Oct 07 2011

Pablo Neruda – The Poet’s Obligation

Published by at 8:04 am under Poetry

The Poet’s Obligation
by Pablo Neruda

English version by Alistair Reed

To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or harsh prison cell:
to him I come, and, without speaking or looking,
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a great fragment of thunder sets in motion
the rumble of the planet and the foam,
the raucous rivers of the ocean flood,
the star vibrates swiftly in its corona,
and the sea is beating, dying and continuing.

So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea’s lamenting in my awareness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the autumn’s castigation,
I may be there with an errant wave,
I may move, passing through windows,
and hearing me, eyes will glance upward
saying, “How can I reach the sea?”
And I shall broadcast, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and of quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing,
the grey cry of sea-birds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea
will make their answer to the shuttered heart.

— from On the Blue Shore of Silence: Poems of the Sea, by Pablo Neruda / Translated by Alastair Reid

/ Photo by Nina Stawski /

Here it’s a chilly Friday morning in Autumn. And as someone who grew up along the edges of the Pacific Ocean but who now lives inland near the Rocky Mountains, this poem speaks to me…

I think the poet is saying it’s time for a prison break!

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14 responses so far

14 Responses to “Pablo Neruda – The Poet’s Obligation”

  1. Deniseon 07 Oct 2011 at 9:39 am

    What a beautiful poem! I am lucky enough to be sitting in my study at home, it’s late afternoon and I am looking out at the sea and mountains and I would like to send you all some of the vibrant and wild energy that is out there that I have the privilege to enjoy.
    Close your eyes and let the flow of the poem and the wild sea wash through you and cleanse you of all your worries and woes.

  2. Ivan M. Grangeron 07 Oct 2011 at 10:59 am

    Good point, Qahira… I guess I slipped past that reference to women in my reading of the poem. It does seem out of place and possibly misogynistic. Rereading those lines now, I suppose the most generous way to interpret those lines is that Neruda is addressing his poem to people who are trapped, including people trapped by either romantic obsession or, possibly, the status quo of home life. I don’t know. How do others read this line?

  3. Qahiraon 07 Oct 2011 at 10:49 am

    I must be really thick – but I cannot quite “get” why woman is lumped in with all the other forms of grey traps where he says…”to whoever is cooped up
    in house or office, factory or woman
    or street or mine or harsh prison cell” Maybe someone could educate me. To tell the truth I did not get any further than that in the poem. I am a woman who has gladly devoted her life to husband, children, home as well as Art profession and think of this ‘woman’ world being somewhat different than something one becomes cooped in like a factory enclosure. Poor translation maybe.


  4. PERSIANSUFIon 07 Oct 2011 at 11:52 am

    I had red his poems in Persian translation and it was a very good choice for me to revive my old memory in Iran as i live out of Iran for few years.
    Thanks to Ivan for his continuous support & to all chaikhana’s members. have a nice day!!!
    kind Regards
    Mohammad sardari

  5. Arthuron 07 Oct 2011 at 12:40 pm


    I spent much of my youth close enough to the ocean to fall asleep caressed by the sounds of the surf. Now I live in the midwest, landlocked but still able to find words that will bring the sea back to me. Neruda gives me more words. The poem has released me.

    Best regards,


  6. Afton Blakeon 07 Oct 2011 at 7:27 pm

    I love this poem. I will read it over and over.


  7. nasihaon 07 Oct 2011 at 10:43 pm

    love it and will print it and read it as often as i can.
    thank you Ivan, well chosen, just perfect. because i live by the sea and the sea speaks to me, whispers..shhh

  8. simonbaghon 08 Oct 2011 at 8:45 am

    voice of silence echoes just by artistic sigh
    a sigh that creates art, that may never die

  9. Melanieon 08 Oct 2011 at 9:08 am

    I loved this poem…;thank you!!!

  10. Casieon 09 Oct 2011 at 1:18 am

    I can feel this poem as a place of traping and seeking freedom. As for the coment of womenI too s
    feel it is comming from a place of poss. intrapment such as the violance against womeon
    and maybe to seeing out freedom to voice the silent, by poetry. I feel deeply moved.

  11. Lakshmion 02 Nov 2011 at 11:18 pm

    My college was just opposite the Arabian sea. We used to watch the Sea in all its different moods. It was great experience.

  12. Janeon 03 Feb 2015 at 2:13 pm

    “Cooped up in … woman”

    My guess is that he perceived that in certain cultures the role of the woman is very confining. If you must wear a dress, if you must behave a certain way… when you may want to wear jeans, or run around at night without people making assumptions on what’s proper.

    The role of the man in many cultures is to initiate, go on adventures, be the leader, etc. The role of the woman is to respond to others’ initiatives, advances, raise the children, etc.

    However, having said that, I am not sure how it’s Pablo’s obligation to define the way out of that definition of woman. Yet poetry in general can rouse people to new values, new potentials, new ways of being.

  13. […] I’ve been reading this book for a long time and slowly, because I couldn’t read it any faster. I couldn’t read it when I was too tired or distracted. It demanded a different kind of attention than reading a novel or most anything else, where each word and each line was there on purpose and if I was not paying full attention, then I was lost. There were a few that I returned to on the topic of writing, words, poetry and a poet’s obligation. […]

  14. David Giannini: An Interview (Part Two)on 02 Feb 2016 at 2:39 pm

    […] TPB: Do poets have any social/political responsibilities beyond their ordinary duties as citizens? That is, do they have any “obligations” such as Neruda describes in “The Poet’s Obligation”? […]

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