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Reading Pablo Neruda (and Other Poetry) to Engage Multilingual Learners of English

by Spencer Salas |

It’s February at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and love is in the air! Here in the United States, as in many parts of the world, we celebrate Valentine's Day on the 14th. For this month’s post, I’m feeling romantic. So, I’m going to write about Pablo Neruda.

Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, otherwise known as Pablo Neruda, was born on 12 July 1904. At the age of 19, he published a slim book of poetry that would catapult him to fame: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.

In June 1995, when I was teaching at Cardozo Senior High School in Washington DC, a movie came out loosely based on the Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate, Il Postino or The Postman.

Like many South American intellectuals of his generation, Neruda was active in left-wing politics and even served a term as a senator for the Chilean Communist Party. In 1948, with the election of a right-wing government, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Neruda fled to Argentina for three years as a political exile.

In the movie version, Neruda is living on a small island in Italy where a postman, Mario, delivers his mail by bicycle every day. The two men become friends. When Mario falls in love with a young woman on the island, Beatrice, he asks Neruda’s help in courting her. He asks him for the words to say that will win her over.

I won’t spoil the ending — but it’s a bittersweet story about love and despair (very much like Neruda’s poetry and life).

The fall after Il Postino came out, I started bringing Neruda to my classroom — copying one poem a week in white chalk on a large blackboard in its original Spanish with an English translation. The poems were new to me, too.

At the time, most of my students were Salvadorean teenagers and immigrant newcomers. We read the poems out loud together in Spanish and then in English. We even memorized bits and pieces of them to recite, like these:

Tonight, I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, 'The night is starry
and the stars are blue and 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.

Or like these:

Leaning into the afternoons I fling my sad nets
to that sea that is thrashed by your oceanic eyes.

The birds of night peck at the first stars
that flash like my soul when I love you.

Or these:

I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent,
and you hear me from far away and my voice does not touch you.

It seems as though your eyes had flown away
and it seems that a kiss had sealed your mouth.

Cranston characterized the inclusion of poetry in the second/foreign language classroom as “scary business” because unlike the memorization of irregular verbs, vocabulary lists, and plot summaries, reading poetry involves risk-taking.

But in the case of Neruda, my students were more than willing to take that risk — maybe because of their access to Twenty Love Poems in the Spanish original, maybe because they too, like Neruda, were far from home, or maybe because they shared his youth at the time he wrote the book.

So, in the spirit of Neruda, here are a couple of questions to think about for Valentine’s Day and the other 364 days of the year:

    • In what language(s) do you read, write, and speak love and despair?
    • Who’s a poet that taught you to do so?
    • How do you bring poetry into your classroom?

About the author

Spencer Salas

Spencer Salas, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he leads the PhD in Curriculum and Instruction Urban Literacies/TESL subconcentration. An award-winning District of Columbia Public School ESL teacher (1994–2001), he has been a Fulbright Fellow to Romania (1998), Guatemala (2007), and South Africa (2013); and, a frequent U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2003–present). His scholarship focuses on Black and Brown teachers’ lives and the potential of humanizing dignity and care as K–16 best practice.

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