Capture Your Summer with an Ode
by Violet Nesdoly
This is Violet's twenty-third—and final—column in the "Poet's Classroom" series.
Spring morphing into summer is a busy time. The garden flourishes with blossoms everywhere and—amongst all the lettuce, beans and corn—burgeoning weeds. Our calendars are dotted with happy to-dos like wedding invitations to which we must reply and then shop for gifts. When the temperature finally warms to the shorts and t-shirt range, we pack up camping gear to go hiking in the hinterland or lounging at the cottage.
It's easy to get too distracted and overwhelmed by all that activity to even think about writing poems. However, just as you'd never dream of letting the garden season, a wedding, or a vacation pass without taking a few photos, so you mustn't let the busyness of the season keep you from creating poetic memories. Writing an ode—that lyrical praise poem that focuses widely and deeply on a single subject—may be the perfect way to channel some of the season's liveliness and energy into a keepsake as vivid as a photograph.
A brief history of odes
Odes began in Greece. The Greek poet-for-hire Pindar (522–443 B.C.) wrote odes celebrating public events. Imagine victorious athletes parading into the town’s square or coliseum accompanied by choirs singing of their feats.
The Pindaric choral ode is a long rhyming poem in three parts called strophe, antistrophe, and epode. The strophe and antistrophe have the same stanza form and number of lines while the epode differs from them. “The Progress of Poesy” by Thomas Gray is a Pindaric Ode with two stanzas of 12 lines, followed by a third of 17 lines. This pattern repeats twice for a formal 123-line poem that begins:
Awake, Aeolian lyre, awake,
And give to rapture all thy trembling strings.
From Helicon's harmonious springs
A thousand rills their mazy progress take:
The laughing flowers that round them blow.
(read the rest of “The Progress of Poesy”)
The Roman poet Horace (65–8 B.C.) expanded the ode's subject matter to include more personal and meditative lyrics. Some of the topics he praised were dinner invitations, wine, women, song, patriotism, and philosophy. Horace's odes also differ from Pindar's in form. In a Horatian ode each stanza contains the same rhyme scheme, number and length of lines, or their lengths vary according to a pattern. Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" is a Horatian ode. Its eight stanzas, with their 10 lines each, look identical. It begins:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
(read the rest of “Ode to a Nightingale”)
In the 1650s the English poet Cowley modified the ode still further. The Cowleyan or Irregular Ode is irregular and free in rhyme pattern, length of lines, and length and shape of stanzas. William Wordsworth's "Ode—Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" is an Irregular Ode. Wordsworth divided the 208 lines into 11 stanzas of which the shortest is 8 lines, the longest 39. The random line lengths give it an almost a free-verse feeling:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream…
(read the rest of “Ode—Intimations of Immortality…”)
Finally in the twentieth century Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904–1973) invented the Elemental Ode. His skinny, free-verse odes (translated from his native Spanish) exalt ordinary things. He wrote odes to salt, a lemon, an artichoke, a chestnut, maize, wine, tomatoes, and more. His "Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market" begins:
among the market vegetables,
from the ocean
lying in front of me
(read the rest of “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market”)
How to write an ode
1. Choose a subject
Begin by writing a list of things that comfort, amuse, or intrigue you. Include things that inspire admiration, wonder, gratefulness and joy. Pick a favorite item from your list and make another list of every possible aspect of the chosen item. Indicate appearance, smell, sound, feel, taste, origin, use, allusion, and possible value to humans or other creatures. To what could you compare your item? Does it have an opposite? If personified, what kind of voice would it have?
2. Choose a form
If your subject is of public interest (an ode to the worship service in your church, for example), you might choose to write it as a formal Pindaric Ode. If it’s a lyrical expression of feelings toward a more personal subject—your new granddaughter or your favorite Bible—the Horatian or Irregular Ode may be the most suitable form. Or you could write about your favorite mug, your glasses, or your 50th year in the free-verse fashion of Neruda’s Elemental Ode.
3. Write the ode
Begin by reading some odes to get in the mood. To find some online, go to the Poetry Foundation website. On the home page find the Poetry Tool, click on Glossary Term, choose Ode from the drop-down list and you’ll instantly have links to over 50 odes. Two of my favorites from that list are “Morning” by Billy Collins and "To the Light of September" by W. S. Merwin.
Whatever the form of your ode, exalt your subject. Give it lavish and audacious praise. Use exaggeration, even hyperbole—especially if you want your ode to be humorous. Include elements of sound, image and emotion. Go on and on as odes are typically long.
Use the figure of speech known as apostrophe ("a turning aside as from an audience to speak to an imaginary or absent person"). You might begin:
O Starbucks mug
I can't begin to count
your mouthfuls of black pleasure…
Use personification ("the endowment of an inanimate object or quality with personality or human attributes"):
My Starbucks mug
stands patient, silent, open-mouthed…
To help prime your pen or keyboard, consider these excerpts from two modern odes:
Many Have Written Poems about Blackberries
by Stephanie Bolster1
but few have gotten at the multiplicity of them, how each berry
composes itself of many dark notes, spherical,
swollen, fragile as a world. A blackberry is the colour of a painful
bruise on the upper arm, some internal organ
as yet unnamed…
Praise for the Zebra
by Carla Funk2
Because your intentions are so clear,
so black and white.
Because your body speaks in perfect lines,
like licorice strips laid across a horse of snow.
Because you stood too long in the shadows
of the patchwork forest, grew stripes—
half in the shade,
All too soon the garden will have mellowed into golden harvest. The newlyweds will be installed in their cute apartment and back to work. Your lakeside tan will fade. But hopefully the odes you wrote when in the thick of the summer's activity will bring it all back in living, joyful color.
We thank Violet for her hard work, scholarship and enthusiasm in the provision of 23 "Poets Classroom" columns. Utmost is currently accepting suggestions and/or applications for a replacement "Poets Classroom" columnist. This is a paid position. For further information, please contact Utmost Executive Director, Nathan Harms.
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Copyright ©2010 by Violet Nesdoly
1 Stephanie Bolster, Breathing Fire—Canada's New Poets, edited by Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, B.C., 1995, p. 8.
2 Carla Funk, Breathing Fire—Canada's New Poets, p. 81.