An ode is a poem written to praise or lavish affection or admiration upon a person, place, thing or accomplishment. Odes help readers see what it is about a poem's subject that is worthy of attention and encourage readers to feel as awestruck and exuberant as do their poets. In this sense, an ode can be about almost anything as long as the poet genuinely cares for his subject. That said, one need not take 30 pages to express deeply felt emotion. Many great odes have done what almost all good poetry does, which is to take the complexity of human feeling and experience and condense it into language which can be brief, but, in its density and compactness, very powerful.
Scholars point to three traditional types of odes: the Pindaric, the Horatian and the Irregular. The ode begins in ancient Greece with the poet Pindar, often credited as the inventor of the form. Pindar's odes and those of its kind were usually composed to celebrate athletes and athletic victories. These odes made for grand public spectacles, which routinely included choruses and dancers to accompany the poet's work. Later, the ode came to the Roman Empire. The Horatian ode, named for the Roman poet Horace, took a different direction than its predecessor, presenting itself as a more serene and meditative work, better suited for quiet reading in the privacy and serenity of one's home. Finally, the Irregular ode deviates from the meters and stanzaic patterns of the former traditions. An Irregular ode can be written without meter or rhyme, in whatever scattering or clustering of lines the poet wishes. What remains is the theme: praise for someone or something extraordinary in the poet's eyes.
Finding a Subject
One of the best ways to brainstorm ideas for poems is to make lists -- lists of your obsessions, your passions and the things that haunt you. When it comes to writing an ode, it's often best to write a list of things you love. Better yet, write several lists of things you love, divided into separate categories, so you won't be overwhelmed when trying to think about all the things you can praise. Consider writing a list of foods, animals, places, genres of music, clothing items, activities or sports you love. Choose a subject from one of these lists about which you can say something interesting, genuine and fresh.
Adjust Your Focus
To write a poem on anything in just eight lines requires that you prevent yourself from attempting to talk about everything that's wonderful regarding your subject. Good poetry comes from details, and so the closer you examine your subject, the more likely you are to find just one or two or, indeed, eight things truly worthy of praise. If you love okra, you can easily write eight lines on its scent alone -- or perhaps its texture when picked fresh or the way it tastes when popped into your mouth, golden and fried. If you feel that's too difficult, think of eight things about that scent, that texture or that taste, and comment on them in each line, producing as much concrete detail as possible so that your reader can sense what you sense. Try using metaphor and simile to compare these experiences to others, recalling positive connections that will not only help enliven the rendering of your subject, but compound the tone of warmth and appreciation in the poem. Of course, you can also choose four things you love about okra, taking two lines to explore each item. Divide the work however you see fit. The important thing is you remain close to your subject, not telling but showing your readers with the use of sensory detail what it is that you love about your subject.
Don't Go Overboard
When we feel strongly about something or someone, it's easy to let our feelings overpower us. As poets, we can also lose control of our ability to be precise when we allow those same feelings to cause us to "gush" over our favorite subjects. To avoid sentimentality, poets must exercise restraint when writing about the things that move them most. Otherwise, their poems will not engender a sense of kinship with their readers, who may become overwhelmed by language that is not only cloying, but inauthentic. A good way to avoid sentimentality is to put the first draft of your ode aside for a few weeks for it to "cool down." Then you'll find you'll be able to look at the writing with more objectivity. Another trick is to employ comparisons -- metaphors and similes -- to distance yourself from your subject. This way, the challenge of writing about it becomes more intellectual than emotional. No matter what, you will always have to walk a tightrope as a writer. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser writes that the only way to avoid overdoing it "is to write with so much restraint that emotion is virtually excluded. And that of course leads to poetry that has no feeling, no 'human heat.'' When writing your ode, take risks. Play. Remember you can always rewrite what doesn't work. What's more, you can feel free to write more than eight lines, allowing yourself to go as far with the subject as you like, knowing you can cut later. Regardless, what will matter most is that you have communicated as succinctly and effectively as possible why the world should love this thing you love the way you do.
- Poets.org: Poetic Form: Ode
- Thirteen Ways of Looking for a Poem: Wendy Bishop
- The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets: Ted Kooser
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