There is a soulful release in the contemplation of the seemingly mundane. Japanese scholar Okakura a century ago, in in his proponing of tea: in noticing the small we appreciate our own greatness. In the appreciation of the small we unleash the grand.
Pablo Neruda (12 July 1904 – 23 September 1973), Chilean poet and politician urged us to notice the small, the inconsequential. Odes to Common Things includes Spanish and English odes to quotidian items like salt, a chair, a table, socks, and soap.1
What is it that you bring
to my nose
bar of soap,
before I climb into my morning
and go into the streets
among men weighted down
From “Ode to a Bar of Soap”
The poignancy of things, perhaps not physically small but consequentially meaningless, reminds me of Polish poet Wislawa Syzborska’s poem about the importance of microcosmos, the tiny things that we cannot even see but that determine our life.
Is it a poetic right of passage to see the universe in the small and seemingly meaningless?
My feet were
in those outrageous socks,
on a golden thread.
two giant blackbirds,
were my feet
They were beautiful
I found my feet
for the very first time,
like two crusy old
of that embroidered
From “Ode to a Pair of Socks”
But, of course, it is these things that comprise life itself. The things we cannot abandon, the things essayist E.B. White tried to dismantle from his life and self when he moved, only to find himself easily defeated.
The things that we keep close and, thus, make special, like wondrous pets.
Men would like to be fish or fowl,
snakes would rather have wings,
and dogs would rather be lions.
Engineers want to be poets,
flies emulate swallows,
and poets try hard to act like flies.
But the cat
wants nothing more than to be a cat,
and every cat is pure cat
from its whiskers to its tail,
from sixth sense to squirming rat,
from nighttime to its golden eyes
Nothing hangs together quite like a cat
neither flowers nor the moon have
It is a thing by itself
like the sun or a topaz
From “Ode to The Cat”
“Neruda was a genius,” said former U.S. Poet Laureate Mark Strand, “but in whose writing beauty and banality are inextricably mixed. […] Mundane items, modified by adjectives denoting the rare or celestial, are elevated to a realm of exceptional value.”
not because they are
I don’t know,
because this ocean is yours,
and these buttons
treasures, fans upon
love has scattered
glasses, knives and
of someone’s fingers
on their handle or surface,
the trace of a distant hand
in the depths of forgetfulness.
From “Ode to Things”
Spending time on the “small”—and, of course, by small I mean things that pass beneath our immediate observation—we connect to something grand. My first post on The Examined Life was about the power of small. From the repetition of shapes to the blocks that build into something greater, there is something comforting about objects.2
Neruda’s “Ode to the Plate” begins “Plate, the world’s most vital disk…,” and it is, no? The commonality of objects, despite language, delivers us the human connection across time and geography.3
Ode to the Bed
We go from one bed to the next
in this journey,
The newborn, the afflicted,
the lover and the dreamer alike
they arrived and they will depart by the bed.
Others share this exceedingly important gift of elevating the commonplace to the celestial. Ralph Waldo Emerson defined wisdom as seeing “miracles in the commonplace.” Read Marianne Moore’s heroic efforts to notice and care and Oliver Sacks’ collection of adored things contemplated at the end of his life.
Rolling its blues against another blue,
the sea, and against the sky
some yellow flowers.
October is on its way.
We are dust and to dust return.
In the end we’re
neither air, nor fire, nor water,
neither more nor less, just dirt,
and maybe some yellow flowers.
From “Ode to some yellow flowers”
I’ve revisited this book (and this entry) many times. I’m sure it has no bearing on me and everything to do with the internets, but this book is by far the most viewed of all in the Library. What cunning you have, dear Reader, to choose such a manual of life first and foremost! If this is your port of entry to the Site, or to Neruda, welcome! ¡Ándale!