Pablo Neruda and the Virtues of Laziness • Empty Mirror

As history progresses, writings from the past can often take on fresh and unexpected potency; for instance, returning to the ecologically-focused poetry of Pablo Neruda, I found new significance in two thematically connected pieces: “Ode to Laziness” (1954) and “Lazybones” (1958). What with the current worldwide deadlock of enforced reclusion and the necessary shrinking of our engagement with social spheres and natural habitats, Neruda’s elaboration of idleness as virtuous proves particularly relevant for our unprecedented contemporary moment.

Neruda reconceives laziness as fruitful, thus offering a subversive riposte to perceptions of this state of behaviour as selfish and unproductive. However, in a time where people are currently patting themselves on the backs simply for staying in and doing nothing, reading these works can further show us the way on our promising path towards reconceiving laziness. On a larger scale, reading these two delightful poems together provoke questions regarding ethical occupation of one’s environment, in the face of our ongoing exploitation of the planet’s finite natural resources.

“Ode to Laziness” forms part of Neruda’s Odas Elementales (1954) collection, wherein each poem revolves around a single topic and explores this topic’s significance, both to the poet and within our wider world. These topics vary from elements of nature, for example “Ode to a Fallen Chestnut” or “Ode to the Storm,” to human-made materials, such as “Ode to the Business Relationships” or “Ode to the Clothes.” Our focal poem is a relative outlier in the sense that it characterises a form of human behaviour, as opposed to the more tangible elements customarily played with.

Appropriately, then, the start of this ode takes a self-aware tone, as Neruda confronts the creative framework he has imposed upon himself with this present collection: “Yesterday it seemed the ode wouldn’t leave the ground. / It was time, it should / at least show a green leaf. / I scratched the earth, ‘Get up, sister ode.’” This attempted arousal of his ode, however, proves “No use.” What becomes clear as the poem progresses is that this attempted arousal in fact restricts the ode’s emergence, with this forceful dictation of natural processes for purposes of poetry proving a betrayal both of the environment and his creative integrity. Ironically for a poem about laziness, we have begun with Neruda commanding the earth to awaken and be productive, so as to provide him with poetic inspiration.

Hence, following this failure, Neruda wryly portrays himself as soon being taught a lesson about ethical attitudes towards capturing nature in poetry:

high up in the pines
appeared naked,
I got up in a daze, half asleep,
on the sand I found
little broken fragments
of oceanic substances.

Strikingly, the topic of his ode has appeared without any particular creative exertion, with the poet at his most passive and unthinking; this lack of conscious cognition thus gives the ode its pureness, its rightness, as embodied by the nakedness of laziness. The poem then begins to gather momentum: the items on the beach, in this awakening, have become poetic and worthy of newfound attention, simply through virtue of being there, or rather of arriving there through the processes of nature. The poetic figure recedes from his own work, as these processes take hold:

The sea
filled the spaces,
wearing away towers,
the coasts of my homeland,
pushing forward
successive catastrophes of foam.

Neruda’s chosen poetic form throughout his Odas Elementas collection, of short tumbling lines and sprawling stanzas, here aligns with the work’s imagery: the poem is pushed forward by the flow of the tide, which comes to fill the spaces of the page. As with many of Neruda’s work, the dominance of the Anthropocene is resisted poetically, in this case through centring the form around the sea’s erosion of human-made structures. As for the “successive catastrophes of foam” pushing forward, this image neatly conjures the creative-destruction of earthly cycles; foam is a significant catalytic presence in Neruda’s poetry generally, as shall be expounded upon when analysing “Lazybones.”

Beyond this point, the bulk of the poem conveys in relatively simple terms the natural world in transience, conjuring a flux of images and sensations, from following passing petrels, to the felt smoothness of a stone, to noting an ever-changing wrestle between sunlight and the clouds. By the time you reach this end, you could easily have forgotten that this ode was supposed to be about laziness, and the question thus provoked is, what’s the link between laziness and all of this natural imagery?

Pablo Neruda ca. 1956 (via Wikipedia Commons)Pablo Neruda ca. 1956 (via Wikipedia Commons)

Neruda seems to perceive the adoption of idleness as an ethically sound move, with the poetic figure’s abandonment of diligence and ambition allowing the natural beauty of his environment to come coursing through, unsullied by human domination. The boundaries of laziness as a concept have in turn been expanded to now encompass a wilful and humble relinquishing of agency to serve a greater good, as subtly conveyed in the poem’s last stanza:

At night
thinking of the duties of my
fugitive ode,
I took off my shoes
by the fire,
poured the sand out of them
and almost at once fell
sound asleep.

There is no need for Neruda to reflect on his day’s inactivity, for the poem has accumulated without any visible exertion on his part, instead by embracing laziness and allowing nature to engulf his agency (as symbolised by the sand infiltrating his shoes). Of course, there has been poetic license buried underneath it all nonetheless, and so Neruda’s culminating reflections might also be interpreted as directly entailing his abandonment to sleep; he is actively processing the virtues of adopting a degree of passivity when occupying our environment and when conceiving nature in poetry. The poem as a whole can be read as this process laid bare for the reader.

With “Lazybones,” from the Estravagario (1958) collection, the ethical virtues of laziness are immediately given more political force, with Neruda passionately building upon what was mostly implied within the “Ode”:

They will continue wandering,
these things of steel among the stars,
and weary men will still go up
to brutalize the placid moon.
There, they will found their pharmacies.

In this opening, the virtues of laziness are not signalled directly, but rather through signalling the heinousness of (what Neruda conceives as) antecedent behaviour: harmful exploitation of the natural world. Neruda’s lunar example here is powerfully provocative and, despite intending to take the imperative logic of capitalist incursions to an otherworldly extreme, sadly not beyond the realm of current advancements: Donald Trump has recently signed executive orders to mine on the moon, because apparently anything can now be perceived as free real estate. Opposing modes of tiredness are also established, with the weary men founding pharmacies representing a converse to the tired poetic figure of “Ode”, who innocuously ‘found’ fragments of oceanic substance and in turn a simple poetry.

Following this striking beginning, Neruda reverts to what he does best, i.e. invoking the replenishments of the natural world, the cyclical processes of which are, wondrously, beyond human control: at his time of writing, “the wine begins to come to life,” “cherries are dancing” while “The sun is touching every door / and making wonders of the wheat.” As with “Ode”, the immanent beauty of earth is traced simply and without any overly-shaping hand. Wine – compared variously to “the sweetness of a child”, “the voice of a sailor” and “a poppy and a fire in one” – comes to encapsulate Neruda’s pure-hearted engagement with the natural world, and one can easily imagine him sitting for hours on his porch, staring out over a landscape or seascape while getting proudly hammered on the swollen grape. Laziness is therefore elaborated as a celebration of earthly delights, as modest observation and enjoyment, as opposed to trampling activity. Neruda then turns towards the conditions of his own existence, expressing modest gratitude for his house which “has both the sea and the earth” and his woman with “great eyes / the colour of wild hazelnut.” The final succession of images is classic Neruda:

when night comes down, the sea
puts on a dress of white and green,
and later the moon in the spindrift foam
dreams like a sea-green girl.

Foam, halfway between earth and sea, once more poses as an exciting natural element for the poetic, for how it can simultaneously convey an effervescent natural flux, light-hearted pleasure, feverish anticipation of an almost sexual type, or the washing away of impurities. So great is Neruda’s excitement for the natural world, ‘foaming’ is the descriptive that perhaps best sums up the tone.

Following Neruda’s indulgent foaminess comes the conclusive line, which once more hammers home his elaboration of the humble virtues of laziness: “I have no wish to change my planet.” While of course it’ll take more than individuals adopting idleness to begin reversing the damage done to the environment, these poems guide the way to considering how an ethic of resistance towards harmful laborious activity – whether that be cutting flowers or mining natural resources – should be continued beyond the current circumstances of social isolation.

Joseph Rodgers

Joseph Rodgers is a contemporary literature master’s graduate, currently living in North London. More of his writing can be seen on his blog, Opened Book.

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