Ode to the Ode

O, Ode, you of the Keatsian melodies, rich and thick with the nightingale’s full-throated ease, the Grecian urn’s leaf-fringed legend, and Autumn’s gathering swallows. You of Shelley’s wild west wind and Wordsworth’s primal sympathy; you of Pindar and Horace, but also of Neruda, Clifton, Alexander, and Pinsky; we praise you, we glorify you, we…need you.

Yes, need. In the midst of our daily moans and groans, we need the cadence of praise. We need the stillness of contemplation that looks both inward and outward, then lifts us to sung epiphany. Sometimes such exaltation is symphonic; other times, a quiet ditty, but be it lofty or slight—serious or comedic—the penned insight is worthy of further meditation. What we choose to praise tells us something about ourselves and the world in which we live.

I’m thinking of an unlikely subject for a poem written last semester by my student, Alyssa Turner. In “Ode to a Ratty Tee Shirt,” the narrator tries to banish her boyfriend’s old shirt. Even so,

every Friday, after the laundry,
there you are, folded next to
clean socks, crisp shirts, and

respectable pleated pants.
Before the end of the day, you decorate his
body like lights on a sad Christmas tree:

haphazardly placed, half burned out,
dangling loosely. His little hairs peep out
from the great beyond of the armpit, through

the giant hole to see what excitement
the night holds….

By poem’s end, we recognize the shirt as both nemesis and, because of the relationship, dear friend. We also see something of ourselves and our own partnerships. For this latter reason, I often include in my poetry workshops an exercise on the ode or its close cousin, the apostrophe.

“Write an ode,” I say, “to one of the following items: stapler, toenail, half-eaten apple, glass of flat coke, ice-cream cone, crumpled dollar bill, squashed blueberry, bench on the sideline of a football field, shoelace, ping pong ball, bowling ball, dead skunk on the side of the road, avocado, or an object of your choice.  Or write directly to the object.”

Today, while looking through old copies of my university’s literary journal, I remember students, like the ones cited here, by what they chose to praise. Susan Sarvis’ ode to a road makes vivid the quality of persistence:

Black-topped and
sliding through
passive treed ridges
sneaking across
mudded in brown
under a yellow stripe
finding its way through stacks
of humorless houses
it dances like
coal shining
and moves on

Joy Kania heralds a stapler: “strong/durable, you balance on your bottom… Your only weakness: a stack of papers/thick as a slab of granite… You spring forth, catch your dinner,/hold tightly, choking it with your teeth… you snap back, rest,/like David’s victorious slingshot.” The courage and tenacity of the familiar takes on scriptural status.

Danielle Resnick’s ode to a dead skunk likewise captures something of human nature. How we answer the poem’s final question may tell us which response we most admire.

O poor, slain patron of pungent stench,
now discarded like an empty aerosol can…

[you] once dared to challenge the asphalt rill.

Is that a smile of blissful peace
or a furious snarl like Old Yeller’s last burst of rage?

Finally, from these dog-eared issues of the college journal, Nicholas Trumbauer holds sacred a tied fly:

Wings of unnatural
feathers—like a
fish with plastic
drift upon the
water like sun
speckles—a secret
String that holds
you like the
twine around
a hay bail—
the strand of
atoms to shape
my world.
Your tail is
whiskers on the
wrong end,
raising you
high for all
below to
Your body’s like
dark fur
on my dog’s
so that your
body floats like
broken twigs
upon this rushing

The author’s mix of earthy and mystical is liberating, and we float with the sun-speckled lure along the rushing stream of this world.

Maybe in following the poem’s lure, we’ll run smack into one of the frogs lauded this past week during my university’s English Club “Ode to the Frog” event.  You might recognize the amphibians by their “little jelly orgs of yuck” (as described by Karis Ritzman), their “foghorn” and “crass cacophony” (noted by Akiya Shirk), or their “necessary excess to stack the statistics” (voiced by Spencer Myers).

Or maybe you’ll add to this orchestra of odes a new note, a new song of frog.
Or dead skunk on the side of the road.
Or toenail.
Or squashed blueberry.

Take out your pen and start the celebration! I’ll be listening, and so—I suspect—will that ancient but enduring muse of praise, The Ode.

Photo by Canon-Man, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Marjorie Maddox, author of Local News from Someplace Else and a 2013 ebook of Perpendicular As I. Many of the above student poems first appeared in Lock Haven University’s literary and arts journal, The Crucible.

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  1. says

    Ode to a Dove’s Lament

    You do not whisper coo-oo this
    morning, your sound the signal
    alarm — wings sharply whistling —
    till I, twice pulled from slumber, run
    my finger to the glass, imagining how
    the limb on which you perch might be
    shaken to one more vow of silence.

    We do this often, you and I — call
    and respond, me rubbing sleep’s eye
    and you, my day-breaking game bird,
    letting loose the same-syllable song
    widows address in their dreams.

    How could I know today would be
    different, wing whirs replacing coo-
    OO-oo, the racketeering Blue Jay
    occupying the nest, its beak a bloom
    of tiny shell chips, and you, in gray
    dress, forever unstilled.

  2. says

    Marjorie, such a fun exposition of the ode. Enjoyed the student examples!

    Maureen, that is some poem. The ending made me catch my breath, and this was arresting:

    “letting loose the same-syllable song
    widows address in their dreams”

  3. says

    Tree Frog

    You repeat like the grasses and the reeds
    and hide in the future of inevitable evening.

    You soothe me into dreams adrift toward morning
    and reveal yourself in chalices of seclusion.

    You speak in tongues
    and you jazz like nobody’s business.

    You harmonize with silence and your voice
    fills the sad spaces left by the owl and loon.

    Your song is brighter than moonlight, your song
    floats on the waters’ breathing.

    Your spirit rises in the rubbing of wet shoes
    and I do not remember first hearing you,

    because I have never not loved you;
    I carry your chant in the crevasses of my words.

    I have broken apart the din of cities to hear you
    and no longer doubt that music is a found thing.

    You make me remember the holiness of repetition
    and the mysteries of the world.

    You teach me the lightness of not knowing,
    as I stumble in darkness with open eyes.

    You cannot be found by searching,
    and because the bough does not feel your burden,

    the earth has embraced you in its infinite branches.
    The last chord that will carry me away shall be yours

    • says

      Really lovely, Richard. All those lines Marjorie cites are ones I would cite, too. I like your subject, too, because it’s a bit unexpected; the poem demonstrates how we are connected to all living things and how even those things not like us can open up to experience all our senses.

  4. says


    I love “the future of inevitable evening,” “you speak in tongues,” “I carry your chant in the crevasses of my words,” and many other lines. The couplets seem just right to convey the pairing of man/music, man/tree frog. Thanks for this. I’ll pass it along.

  5. Marcy Terwilliger says

    “Ode to the bug.”

    Summer day
    sweat rolls down my back.
    Climb in the cab
    of my truck
    rolled down windows
    still not enough.
    Country roads of curves
    Bug on the windshield,
    Yep, it’s dead.
    Turned on water,
    wipers too.
    Dead bug on the
    now split in to.
    Yucky mess
    hate this thing
    bug on the windshield,
    now driving me insane.

  6. Marcy Terwilliger says

    Marjorie, glad I gave you a chuckle but I hate bugs on the windshield or a fly in the truck. Drives me crazy. Some of my best poems come while driving but by the time I get home I’ve lost them.


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