Among the late Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's poems is one titled "Ode to Socks." In it, Neruda praises, as the title suggests, socks. In his poem "Ode to Tomatoes," he praises, obviously, tomatoes. In reading Pablo Neruda's work, the reader is contemplating the life and works of a Nobel Prize laureate in literature. He is the most revered poet in Chilean history. And he penned odes to socks and tomatoes, as well as to his cat, to an artichoke, and to other everyday, mundane items. The logical question, then, is why would such a gifted and honored writer (who also served his native country as a diplomat) spend his time writing odes to things like tomatoes and artichokes? The answer lies in Neruda's political and philosophical orientation and how he viewed the ostentatious trappings of wealth among the upper classes of South American societies. Neruda was a communist who supported left-wing causes during a time when such activities could prove fatal. His politics and perspectives heavily influenced his poetry. In his myriad "odes," however, those perspectives were decidedly satirical. In them, Neruda was satirizing poetry that was more reflective of upper-class values. Note, in the following lines from "Ode to Tomatoes," the poet's highly exaggerated language in reference to that particular vegetable (tomatoes, technically, are classified as fruit, but are commonly viewed as vegetables):
"it is the wedding
of the day,
of the roast
at the door,
Neruda exalts the role of the tomato in enhancing various recipes while lamenting the item's inevitable destruction as a natural part of the process by which salads and tomato sauces are made:
"Unfortunately, we must
into living flesh...."
Neruda's "odes" were not intended to be taken seriously except as parodies or satires of the self-important odes produced by others that served, in his view, to simply illuminate the elitist nature from which such works sprang.
An ode is a classical form that traditionally deals with a grand or important topic. Pablo Neruda's poem "Ode to Tomatoes", like the paradoxical encomium, applies this genre to a homely subject, a common food and cooking ingredient that is an essential element of the cuisine of his native Chile.
Neruda himself was a communist, with strong sentimental ties to the working people and the oppressed peasants and indigenous peoples of small frontier towns. He regards them as the heart of Chile and much of his poetry praises the simple and everyday which he connects to the working class and poor. Thus in praising the simple tomato he engages in subtle political commentary, arguing for the importance of everyday people (who are metaphorically similar to this ordinary vegetable) and the peasants and small farmers who grow tomatoes.
He praises the tomato in its role as food, but mentions the paradox that to use the tomato in cooking we must destroy it:
Unfortunately, we must
into living flesh,
Next, Neruda describes several forms of food preparation which include tomatoes, from salads and salsa to various forms of stew.
The conclusion of the poem praises the way every part of the tomato is accessible and edible.