Ode to an Artichoke

by Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto

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The Poem

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“Ode to an Artichoke” (it has also been translated under the title “Artichoke”) is a short poem consisting of thirty-three lines of free verse. The poem establishes the poet’s connection to the elemental or basic qualities of objects that surround everyone in daily life—here, common food items or vegetables. Pablo Neruda imagines the relationship that an artichoke may have to the rest of the members of the vegetable kingdom and, in the broadest terms, to reality itself. The artichoke is described as being “of delicate heart” yet dressed for battle inside its small “cupola” (a rounded vault that forms a roof). It keeps itself isolated and protected under its scales. This humble member of the food chain is surrounded by less prudent inhabitants of nature’s botanical kingdom. Wild, even crazy, vegetables bristle, raising their backs as if to engage in battle. At the same time, the carrot sleeps under the soil and the cabbage busies itself trying on a skirt. The spicy oregano perfumes the rest of the world while the artichoke, armed for a battle, stays quietly in its garden plot, burnished and proud like a pomegranate.

The poem presents a vision of the natural world, of grapevines and common vegetables come to life, conscious of their place in the scheme of nature and able to make choices about the ways in which they live their lives. Like humans, they can be either calm or belligerent; they can be showy and pretentious or stoic and independent. In the poem Neruda takes an approach quite different from that of many Latin American modernists, such as Rubén Darío, who express a vision of human life in terms of a so-called “poetical” reality. Rather, Neruda utilizes mundane objects as a springboard for his divagations on the nature of human life and the role of the poet in the midst of the flux of history.

Forms and Devices

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The poem’s references to plant life establish a basic and obvious metaphor for the various modalities of human life. The poem’s style is spare and abrupt; the ode begins with a direct naming of Neruda’s center of interest, the artichoke, without any fanfare. Neruda’s personification of the vegetables does not stop with the artichoke itself but continues throughout the work. The poem has an effect something like a Disneyized cartoon in which the plants and flowers suddenly come to life to adopt human emotions and act in human relationships.

The artichoke protects itself within its “cupola,” Neruda’s way of describing the green fibers that protect the central part of this plant. Rather than indulging in myriad adjectives to describe a humanized scale of emotions, the poet uses simple action verbs such as “ perfume,” “try on,” “bristle,” and “sleeps.” He consciously refrains from interjecting personal reactions or emotions into the goings-on of the various members of the botanical kingdom.

The short, even terse, lines of the poem—sometimes limited to only two syllables—contribute to the starkly direct effect that this work has. The ideas are generated by broken syntax in lines of poetry which are most often incomplete in themselves. They must be read in groups of two or three to understand their basic meaning. The result is a choppy, brusque, poetic expression that may be seen as a linguistic corollary to the prosaic and “antipoetic” nature of the subject itself.

Certainly Neruda’s choice of the artichoke to be his vehicle for an allegory on certain aspects of human life is original and deceptively simple. Casual readers may read this as just one more poetic description of a garden as can be seen in traditional ballads or in the more saccharine productions of late Romantic and Victorian poetry. The depiction is mundane to the point of being prosaic. It clearly avoids the pitfalls of clichés that often spring up around the poetry of gardens. It is simplistic to the degree that it would be easy to find this a one-dimensional poem in which the author indulges his well-known affinity for the sights and sounds of immediate reality without engaging a deeper level of literary meaning.

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