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:
passive treed ridges
mudded in brown
under a yellow stripe
finding its way through stacks
of humorless houses
it dances like
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
fish with plastic
drift upon the
water like sun
String that holds
you like the
a hay bail—
the strand of
atoms to shape
Your tail is
whiskers on the
high for all
Your body’s like
on my dog’s
so that your
body floats like
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 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.