The Literary Gardener
By Carol Howard
When love calls for a poem, readers would do well to turn to the great Chilean writer Pablo Neruda. Neruda’s love poems are set amid a sensuous natural landscape of forest, ocean and garden. A few lines from “Ode to the Lady of the Garden,” for instance, could be addressed to a fiancée with a penchant for horticulture: “You have a relationship / with the soil, / with the Earth’s flowery elements.” A couple might share the reading of an excerpt from “Ode to Love,” a contemplative meditation in which love is no simple emotion but a condition of self-transcendence. One could copy down, in green calligraphy, a few lines from any number of Neruda’s intimate poems to celebrate an engagement. Neruda wrote poems in green ink, which he called “the color of hope.”
Sonnet XVII, however, is the popular choice for a wedding ceremony. The poem opens with Neruda’s speaker assuring the beloved that there is nothing superficial about their experience: “I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz, / or arrow of carnations that propagate fire.” The saltspray rose or beach rose (Rosa Rugosa), found in drifts of pink amid coastal dunes, is pretty enough, but too showy to compare to this beloved. The same goes for the topaz gemstone and the carnation. (But what a great image: look at a single carnation stalk and the bloom does look like fire, no matter the color of the petals. Neruda’s many descriptions of nature and the garden allow readers to see common plants through a new lens.) “I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,” says the lover. That is, this love is so immediate and strong as to defy inquiry.
Neruda’s love poems can be so passionate or tinged with dark emotion that a wedding planner would want to choose excerpts carefully. There are certain lines that one simply would not want to read in front of one’s grandmother. In fact, the 19-year-old Neruda shocked polite Chilean society in 1924 with his first book of love poems. The book’s stunning effect did not keep the public away, though, as it eventually sold more than a million copies.
A literary couple might wish to explore the fullness of Neruda’s poetry, which encompasses not only love but the natural world. Neruda’s odes to nature capture the Chilean landscape that inspired him: “I could not live separate from nature,” he declared. His desire for a connection to the animal world is explored in the collections Art of Birds and Seaquake.
Immersed in nature though he was, Neruda also wrote political poems that reflect his intimate knowledge of the public sphere—he was a prominent politician and diplomat. When Neruda was nominated for president of Chile in 1970, a journalist posed a hypothetical question: If the Chilean presidency and the Nobel Prize were sitting before him on the table, which would he choose? “I’d get up and sit at another table,” he said. While soon after the interview he withdrew his own name from the presidential race to become an advisor to Salvador Allende, Neruda won the Nobel Prize for literature a few months later.
Carol Howard is dean of academics at Warren Wilson College. Spanish-language readers should peruse the original poems. For the English translations quoted above, see Maria Jacketti’s Neruda’s Garden: An Anthology of Odes (1995) and Mark Eisner’s The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems (2004).