The Didactic Content of "Ode to My Socks"
"Ode to My Socks" is a poem about poetry. Or, at least it is a poem about Pablo Neruda's idea of what poetry is and what it should be. In some of his other odes, like "Ode to Salt," "Ode to a Watermelon,'' and "Ode to Laziness," he does what he does best—he shows us the magic in the mundane. He shows us how poetry is everywhere, and all we have to do is change how we look at the world. Neruda achieves this effect through his brilliant play with ekphrasis. An ekphrasis is a poem, usually an ode, dedicated or written about an art object. The most famous use of ekphrasis is probably John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." In "Ode to My Socks," he dedicates the ode, one of the most revered poetic forms, to a pair of socks knitted by a friend of his and shows us how wearing these socks transforms a typically routine gesture into an epiphanic moment, an almost holy engagement with the divine.
There is a funny rumor surrounding the genesis of Neruda's odes. According to legend, a literary critic made the claim that Neruda could write endlessly about abstractions and ideas, but he couldn't write about "things." So, to prove him wrong, in 1954 Neruda wrote a book entitled Odas Elementales (Elemental Odes) and another, Nuevos Odas Elementales (New Elemental Odes) in 1956. Robert Bly has translated the title as "Odes to Simple Things." And, the form of the poems conform to their subject. The lines are very short. Often, only one or two words appear on a line, and never are there more than four or five words per line. The form forces us to focus in on the individual word, the small unit, the thingness of the poem. In this way, Neruda's odes resemble Rainer Maria Rilke's dinggedichte or "thing poems." Also, it would appear that long after Ezra Pound's influence had lagged, Neruda had decided to take to heart some of Pound's imagist ideals, most notably the refusal to use any word that was not absolutely necessary. As William Carlos Williams would write later, "Not ideas but things."
What distinguishes Neruda's (and most Latin American) poetry from North American poetry is how they work with the image. Bly argues that Imagism should change its name to "Picturism," since the Imagists don't really use the image so much as they use the picture. Reality is not changed in Imagist texts, simply represented. In other words, there is a sense in which Imagism is little more than condensed, poetic realism. On the other hand, Bly suggests that real imagism is grounded in Surrealism, in the subconscious, in the conflation of unlike ideas, such as when Neruda writes "my feet were / two fish made / of wool.’" Picturing Neruda's two feet as woolly fish is much different than picturing a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens. So, another way to think of the distinction is to consider that the poetry of Pound, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Williams is grounded in external images, whereas the poetry of Neruda is grounded in the internal image.
And oh, does Neruda give us some wonderful images in "Ode to My Socks.'' The poem begins in a typically narrative fashion; in fact, it is a sort of realist, autobiographical beginning. A woman, Maru Mori, brings Neruda a pair of socks that she knitted herself. However, as soon as Neruda describes the gift as "two socks soft as rabbits'' the poem shifts from realism to surrealism, from the practical to the magical. Neruda animates the socks, almost to the point of personification. Note that he does not claim they are as soft as rabbit fur but rabbits themselves. Already, the poet pulls us out of the realm of the rational by suggesting that the socks live. As is the case with most Neruda poems, he keeps pushing:
I slipped my feet into them as though into two cases knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin. Violent socks, my feet were two fish made of wool, two long sharks sea-blue, shot through by one golden thread, two immense blackbirds, two cannons
Through these wild images and intense metaphors, Neruda...
(The entire section is 7,219 words.)