Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup! I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. Today I’ll be talking about the poem, “An Ox Looks at Man,” by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, which inspired my own poem.
Carlos Drummond de Andrade was born on October 31, 1902 in Itabira, Minas Gerais, Brazil. He went to a school of pharmacy, but did not enjoy it. Rather than a pharmacist, de Andrade was a civil servant. As well as writing poetry, de Andrade became director of history for the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Service of Brazil and, later, during World War II, started editing the official newspaper of the Brazilian Communist Party, Tribuna Popular, for a short while. The famous poet Mark Strand (who is one of my favorite poets!), translated a lot of de Andrade’s poetry, and his first English language translator was Elizabeth Bishop, whose villanelle, “One Art,” is featured in Poetry Soup. De Andrade wrote poems on many subjects, but every one of his poems exudes the same gracefulness and beauty.
They are more delicate even than shrubs and they run
and run from one side to the other, always forgetting
Surely they lack I don't know what
basic ingredient, though they present themselves
as noble or serious, at times.
Oh, terribly serious,
Poor things, one would say that they hear
neither the song of the air nor the secrets of hay;
likewise they seem not to see what is visible
and common to each of us, in space.
And they are sad,
and in the wake of sadness they come to cruelty.
All their expression lives in their eyes--and loses itself
to a simple lowering of lids, to a shadow.
And since there is little of the mountain about them –
nothing in the hair or in the terribly fragile limbs
but coldness and secrecy -- it is impossible for them
to settle themselves into forms that are calm, lasting
They have, perhaps, a kind
of melancholy grace (one minute) and with this they allow
themselves to forget the problems
and translucent inner emptiness
that make them so poor and so lacking
when it comes to uttering silly and painful sounds:
desire, love, jealousy
(what do we know?) – sounds that scatter and fall in the field
like troubled stones and burn the herbs and the water,
and after this it is hard to keep chewing away at our truth.
Rather than writing a poem from the point of view of a human being, Carlos Drummond de Andrade instead writes his from the point of view of an ox looking at humans (referred to as “man” in the title of the poem). The ox seems to feel pity for the humans because they feel so much (“desire, love, jealousy”), and therefore suffer so much. Though the ox can somehow name these feelings, it does not truly know them – “(what do we know?)” The ox thinks humans are fragile and pathetic, that they are lacking in something because they are not strong, because they don’t always get along, because they have feelings that are depressing. But the ox does not know of bravery or friendship, other traits among humans. It only sees sadness, because it cannot really imagine happiness. It has never been happy, trapped in the same daily routine. And so it sees humans as a way of showing itself that its life is not so bad. This is the result of a life without true meaning.
The ox does not only comment on itself, however, as de Andrade’s main point is to critique humans. Man to man, there are things we do not see – no matter what things we do, we still think of ourselves as the superior race. But we can counter these feelings in the way de Andrade does – through the eyes of a different animal, such as an ox. The ox says, for example, that “little of the mountain is about them,” showing that humans are somewhat abstracted from their environment. While other animals live in peace with nature, we sometimes even destroy it. This poem shows us that because humanity is so complex, looking at it almost disturbs the ox’s calm demeanor. The ox is not used to this level of intricacy.
I wrote my own poem based on “An Ox Looks at Man,” from the point of view of a horse. It goes like this:
What the Horse Saw
They lack hooves, and they have straw falling from their heads.
They have cast a spell to make it soft, like my mane, but not as elegant.
I gallop gracefully, and they crouch down, panting, calling me.
The beauty of my ballet is countered only by the humor of their jig,
which they dance so insistently. They stand there only to make me laugh.
I respond to no name. Not the name of the horse, not the name of the animal.
They tried to give me a name, and they called me by it, but it was all a part of their play,
where they doubled over, running off their grassy stage after me.
They made my escape more pleasurable than I thought it would be.
Now I have only bushes to talk to, and they make bad companions.
They think my eyes are small, that because I do not recognize red, I do not recognize them.
My laughs stay secret and joyous, like my leap from the stable to the world.
The flies stayed inside, and I became free. They called my name. I respond to no name.
Maybe if they named me for my beauty, if they named me for my laughter.
If they named me for my feelings or for my color, I might yield.
But they gave me someone else’s name. I know the horse they called Onyx,
a blank canvas, but black, and yet, still better than myself. He responded,
had his coat groomed. And yet no one knew how to spell his name except the actors,
still dancing their jig before my eyes. And I went past the trees
and I waited for someone to give me a name. No one came, so I named myself.
They didn’t see what I saw, what the horse saw. I could name myself,
but I didn’t know how. Speech failed me. It always failed me, but I could not make any sound.
Not my laugh. There was nothing to laugh at except myself. Why was I so funny?
My ballet was filled with love and yet I want to laugh at it. I want to laugh at it more
than I want to laugh at their jig. Because this is what the horse saw. Because I dream standing up.
This poem is also from the point of view of an animal, but the horse comments more on itself than on the humans around it. Rather than the ox using the humans to hint on its own drab life, or using the humans to hint on their complex existences, the horse uses itself to suggest what the humans are like. The horse is lonely – the humans do not understand it. The horse is arrogant – the humans are inferior. The horse calls the humans “actors,” doing a silly “jig.” It portrays them as often foolish people, like the ox does. The animals see us the way we often see them – silly, mindless. We often feel bad for animals like the ox and the horse, but in these poems, the animals feel pity for us. The beauty of writing from a different perspective is to convey these differences and similarities.
“An Ox Looks at Man” really does make you wonder what animals think of humans – if they think anything about us at all. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Poetry Soup, and I’ll see you soon with the next one!