Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 8: Praise of Common Things in Neruda’s “Ode to Salt”

The next poem of praise I’d like to talk about is by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who lived from 1904 to 1973. Neruda is probably best known for his early book Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, published in 1924 and written when Neruda was only 19. He’s also well known as a poet of political protest. In this blog, I’m going to discuss Neruda’s odes.

Pablo Neruda
The ode was originally a song of praise in ancient Greece commissioned by a rich person. For instance, a wealthy individual might want to celebrate the victory of a chariot he sponsored in the Olympic games. People with means used to pay for chariots in the Olympics just like corporations now put their logos on NASCAR racing cars. Greek poets, notably Pindar, began writing odes to celebrate those winners, but the ode eventually came into much wider use.

Neruda didn’t write his odes in praise of a rich person’s chariot, though. He wrote what he called “Elemental Odes,” odes in praise of ordinary things used and enjoyed by ordinary people, such as “Ode to the Watermelon,” “Ode to My Socks.” I’d like to focus on Neruda’s “Ode to Salt.” Here’s a translation that I did loosely based on the translations of James Wright and Robert Bly, and the translation by Margaret Sayers Peden. If you'd like to read the Spanish original, you can find it here.

Pablo Neruda

Ode to Salt

This salt
from the salt shaker
I saw it on the salt flats.
I know you
won’t
believe me,
but
it sings,
that salt sings, the hide
of the salt flats
sings,
its mouth choked
with earth.
I shivered in those lonely
expanses
when I heard
the voice
of the
salt
in the desert.
Near Antofagasta
the whole
pampa of saltpeter
rumbles:
it’s a
gruff
voice,
its song
a lament.
And in its crevices
rock salt, mountains
of buried light,
a transparent cathedral,
sea crystals, forgotten
by the waves.

And you’re on every table
on this earth,
salt,
your eager
sustenance
scattering
vital light
over
our food.
Preserver
of the musty
barrels of ships,
explorer
of the oceans,
your substance
anticipated
by the undiscovered, half-open
paths in the foam.
Dust of the sea, through you
the acquatic night
kisses
our tongues,
your oceanic taste melts
into each seasoned morsel,
so the slightest
the least
wave of the salt shaker
reveals
not just your domestic whiteness
but the flavor at the core of the infinite.

                                                                                                    translation © 2015 by Zack Rogow

Most of us, if we were asked to celebrate salt, might start with something like, “It’s good on eggs, and it’s really terrific on corn with butter.” Neruda goes way beyond this because praise for him is not just description, but an act of imagination.

Let’s begin with Neruda’s title, which in Spanish is “Oda a la sal.” It only takes five letters to spell the entire title: a, d, l, o, s. A name with only five letters—how much more elemental can you get? Neruda starts with the basic building block of salt in line one, and then in the next two lines begins to permutate that word into “salt shaker” and “salt flats.”

The speaker starts in a very domestic setting, which is often where salt is used, but then is quickly swept up to an expansive landscape of salt flats and desert. Neruda names this unusual landscape: it’s the region of Antofagasta in his native Chile, which is part of the Atacama Desert, often called the driest place on earth. Charles Darwin, during the voyage of the Beagle, wrote of it, “It was almost a pity to see the sun shining over so useless a country.”


Salt crystals in the Atacama Desert, Chile
The Atacama Desert is a place of hallucinatory strangeness, where rain sometimes doesn’t fall for decades at a time, and when it does, the air is so dry the water sometimes evaporates before it touches the ground. Some of the lakes in this area are pink or silver-gray from the minerals in them, even when gathered in a clear bottle. In parts of the Atacama Desert the salt forms strange sculptures. Neruda knew this area well because it was the district that he represented when he was elected to the Chilean Senate. Neruda vividly describes campaigning in this region in his Memoirs:

“It hasn’t rained for half a century there, and the desert has done its work on the faces of the miners. They are men with scorched features; their solitude and the neglect they are consigned to has been fixed in the dark intensity of their eyes. Going from the desert up to the mountains, entering any needy home, getting to know the inhuman labor these people do, and feeling that the hopes of isolated and sunken men have been entrusted to you, is not a light responsibility.”

Responsibility. I think that is a crucial word when it comes to praise. Often a work of praise is created out of a deep sense of responsibility.

Neruda makes the salt flats much more than a cliché place of toil. They take on an otherworldly beauty—”mountains/of buried light”—“a transparent cathedral.” These fantastical images transform this desolate, impoverished area into a place of splendor. Neruda makes this forsaken region a most holy place because of the dignity of the human sweat that goes into it, suggesting medieval cathedrals that were an accumulation of decades and even centuries of work.

Right at this point in the poem where Neruda seems to be taking us farthest from everyday reality into the realm of imaginary cathedrals, he yanks us back to the here and now:

And you’re on every table
on this earth,
salt,
your eager
sustenance
scattering
vital light
over
our food.

Salt is again the familiar condiment of daily life, but it has metamorphosed during the poem’s journey to the salt plains and saltpeter mines. He addresses the salt directly with the familiar tu, as if it’s now a person he knows well, and what could be more familiar than salt? The salt has retained that remarkable light that it had in the desert—la luz vital, Neruda calls it in Spanish, so it still has an aura to it, though it’s back to the most ordinary, domestic setting. Neruda uses a delicious word—espolvoreando—to describe the salt’s sprinkling, portraying the simple act of its pouring as almost gymnastic.

The conclusion of “Ode to Salt” reunites the planetary and the particular. The salt combines the smallest and largest things, the driest and wettest, all in the space of a few short lines of poetry. By the end, the salt is the flavor of a cosmic kiss that lets us touch the core of the universe.


As in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s psalm of praise to “Pied Beauty,” Neruda’s “Ode to Salt” begins to take on the attributes of the thing praised. He sprinkles the words lightly down the page as if they are grains of salt. Neruda is also careful not to overstate, always an important consideration in poems of praise.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 9

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

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