Re-Inventing the Ode

“Paulo maiora carnamus”
(translation: “Let us sing of somewhat higher things”)

 —epigraph to Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,”
quoted from Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue


I’ve never written an ode, but I’ve read a lot of great ones. These two facts, I think, are not unrelated.

The term, “Ode,” comes from the Greek aeidein, meaning to sing or to chant. Originally set to music, odes would be recited and accompanied by stately dance , creating a heady combination of artistic genres that must have been a marvel to behold. An ode was not so much a poem as a multi-media event, the words left behind for us by such practitioners as Pindar are the mere skeletal outline of those extravagant performances.

Thanks to the advent of the printing press, the Romantic poets, and a few of their 18th-century forbears, the ode gradually became more tame, more domesticated. Stripped of its musical accompaniment, the poets had to compensate by creating a music of their own, purely through words—and what music they created.  Little in literature can rival the gorgeousness of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” the lushness of Keats’ “To Autumn,” or the pure power of Wordsworth’s so-called ‘Intimations Ode.’ These are poems that fairly sing themselves off the page.

As poetic culture and convention changed, the ode evolved from performance art to a word-and-earth bound entity. With no dancers present to interpret the poem, their leaps and steps and gestures punctuating each passage, the poet had to make the ode itself move. The boldness of Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” a 20th-century incarnation of the ancient ode, provides the reader with three distinct rhythms—each one a separate “movement” of the poem—and resolves this variety with the classic march of these famous final lines:

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Auden’s poem is addressed to the great Yeats, but it rises past the occasion, sings even higher, in announcing the role of all poets in all times and places. The ode allows him to reach beyond the particular moment, back into the past and forward into futurity.

Poems like Auden’s are a hard act for any poet—especially contemporary poets—to follow. There are a number of reasons why.

For one thing, the ode is big. Traditionally, it addresses grand subjects and treats them in an exalted manner. Tennyson’s “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” eulogizes a great war hero. Or, to cite a more contemporary example, Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of the Morning,” delivered in 1993 at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, stretches across time and space to embrace all of history, from the age of the dinosaurs to the present, and to encompass every incarnation of humanity, inviting all to share in their common inheritance as human beings:

The Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher . . .

You, who gave me my first name, you,
Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of
Other seekers — desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought,
Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.

Angelou here draws on several American literary traditions—African-American charismatic preaching combined with the strains of the grandsire of American poetry, Walt Whitman—to create an ode that speaks in quintessential American idiom. Creating a traditional ode allows the poet to use her outdoor voice. It is a profoundly public medium, daring to speak to and for everyone.

Such spectacular odes put me in mind of Seamus Heaney’s famous lines from “Digging”: “ I’ve no spade to follow men [or women] like them.”  My own pen is accustomed to addressing more humble matter. And here is the rub. In our time of irony, in our era ruled by the little lyric that tells the story of our little lives, there seems to be no place for “singing of somewhat higher things.” Wordsworth, himself, when he invoked Virgil’s words in 1807, was already conscious of the gap that separated his contemporary moment from the grandeur that was Rome. He was writing of his childhood in the far North country of England, a rural place, largely unmapped and unknown. He borrows the ode, in fact, in attempt to invest his humble and potentially unremembered life with a kind of grandeur, essentially bathing it in the reflected light of Virgil’s glory. If Wordsworth felt this way about the ode so long ago, how much more aware of this are we?

The contemporary response to this literary predicament has been to embrace it—to write odes self-consciously, ironically. Instead of addressing heady subjects, poets address ordinary and often, private, subjects with the exalted, public verse that typifies the ode, thereby creating a disconnect between content and form. Such poems can be witty as well as wise, both humorous and heart-breaking. I think of Pablo Neruda’s charming “Ode to My Socks,” and Sharon Olds’ poignant odes devoted to the female body, “Ode to Hymen,” “Ode to Menstrual Blood,” and “Poem for the Breasts” (which she has dubbed a “pre-ode”).  These odes are poems that take risks, yes—poems that insist the poet throw caution to the wind, speak poetically about prosaic objects, place them on a pedestal for all to view, and prove them to be the blessings that they are. A good ode about an ordinary subject performs an act of transformation, whereby the homely object becomes beatified and the mortal is immortalized. It is, in fact, a little miracle.

Contemporary writers of odes are, in fact, doing what poets have always done—rescuing old and (supposedly) worn-out forms from the dustbin of literary history and making them new. “Nothing is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so,” Shakespeare counsels, even as he re-invents the classical genre of tragedy for his 17th-century audience. In his poem, “The Oven-Bird,” Robert Frost interprets the titular bird’s interrogatively-pitched song: “The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing?” The bird’s query, in fact, is Frost’s own, articulated in the final lines of a sonnet—yet another old form rumored to be diminished, dead, and done. The poem’s very existence answers the question it poses. Whether ode or sonnet, tragedy or comedy, the unspoken answer to the question is the same:

“What to make of a diminished thing?”

“Make art of it.”

Photo by LadyDragonflyCC, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, author of Saint Sinatra and Other Poems and Waking My Mother.


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  1. says

    Ode To The Lazy Boy Recliner

    Oh you, dull and faded blue
    I love you and loathe you
    All in the same indignant breath

    You are perfectly harmless
    Solid, available, giving of yourself
    At a moment’s call you invite me to recline

    But I, I long for an ancestry that goes
    Farther back, lover of antiques and over-stuffed
    Big leather chairs

    It’s not that you don’t go back
    You do, to a nearly horizontal repose
    For those who are weary and need of the TV

    I am sorry, it is me not you
    You are generous and kind
    But your lever bothers me the most

    And you were here before me, in this house
    Giving you seniority of sorts
    But I have nowhere to move you

    Or believe me I would
    Though I am trying hard to be
    PC where furniture is concerned

    And to branch out and embrace
    Diversity in the room
    But somehow, the Anglophile and

    Francophile and chair obsessed in me
    Can’t reconcile the
    Lazy-boy in you

    Maybe its the hyphen
    And you can’t get rid of that
    Maybe it’s the way you tilt and slant

    I know you are valuable and beautiful
    To some
    And it is to those, lovers of the chair that moves

    That I dedicate
    Ode to the Lazy-boy

  2. says

    Dear Elizabeth,
    Congratulations on your delightful ode! Not only have you managed to write a successful poem in a genre that most of us approach with trepidation–if we approach it at all–you have also entered the annals of literary history.

    Very few poets–if any–have addressed an ode to his/her Lazy-boy recliner.

    My favorite line, I confess, is the generous dedication: “lovers of the chair that moves” is a wonderful and memorable image.

    Mille Grazie & Kudos,

  3. says

    Dear Angela,

    It was a toss up between the Lazy-boy and the bath mat. I confess I am working on an ode of an altogether different tone and tenor in my “Ode To My Writing Desk”. I had to get the pedantic items out of the way. I am in a lovely rental house until we build, so the Lazy-Boy was, indeed, here first.
    Thank you for your generous remarks. For this I have entered the literary annals? Please say it ain’t so.

    • says

      I shall eagerly await your future odes.

      As for how one earns a place in the annals of literary history–I’m not very discerning, I’m afraid. I’ll take what I can get! :)


  4. says

    An enjoyable and interesting post regarding Odes, Angela. I’m not sure I completely understand how to write an Ode, but I had penned this a while back regarding diminished things in the midst of what is exalted.

    Ode For Diminished Things

    I have been incautious,
    never believing
    it is fear You want from us.

    Wild as rust, am I,
    wayward as a wren
    nesting near the downspout.

    In the dark water once—
    phosphorescent scrolls—
    my skin was luminous with You,
    immersed beyond misgivings.

    And for what else are these signs:
    the sun interred each day—
    the pyretic evening
    raving in its grave of dust—
    the runes of writhing fish,
    arriving on the sand
    in threads of moonlight?

    I forged my prayers from these,
    from blood, rock and air,
    particle and wave, to make You
    into something I could believe.

    Your exotic fame,
    more like mercury than miracle,
    star of the Science Channel and Nova.

    And us, always
    the ones counting,
    eyes closed.

    What if the stories are true,
    after the wreck, in my confusion,
    You arrive—
    burning the pannier of leaves
    above the flare
    of police cars and ambulances—
    with Your angels,
    Your sleeves full of galaxies,
    demanding the accounting
    You’d have us fear.

    I will tell You of the rivers,
    how I envied them
    in their rage and falling,
    quick and silver into themselves,
    their caressing,
    water upon water;
    and the creatures diminished
    in my blood, dying
    on the pavement,
    and how souls inhabit where they can.

    Do not ask if I complied,
    that was not the song You had me write.

    Nothing is wild or holy,
    unless we all are holy and wild.

    • says

      Richard, exquisitely beautiful. And yes wild and holy. This is a favorite of yours in my eyes. It is bursting with imagery and raw beauty. I have to read it multiple times….isn’t that what a poet longs to hear from their reader. But truly, and honestly this is haunting. What a privilege to be able to have your poems here. Thank you for sharing your offerings. You are a blessing.

  5. says

    Dear Richard,
    Thank you for this extraordinary poem. The series of images you have forged here, layer upon layer, are powerful, evocative and provocative–“the pyretic evening,” “the runes of dying fish,” and “your sleeves full of galaxies” are especially striking and memorable.

    I’m not sure I understand how to write an ode, either–but this certainly feels like one.

    It is a poem that reaches after a language that doesn’t yet exist.

    It does take risks.

    It is, in fact, a little miracle.

    Mille Grazie,

    • says

      And this reads full of fun. I found it also very touching to personify your house and its character and did it in a way that worked so well. I hope to see your third installment.

  6. says

    Ode To My Passing

    Perhaps it is called Black Creek,
    and as if the map of where is wind,
    it buckles in the autumn trees and ground.

    Back bent on a lift of limb, I twist, sap drops
    like alluvions scattered on devious slopes
    where water weakened in its course.

    I would so quietly live among the particles
    of light and air, a hue ubiquitously hiding
    over the final guiding banks of green:

    garden, rake, and handle, yellow aging tear
    shape falling, wet and taken, leaf and ribbon.

    • says

      Another beautiful post, Richard. Many thanks for this poem, these quiet, haunting images.

      I currently write from Mexico City where I was awakened at dawn by a cavalcade of birdsong. I started the ode this morning.

      Cheers y Hasta Luego,

        • says

          Dear Elizabeth,
          I am currently travelling in Mexico, a place where the luxurious 2-hour lunch is the norm.

          What a delight it is to find and read your “ode to slow” (fabulous line!). It renders perfectly and elegantly a graced attention to the gifts of time & taste, good company & community–a lovely literary version of the life I’m lucky to be leading.

          Muchas Gracias, Mi Amiga,


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