The first ode I encountered as a student was British Romantic bard John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." It's a lyrical poem that uses a piece of ancient Greek pottery as a metaphor to explore connections between the soul, nature and art. Written when Keats was 23, "Grecian Urn" has, for nearly 200 years, challenged critics with the line, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." Emotionally engaged as Keats is in the poem, it remains, at its core, a philosophical game—a paradox-strewn ekphrasis. In sum, it's the kind of verse a young man writes to work out aesthetic problems.
It's also the kind of poem a young man writes when he has no real-life experience from which to draw, no larger ideas to announce on his own. In this way, describing, or distilling the essence of, a work of art in stanzas serves as a creative springboard. From there, a poet can go anywhere—even, perhaps, in the direction of greatness.
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) achieved greatness. He accomplished it with the publication of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. He was 19. Yes, the poems are sentimental, but they're deeply moving, vivid, memorable. The book articulates the lustful highs and melancholy lows of a heart-wrenching affair. So it's interesting that Neruda was nearly 50 when he began writing a series of odes, some of which longtime Tucsonan William Pitt Root has translated in a new collection.
The title Sublime Blue: Selected Early Odes by Pablo Neruda doesn't mean to suggest the poems were written early in the poet's career. Rather, Root presents Neruda's earliest efforts at ode composition. As far as Neruda poems go, these are good, if a bit on the let-me-do-a-writing-exercise-as-a-way-of-defeating-writer's-block side. (He wrote these during a transition between wives.) Slender in their form—with only three or four words per line—the odes tower like tall, ornamental agaves, blooming century plants spiked with crisp language instead of bright flowers. As Root notes in his introduction, the poems radiate "an air of quick spontaneity," and Neruda himself suggested his technique here displays a controlled impulsiveness.
Because of the fast, fluid and minimalist approach—and because Neruda is a 20th-century poet writing in a Romance language—these odes might seem, on the whole, easier to translate than, say, Slavic metrics or Chinese classical verse. But meaning is one thing, beauty another. I have no problem understanding Neruda's imagery with my semester-abroad Castilian by simply glancing at the original Spanish in this facing-page edition (Spanish on left, English translation on right). But Root expertly and eloquently communicates countless truths in every decision he makes.
Here, for instance, are the opening lines of Ode a la intranquilidad ("Ode to Restlessness"):
Madre intranquilidad, bebí en tus senos
electrizada leche, acción severa!
Reading it on my own, I translate it thusly: Wound-up mamma, I drink electric milk from your boobs, a severe action! Which explains why I don't translate for a living.
Now here's Root's deft touch:
Mother Restlessness, from your breasts
I have suckled the milk electric, rash act!
Notice how the simple act of transposing milk and electric (Spanish syntax, yes, but also a Walt "I Sing the Body Electric" Whitman nod) enriches the lines. It's a subtle shift only a master poet like Root—his own verse has been in The New Yorker and earned him Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts grants—can manage.
Although nothing in Sublime Blue has the philosophical heft of "Grecian Urn," these poems serve as compelling meditations on objects seen and unseen. My favorite is "Ode to the Atom," which darkly begins:
to be interred
The one day
at the tiny door:
it was man.
Neruda plays a young man's game with odes and succeeds. His success, as far as English-only readers is concerned, is made possible by Root's superb translation. While Sublime Blue is hardly the place to begin with Neruda, it's a cool summer read in the shade for those of us in the Southwest who enjoy sensual, thoughtful verse.