“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;
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.”