Analysis of Oda al tomate by Pablo Neruda
Determining a speaker or a setting with any certainty regarding Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Oda al tomate” is a challenging task. Neruda offers very little in the way of formal setting or narrative point of view in the poem. The best indication given in the poem about the nature of the poem’s speaker is the title, “Ode to the Tomato” which implies, by the word “ode” that the poem is, at least in some respects, meant to represent a traditional form of poetic expression. The poem, itself, however, is not composed as a traditional “ode” and lacks any obvious stanzaic structure altogether. rather than being written in a traditional form, “Ode to Tomatoes” is expressed in idiosyncratic free-verse, with short, clipped lines and a conspicuous absence end-rhyme, as well as a lack of a refrain or chorus which one would typically associate with an ode.
So, if the form of the poem is not one which is typically associated with an “ode,” then why did Neruda bother to name his poem “Ode to Tomatoes”? One answer lies within the context of speaker and setting for the poem; that is, the title of the poem implies for the reader that the poem’s speaker is, in this case, not an adopted persona, but the poet himself. The poem represents the poet speaking directly to an audience. The setting, then, by implication is that of a reading, but due to the bucolic subject matter, also mentioned in the title, the idea is that of the poet in a folkish setting, reading to probably a small group of people.
The latter idea is gained from the meter and diction of the poem, which lends itself far more readily to a reading in a small gathering than a large gathering. the “folksy” nature of the poem’s diction suggests a reading in a town-square, perhaps on a festive occasion, maybe even just before a great feast. The poem’s opening lines join the urban with the agrarian in a celebratory way: “The street/filled with tomatoes/midday,/summer,/light is/halved/like/a/tomato,/its juice” (Neruda, 1-10). An immediate connection between the city and the country is made, and the suggestion in the way the connection is made is that a bucolic “heart” rests just beneath the surface of the city and that the harvest of tomatoes is a symbolic indication of this heart. This immediate metaphorical connection of “the town as tomatoes” and “tomatoes as a heart” progresses immediately toward establishing the tone of the poem, which is one of reverence and religious contemplation.
The tone of the poem is reverential, seeking to establish a vibrant and living juncture of the ordinary and the divine. A direct comparison of the tomato to the divine is made only near the close of the poem: “the tomato,/star of earth,/recurrent/and fertile/star,” (Neruda 68-71) but this comparison is made so explicitely for a reason — to demonstrate to the reader that the previous evolutions through image and metaphor, from the tomato as a heart, to a sun, and finally to a “fertile star” which seeds the universe itself, was an intentional escalation of figurative language and an intentional acceleration of theme, from the “ode” of the title, to what could be more properly regarded as a mystical sermon on the nature of the cosmos.
The insight into the setting, speaker, and theme of the poem provides an aid in explicating the odd prosody and rhythms of the poem. The rhythm of the poem can only be accurately described as “chopped,” which would, at first glance, seem to work against the holistic “cosmic” vision of the poem, undermining the wholeness of the poem’s spiritual articulation which is carried forward by the imagery and figurative language of the poem. However, when considering the clipped meter of “Ode to Tomatoes” it is also useful to remember that Neruda, as mentioned previously, was attempting to gain a “folkish” idiom in the poem. In this way, a sustained meter, or even a regular meter would be far too formal and “stiff” to attain the colloquial style of expression that Neruda wanted for “Ode to Tomatoes.”
That said, it again becomes necessary to ask why, if Neruda was interested in side-stepping traditional meter and traditional forms, did he frame his poem as an “ode”? Again, the answer is that Neruda wanted not only to indicate a formal, yet folksy setting, for the poem he wanted to challenge the very nature of tradition itself. By positing his clipped, galloping rhythms as an ode Neruda, is in fact, saying that odes belong to the poet, to the people, and to the earth, much the same way that tomatoes belong to the people and the earth and that no traditional form, critic, or academy can account for or prevent the growing of odes right out of the people themselves and for themselves.
Taking into account the previous assertion that “Ode to Tomatoes” is, in fact, a spiritual poem, foremost, rather than a political or even “communist” poem, the diction and rhythm of the poem become even more functional and more expressive. In the same way that “odes” and “tomatoes” belong to the earth and to the people. so, too, spiritual exaltation and mystical revelation belong to the earth and to the people. The “galloping” meter of the poem then expresses the normative excitement, profundity, and also fragmentary nature of “ordinary” mystical experience, not the careful, meditative diction of a priest giving the sacraments or a scientist collating data, but the passionate, if somewhat “inarticulate” rhythms of the common person.
In final analysis, the tomatoes of the poem stand for people, nations, ideas, and even worlds. The poem is a reminder to us that each of us is included in a cosmic cycle of growth and bounty, that we bear the consequences of falling out of harmony with this cycle and that existing within it is the natural right adn organic reality which lives within all people regardless of race, religion or nation.
Neruda, Pablo. Peden, Margaret Sayers, trans. “Oda al tomate” Soupsong.Com, http://www.
soupsong.com/index.html; accessed 10-15-08, http://www.soupsong.com/ftomasto2.html