Thursday, January 17, 2008

Pablo Neruda's The Book of Questions is mind-expanding. I came across it in Borders last year and read it greedily. When I lost it at a school I'd been visiting I felt bereft until a replacement arrived from Amazon. I don't know all of Neruda's work - he wrote so much it's going to take a while - and have already raved about The Captain's Verses. I'm waiting for the postman to deliver his Odes to Common Things but for now I'm back into the questions.

In composing these, Neruda was mining our most primitive drive - curiosity and inventiveness. It's curiosity that's moved us around the world, driven us to dissect, learn, stare, listen and dream ourselves into the inventions and theories that follow. He was also placing himself in the mind of a child and there's probably no more creative state.

When I worked full time as a journalist, questions defined my daily life. I asked questions that I wanted answers to. I was taught, as an indentured trainee, to avoid questions that required only yes or no. As I became more experienced, I learned that the silence following an answer could often lead to an even fuller or truer response. I learned that after asking a question, I had to trust silence and sometimes ask again in a different way.

I hated the foot in the door questions - how do you feel? - that are such blunt intrusions. I also knew we're all nervous about how our answers are used.

When I am writing, I start with questions. I was once told that the poem was not in the question but in the answer I struggled to provide. That's valid. But reading Neruda, I am more aware of how I am full to the brim with questions.

Questions can be awkward. Remember those moments when a child asks a difficult question on a crowded bus, in front of acquaintances? A question that can't be avoided or shuffled off....that may be so intensely personal you want to disappear.

Questions are at the heart of love, equality, freedom of expression and civil liberties. When we turn away from questions, turn them back on the questioner, imprison the questioner, mock her, intimidate her, threaten him or disadvantage him, we betray what makes us human.

Most of the questions in Neruda's book are enough as can fill a train journey from north to south of France. One is enough for a day. Attempting to answer them all could provide a lifetime's work. He could have written them as aphorisms but he didn't. Why? The aphorism is a statement, entertaining but essentially arrogant.

A question is a distillation of humility and exploration - both qualities that make his work so great.

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