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 again in 1932 and served until 1938.
The Spanish Civil War Neruda did not escape political and social turmoil by living abroad. He was in Spain when the Civil War broke out in 1936. In this conflict, conservative forces in Spain overthrew the second Spanish republic. The war pitted Nationalists, led by the wealthy landowners and aristocracy, Catholic Church, military leaders, and fascist Falange party, against the Loyalists, which consisted of liberals, anarchists, socialists, and communists. Many of Neruda's close friends and associates, including the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, were executed by Nationalist forces. Neruda aided in the Loyalist cause, organizing support for political refugees and helping them to find asylum in Chile. The events of the war had a profound effect on Neruda, and he wrote: "The world changed, and my poetry has changed. One...
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drop of blood falling on these lines will remain alive in them indelible like love."
Chile in the 1940s and 1950s In 1943 Neruda returned to Chile after a diplomatic posting in Mexico. The president in Chile at the time was Juan Antonio Ríos, a member of the Radical Party that was a part of a coalition of democratic groups united in a popular front. Ríos governed as a moderate as tensions escalated between factions of Chileans who supported the policies of the United States and those who supported the Soviet Union. Ríos entered the war on the side of the United States in 1944. During the war, the Communist Party emerged as one of the strongest political organizations in Chile, and Neruda was a prominent member. During this time, he continued to write poetry with a distinct sociopolitical message.
After the war the 1946 presidential election was won by Gabriel González Videla, a Radical Party leader who was supported by a left-wing coalition consisting mainly of the Radical and Communist parties. Videla's coalition lasted for less than six months. The Communists were removed from the cabinet in April 1947. In 1948 Neruda published an open letter denouncing Videla, and was forced into exile. The same year hundreds of other communists were imprisoned and the Communist Party outlawed. A military revolt led by former President Ibáñez was suppressed. Manifestations of social and labor unrest were frequent in the following years; in 1951 strikes occurred in almost every sector of the economy. A popular reaction against the traditional parties resulted in the election of General Ibáñez the following year.
In 1952 Neruda was permitted to return home, and he settled in Isla Negra, a seaside village on the Pacific coast of Chile, with his wife Mathilde. It was here in 1954 that he began composing his odes. "Ode to My Socks'' appeared in 1956 in the second volume of these simple verses. The political voice that characterized his poetry of the earlier years is clearly softened in these direct poems that sing of the humble but extraordinary beauty of the everyday, praising such mundane things as an artichoke, clothes, fish stew, a tomato, girls gardening, and a fallen chestnut. Neruda declared that he wanted to write poetry for the people, for the peasants and workers who had helped him during his years in exile, for common folk who were unfamiliar with the conventions of sophisticated poetry. This aspiration seemed to stem from his lifelong commitment to communism and his desire to speak for and to the unrepresented. The poems also make clear the philosophical underpinnings of Neruda's position as a communist. Communism has its basis in the teaching of Karl Marx, who stressed the material (as opposed to immaterial, metaphysical, or spiritual) nature of the world and its effect on historical events. The things of the world and humans' place in it, according to Marxists, are what shape history. So then the odes, which celebrate the material world, mark a turning point in Neruda's poetry because they move away from overt politicizing but reveal still the poet's enduring commitment to social justice and communist ideas. As Neruda himself said, "Poetry is like bread, and it must be shared by everyone, the men of letters and the peasants, by everyone in our vast, incredible, extraordinary family of man."
Style "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.
Imagery Neruda uses a great many images in his poem of very few words to describe a lowly pair of socks. The images are surprising and certainly not expected to be used of hosiery. The socks' softness is compared to rabbit fur. The shiny, dark bluish/black color of the socks is captured by comparing the poet's stockinged feet to blue sharks, blackbirds, and cannons. The socks are otherworldly, not quite material (they are made partly of dusk) and his feet are honored to wear them. Their luminosity is emphasized as they are likened to sharks the color of the lapis lazuli stone woven with gold thread and also to fire. That they are precious to the poet is noted as they are compared to jewel cases and even something he had a wild impulse to place in a gold cage. They are like a rare and exotic animal. All of these images that are used as comparison with the socks emphasize their extraordinary nature. They also contrast with the simple declaration at the end of the poem, where the poet describes them finally as simply as ''two / woolen socks / in wintertime." The socks are all the things the poet has said; they are an aesthetic wonder. But their beauty lies also in their usefulness, and that is simply in being socks that make feet warm in wintertime.
Literary Heritage Chile is a long, narrow country on the west coast of South America. It is about ten times as long as it is wide and stretches 2,650 miles from north to south. It has a varied climate and topography, from its deserts in the north to rugged, snow-capped central mountain ranges to its rainy south. For nearly 300 years, Chile was a Spanish colony. It gained independence in 1818, after which it has been ruled mostly by democratically elected governments, with the exception of military dictatorships in the late 1920s and then from 1973 to 1989. About two-thirds of Chile's people are of mixed Indian and Spanish ancestry. The descendants of the original Araucanian Indians form a tiny minority. Spanish, the official language, is spoken by nearly all the population with the exception of some Indians, who retain their own tongues. About 76 percent of the population is Roman Catholic.
This small Latin American country has enjoyed a particularly rich literary heritage. Chilean writers who have reached international stature in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries include the novelists and short story writers Joseé Donoso, Joaquin Edwards Bello, Manuel Rojas, Isabel Allende, and Nicanor Parra; the playwright Ariel Dorfman; and the cubist poet Vincente Huidibro. The poet Gabriela Mistral won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, and Neruda won the prize in 1971.
Until the early nineteenth century, most of Latin American literature was indistinguishable from that of the Spanish conquerors. In the early twentieth century the literary movement called modernismo (modernism), which had its roots in French and American poetry of the late 1800s, swept Chile and the rest of the continent. Modernismo was influenced in part by French symbolism and the poetry of North American poets such as Edgar Allan Poe. Practitioners of modernismo tended to use elegant form and exotic images. When Neruda began writing in the early 1920s, the poetry of his Chilean contemporaries contained elements of late-nineteenth-century Spanish classicism as well as modernismo. Mistral was one of the few poets who rebelled against tradition and the elegant, mannered style of modernismo to take on a more authentically Chilean voice as she wrote of the suffering of children, peasants, and Indians. Neruda was certainly influenced by modernismo early in his career, but he too moved in the direction of Mistral, declaring that his artistic goal was to liberate Latin American poetry from the nineteenth century and bring it into the twentieth century by returning it to its cultural roots. Neruda's innovative techniques and contributions, including a concern with politics and social issues, attention to the sensuality of the present, use of tight metaphors, elaborate imagery, interior rhyme, repetition, and alliteration, and the use of multiple points of view, have had a revolutionizing influence on subsequent Chilean poetry and indeed all of Latin American literature.
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 seize power but helped him keep it.
2000: A communist party member runs for election in Chile.
Today: The U.S. Communist Party is an active organization that continues to promote its vision of a socialist United States, despite the fact that the party has never won a significant political election.
1954: Neruda begins composing his series of odes about common, everyday objects. The poems are written in simple, direct language so that they will reach people who are unfamiliar with poetry.
1980s: Chicano poet Jimmy Santiago Baca writes and publishes poetry which he says is dedicated to the people on the streets rather than the elites in universities.
Today: Many cities in the United States have programs called "Poetry on the Buses," in which short, usually uncomplicated poems by people of all walks of life are displayed to reach a wide audience.
1949-52: Neruda is forced into exile from Chile because of his commitment to communist ideas and his criticism of the Chilean government.
1974-76: Nobel Prize-winning novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn is arrested and tried for treason by his Soviet government in 1974 after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago. He is exiled from the Soviet Union for his criticism of the communist government. In 1976 he is given political asylum in the United States and settles in Vermont.
1991: Chinese writer Yang Lian is forced into exile in Europe after his involvement in anti-government demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
1994: Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, is forced to flee Nigeria after a warrant is issued for his arrest for his criticism of the Abacha regime.
Sources 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 California Press, 1990, p. 171.
Further Reading Alazraki, Jaime, "Pablo Neruda: The Chronicler of All Things," Books Abroad, Vol. 46, 1972, pp. 49-54. Offers a short discussion on the structure of the odes.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Modern Critical Views: Pablo Neruda, Chelsea House Publishers, 1989, 345 p. Representative selection of the best criticism available in English on Neruda's work; includes an essay by Walter Holzinger on the subject and form of the odes.
Teitelboim, Volodia, Neruda: An Intimate Biography, translated by Beverly J. DeLong-Tonelli, University of Texas Press, 1991. Biography written by a novelist and senator in the Allende government who was an intimate of Neruda's.