Canon Fodder

Today is the birthday of Nobel Prize–winning poet Pablo Neruda. In addition to his Nobel, Neruda also won the Lenin Peace Prize, which sounds oxymoronic to Western ears but its string of winners is no less noble than the Nobel. His death may have been a side-effect of the US-backed coup that brought Augustin Pinochet to power and deposed Salvador Allende. (NB: Salvador Allende is the father of Isabel Allende, but not that Isabel Allende, which was news to me. Here I’d been swayed to buy books I otherwise might not have out of a sense of making reparations to Chile. If you have made the same error, maybe send a few pence to Global Giving, currently serving those affected by last year’s earthquake in Chile.)

I tend not to make a lot of time for poets. The bad ones are soul-destroying (Stanyan Street, anyone?) and the good ones are, well, soul-destroying (I’m looking at you, William Butler). But Neruda gets a nod for what I think are two very good reasons:

1. Harold Bloom has ensconced him in the Western Canon. This is a dazzling achievement. Bloom is one of those people who strikes you as terribly conceited and utterly entitled to his conceit. If he says your work is good, you have long since exceeded good. I encourage everyone to just do whatever he says.


2. Someone has made a sock pattern with a Neruda verse in them. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (aka the Yarn Harlot) could likely knit up anything for any reason that crossed her brilliant mind, but she chose Neruda. As a result, I spent many months (and quite a few dollars) trying to learn to knit, just so I could have a pair of these. I am not entirely sorry to report that I failed to learn to knit (at least with any skill). The experience left me with an appreciation for Neruda and cold feet.


Here are a few delightful snippets of Neruda to brighten your day:



And, in its entirety, the poem about the socks:

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder’s hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.

And, lastly, the “More You Know” segment of our post: Neruda’s poetry teacher was Chile’s other Nobel laureate, Gabriela Mistral. So, if you plan to be blindingly brilliant, you’ll need to snuggle up to other bright types. I tried to find a Nobelist for you to stalk, but those are are still living are reclusive at best (Coetzee) or agoraphobic (Jelinek). You’re best shot is probably Alice Munro  (because she is Canadian, she will probably offer you tea while you wait for the police to arrive and arrest you), but she is 85 and you want to be famous for writing, not for causing palpitations among the literati. In a future installment, we’ll find some Pulitzers or Man Bookers on whom to set your sights.


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