Poetry Lesson for Pablo Neruda’s Ode to Criticism/Oda a la crítica

Listening to the Spanish version will honor the Spanish speakers in the room. Neruda listened to in English is not really Neruda–he loved his language so. The English version, a substitute I also must rely on for full comprehension, can be made available in print. It is included below.

I have a secret space (in my garage turned garden shed) where I can escape to study, consider, and occasionally memorize, poetry. I feel that everyone should have at least one space in their life that is too sacred for Facebook; for me, the poetry cavern (which is also hung with an original 1970s basket swing that I swing in while pondering great works) is that place. While I love the basket swing, the 1960 yellow crushed velvet couch that I bought specifically for the poetry cavern, the hanging basket plants, and my garden bench (which always reminds me of a more positive version of Roethke’s Root Celler), my deeper reason for loving the poetry cavern is because it is a place that is free from criticism, pressure, or the demands of work–it is a secret world dedicated only to art, philosophy, music, and of course–poetry.

Neruda’s Ode to Criticism is as liberating for me as the poetry cavern. Sometimes I carry a poem with me throughout the day as a way of returning to that sacred space.

I am looking forward to teaching this poem to students. Here is simple draft of a lesson.

Opening – Play Tupac’s Only God Can Judge Me (note: this song is only appropriate for HS seniors or above unless you use the radio edit) or another song related to criticism while students walk in the door. Place the English version or English/Spanish version on their desks so it is there when they arrive. Place the recording of the Spanish version and then read the English version.

Depending on the level of instruction, you could select five to twenty literary devices from the poem. In my own AP English class, students would already have a vocabulary notebook with 25-30 poetry terms in it that they made over a period of weeks. They use this to annotate and analyze poetry on a daily basis….

but here is the catch–in this poem, Neruda actually directly discusses the experience of having his work criticized and torn apart by those who wish to analyze poetry rather than love it and learn from it.

So today–instead of analysis–the questions for small group discussion & individual assessment become:

  1. In which lines does Neruda discuss the ways in which his poetry is analyzed by critics? How does he feel about this? What is the purpose of the critic? Is there anything positive about criticism? (These questions are foreshadowing for Neruda’s Part 2 of Ode to Criticism, which you can show them on a different day).
  2. Neruda seems to suggest that there is a purpose for poetry that is far more important than the words or reactions of any critic. Find the lines where he suggests this and write two or three down. What do you understand this purpose to be?
  3. What do artists make art? Use this poem as a resource to craft a written answer (you decide how long based on your timing)…and then take a break when you hear the music. Tell students to work hard and take a movement break when they hear the Tupac. After the song, they come back to their groups and share. They then pick one reporter to share with the whole group about the different answers that that they found.

Challenge Assignment: Write your own poem to the critics or “haters”. Allow your inner self to speak back to those who would persecute you for any reason. You may also draw on an experience from your younger days. 16 lines or more…go!!!!!!! Allow them time to write…and then share. If you can, write your own poem to share with students so that they have another model. They will feel more comfortable if they hear yours…and be more likely to share. It will be hilarious.

ODE TO CRITICISM (I)

I wrote five poems :
one was green
another a round wheaten loaf,
the third was a house, a building,
the fourth a ring,
and the fifth was
brief as a lightning flash,
and as I wrote it,
it branded my reason.

Well, then, men
and women
came and took
my simple materials,
breeze, wind, radiance, clay, wood,
and with such ordinary things
constructed
walls, floors, and dreams.
On one line of my poetry
they hung out the wash to dry.
They ate my words
for dinner,
they kept them
by the head of their beds,
they lived with poetry,
with the light that escaped from my side.
Then
came a mute critic,
then another babbling tongues,
and others, many others, came,
some blind, some all-seeing,
some of them as elegant
as carnations with bright red shoes,
others as severely
clothed as corpses,
some were partisans
of the king and his exalted monarchy,
others had been snared
in Marx’s brow
and were kicking their feet in his beard,
some were English,
plain and simply English,
and among them
they set out
with tooth and knife,
with dictionaries and other dark weapons,
with venerable quotes,
they set out
to take my poor poetry
from the simple folk
who loved it.
They trapped and tricked it,
they rolled it in a scroll,
they secured it with a hundred pins,
they covered it with skeleton dust,
they drowned it in ink,
they spit on it with the suave
benignity of a cat,
they used it to wrap clocks,
they protected it and condemned it,
they stored it with crude oil,
they dedicated damp treatises to it,
they boiled it with milk,
they showered it with pebbles,
and in the process erased vowels from it,
their syllables and sighs
nearly killed it,
they crumbled it and tied it up in a
little package
they scrupulously addressed
to their attics and cemetaries,
then,
one by one, they retired,
enraged to the point of madness
because I wasn’t
popular enough for them,
or saturated with mild contempt
for my customary lack of shadows,
they left,
all of them,
and then,
once again,
men and women
came to live
with my poetry,
once again
they lighted fires,
built houses,
broke bread,
they shared the light
and in love joined
the lightning flash and the ring.
And now,
gentlemen, if you will excuse me
for interrupting this story
I’m telling,
I am leaving to live
forever
with simple people.

-Pablo Neruda

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