Please note that Violet sent this post to me quite some time ago. I (Steph) then promptly lost track of it and didn’t post it when it was originally scheduled. My apologies! Regardless, it is always a wonderful time to express our love. Let’s learn more about how we can do so by writing an ode . . .
In the month of February, our thoughts turn to love and poetry. Perhaps you’ve lately picked through racks of Valentine cards, browsed the books on your shelves, or asked Google for suggestions—all in search of words that expressed just right sentiments. Of maybe you even wrote an original sonnet—the poetry form most often associated with love. There is another type of love poem to write that’s every bit as old and perhaps even more versatile. It is the ode.
Dictionary.com defines ode: “A lyric poem typically of elaborate metrical form and expressive of exalted or enthusiastic emotion.” “Expressive, exalted, enthusiastic emotion”? Sounds like love to me!
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 Progress of Poesy” by Thomas Gray is a Pindaric Ode.
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. 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.
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.
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. Here is his “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market.”
How to write an ode
1. Choose a subject
What do you love? Your grandmother? That first cup of coffee? Your rascally terrier? 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 this thing or person? 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. You can find links to a multitude of odes on this page of the Poetry Foundation website. Two of my favorites from that list are “Morning” by Billy Collins and “Home Movies : A Sort of Ode” by Mary Jo Salter.
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. You might begin, “O Starbucks mug / I can’t begin to count / your mouthfuls of black pleasure…”
Use personification. “My Starbucks mug / stands patient, silent, open-mouthed…”
February, that month of romantic love and valentine verse, is almost past. But the odes that you compose will honour and memorialize your many and varied loves way beyond any one calendar month dedicated to love.
Credit: A longer version of this article was first published in the February 2009 issue of FellowScript.
Violet Nesdoly uses fiction, nonfiction, meditations, and poetry to do what she is passionate about—bringing the Bible to life. Her debut novel Destiny’s Hands, a Bible fiction, was a finalist in the 2013 Word Awards. She blogs book reviews at Violet Nesdoly.com and poetry at Violet Nesdoly / Poems.