As we mention over in "Form and Meter," it's a little tricky to talk about a how a poem is put together when it's written in translation. By the same token, the sounds of Neruda's original Spanish version are pretty different from the sounds of William O'Daly's English take. In both cases, though, the conversational tone of this poem (remember that it's written in free verse form) means that we're not in for a ton of technical cartwheels here. Instead, we get a generally straightforward presentation of some utterly mind-bending questions.
We do get some sound patterns, though, and it's worth pointing out that similar techniques pop up in both Spanish and English versions. Check out Neruda's original stanza:
Hay algo más triste en el mundo
que un tren inmóvil en la lluvia? (7-8)
Now, don't panic—there's no need to know Spanish to hear the sound here. All you need to know is that the I sound in Spanish generally comes across like the long E sound in English. So, we have three long E sounds in "triste" (sad), "inmóvil" (standing), and "lluvia" (rain) in just two short lines. That close repetition of the vowel sound is what's known in the poetry biz as assonance .
We get a similar technique in the English translation, only this time it's not a vowel sound that gets repeated; it's a consonant: S. In fact, the S sound pops up eleven times in just eight lines, from "rose" (1) through to "standing" (8). That, friends, is what's known as consonance.
Other than that, the sounds of this conversational poem take a backseat to the content—in both the Spanish original and English translation. As true poets, though, it looks like neither Neruda nor O'Daly could totally turn off their ear for the sounds of their respective language.
The title of this poem, Shmoopers, is—wait for it—"III." Are you impressed? Well, no, we can't really blame you. You see, this poem is the third poem in Neruda's Book of Questions, which was meant to be read all together. That doesn't mean that the poems don't stand on their own, though. Each one, like "III," could be read independently. At the same time, these poems (74 to be exact) all took the same form: short, sparse, but evocative questions (316 to be exact). Here, then, we're presented with the third ("III") in Neruda's series of question-poems. Any questions?
We don't get any real geographical setting in this poem. Instead, we like to think of the poem's setting as a little place called "Questionville." That's right; no GPS or map can lead you there. You can't sail there or fly in. There is a train, but it's just standing around, and the car seems too guilty to be of use.
So how does one get to Questionville, you ask? It's simple: ask… questions. Questionville is really more of a mindset, a head space, in which the world that seems so familiar to us becomes uncertain and strange. Thanks to all our questions, we're not sure what's real and what's an illusion. Is there a hidden reality to the appearance of a rose? Are evil trees a cautionary tale about our short-sighted sense of cause and effect? Will listening to our cars give us a keener sense of empathy for our planet?
Welcome to Questionville, Shmoopers, population: you.
Our speaker's a pretty curious guy. (And we'll just call him a "guy" here for convenience's sake, since we never really get any bio on him.) He's got questions and, you know, that's understandable. Who doesn't go through life without asking a few questions now and again, right? (There, we just asked one ourselves.)
At the same time, these aren't your ordinary questions. Plus, this speaker seems to be out for answers. He starts off by demanding "Tell me" (1), addressing us directly with a command. Right off the bat, we know that this is no idle speculation. He's looking for a response from us, so we'd better listen up.
Of course, the questions he puts to us are harder to answer than maybe he realizes. Or does he? After all, it seems that all four questions in this poem lead us down a rabbit hole of reflection, speculation, and yes—more questions. So, does he really want us to write down our answers on a 3 by 5 postcard and send them to him with a self-addressed, stamped envelope? Or is he just trying to get us to, you know, think.
Like any good question-asker, our speaker never tips his hand here. At the same time, we're gonna go with our second theory. This guy's no quiz show host. Instead, we think of these questions—all of which imagine the world in ways very different from our daily experience—more like invitations. Any question is an opportunity, when you think about it. It's a chance to find out what you know, to reflect on your understanding of the world around you (even if it's something as simple as "What did we have for lunch yesterday?").
Don't be fooled, gang. This may look like a short hike, but the terrain is awfully slippery. With four little questions our speaker puts our brains through their paces. Just make sure to stretch to avoid cramping.
Sure, Pablo Neruda wrote his fair share of love poems. In fact, he wrote more than his fair share (100 Love Sonnets is just the tip of the iceberg). Another thing wrote about, though, was the run-of-the-mill, everyday, even tedious stuff of life. In this poem we get a rose, a tree, a car, and a train. None of these are earth-shatteringly unique in any way. But Neruda makes them unique. He flips them on their head, throws in a dash of personification, and—presto—we're looking at these things in a whole new light.
Before we get too far down the form and meter road, gang, we should acknowledge that this is a poem in translation. Neruda wrote the manuscript for Book of Questions in Spanish (he was Chilean, after all) and then it was later translated into English by writer and fellow poet, William O'Daly. That means that the rhythms of the poem in English won't exactly match the Spanish original. (The same goes for the poem's sounds—check out "Sound Check" for more.)
You know what, though? It's not that big a deal. That's because both the English and the Spanish version of this poem are written in a form called free verse. That means, simply, that there are no repeating metrical or rhyming patterns to hang your hat on (or, you know, tune your ear to).
This makes sense when you think about it. Our speaker is putting these questions to us, the readers, directly. In that way, he's involving us in a direct conversation, and free verse is the perfect poetic form to mimic the ebb and flow of natural human speech. After all, when's the last time you had a chin-wag with someone speaking in iambic pentameter?
So, we don't have much going on here metrically, but we do notice that that form of this poem tends to be pretty regular. We get four stanzas of two lines each. (A two-line pair in poetry is called a couplet.) What's more, each stanza asks just one question, but breaks that question halfway through. By dragging the reader along to the next line with the question's continuation, Neruda is making use of enjambment.
This technique does a couple of things to the reader. The first thing it does is add a bit of momentum to the poem. Each odd-numbered line is a kind of cliffhanger, and so we hustle along to the even-numbered line for the resolution of the question. But we don't sprint there (maybe it's more of a power-walk), necessarily. That's because these enjambments actually break the lines in provocative places. Take a look at the third stanza to see what we mean:
Who hears the regrets
of the thieving automobile? (5-6)
Now take a look at line 5. Sure, we know that this question is all about cars gone bad, but what if somebody just asked you, "Who hears the regrets?" That's a pretty profound (and pretty different) question to ponder (maybe it's priests, or judges?). By breaking the line where he does, Neruda allows that question to linger in our mind for just a beat, before we plunge into the specificity of the "thieving automobile" in line 6. He does this in the other stanzas as well. Try covering up the even-numbered lines and reading this poem again. How do those questions change for you?
The poem's form, then, is all about maximizing the impact of the questions it's asking. We're drawn into this conversation, told to give some answers, and then presented with a series of provocatively-posed noodle-scratchers.
Plants seem important to this poem, and we don't mean the potted kind either. Half of the poem's stanzas focus on plants you would find in nature, even if they're just in someone's garden: roses and trees. Both are pretty common symbols in poetry, but our speaker is asking some pretty unconventional questions about these things. It's almost as if he's trying to get us to consider them in a new light. Hmm
Just as the speaker focuses on plant life in the first two stanzas, we get planes, trains, and automobiles in the last two stanzas. Okay, so maybe there are no planes in this poem. All the same, two out of three—in such a short poem—ain't bad. What's more, it indicates that these vehicles have a symbolic importance in this poem. They're more than just a way to get from A to B. For Neruda, these are overlooked occupants of our reality that might be able to say something about the way we approach the world.
What lies beneath, Shmoopers? It's more than a spooky flick. It's a philosophy question. What might exist beyond the limits of our vision or understanding? That's the kind of question that's keeping our speaker up at night. Luckily for us, he's decided to put it to all his readers so that we can all sprain our brains trying to push beyond the limits of our imaginations.
Look—we love dancing roses as much as the next person, Shmoopers. At the same time, we know personification when it smacks us in the face. In this poem, roses, trees, cars, and trains are all endowed with human qualities. The effect is a different sense of the world, a hidden reality that our speaker's on to, but that we're clearly not.
Yes, we have a naked rose, but no it's not sexual—unless contemplating the potentially hidden nature of our reality really floats your boat.