This year marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, whom Gabriel García Márquez has called “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.” Such blanket assessments are subjective, of course, and impossible to support, but there is no denying that Neruda is that rare modern poet whose work achieved a global reach—nearly as popular in translation as in the original Spanish. One explanation could be the overall accessibility of Neruda’s writing, which, unlike that of some of his contemporaries, is structurally straightforward. Indeed, Neruda often worked in traditional forms, notably the sonnet and ode.
Neruda wrote 225 odes (of the some 2,500 poems he published) from the 1920s until his death in 1973. In the 1950s he took on a monumental project, accepting a commission by the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional to publish an ode a week on the condition that the poems run in the news section rather than the arts pages (a tribute to his fame, certainly, but also to the avowed Communist’s political influence at the time). Surprisingly, Neruda’s complete odes have never appeared together in one book, in Spanish or any language, but that oversight has now been remedied by esteemed scholar and translator Ilan Stavans. All the Odes is a commanding bilingual volume that presents every one of Neruda’s odes in English translation juxtaposed with its Spanish original.
The ode, dating back to Ancient Greece, is a lyric poem, usually sung, and written to praise or glorify something or someone. As Stavans notes, Neruda “democratized the ode by using it to celebrate the mundane. His topics are a veritable catalogue of the quotidian: a chair, an onion, a pair of shoes, a train station, the dictionary, a town theater, a lover’s hands. . . . In other words, he championed the significance of insignificance.” But Neruda also wrote odes to significant figures, including Lenin, Paul Robeson and, perhaps most poignantly, his martyred friend and fellow poet Federico García Lorca: “If I could weep for fear in a lonely house, / if I could tear my eyes out and devour them, / I would do it, for your voice of mourning orange trees / and for your poetry that emerges uttering cries.”
Stavans translated many of the odes himself but also tapped the talents of an impressive fleet of translators to render these poems into English—some for the first time—including Margaret Sayers Peden (known for her translations of Carlos Fuentes and Isabel Allende) and many major poets, including W.S. Merwin, Philip Levine, Jane Hirshfield, Paul Muldoon and Mark Strand. Seeing their versions side by side with the originals, we see that some adhere closely and more literally to Neruda’s work while others have taken a freer hand in translating. Readers fluent in Spanish have the added advantage of judging these reinventions more closely.
Rather than a chronological or thematic arrangement, Stavans has opted for an alphabetical one, which was Neruda’s preferred order. This choice means that some of the finest odes are interspersed among some of the weakest (those with political subjects seem the most dated and didactic). Taken as a whole, these odes provide a good measure of Neruda, both the poet and the man—lover, activist, liver of life. “Neruda isn’t a minimalist as much as an essentialist,” Stavans says. “What he wants most is to be natural, confessional, and pleasurable.” It is this uncanny ability to observe the world and distill its fundamental nature into simple, though not simplistic, poetry that accounts for the enduring, universal appeal of this great writer.