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Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Friday, April 12, 2013

"Ode to the Artichoke," translated by William Pitt Root -- Verse Daily, 4/12/2013

from Sublime Blue (Wings Press, 2013)
originally written by Pablo Neruda
poem found here

First lines:
The tender-hearted


the poetic line

— reformatted with minor editing Mar. 14, 2015

Now, I've said before I am usually wary with messing with translations, because I don't have the source, and the poem being a translation opens the door for discursive points that only serve to muddle. (A translation of a bad poem is most likely going to end up a bad poem, after all.) But, I think I can safely step through that obstacle here. Which is to say, I am pretending it is not a translation. Some of what is said here may not apply within the literary tradition of the original.


Let's look at the first ten lines:

The tender-hearted
girded itself as
a warrior, constructed
a small dome,
to keep itself
its scales.

I've two comments on the poem.



First off, a note on parallelism, a very important idea in poetry and prose. In a comp class, bad parallelism will get your text called out. Somehow, poetry has become lazy enough that everyone does it willy nilly. One of the primary cuplrits behind this is the influence of pop music. Popular music is primarily driven by the music; the lyrics are usually secondary to the voice itself. For this, 98% of the lyrics of popular music make for appallingly bad poetry. Unfortunately, this is the majority of the 'poetry' that youth hears and learns. So the standard for poetry is thus pushed VERY low. People mimic the lyrics they hear and think it is of value. (After all, someone is making a ton of money off of it.)

One of the characteristics of popular music is that ideas are just strung along, one after the other, without much thought to generating any coherency or depth. For example (taking a rather arbitrary example), let's take the Foo Fighters (a group that had a fairly creative album with the "The Colour and the Sound," and has pretty much been remaking that same album over and over again ever since). Take the lyrics to the title song on the recent album Back and Forth (To be honest, I have no idea of this received radio time.) I am breaking it up to accent the phrasing.

Now your on your own,
one for the pages
Over the hill
and through the ages
Does my heaven burn like hell on you?

Out beneath the cracks
and coming in waves
Rolling like an earthquake under the pavement
Heavy now,
tell me Mr.Truth

Even copy-pasting it in I was laughing at how bad these lyrics are. Do you see how there is at best the most tenuous thread of an idea linking the phrases? In what way, really, does "out beneath the cracks" associate with "coming in waves"? Or "heavy now"? Any possible justification begins first off with "eliminate any value to the metaphors" and ends with "you have to squint your eyes really tightly."

But back to the poem and parallelism. What influenced the author here is irrelevant to this exploration (even the poem being a translation). I am looking only at what exists on the screen. The sentence in these lines is made up of a list of two elements: first it says the artichoke "girded itself as a warrior." But then, after the comma it says rather it "constructed a small dome." How bad's the parallelism? Let me count the ways.

  1. The first one is about a warrior; the second about a builder. (On that point did you notice the semantic clash between "girded itself as a warrior" and the preceding "tender-hearted"? It speaks of not paying attention to what words are being used and how they are being used. And you can see now how these opening lines are of the nature of the Foo-Fighters lyrics, with ideas strung together on a line, without thought on how they work together (or don't work together) when read.
  2. The first one is actively reflexive: the warrior is girding himself; the second is actively external, constructing a small dome. The two verbs have completely different syntactic natures.
  3. Similarly, the warrior is an attacking thing. (Artichokes are attacking food? Usually, when you metaphorically 'arm' a food, it signals that things are not boding well for a digestive tract.)
  4. The first phrase is creating a simile between artichoke and warrior; second one is, well, simply a mess. One might say that there is a very thin metaphor that is begun with "small dome"; but, really, "dome" is used adjectively. So maybe "construct" is enough to generate something? Only barely. The word "construct" isn't powerful enough to do anything. Finally, notice the structure hidden behind the line breaks (I'll remove the comma error): "constructed a small dome to keep itself waterproof within its scales." Do you see the problem? The phrasing doubles up on itself: the scales are the dome. So, in reality, the phrase is "constructed a small dome to keep itself waterproof within its dome." Which is daft.

Why is parallelism so important. Some of the more obvious reasons:

  1. It helps the reader by making the read smoother. The more sophisticated the reader, the more quickly and more blatantly faulty parallelism becomes noticeable. And when it does appear, it acts like a stumbling block. Why?
  2. Because parallelism brings the list into an order, and that order serves to help the reader know that there is a list happening, and helps the reader make a unity out of the list.
  3. Taking that even further, that order, that smoothing out, also increases the degree to which the ideas within the list can interact with each other. In the example from this poem, the shift in the nature of the verb, from the self-applying "gird" and the external "construct" is a marked clash, it's plaid and stripes. They two verb phrases can barely meld together at all. And then there is also that the first is establishing a simile with its "as"; the second phrase is making no such attempt, it is only a simple verb phrase. That's a little more subtle, but it does add to the clash.

So, summing up. Parallelism. Very important. It is not simply a style choice, is has dramatic effects on both the smoothness of the reading of the poem and on how the ideas of your poem work together.



Now, to the structure of the poem. Let me bring back those first ten lines:

The tender-hearted
girded itself as
a warrior, constructed
a small dome,
to keep itself
its scales.

Look at the lines breaks. Can you build out of the poem a rationality behind how this (albeit faulty) sentence is broken up. Particularly with lines 4-6: why end a line with "as"? Why not just "as a warrior"? and why the double idea of "a warrior, constructed" when every other line (indeed, nearly the entire poem) is one idea per line? If I had to make a guess it was unconsciously (or consciously) hiding the problems with the sentence and parallelism. But, as I said, causes are irrelevant. I'm querying the readers, asking what can be seen in the poem? Sophisticated poetry develops its own structure and keeps to those rules -- this is part of the organic unity of the poem. Breaks from such are noticeable to sophisticated readers.

To be honest, I can't come up with reason beyond the above, or simply saying bad writing. But, it's caught my mind enough to play around with variations, just to see what happens.

First off, I think there was huge, missed opportunity with the sounds of "heart" and "art":

The upright
and tender-hearted
girded itself,
a warrior.

And really that's all I wanted to do. I can't get past the humor of a 'warrior artichoke.'


To note: that humor that does not exist in the original. Yet, it does, inadvertantly, here. You're on your own as to why. Looking at two other translations, and the original in Spanish, this translation I do believe missed the mark. Phillip Hill's (with the original): here; Jodey Bateman's: here.

It might be interesting to come back and take a look at how the original (or the other translations) compare. But, as per my normal policy, it's rather outside what I'm trying to do here. And I've spend enough time already . . . .


  1. I think this analysis is quite arrogant in that it doesn't stop to consider the possibility of authorial intention behind the unusual word choices. To use Neruda as an example, you write: "did you notice the semantic clash between "girded itself as a warrior" and the preceding 'tender-hearted'? It speaks of not paying attention to what words are being used..."

    I interpret this as a deliberate juxtaposition of military imagery and evocations of tenderness. I think with this incongruity, Neruda is suggesting that the artichoke willingly makes itself useful to the people, which is laudatory.


    1. I admit I was not clear enough in the above. I did not want to bring in other translations in writing this. I wanted to approach just this poem on its own. (I intentionally did not look at any other translations until I finished the main part of the text.) Coming back to this, it would have been very helpful to have presented the translations as contrast.

      Take a look at the opening of the two. Hill's translation first:

      The tender-hearted
      dressed up as a warrior,
      erect, it built itself
      a little dome,
      it kept itself
      its armoured leaves,

      Now Bateman's

      The artichoke
      With a tender heart
      Dressed up like a warrior,
      Standing at attention, it built
      A small helmet
      Under its scales
      It remained

      Notice how "dressed up" is not a verb phrase in the sentence in either translation. The verb of the sentence in both translations is "built." But Root's translation decides instead to make "girded" a verb, creating the run-on sentence and its internal clash. (It is a too literal translation, and I believe "girded" is far too strong and too active a word for what was intended.)

      In English usage, when you read Root's opening (I'm rewriting as a sentence):

      The tender-hearted upright artichoke girded itself as a warrior, constructed a small dome, to keep itself waterproof within
      its scales.

      the natural syntactic reading is to make the second verb be a restatement of the first, an explanation or expansion of the first. But that does not work here when the sentence begins by centering first on "girding." Instead, it becomes a run-on sentence with a parallelism problem. There is a clash created: it's not a drum section slamming its cymbals as at once, but it is nonetheless a clash that should avoided for sophisticated writing.

      Now, that said:

      1) Again, anything I say here is meaningless as applied to Neruda's original; totally different traditions, languages, syntax, etc. Though,

      2) It is undeniably to my point that both the translations avoided the run-on sentence and the parallelism problems that occur when you make "girded" a verb, both avoided that clash of which I speak.

      3) Finally, that being said, in retrospect, I was not at all subtle enough or clear enough in my explanation. I admit, this is not one of my better posts.

      Thank you, though, for your comment. It gave me opportunity to explain more fully my point.