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from the October 2013 issue

Making the Ordinary Extraordinary: Pablo Neruda’s Odes

When Pablo Neruda published his first of three collections of odes—the Odas elementales (Elementary Odes)—in 1954, he was probably unaware that his Russian hero, Pushkin, had written 130 years earlier that odes were the lowest form of poem because they lacked a “plan” and because mere “rapture” excluded the kind of “tranquility” which, Pushkin said, was “an indispensable condition” of the highest beauty.” 

Fortunately, Neruda does achieve rapture, tranquility, and immense beauty in many of the Odes.  Nevertheless, his aim was to speak to the ordinary people in the street about ordinary things using the language of the street. He praises simple objects like onions and tomatoes. I cannot agree with René de Costa’s view that Neruda designed the ode “as a didactic artifice.”  Neruda’s odes are neither didactic nor artificial. Many seem genuinely full of his awe at the beauty around him. His enthusiasm is irresistible. We enjoy the world anew through his eyes: yes, a simple artichoke can be seen as a soldier, wrapped in armor and ready for battle; an onion is “more beautiful than a bird / with blinding feathers.”  Other odes are overtly political, condemning North American military aggression in Korea or US appropriation of much of the Chilean copper industry.  Yet, in his superb study of the Odes, the late Robert Pring-Mill rightly rejected any attempt to divide up Neruda’s work into mutually exclusive stages and pointed out that the Odes were as politically committed, lyrically, as his 1950 book, Canto general, was epically.

The Elementary Odes proved a huge success with both readers and critics. Buoyed by the critical and public acclaim, Neruda brought out two more books of odes for the same publisher, Losada, in Buenos Aires:  Nuevas odas elementales (New Elementary Odes) in 1956 and Tercer libro de las odas (Third Book of Odes) in 1957. He later wrote that he considered these three works, plus the 1959 collection, Navegaciones y regresos (Voyages and Homecomings) to be part of a single book.


“Ode to Jean Arthur Rimbaud”

Neruda initially arrived in the capital, Santiago, from Temuco in 1921, to study French pedagogy. His name at the time was still Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto.  However, partly in order to escape his father’s clutches, he changed it to Pablo Neruda and published his first collection of poems, Crepusculario, in 1923.

Arthur Rimbaud was one of Neruda’s favorite poets as a young man. Like many of his generation, Neruda relied on Enrique Díez Canedo’s and Fernando Fortún’s 1913 anthology, La poesía simbolista francesa, which contained translations not only from Rimbaud but also Verlaine, Baudelaire, Nerval, and others.  Neruda showed—in the prologue to his only novel, El habitante y su esperanza (The Inhabitant and his Hope), published in 1926—that he identified as a young man with the romantic outsider, as Rimbaud did. And in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Stockholm in 1971, Neruda specifically linked Rimbaud with his own origins: “I believe in this prophecy of Rimbaud, the Visionary. I come from a dark region, from a land separated from all others by the steep contours of its geography. I was the most forlorn of poets and my poetry was provincial, oppressed, and rainy. But always I had put my trust in man. I never lost hope. It is perhaps because of this that I have reached as far as I now have with my poetry and also with my banner  . . .”

In the “Ode to Jean Arthur Rimbaud,” Neruda seems to be gazing back without the slightest nostalgia at his earlier anguished, self-obsessed self and relishing the fact that he is no longer enveloped in inward-looking melancholy. He had traced this transformation before, of course—most notably in one of his finest poems, “Explico algunas cosas” (Let me Explain a Few Things) from Spain in My Heart (1937) and in the very first of the Elementary Odes, “El hombre invisible” (The Invisible Man). Neruda’s verse underwent its striking metamorphosis in Spain—where he was posted as consul and witnessed at first hand the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and, most painfully of all for him, the Francoists’ murder of his great friend, Federico García Lorca, in August 1936.

Whereas Rimbaud’s poetry never changed, Neruda’s—as he himself seems to be saying almost explicitly in this ode—opened out, becoming a weapon for social and political justice.  As he also spelled out in the short poem, “To My Party” from Canto general (1950), he had forged a spirit of brotherhood with fellow man. Rimbaud was trapped in his isolation. He would not be alone, Neruda tells him in this ode, if his verse had undergone a similar transformation.

Neruda’s devotion to nineteenth-century French poetry remained with him for the rest of his life. (The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once confirmed to me that, as Chilean Ambassador in 1972, Neruda spent most of a three-hour meeting with President Georges Pompidou designed to negotiate Chile’s foreign debt discussing Baudelaire instead.)  In later years, Neruda acquired first editions of Rimbaud’s works, as well as a remarkable gift from his French surrealist poet friend, Paul Eluard:  two letters written by Rimbaud’s sister, Isabelle, from a Marseille hospital to their mother, recounting his death throes. 


“Ode to the Andean Cordillera"

I picked the “Ode to the Andean Cordillera” for the multiple resonances the mountain range held in Neruda’s life. In 1943, on his way back to Chile from his three years as Chilean Consul-General in Mexico City, he visited the Incan fortress city of Machu Picchu high up in the Andes. This lofty “encounter” with his pre-Columbian ancestors had a profound effect on the poet. As Robert Pring-Mill wrote:  “When Neruda does reach Machu Picchu, its heights turn out to be the place from which all else makes sense, including his own continent.”     

Neruda himself described this key moment as follows: “I felt infinitely small in the centre of that navel of rocks, the navel of a deserted world, proud, towering high, to which I somehow belonged. I felt that my own hands had labored there at some remote point in time, digging furrows, polishing the rocks. I felt Chilean, Peruvian, American. On those difficult heights, among those glorious, scattered ruins, I had found the principles of faith I needed to continue my poetry.”

It took Neruda nearly two years of meditation to produce one of his most famous poems, Alturas de Macchu Picchu. He added a c to the first part of the name, perhaps to imprint his own stamp on the miraculous site, to forge that long link he felt between the ancestral Andean site and his own existence. As he wrote: “I thought about ancient American man. I saw his ancient struggles intermeshed with present-day struggles. That was where the seeds of my idea of an American Canto general began to generate, a kind of chronicle …”

Six years after his visit to Machu Picchu, the Andes welcomed Neruda back, in truly remarkable circumstances. Forced into a year in hiding in safe houses around Chile—after standing up in the Santiago Senate and condemning President Gabriel González Videla for turning against the Communists who had helped bring him to power—Neruda eventually fled across the Andes on horseback into Argentina in 1949. He provided an exhilarating account of this escape in his Memoirs, Confieso que he vivido.

Perhaps the most poignant allusion to the “cordillera” in connection with Neruda’s work came from his younger compatriot and fellow poet Nicanor Parra. Rebuffing criticism of the unevenness of Neruda’s verse, Parra memorably declared: “The Andes are also uneven.”

In the “Ode to the Andean Cordillera,” the poet tellingly refers to the “school of stone” and “the stones of your sleep.”  Stone was important to Neruda. Two of his later books were entitled Las piedras de Chile (Stones of Chile, 1961) and Las piedras del cielo (Stones of the Sky, 1970). Clearly, his 1943 visit to Machu Picchu was pivotal in the evolution of his attitude to stone: it was no longer an inert material but held profound social, political, and lyrical significance for him. However, I believe there was also an earlier, and more intimate, reason for Neruda’s attachment to stone:  the construction of his beautiful house at Isla Negra. Visitors in the late 1930s recalled the constant activity of builders moving huge stone boulders around the place. Indeed, in his short prologue to Stones of Chile, Neruda wrote: “I came to live in Isla Negra in 1939 and the coast was strewn with magnificent stone presences. These stones have talked to me in their hoarse, damp language, a mixture of sea screams and vital warnings.” 

So, stone—which would transport him back to pre-Colombian times up in the Andes—also represented a material which resolutely grounded this most travelled of men at sea-level in his beloved Chilean home.


“Ode to Ángel Cruchaga”

Ángel Cruchaga Santa María (1893-1964) was a Chilean writer, winner of the Chilean National Prize for Literature in 1948. He was also a close friend of Neruda’s during his bohemian period in Santiago in the 1920s. In 1937, Cruchaga married Albertina Azócar, Neruda’s lover as a student and the woman to whom he dedicated some of his celebrated Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (the 1924 collection which, astonishingly, had sold a million copies by 1961). Neruda had continued to write to Albertina from his bizarre diplomatic postings in the Far East in the late 1920s and early 1930s, even harboring the hope that she would join him in the Orient. She did not reply to his letters, making the celebrated first line of the famous Poem 15 (“Me gustas cuando callas, porque estás como ausente” (I like it when you’re silent because it’s as if you’re absent) far more ironic than it was intended to be.

In later years, when Neruda met Albertina, he treated her with the affection of a friend, though not a close friend. But he never forgot the depth of his previous feelings for her, as can be witnessed in the two beautiful poems dedicated to her in his 1964 collection, Memorial de Isla Negra (Isla Negra Notebook).  Nor did his friendship with Ángel wane. It was Cruchaga, after all, who had called Neruda “the greatest poet in the Spanish language”—taking Neruda’s part against the Chilean critic Hernan Diaz Arrieta (better known  under his pen name of “Alone”), in October 1930. According to Robert Pring-Mill, Cruchaga and Albertina were also among those who sheltered Neruda during his year in hiding in Chile from 1948 to 1949.

In this touching ode, which first appeared in Elementary Odes, Neruda refers to himself as Cruchaga’s “younger brother” and repays Angel’s loyalty, evoking Cruchaga’s “sparkling poetry . . . not only wandering stone [my emphasis] . . . monument to human tenderness, orange blossom with roots in man.”

Note, apart from another allusion to stone, that word “roots” (raíces in the original Spanish).  It is a word Neruda overused in his poetry, according to his second wife, Delia del Carril. She had not only been a fervent supporter of the Left before he was—they met in Spain in the mid 1930s—but proved to be one of his most astute literary critics. There are wonderful Neruda manuscripts with Delia’s handwritten ¡Ojo!” (Watch out!) in the margins warning him not to repeat various words.  It is telling, I believe, that Neruda seemed to employ the word “roots” even more frequently after he finally separated from Delia in 1955 and settled down with Matilde Urrutia.  Although his nearly twenty years of life with Delia—a charming and cultured Argentinian—had been extraordinary, he appears to have felt “rooted” in his homeland when he eventually married Matilde, who was decidedly less cultured than Delia but was the only Chilean  among his three wives.


“Ode to Juan Tarrea”

In strong contrast to his brotherly tribute to Angel Cruchaga, the “Ode to Juan Tarrea” is a savagely personal attack on the Basque poet Juan Larrea. The background to this poem is very important.  Larrea had become a literary foe ever since he wrote an essay in 1944 comparing the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío favorably with Neruda. In this ode, first published in New Elementary Odes twelve years later, Neruda accuses Larrea of mercilessly exploiting the great Peruvian poet César Vallejo (with whom, it must be said, Neruda also had his differences). Neruda urges Larrea to keep away from him, to stay in Bilbao with his “caudillo” (namely General Franco). 

Larrea was appalled when he read this ode, calling it “the lowest blow” he had ever received and expressing the fervent hope that his children would never read it. But he did not let matters lie. Eight years later, in 1964, he sent a letter to the Chilean essayist and journalist Raúl Silva Castro in which he claimed that, at a lunch in Paris in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, Neruda had suddenly started insulting Vallejo, accusing him of being a Trotskyist. Larrea made an even more serious allegation: that Neruda had prevented Vallejo from acquiring a job, even though he was aware that the Peruvian was sick at the time. We need to be very careful here:  Neruda made many enemies, as well as many friends. Larrea was definitely one of his enemies. Despite Neruda’s invective, Larrea was a close friend of both Vallejo and Vicente Huidobro. So his version must be taken with a huge (indeed, Neruda-sized) pinch of salt.


“Ode to the Flowers of Datitla”

The “Ode to the Flowers of Datitla” also has an intriguing history. It was almost certainly written while Neruda and Matilde were staying at the home of his friend, Alberto Mántaras, and his wife, Olga, in the resort town of Atlántida, some thirty miles east of the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, in January 1953. “Datitla” is Neruda’s near-anagram of Atlántida. The ode was first published in the Third Book of Odes but it was the inspiration for an extraordinary book of the same name, composed by both Neruda and Matilde during their 1953 Uruguayan sojourn, which was not to appear until nearly half a century later, in November 2002. This luxury edition, limited to 1,500 copies, was published simultaneously in Santiago, Havana, Paris, and Buenos Aires. It features Neruda’s verse, with drawings and wild flowers and plants which Pablo and Matilde had lovingly gathered from the garden of Mántaras’s chalet. Neruda had wanted to publish the book soon after it was written, but he was still married to Delia. An original edition of the book can be seen in the Paseo de Neruda Museum at Atlántida. The book’s subtitle reads:  “Versos de Pablo Neruda; herbario de Matilde” (Verse by Pablo Neruda; Flower Collection by Matilde).

The ode itself confirms the depth of Neruda’s knowledge of, and love for, the natural world around him. Ironically, this passion had been unwittingly instilled in him as a child by his father, José del Carmen. He furiously opposed the idea of young Neftalí writing poetry at their home in Temuco—to the extent of throwing his notebooks out of the bedroom window on to the patio below. Yet it was José, a train driver by profession, who fed his son’s imagination by taking him on unforgettable journeys through the forests of Chile.

Neruda, like his friend Pablo Picasso, had the great gift of making the ordinary extraordinary. Nowhere does this Midas-like touch sparkle more alluringly than in the Odes, with their scintillating and contagious passion for life.

© 2013 by Adam M. Feinstein. All rights reserved.

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