Today I Will Write a Little Reflection

The sun rose east of downtown Houston, the horizon glowed orange, and skyscrapers shone in reflection. A pale, full moon hung in the west. I joined teacher friends on the school rooftop—for the happening, camaraderie, and breakfast tacos. This was the first Thursday of autumn, the end of the first five weeks of the semester. I counted my blessings.

The teacher in me is always functioning in one of two ways: first, survival, then, reflecting to teach better. This year, the first year of my brand-new job after a two-year break, I’m teaching some lessons that have worked well in the past and some that are brand new to me.

A few years ago, I tried out this idea, students would read Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Puedo Escribir los Versos Más Tristes Esta Noche” (1924). First, in Spanish. The Chilean poet’s collection Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. This is Poem 20 in his collection.

I have enough Spanish speakers in my classes to pull off the reading as intended. Multiple volunteers raise their hands to read aloud, and the rest of us listen to the beauty of the language. This lesson is more about poetry appreciation than analysis. (Click here to listen in Spanish.)

Puedo Escribir los Versos Más Tristes Esta Noche

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.

Escribir, por ejemplo: 'La noche está estrellada, 
y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos.'

El viento de la noche gira en el cielo y canta.

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche. 
Yo la quise, y a veces ella también me quiso.

En las noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos. 
La besé tantas veces bajo el cielo infinito.

Ella me quiso, a veces yo también la quería. 
Cómo no haber amado sus grandes ojos fijos.

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche. 
Pensar que no la tengo. Sentir que la he perdido.

Oir la noche inmensa, más inmensa sin ella. 
Y el verso cae al alma como al pasto el rocío.

Qué importa que mi amor no pudiera guadarla. 
La noche está estrellada y ella no está conmigo.

Eso es todo. A lo lejos alguien canta. A lo lejos. 
Mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.

Como para acercarla mi mirada la busca. 
Mi corazón la busca, y ella no está conmigo.

La misma noche que hace blanquear los mismos árboles. 
Nosotros, los de entonces, ya no somos los mismos.

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero cuánto la quise. 
Mi voz buscaba el viento para tocar su oído.

De otro. Será de otro. Como antes de mis besos. 
Su voz, su cuerpo claro. Sus ojos infinitos.

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero tal vez la quiero. 
Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.

Porque en noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos, 
mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.

Aunque éste sea el último dolor que ella me causa, 
y éstos sean los últimos versos que yo le escribo.

Then, we read and listen to the audio version in English, “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines.” (Click here.)

Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, 'The night is shattered,
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is shattered and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight searches for her as though to go to her.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. Like my kisses before.
Her voice. Her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

I ask the students who understand both versions which one they like more. “It’s so much better in Spanish,” they say. “So much more passionate, more romantic. I mean, Spanish is a Romance language.”

I ask what makes this poem poetic, and they zero in on the purposeful repetition, the images, and the speaker’s internal conflict. “Her infinite eyes. Now that’s a line,” they say. The students gush a bit. They like Neruda, and this is the point.

For homework, I ask them to write lines of their own. Theirs do not have to be their saddest. They can choose whatever they want—their happiest, their angriest, their most musical or most artistic. This year I’m teaching at a high school for the performing and visual arts. I’m throwing out ideas right and left.  

They could borrow some of Neruda’s language, like “Tonight I can write ______” and stick to his format, mostly two-line stanzas, or not.  

They could write poetry or prose. Either way students would include purposeful repetition (I teach them a word—anaphora), imagery, and an internal conflict.

They could write in a language other than English. This was another spur of the moment decision. Why not? During these first weeks of school, I try hard to know my students by name and need.

And when the students returned to class a week later with completed assignments, I asked for volunteers to share. For the first time in over twenty years of teaching, students spoke in Japanese and Russian in our classroom. Other students shared in French and Spanish, Danish and English. And overall, students surprised themselves with a newfound confidence in their self-expression.

Sometimes we make school needlessly hard. I get it. We’re preparing students for college. But many of my students have been learning online for the past year and a half. I want them to leave with some good memories, a newfound love of language, maybe even a respect for humanity.

42 thoughts on “Today I Will Write a Little Reflection

  1. That’s so inspiring, Crystal. I love that you very likely made a huge impact on one student’s life, if not more. It was one of my English teachers that introduced me to a book that started my lifelong adoration for reading and writing! ❤️

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    1. Thanks, Dwight. One of my students, an actress, stood up and performed her lines. I wanted so much to whip out my phone and record, but I had told the kids to put theirs away. I might have shed a tear. It was beautiful. I might also need to revise this post.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Priscilla. I had assigned the poem as an inspiration before. We had read in Spanish before. Combining it all was a first. Sharing in Russian and Japanese in the same class on the same day was a definite teaching first. I’m not sure how to top this.

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  2. Houston is a beautiful city that I have spent far too much time in. My mother–God rest her soul–was a cancer patient for many years at MD Anderson and so, I spent many a day with her, wandering the city within a city–Texas Medical Center, getting lost on the many toll roads before (and even after, sadly) there was GPS. I’m sorry for all the cataphoric flooding that has plagued her and I know there are those who say, “enough is enough, I love you, your beauty, your intelligence, the opportunity you afford, but I can’t stand your abuse any longer. I must leave–breakfast tacos notwithstanding.” But, thankfully, more will curse her, threaten to leave her and stay with her because she is so much more than the worst of her. Your students are fortunate that you are among the latter.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi. Rightly or wrongly, for decades I haven’t read any books that were translated into English (unless the translator wrote the book originally. For example, Nabokov translated some of his early novels from Russian into English). I have this policy because I figure too much is lost or altered when a book is translated.

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  4. Bravo, Crystal! What a fantastic teaching and learning experience! The English translation of a foreign language poem is never as lyrical as the original, but we are able to share in its richness of expression and emotion.

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  5. I can feel something intangible speaking to your students at this dynamic high school. They are learning to express themselves. Not being a Spanish speaker, I imagine the poem’s English translation loses some of its feeling and passion.

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    1. I feel it, too, Big Sky. College Board may disagree, but I think in the course of life, self-expression is more important than literary analysis. Of course, I’m not making money off of my opinion, and they have turned theirs into big business.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and photos!!… I have no doubt you will be a wonderful teacher and help those youngsters realize their dreams!… “The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.” (Kahlil Gibran )… 🙂

    Until we meet again..
    May the dreams you hold dearest
    Be those which come true
    May the kindness you spread
    Keep returning to you
    (Irish Saying)

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  7. Oh, I see what you did here, Crystal! Describing first the sun rising over the city, and then, genuine appreciation – for many, for the first time in their lives – dawning on your students. Enlightenment in Houston. On that rooftop, literal and courtesy of the Universe. then intellectual, courtesy of Crystal.

    An appreciation not just for others’ work, but for the students’ own talents. What a superb preparation not just for university, but much more so, for the decades beyond. The teacher, conveying her own curiosity and her enthusiasm. Here’s the lesson they’ll remember always.

    The poetry’s original language isn’t as important as are the yearnings it communicates. Those rise above Babel.
    That said, in English’s defense, the language suffers in its ubiquity. It hardly is novel or bracing. In contrast, others still hum with their internal thrill. More difficult to recreate that in “plain ol'” English.

    Mere quibbles over superficialities, though. You’ve inspired a curiosity for the universal, and have encouraged its expression. These are life lessons, Crystal, far above the high school level; beyond grad school too. This is why you’ll be the teacher they remember fondly and still write about, in the decades ahead.

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