from Ode to the Dictionary, Pablo Neruda

As Encomia embarks, a small vessel on the vast seas of published literature, it seems only natural to call to mind the popular odes of Pablo Neruda, particularly his “Ode to the Dictionary”.

It’s a beautiful, wild, celebratory ode. Like many of Neruda’s odes, it’s generous in gratitude, appreciating even ordinary, everyday things. But it’s striking too for both its narrative and its ethical example. It’s a poetic, playful mini-bildungsroman, with a timely moral for modern—or postmodern—humanity.

Unexpectedly, while it is an ode, it doesn’t start that way. In youthful pride, the speaker initially imagines he has no need of the burdensome stored knowledge of centuries past.

I ignored you, I was visited
by smugness
and I thought myself complete,

But false self-sufficiency ironically renders the speaker speechless. He imagines himself an inspired magus, but “[t]he great magus said nothing.” At just this moment of failure, a fortuitous intervention mysteriously manifests itself. The speaker as if by chance reads again, he falls under the spell of literary riches preserved by others, and he humbles himself in pursuit of linguistic knowledge and expertise.

The tome of knowledge—this “beast / of burden, systematic / dense book”—rebels and falls open, and it:

expanded, shook its leaves
and nests,
and spread its foliage:
it was
a tree,
a natural,
apple blossom, apple orchard, apple tree,
and words
glittered in its infinite branches,
opaque or sonorous,
fertile in the fronds of language,
charged with truth and sound.

Following this experience, the speaker’s relationship with language and learning is transformed. Now in love with words, in all their complexity, he diligently explores the resources of the literary past.

Dictionary, you are not
tomb, sepulcher, coffin,
tumulus, mausoleum,
but preservation,
hidden fire,
plantation of rubies,
living eternity
of essence,
granary of language.

Soon, from a humble sense of need, the poem takes flight and ascends almost to an ecstatic prayer or invocation.

Dictionary, let one hand
of your thousand hands, one
of your thousand emeralds,
of your virginal springs,
one grain
magnanimous granaries,
at the perfect moment
upon my lips,
onto the tip of my pen,
into my inkwell. . . .

It’s as if, in retrospect, this is the experience that launched the now-famous poet’s career. So not only does the poem carry an eloquent flow of words in a stylish celebration of language, but it also cradles in its lines a contemplative example of persistence in learning and literary pursuit. In that way, Neruda’s poem is a model not only for writers, but for struggling students everywhere.

The poem is only excerpted here. But several fascinating English translations exist. A complete translation by Ilan Stavans is available here. Another translation, this one by Margaret Sayers Peden, can be found here, along with the original Spanish. Both translations are quoted above.

Finally, some readers may have discerned in the first sentence of this article the echo of another famous piece of literature and history. But that invocation merits separate discussion in another journal entry soon.