The Inspiration of Ordinary Things
by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
"Neruda brings the drama and excitement to the observation of ordinary things."|
Most of us are trying to thing of something dramatic and world-shaking to write about: a failed love affair, the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, a car accident or some kind of miracle like being saved from doom at the last second. But Neruda brings the drama and excitement to the observation of ordinary things.
“It is good at certain hours of the day and night to look at objects at rest,” Pablo Neruda wrote in Toward an Impure Poetry.
“Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand’s obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spatter diversely by the trades we live by…”
“A poetry as impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love…”
And that’s what Neruda sets out to achieve, writing about something as ordinary as an artichoke.
Till on a day,
So you have it;
"Notice how Neruda describes the artichoke as having a delicate heart…"|
Notice how Neruda describes the artichoke as having a delicate heart, but also being in battle dress with its scallop of scales and minimal cupola, and pomegranate burnishes. There are bellicose words of violence and war: armed for the skirmish, a crashing of crate staves, a battle formation, most warlike, dismembering contrasted with the homey, everyday nature of the artichoke with its sweetness and delicate heart.
To describe the artichoke and the other vegetable, Neruda uses personification, giving human traits (qualities, feelings, action, or characteristics) to non-living objects (things, colors, qualities, or ideas). Personification is largely out of favor today, but in the hands of a master, it will always work. Here’s some examples: “demonic vegetables, the sedulous cabbage arranges its petticoats, oregano sweetens a world, the artichoke moves to its dream of a marketplace.”
But notice how, after all the personification of the vegetable, the poem really comes alive when a genuine person, Anna comes onto the scene, examining the artichokes the way one would candle eggs
Neruda works the same magic with a lemon:
Out of lemon flowers
Cutting the lemon
So, while the hand
"Neruda takes the common lemon and makes it into a celestial body…"|
Neruda takes the common lemon and makes it into a celestial body, moving down from the “tree’s planetarium, the diminutive fire of a planet, starry divisions, the gold of the universe.” The lemon becomes holy—“cutting it with a knife leaves a cathedral,” “we open the halves of a miracle,” “creation.” And yet, the description is exacting–how perfect the metaphor of a lemon cut in half to a breast and a nipple.
In Ode to my Socks, Neruda applies his same brand of magical observation of something ordinary to his socks:
Ode to my Socks
Mara Mori brought me
Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
The moral of my ode is this:
"This is an elegant celebration of a pair of woolen socks "|
This is an elegant celebration of a pair of woolen socks written to pay homage to the ordinary materials of daily life. Without affectation or intellectualizing, the poem uses a series of startling images, a paean to a useful object. Odes were originally elaborate and stately compositions sung in public in honor of a great person, event, or season. The form dates back to ancient Greece. Since an ode is such a formal structure, having one to a pair of socks is hilarious, but also makes the point that socks deserve that sort of acclaim.
So next time you are looking for something to write about, you may not need to go further than your own feet.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.