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Ode for the Body

November 2015

For National Poetry Month last year, poets who serve on the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors participated in Poet-to-Poet, a multimedia educational project. Through videos, they invited young people in grades three to twelve to write poems in response to those shared by the poets. 

One of those poems is "My Skeleton" by Jane Hirshfield. (View her video) After reading the poem, Jane talks in the video about the poem and tells us it is an ode.

“Ode” is from the Greek aeidein, meaning to sing or chant. It is an old form of lyric poetry which would have originally been accompanied by music and dance. The Romantic poets used it as a way to formally address an event, a person, or a thing not present.

There are three typical types of odes: the Pindaric, Horatian, and Irregular. You can check into the more formal aspects of each, but we're being more general in our approach this month. William Wordsworth's poem “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” is an example of an English language Pindaric ode.

The Horatian ode (named for the Roman poet Horace) is more contemplative, less formal, less ceremonious, and less theatrical. Look at the Allen Tate poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead.  

The Irregular ode is just that. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats was actually written based on his experiments with the sonnet.

Others: Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind," Robert Creeley’s “America," Bernadette Mayer’s “Ode on Periods," and Robert Lowell’s “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.”

For this month, we ask you to write an ode that focuses on the body. Jane Hirshfield's poem opens with her direct address to the skeleton.

My skeleton,
you who once ached
with your own growing larger

She follows chronologically, following the skeleton as it ages.

each year
imperceptibly smaller,
absorbed by your own

Generally, the aging of the body is not a kind thing.

Angular wristbone's arthritis,
cracked harp of ribcage
And finally, she concludes with this beautiful image of its life work.
You who held me all my life
inside your hands
as a new mother holds
her own unblanketed child,
not thinking at all.

For this November prompt, we try an ode about a part of the body. I suppose the skeleton is a part of the body, although it is made up of many smaller parts. That is true of the ear, the hand and the brain, so you might want to choose a specific part. You might choose the nose, a breast, the mouth, lips, tongue or a thumb. So many options. You don't need to get down to an anatomical level (although that might be interesting) and you could easily be like those Romantic poets in your approach.

Another ode I heard read aloud by the poet several times is "Homage To My Hips" by Lucille Clifton. It is a short poem that probably would not count as an ode by Horatio's standards, but I'm fine with it as an ode to a part of the body.

She begins by telling us that:

these hips are big hips.
they need space to
move around in.
they don't fit into little
petty places.

And they are also "magic hips."

i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top

SUBMISSION DEADLINE: November 28, 2015

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


Forefinger, first finger
Guiding my pen,
director, orchestrator,
indexer of men!

Every day I put you to task;
to click, and pick and peck and scratch

Oh, you object of pointed propaganda
aimed at inciting youth to ignite
“To Arms! To Arms!”
so cleverly attached
Oh, the power you hold in that gesture
understood by dog and man alike.

Indexed studies show that size does matter;
Who knew? For men, the shorter the better!

My own long and lean
leader of three -
fingers and a thumb,
in manner harsh and manner mild,
has touched my lips
to hush my child

or firmly held up, to indicate; wait
you help me silently communicate,
and even do well to entertain us
with tiny pen drawn face.

You have been known to wiggle and wag,
once or twice bend and curl to beckon
and sometimes just for fun
I blow a kiss
off your tip
like a gun.

As we grow old and you scratch my head
in wonder of remembering less and
less, with what little power left
we will summon someone to tie a red string on
as a final gesture
of your usefulness.

Deena Perreault


O damaged ear,
That bendered long nights on Clapton and the Allman Brothers,
Paying for it now with a doctor’s needle through your delicate drum,
Bathing your burnt-out nerve with steroids
In hope of resurrection;

O ear through which I will never again listen for the lost chord
Or the hum of heavenly shells,
Revolving within each other, in a precise, predetermined way,
Signaling all is well with the world,
As our Greek professor assured us the blessed heard;

Instead, what you gather,
Reminds me of my dead friend George,
Who, in the dorm after Greek class,
Waved his Gibson before his cranked- up amp
And created a squeal that shocked the fillings in my teeth;
At which, he laughed, took a toke, and said,
“There’s the real music of the spheres,”
Before it shorted out and fell silent.

Which is all, o traitor ear, you’ve left me.

Ron Yazinski


Because I suspect
that I suck.
Because I have suspected it
all this time.
Because I literally
sucked my thumb until I was
thirteen and a half
clandestinely, inexorably, shamefully,
pretending to my parents
that I didn’t anymore.
(My mother knew, though.
She knew.)
Because my bar mitzvah was a fraud, my father
kissing me on the cheek, saying,
“Now you are a man
in the eyes of God
and our people.” Because our people
included my cousin Naomi from Brooklyn
with the long black hair and frank
mischief in her eyes.
And because it was the right thumb, never the left,
because I tried the left, of course, but it didn’t
satisfy the way the right one did
probably for reasons
anatomical. And because
my parents are dead now
and I suspect that I suck
figuratively, pretending
to myself all this time
I was great.

Paul Hostovsky


To the marrow of me
I praise the tides of blood tossed
Against my bleating full sweet heart
I know the thump in my own thumb
This visit of vein and thought
The will for more

To the marrow of me
I praise the eyes that witness
Vision of mountain-ocean and love
The salt and spray open my breath
Touch my face with velvet
The hope for more

To the marrow of me
I praise the feet holding me
Touching warm earth-worn flannel
Each footprint offer a new moment
Ancient vistas call me home
The desire for more

To the marrow of me
I praise the hands that open
Fill themselves with soil and weed
Close to stir a spoon-open a letter
Hold yours against my own
The wish for more

Patty Joslyn


Sinews intertwined
Lapped over strand by strand.
Genes passed down
From previous generations
Weaved into a curved form.
Oh, elbow you are well connected
With strength, performing tasks
On a daily basis.

Mary Bone


I've read that no snowflake is the same as another.
Similar perhaps. Like people.
I celebrate my heartbeat, my retina,
fingerprints and DNA.
Unique, but not so different from yours.

My father told me in his Navy days
that they never finished painting the battleship.
This body is in beta, unfinished, a rough draft.
Another road perpetually under construction,
another river, another beach being formed.

Someone told me that no story has an end.
This body goes on.
Here and then into the earth and air
and into the universe.
Immortality without mortality.

Kenneth Ronkowitz

I once had the most beautiful belly- Lean and lovely and entirely concave

Marred neither by sun nor time nor overindulgence

Made for the skinniest of jeans, the tightest skirts, the skimpiest bikinis

It allowed me the ability to look down and see my feet - nothing between eyes and toes to block my superior view

That was then and then no longer is- My belly and I are older and rounder, softer and sadder

Together we mourn, we diet, we inhale trying to momentarily recall what once was

Taken from me
Ever to return? Unlikely

Belly, belly soft like jelly
No longer flat
Less muscle, more fat
Do I hate you? I think not but
Oh what would I give to get you back?

Could I tempt you? With slinky dresses and warm vacations, Sexy selfies and tiny lace undies, Daytime lovemaking and low rise denim...

I implore you- return and I will care for you as I never did before
Ah, silence - I thought so
It is not to be - then fare thee well Perhaps you've moved on - to a younger woman no doubt
A workout demon, a marathoner or perhaps some deserving new mom

Either way it's okay
We had our time and it was good- Very good
No hard feelings
just resignation
So bye bye belly bye bye

Terri Guttilla


I no longer celebrate myself, nor sing myself,
For what is happening to me
Will eventually happen to you.

Inching forward in my walker
I observe every mote and ripple in the rug.

My hips, my thighs, every atom of my body
begins to ache.
Born of aged parents themselves the children
of passing generations,
I, now eighty-seven years old in failing health begin
the long slow slide to death.

Youngest of many, I have watched them
fade and fall,
Have smelled the odor exuded from
cloistered rooms,
Seen the blankness of absent faces
As crooked paws slowly raise a spoon.

Only memory lightens, taunts the mind
Of youth and summer grass and passing
kisses and nights of blurry madness.
Embraces held in moonlight and shadow,
The rush of wind past windows on roads
of black beneath the stars,
Running through fields, drawing the sharp
Stabs of air, like fire, raging through the blood.

Stop this day and listen, linger for a bit, peek
into the future of your days,
You who would live forever, promised by men
in white coats of eternal presence.
You who live the moment, thralled by light and
motion held in the palm of your hand.
You who would look only at reflections
of yourself in endless mirrors,
You shall not look only at me nor at my reflection,
but at all that passes.

Yes, I have heard the earnest preachers preach
of eternal life,
But I know only the measure of my days.
I know only the fading sight, the characters
dancing like devils on the page,
Hoping to decipher one more bit of wisdom,
one more evocation of the surge of life
That I might cling one more moment to
a dying world.

Soon I will join the countless generations,
join the mud beneath spring’s feet.
There you will find me, all that lived
transmogrified into atoms waiting to
Become the grass that blooms in summer,
that becomes the bone and sinew, the
Flesh and synapses of newborn life.

Would you celebrate your own body?
The bones, the blood, the beating heart?

Shun the raucous silence of the sterile
room, the bodies bent in gnarled poses,
Parked, waiting to be fed, waiting to be
cleaned, living shadows of their dreams.

And you, mon frère, in your dying bed,
did you see, through fading light,
The children pointing, daring each other
to ring the doorbell on your porch?
Did you long to feel the grass one last time
flowing through your veins onto the page?

Robert Carroll Miller


This is not about a donkey
or that thing you hide in a shed.
This is about a fair behind.
Mine, of which plenty will be said.

It’s more than a joke you poke and prod,
or preen, and to feel it up is amazing.
You may prefer the cheeks upon my face,
but you will be devastated by the spring

of my booty, posterior, my badonkadonk
molded and shaped in my 501s
made bubbly fine and wiggly jiggly
for giggly pigglies needing more than one and done.

This junk has been around the world and back.
It has survived some California beaches.
It has been revered and steered and queered
so much that my bartender calls me Peaches.

And yes, you could call it my ass,
but that would be a crass disservice
for all the rough hands that have held it firm
and told me it was worth it.

William Freeberg