Rough Words with Whitehead and Neruda

“In order to acquire learning, we must first shake ourselves free of it. We must grasp the topic in the rough, before we smooth it out and shape it.”
Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Free Press, 1966), p. 6.

That comment from Whitehead could be read as an exegesis of one of Pablo Neruda’s poems, Verbo.  Here’s a rough translation:


I’m going to crumple up this word,
I’m going to contort it,
it’s too sleek,
it’s as if a great dog or great river
had passed its tongue or water over it
during many years.

In the word I want
the roughness is seen
the iron salt
The de-fanged strength
of the land,
the blood
of those who spoke and of those who did not.

I want to see thirst
Within its syllables:
I want to touch fire
in its sound:
I want to feel darkness
in its cry. I want
words as rough
as virgin stones.