The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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“A Smell of Cordwood” is an ode (a song of praise) in seven stanzas; it is written in free verse. The title is significant in that it states the rather unusual subject matter being praised: the smell of ordinary wood.

The opening stanza begins abruptly, in medias res (in the middle of things). The speaker of the poem describes the feeling of the cold and starry night as it rushes in through the door of his home “on an ocean/ of galloping hooves.” Night is personified as an invading presence.

In the next brief stanza, out of the darkness, “like a hand,” comes “the savage/ aroma/ of wood on the woodpile.” Like the night that invaded the speaker’s domicile, the aroma of wood is humanized; it savagely assaults and overwhelms the speaker’s senses.

The third stanza infuses the odor of the wood with life and form; it “lives/ like a tree.” The odor is so palpable, so intense, in fact, that the poet, deliberately confusing the senses, calls it “visible.” The stanza ends with another metaphor. The wood becomes so “alive” that it is as if it “pulsed like a tree.”

When the speaker describes the odor as “Vesture/ made visible” in the next stanza (two lines), the metaphor in the preceding stanza is continued. This line is a play on the biblical phrase “and the Word was made flesh.” Instead of the Word, however, the odor is made flesh. Moreover, the word “vesture” has a religious connotation of its own; it recalls the vestments of a priest. The next stanza is also two lines long: “A visible/ breaking of branches.” The odor of the wood, then, becomes as “visible” a vestment of the tree as a broken branch.

In the sixth stanza, the speaker of the poem turns back and reenters the house. He notices in the distance the sparkle of particles in the sky. Yet the smell of wood overpowers all other senses and takes hold of the speaker’s heart. The metaphors used to compare the seizure of the heart by the smell are that of a hand grasping at the heart, jasmine assaulting the senses, and, finally, “a memory cherished.”

In the last stanza, the lengthiest, the speaker tries to describe the scent of the wood in negative terms. It is not, for example, “harrowing/ pine odor,” or “slashed/ eucalyptus,” or “like/ the green/ exhalation/ of arbors.” It is something more obscure, more subtle. The speaker says that it is a fragrance that offers itself only once. It awaited the speaker there, that night, and “struck like a wave,” then it disappeared into the speaker’s blood or became part of him as he opened the door to the night.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Pablo Neruda’s poetics in “A Smell of Cordwood,” as well as throughout the three volumes translated as The Elementary Odes of Pablo Neruda (1961), strongly based on clarity and simplicity, is effectively portrayed by, and revealed through, the typographical medium employed. In the typographical arrangement of “A Smell of Cordwood,” the separation of lines and the white spaces between words, as well as between stanzas, influence the meaning of the poem in the same way that silences and pauses form an integral part of a musical composition.

Neruda makes use of numerous lines in which only one word appears. This line division is clearly a great help to the unsophisticated reader of poetry, allowing him or her to concentrate on one or two words at a time, to grasp their meaning before continuing further. The simplified syntax of the Elementary Odes is particularly effective when Neruda’s subject matter is a description of nature, as in this poem. In this case, the description, proceeding step by step and sense by sense, is reflected in the typography, in which each aspect of the scent of cordwood is expressed in isolation, as a single unit. Every line is a separate brushstroke contributing to the total effect, yet every line is also capable of existing as a discrete unit. Neruda’s method in the odes has been likened to that of the finest nature artists. Vincent van Gogh, for example, used such simple brushstrokes and colors in his paintings.

In several of the Elementary Odes, the short line also functions in a way that makes it suggestive of the subject matter. In this poem about odor, for example, Neruda uses lines as short and concise as gusts of night air. The typography of the poem very simply creates a perfect blend of intention, form, and content. As a result of employing the short line, as well as the consequent break with the traditional effects of metrics, Neruda’s odes are not only among his most easily accessible works but are also among his most translatable works.

Besides the language and syntax, the imagery of the poem is nearly always clear and unequivocal. Meaning is often literal. In the poem, Neruda sings the essential themes of humankind and exalts one element that makes up the material world in its individual form: the sense of smell. The poem is joyful, optimistic, and clear; the world represented is coherent, rational, and structured—in a word, realistic.