Neruda was a political activist and a committed communist all his adult life, and historical events in Chile and around the world had a profound affect on his art. "Ode to My Socks" was written in 1956, four years after his return to Chile from political exile. Neruda published four books of odes from 1954 to 1959, and the verses in these collections show a profound shift in style and theme from his earlier work. Some critics have maintained that after the horrors of World War II and the political hardships he suffered in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Neruda sought to return to an examination and celebration of more elemental, human experiences. Others have contended that the odes reflect a time of simple happiness in the poet's life with his third wife, who inspired much of his later poetry. It is worth examining the historical context in which Neruda lived to get a sense of how history shaped his poetry and perhaps contributed to the style that characterizes "Ode to My Socks."
Chile in the Early Twentieth Century
When Neruda was born in 1904, Chile had been independent from Spain for eighty-six years. Neruda's life was little affected by World War I, during which Chile remained neutral and prospered economically because of wartime demand for nitrates, one of the country's chief natural resources. However, he grew up seeing considerable poverty in his home province. From early on, he was concerned with the plight of the peasants and workers around him, and he identified with the socialist cause that aimed at addressing the economic problems of Chile's poorest citizens. After World War I, Germany began to export synthetic nitrates, and the Chilean economy collapsed. Strikes erupted from all sectors of society, and conflict developed between liberal and conservative elements. The liberals gained power with the 1920 election of Arturo Alessandri Palma, but he was unable to pass his program of reform through Congress. During these turbulent years, Neruda lived in Santiago beginning his career as a poet and political activist. In 1924 a group of military figures launched a coup d'état in order to force liberal reforms. The dictatorship they formed was overthrown early in 1925 in another military coup. A new constitution was written that reformed the electoral system, reduced the power of the Congress, and conferred greater freedoms to individuals. Alessandri was restored to the presidency for less than a year. Emiliano Figueroa took over as president in 1926, and Carlos Ibáñez del Campo ruled from 1927 until 1931. It was during this time that Neruda obtained his first posting in 1927 as a diplomat. The worldwide depression that began in 1929 caused severe economic problems in Chile. After several more coups and changes in government, Alessandri was elected president...
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"Ode to My Socks,'' like so many of Neruda's odes, is charming in its directness. There is an intimacy that is created immediately with the use of the first person. The poet begins by telling a personal story; these are socks that were given to him by a certain person, Maru Mori, that she knitted with her own hands, but which he finds to be endowed with an almost unbearable beauty. The entire tone of the poem is simple without being simplistic, direct without being artless, plain yet sophisticated. The moral offered at the end comes across as unaffected wisdom.
The simplicity of the poem is surprising considering that it is an ode, which traditionally is a solemn and elaborately structured poem. Choral odes of ancient Greece (so called because they were sung by the chorus during the performance of a drama) had a three-part structure of strophe (literally "turn"), antistrophe ("turning the other way"), and epode ("added song"). This structure marks a turn from one intellectual position to another and then a recounting of the entire ode subject. Neruda to some extent follows the conventions of the ode. He chooses a subject to praise (albeit one that is traditionally not the subject of such lavish exultation). His first "turn" is to celebrate the socks' beauty by comparing them to jewel cases, sharks, and so on. He "turns the other way'' by saying what he did not do with the socks. Finally he offers a moral to the story by explaining obliquely why these socks are worthy of his admiration—and why he is in fact worthy of them.
In "Ode to My Socks," as again he does in his odes, Neruda uses very short, irregular lines. This emphasizes their simplicity, forcing a slower reading and making the poems sound more like natural speech and less artificially "poetic." But they are very clearly poems from their structure. This is in keeping with Neruda's desire to write poetry for those who did not normally read it, to represent life for ‘‘ordinary people’’ in a way that they could enjoy, to write as a poet of the people. Fernando Alegría, in his discussion of the odes, also points out that the short lines serve a function within individual poems. He says that Neruda does this not out of whimsy but "because he believes this type of line performs a definite functional purpose. . . . These short lines are like the skeleton of a Baroque body. In its aerial structure, the Nerudian Ode is like a tall building made of glass and steel to support an invisible but formidable mass. . . . In this poetic architecture every corner line becomes a live and resplendent fire of images which give birth to other images. . . ." The diction used in the odes is also straightforward. This is poetry that can be enjoyed by anyone, but has subtleties and artistry (including subtle internal rhymes that are not captured in translation) that make them interesting and textured.
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Compare and Contrast
1948: The Communist Party is outlawed in Chile, and many left-wing intellectuals are imprisoned or forced into exile and hiding.
1950s: U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy announces that he has lists of Americans who are suspected communists, ranging from State Department workers to artists to businessmen. In 1954, the Senate holds hearings about these lists, which are televised nationally. Many suspected communists are blacklisted and are unable to find work.
1970: Salvador Allende is the first communist to be elected democratically to head a nation in the Western Hemisphere.
1973: Chilean military forces overthrow Allende's government. The United States' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supports those who oppose Allende, although U.S. involvement in the overthrow is not established. Chile is ruled by military leaders, headed by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, until 1989.
1998: Pinochet is arrested in London at the request of a Spanish court, alleging that he had been responsible for the murder of Spanish citizens in Chile when he was president. He is later served with a second warrant alleging he was responsible for systematic acts in Chile of murder, torture, "disappearance," illegal detention, and forcible transfers.
1999: Human rights organizations reveal that documents declassified in 1998 indicated that the United States had not only paved the way for Pinochet to...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the literary form of the ode. In what sense does Neruda use the ode for its traditional purpose and to what extent does he revise its use? Does the traditional ode have a moral, as "Ode to My Socks" does?
Investigate the post-World War II poetry of Neruda's contemporary, the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra (1914-). Examine the differences between Neruda's "impure poetry" as he uses it in his odes and Parra's "antipoetry."
In "Ode to My Socks" Neruda compares his woolen socks to rabbit fur, jewel cases, sharks, blackbirds, and cannons. Compare his use of similes here to those used in his other odes or poems. Pay attention to the use of figurative and concrete language.
Think of ordinary objects that can be celebrated in an ode. What poetic or literary devices are used to elevate the significance of common things?
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What Do I Read Next?
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924), which launched Neruda's reputation, is one of the most widely read collections of Spanish poetry. The poems describe the poet's affairs with two women, and move from sensual passion to melancholy and detachment to bitterness.
In a celebrated essay, "On Impure Poetry" (1935), Neruda calls for "a poetry as impure as old clothes, as a body with its foodstains and its shame, with wrinkles, observations, dreams, wakefulness, prophesies, declarations of love and hate, stupidities, shocks, idylls, political beliefs, negations, doubts, affirmations, and taxes."
In Poems and Antipoems (1954), the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra practices the "impure poetry"...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Agosin, Marjorie, Pablo Neruda, Twayne Publishers, 1986.
Alegría, Fernando, "Introduction," in The Elementary Odes, by Pablo Neruda, translated by Carlos Lozano, Las Américas Publishing Company, 1961, pp. 9-17.
Belitt, Ben, ed., "Toward An Impure Poetry" (1935), reprinted in Selected Poems, by Pablo Neruda, Gove Press, 1991.
Bizzarro, Salvatore, Pablo Neruda: All Poets and the Poet, Scarecrow Press, 1979, 192 p.
Costa, René, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, Harvard University Press, 1979, 208 p.
Sayers Paden, Margret, trans.,"The House of Odes'' (1956), reprinted in Selected Odes of Pablo Neruda, University of...
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