They are gorgeous things, Neruda’s poems. Oh, not all of them. Some are mediocre, some tossed off over coffee, some presaged Rod McKuen. Many are excellent but bloody (he was a political creature in times of revolution and exile), but most are paeans to his lovers’ bodies, to passion, to desire—poems on fire, lines heavy with expectancy, phrases used by lovers he never met to woo sweethearts he never kissed. It was one of these poems, so the story goes, that Neruda forgot at the end of one night. On stage, facing an audience, Neruda could not recall his own words. He sat in silence for a moment, mid-sentence, grappling for the beat, the syllable, the next sound. And so the audience came to its feet, in little groups, here and there, until they were all standing. Then they recited the rest of his poem back to him. They knew it by heart. They brought his words with them, like a faded clipping folded up and carried for years in a weathered wallet. When the writer lost his place and stammered with uncertainty, his audience already knew what he had come to say.
Imagine that when you are old and aging still, beyond your prime and moving inexorably onward, that the world pauses and recites back to you the leavings of your mind. Shows you the fresh faces of young lives you have newly touched and the lined and parchment-skinned faces of lives you touched long ago. Reaches back and caresses you with your own words and lets you listen as if you were a stranger and opens you to the value of your own gifts. That the world holds the door open for you and apologizes, if only for a moment, for having occasionally slammed it right in your face. How greedy we all are for the great gift of knowing that we have somehow mattered. A greed that temporarily masquerades as a desire for fame in many, but if pursued as that must go unfulfilled, for it is not a shallow complaint of the ego, but the most ancient yearning of the human heart. It is not a longing to be recognized. It is a longing to be known. It is the longing to endure, to outlast ourselves, to matter to others. To matter very much.
That Neruda moment was akin to the moment when the deaf Beethoven was turned around to face the first audience of his Ninth Symphony and see what he could not hear: the applause, the tears, the joy engendered by what he had wrought out of paper and pen and noises in his head.
“Poetry arrived in search of me,” Neruda wrote, admitting that the gift he gave others was first a gift to himself. The idea that the arts heal in both directions offers a person faith in the divine.
“Beethoven’s Ninth can save you from suicide,” a college friend told me. She knew that it was true; I never got that far down the disconsolate road of adolescence, but I trusted her sad experience. Listening to the Ninth will save you, she said, because in it you hear what wonders humans are capable of giving each other. You glimpse what God was after in creating His man-child. You hear what is possible in life. You hear goodness and hope. Perhaps even Beethoven, generally thought of as having been a crabby and uncivil fellow, listened to his own work, heard what it was that he put in there, and brought himself a bit of comfort and some surcease of sorrow.
Beethoven’s Ninth can save you from suicide. Reading Pablo Neruda’s poems can embolden the romance in your soul. And sometimes, the art comes back to the artist without artifice and rescues the creator.
This first appeared in Minnesota Monthly magazine, April 2003