June 3, 2012

June Prompt: Odes

I started thinking about poetic odes last month and started writing notes for this prompt. I figured I would use some classics like "Ode to the West Wind" by Percy Bysshe Shelley or "Ode on a Nightingale" by John Keats. I also know there are many modern odes that address less lofty objects (like "Ode to a Dressmaker's Dummy" by Donald Justice.

But it's not that modern poets do not take on big topics for their odes. "Praise Song for the Day" by Elizabeth Alexander was her poem read at Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration.

You can find many sample odes online as models.

The ode form goes back to Ancient Greeks. "Ode" comes from the Greek aeidein, meaning to sing or chant. Odes were originally accompanied by music and dance, and later reserved by the Romantic poets to convey their strongest sentiments. This type of lyrical verse is classically structured in three major parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. Originally, it was an elaborately structured poem that was written to praise or glorify an event or individual, or to describe nature intellectually as well as emotionally.

There are a number of ode forms including the Pindaric, Horatian,Irregular and English. The formal opening (strophe) is a complex metrical structure, and it is followed by an antistrophe, which mirrors the opening, and an epode, the final closing section of a different length and composed with a different metrical structure.

The William Wordsworth poem "Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" is a very good example of an English language Pindaric ode. The earliest odes in the English language, using the word in its strict form, were written by Edmund Spenser.

But don't be frightened by the ode.

Laura Shovan, poets and teacher, does workshops for students in upper elementary through high school and uses odes as a prompt. Voices Fly is an anthology of student poetry (poems and prompts from the Maryland State Arts Council  Artist-in-Residence program), and one chapter is her lesson on simple odes. She focuses on the use of simile, hyperbole and sensory detail and the concept of tone as it works in a simple ode. She has students read and discuss Gary Soto’s “Ode to Pablo’s Tennis Shoes.”

I like to pick up something random in the classroom. It might be a blackboard eraser, a paperclip, or a tissue. Together, the class brainstorms all of the things we can do with that object. We exaggerate -- a good time to introduce hyperbole -- in order to highlight the object’s value. With the eraser, all of our mistakes can disappear. The paperclip is like a secretary for our school work, keeping it organized and making us efficient. The tissue comforts us when we are sick, dries our tears when we are sad.

The key in an ode, as the children quickly pick up, is that we are making a persuasive argument. The words, similes and descriptions we use – the tone of the poem – needs to convince the reader that these sneakers are the best sneakers in the universe. Through tone, simple odes remind readers to stop and pay attention to everyday objects that deserve praise.

That prompt would work fine for this month. But, a more typical classroom example might be to use an ode by John Keats.

Keats, who died at the age of twenty-five, only published 54 poems, but took on the challenges of poetic forms from the sonnet, to the Spenserian romance, to the Miltonic epic, while adding his own poetics to each.

Keats' English odes are often listed as odes of perfect definition - "Ode to Psyche," "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," and "To Autumn."

Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a poem I remember from high school. It was in the anthology and my teacher loved it. I don't know if I got much meaning from it then, but some of the lines definitely stayed in my head. The other poem I recall by him from my younger days is "To Autumn" (You might want to listen to "To Autumn" being read.)

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

It is possible that more has been written on "Ode on a Grecian Urn," per line, than any other Romantic lyric, and it is perhaps the best-known and most-often-read poem in nineteenth-century literature.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

         To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
         And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
         Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
                Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
         Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
                Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
         "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

The theme that art redeems experience is key to "Ode on a Grecian Urn" where it is explored not from the perspective of a natural and fleeting experience (like a nightingale's song) but through a work of art depicting a human pageant.

For this month's prompt on odes, we ask you to follow a few "rules" that will make your poem "semi-formal." Those Keats odes are a high bar to hit - and probably far too formal for the taste of many readers. Like the Irregular ode, your own ode form can vary, but you should retain the tone and thematic elements of the classical ode: in praise of an event, person or nature intellectually and emotionally; a serious tone (even if the subject seems less than serious).

Submissions for this prompt are due by June 30, 2012.

More varied examples:
The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket by Robert Lowell
Ode on Periods by Bernadette Mayer
America by Robert Creeley


  1. Pablo Neruda's _Odes to Common Things_and _Odes to Opposites_ are wonderful models of how the ode can be used as a means of meditation and a vehicle of appreciation.

  2. Pablo Neruda's _Odes to Common Things_and _Odes to Opposites_ are wonderful models of how the ode can be used as a means of meditation and a vehicle of appreciation.


* * All comments must be approved by the site administrator before appearing in order to prevent spam.