from Poet Lore, Spring / Summer 2011
One day about a decade ago, I found myself scratching the title "Ode to the Breeze" above a poem I was drafting. Although my effort was a faint breath in every sense, why would I have titled it thus had not Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" lingered somewhere in my mind? I showed my poem to a friend who countered with a far-superior ode of his own, and when I saw his was structured more formally than mine was, my curiosity about this subgenre was piqued. To discover and appreciate the classical, modern, and contemporary ode became one of my minor preoccupations.
The present-day requirements, the codified ones that have made it into the 19th, 20th, and now the 21st centuries from the Greek and Roman classical tradition, are easy enough to find. According to The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, an ode is a lyric characterized by elevated diction, loftiness of subject matter, and "enrichment by poetic device." The last as practiced, for the most part, means apostrophe and personification.
Often, apostrophe occurs at the beginning, but not necessarily, and is implied occasionally or chased topside and embedded in the title. It may occur repeatedly and with variants, and contain metaphoric or metonymic reductions. We hear apostrophe as Keats speaks to the urn he has viewed among the Elgin Marbles: "Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness ... " ("Ode on a Grecian Urn"). Thomas Gray calls to Eton College, "Ye distant spires, ye antique towers" ("Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College"). Shelley writes "O wild West Wind" and "Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!" ("Ode to the West Wind" and "To a Skylark"). There are numerous examples of this slightly displaced petition to the muse. I am assuming apostrophe is always a petition to the muse, more or less specified, or at the least, to that rascal, Echo. An ode is, after all, occasioned by inspiration arising as a consequence of knowing or considering the person, object, force or quality to which (or to whom) the speaker speaks.
From what I can tell, praise is the one remaining characteristic of what has evolved into the contemporary ode. In current practice, one might say that an ode is a praise song and leave it at that. This attitude of praise is derived from the purpose of the classical Greek ode as a ceremonious poem sung and accompanied by dance (a choric song) performed on an occasion of public or private ceremony when it was assumed personal emotion and general opinion, with regard to the subject or object of praise, were united.
The Greek poet-playwright, Stesichorus, whose lifetime bridged the seventh and the sixth centuries B.C., invented the triadic structure; and today, on occasion, the barely traceable bones of Stesichorus's structure show up in contemporary practice—strophic lines followed by antistrophic lines in the same meter, then a summary line. Strophe literally means the act of turning (or twisting), and the antistrophe, then, refers to the turning back. In the Greek choral dance this returning movement answers the previous strophe exactly. We can think of this as a dance with a series of steps that are then stepped-back into so that the dancer returns to where he or she began the movement. In the triadic structure, there is a concluding shorter verse called the epode.
This classical strophe / antistrophe / epode pattern as used by Pindar (522-442 B.C.) tended to be lengthy because the original triadic pattern, with all its metrical complexity, was apt to be repeated many times and quite precisely. The Pindaric ode was meant to arouse an audience, the tone intensely emotional. It is this structure Ben Jonson makes use of in the 16th century when he translates the Greek terms, strophe, antistrophe, and epode to the English: "The Turn," "The Counter-Turn," and "The Stand" identifying his four-times repeated triadic stanzas in "To the Immortal Memory and Friendship of That Noble Pair, Sir Lucius Cary and Sir H. Morison." I love how Theodore Roethke, writing three centuries later, alludes to Jonson's labeling his structure in English (rather than the then-expected Latin). In "I Knew a Woman," Roethke references "those English poets who grew up on Greek" and uses Jonson's terms as metonyms for the sexual positions the speaker claims his lover has taught him ("She taught me Turn and Counter-turn and Stand") .
The cult-hymns of the Homeric culture informed Pindar, but it was less elaborate Greek lyrics, through Alcaeus and Sappho, that resonated in Horace, and that tradition—the Roman tradition—is remarkably different in tone. Instead of working up a crowd into a frenzied state, the Horation ode is contemplative and tranquil. The ode had moved from the public theatre, accompanied by dance, to the private reader sitting alone in his or her library.
Since one can never overlook the pervasive and powerful influence of the Bible on traditional literary practice in Europe, I need to mention the Psalms and other poems of the Hebrew Bible. All that prayerful petition and parallelism—it's easy to see how that might be thrown into the ode stewpot.
French, Spanish, German and English odes were written in the Modern period as the classical tradition was absorbed and embodied afresh. The earliest odes in English are Edmund Spenser's "Epithalamium" and "Prothalamium," and Milton's "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" (begun in 1629) still seals the deal for many. Marvell was in that century as well, doing his marvelous best, particularly in his "Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland."
A big boost came to the English ode-manufactory with the publication of Abraham Cowley's Pindarique Odes in 1656. Not precise translations of Pindar's odes, they are instead expressive. And on and on it goes, a veritable rolling snowball of ode-making through Dryden, Gray, and Collins, to Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. Odes Pindaric, pseudo-Pindaric, Horatian, pseudo-Horatian, regular and irregular, rolling on into the 20th century when Auden revives, in the Horatian manner, the ode once more with (among many others) "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," "To Limestone," and my personal favorite, "Ode to Terminus." A horribly violent compression of 2,700 years of Western ode-making, but I am hurrying on to a few recently minted variants.
In the first half of the 20th century, a few significant American odes make a splash, most notably, perhaps, Allen Tate's "To the Confederate Dead." I do not detect a great deal of interest in odeifying until the second half of the 20th, and what interest there is, I suspect, comes to us because of the odes of Pablo Neruda and those of W.S. Merwin. "Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market" is one of Neruda's best. (This translation is Robin Robertson's.) The apostrophe here is "only you" which appears in the second and third stanzas: "only you / lived through / the sea's truth ... " and "Only you: / dark bullet / barreled / from the depths." The fourth stanza begins:
in front of me,
of my own ocean;
sappy as a sprung fir
in the green turmoil,
tidal wave, now
The mood is elegiac, not uncommon for an ode, but most illuminating are Neruda's metaphors that catch the form and color and the imagined experience of the creature laid out "among ... vegetables." The imagery is weaponry: "this torpedo," "a missile / that swam," a "dark bullet," a "sea-javelin, a nerveless / oiled harpoon." It is "a solitary man of war," "a well-oiled ship of the wind," and "the only / true / machine / of the sea." The dead fish is admired for having "survived / the unknown, the / unfathomable / darkness" and is reified as the "catafalqued king / of my own ocean." The awestruck speaker realizes that "in the whole market / yours / was the only shape left / with purpose or direction / in this / jumbled ruin / of nature." Since the tuna lived in the depths of the sea, in "le grand abime," it has simply exchanged one absolute dark for another. "Unflawed, / undefiled," the fish is "navigating now / the waters of death." In praising form with purpose, Neruda is praising, by inference, his own form-making purpose. The speaker has so thoroughly empathized with and admired the fish, so completely lost himself in beholding it, speaker and spoken-to are merged. The fish and its death and the poet and his death, the depths the fish swam in and the depths of feeling the poet knows, become the poem's achieved synthesis.
Robert Cording's "Ode to Ordinariness" is in three sections, each following the major divisions of day. The apostrophe in this free verse poem takes several turns: the ordinary is addressed as our "little ration of things gone right, god of all that is / Too humdrum for our notice," "our little god of reprieves," and throughout simply as "you" ("When I open the door for today's paper, / There you are, unseen as always ... ," " ... you're there with the mail...," "And you are in / A conversation overheard at the supermarket—"). This long, complex sentence is from the first section:
There you are, unseen as always, in the manic circles
Of a neighbor's setter that tosses a sunny
Cloud of goldfinches into the air and gives the giggles
To a first grader two doors down, waiting
Inside this morning's teakettle mist and her father's coat
Covering her shoulders. And now the sky
Is turning blue over the city and the yellow bus rolls up
And the girl disappears in her seat, her father
Left waving to a window where the sun flares, suspended
For a moment while he continues to shout
Last minute consolations for both of them: I'll be waiting
In this same spot when you come back at three.
What has vanished in Cording's ode is elevated diction. Most obviously, the subject is not lofty (and this is his point). The poetic devices are employed sparingly. There is a tripartite form, but nothing antistrophic about the second section, nor is the third a summing up. In the third section we find Cording's repeated use of the word "praise"—and here, the lyric-I assumes, momentarily, the first-person plural:
We praise you: for the safe return of the school bus, for
Everyone home for supper. Praise to recurrence
And status quo, to the sun returning like a second chance
After this evening's shower. ...
The poet adopts a more intimate note near closing: "And praise ... / ... for the small triangle / Of shadowed flesh where I've unbuttoned / My wife's blouse and for the identical feelings I first felt / Leaning to kiss that exact spot twenty years / Ago." The intent and tone of praise—the one consistent aspect of the ode that remains in use—is overtly expressed in Cording's poem, connecting this ode to one of its earliest influences, the Psalms.
Of odes written in recent decades, "Ode to a Dressmaker's Dummy" by Donald Justice is my favorite.
Ode to a Dressmaker's Dummy
Paper-mache body; blue-and-black cotton jersey cover.
Metal stand. Instructions included.
—Sears, Roebuck Catalogue
O my coy darling, still
You wear for me the scent
Of those long afternoons we spent,
The two of us together,
Safe in the attic from the jealous eyes
Of household spies
And the remote buffooneries of the weather;
Our sole remaining neighbor was the sky,
Who, often enough, at dusk
Leaning her cloudy shoulders on the sill,
Used to regard us with a bored and cynical eye.
How like the terrified,
Shy figure of a bride
You stood there then, without your clothes,
Drawn up into
So classic and so strict a pose
Almost, it seemed, the little attic grew
Dark with the first charmed night of the honeymoon.
Or was it only some obscure
Shape of my mother's youth I saw in you,
There where the rude shadows of the afternoon
Crept up your ankles and you stood
Hiding your sex as best you could? —
Prim ghost the evening light shone through.
(New & Selected Poems, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995)
Much elegant versification to appreciate in Justice's carefully measured, rhymed and spatially modulated two-stanza ode, but I want to trace his allusions to the modern and romantic tradition. We hear this first in "O my coy darling" an allusion to Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress." Justice suggests an elevated diction in phrases such as "remote buffooneries of weather" and "the rude shadows of the afternoon," but the dramatic situation and a reliance on monosyllables of Anglo-Saxon derivation undercut this staid requirement.
The heartbreaking tenderness of the boy's loneliness and his sexual yearning, and of his mother-love as well, undercuts the lofty subject mandate of the traditional ode. Here loftiness is a function of locus: the attic, which is, in itself, used as a pun ("So classic and so strict a pose / Almost, it seemed, the little attic grew"). I read this as a nod to the Attic Greek tradition, the dressmaker's pose "classic" and "strict." And this is a metapoetic moment: the poet's "little attic" ode is self-consciously aware that it is not a major ode. The speaker sees the dummy as a shy bride without clothes, violated, almost, by "the rude shadows" that "crept up your ankles as you stood / Hiding your sex as best you could." The "Shy figure of a bride" is, of course, an allusion to Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
One final word on what is an enormous subject: identifying the contemporary ode is sometimes a matter of interpretation, particularly when the words "Ode" or "To a ... " are not used in the title. For example, I read Robert Hass's "Old Movie with the Sound Turned Off" as an ode in praise of (among other subjects) the great Hollywood black-and-white films of the 30's and 40's (Time & Materials, Ecco, 2007). I would classify Derek Walcott's 12-part "In Italy" as an ode as well (White Egrets, FSG, 2010). The fundamental question to ask is one of tone: is this poem written with an attitude of praise? Of course, the praise may be qualified and the subjects multiple—but this, too, is part of the ode's evolution.
About the Author
Gray Jacobik's poetry collections include Brave Disguises (AWP Poetry Prize, Pittsburgh University Press 2002), The Surface of Last Scattering (X. J. Kennedy Prize, Texas Review Press, 1999), The Double Task (Juniper Prize, UMASS Press, 1998), and a memoir-in-verse, Little Boy Blue (CavanKerry Press, 2011). (Visit grayjacobik.com for more.)
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