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June 2012

When I started writing notes for this prompt on odes, I thought I would use some classics like "Ode to the West Wind" by Percy Bysshe Shelley or "Ode on a Nightingale" by John Keats. I knew I wanted to use some modern examples too - like "Ode to a Dressmaker's Dummy" by Donald Justice or "Praise Song for the Day" by Elizabeth Alexander (her poem that she read at Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration).

The ode form goes back to Ancient Greeks. "Ode" comes from the Greek aeidein, meaning to sing or chant. Odes were originally accompanied by music and dance, and later reserved by the Romantic poets to convey their strongest sentiments. This type of lyrical verse is classically structured in three major parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. Originally, it was an elaborately structured poem that was written to praise or glorify an event or individual, or to describe nature intellectually as well as emotionally.

There are a number of ode forms including the Pindaric, Horatian,Irregular and English. The formal opening (strophe) is a complex metrical structure, and it is followed by an antistrophe, which mirrors the opening, and an epode, the final closing section of a different length and composed with a different metrical structure.

I hope that all this classic and Romantic ode talk doesn't scare you off this month's prompt, because what modern and contemporary poets have done with the form is probably more to your taste.

I good example of that comes from a friend. Laura Shovan, poets and teacher, does workshops for students in upper elementary through high school and uses odes as a prompt. Voices Fly is an anthology of student poetry (poems and prompts from the Maryland State Arts Council's Artist-in-Residence program), and one chapter is her lesson on simple odes. She focuses on the use of simile, hyperbole and sensory detail and the concept of tone as it works in a simple ode. She has students read and discuss Gary Soto’s “Ode to Pablo’s Tennis Shoes.”

In Laura's own words: "I like to pick up something random in the classroom. It might be a blackboard eraser, a paperclip, or a tissue. Together, the class brainstorms all of the things we can do with that object. We exaggerate -- a good time to introduce hyperbole -- in order to highlight the object’s value. With the eraser, all of our mistakes can disappear. The paperclip is like a secretary for our school work, keeping it organized and making us efficient. The tissue comforts us when we are sick, dries our tears when we are sad.

The key in an ode, as the children quickly pick up, is that we are making a persuasive argument. The words, similes and descriptions we use – the tone of the poem – needs to convince the reader that these sneakers are the best sneakers in the universe. Through tone, simple odes remind readers to stop and pay attention to everyday objects that deserve praise."

That prompt would work fine for this month. But, let me add a more typical classroom example with an ode by John Keats.

Keats, who died at the age of twenty-five, only published 54 poems, but took on the challenges of poetic forms from the sonnet, to the Spenserian romance, to the Miltonic epic, while adding his own poetics to each.

Keats' English odes are often listed as odes of perfect definition - "Ode to Psyche," "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," and "To Autumn."

Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a poem I remember from high school. It was in the anthology and my teacher loved it. I don't know if I got much meaning from it then, but some of the lines definitely stayed in my head.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

It is possible that more has been written on this poem, per line, than any other Romantic lyric, and it is perhaps the best-known and most-often-read poem in nineteenth-century literature.

The theme that art redeems experience is key to "Ode on a Grecian Urn" where it is explored not from the perspective of a natural and fleeting experience (like a nightingale's song) but through a work of art depicting a human pageant.

For this month's prompt on odes, we asked poets to follow a few "rules" to make your poem "semi-formal." Like the Irregular ode, the form can vary but should retain the tone and thematic elements of the classical ode: in praise of an event, person or nature intellectually and emotionally; a serious tone (even if the subject seems less than serious).

You can find many sample odes online as models, including some very different odes such as:
The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket by Robert Lowell
Ode on Periods by Bernadette Mayer
America by Robert Creeley
and several good collections of odesimg in bookstores.

For more on this prompt and others, visit the Poets Online blog.


You rise among oak and ponderosa on the ridge,
your bark corded like the knees of old temples.
Your green skirts flounce the edge of meadow
with its mazing paths and creeklets that meander
down to depths of canyon, and forgetful river.

In this meadow, someone has built a tepee -
cedar-bark bound together in the ancient way;
shadowed, mysterious, a blessed house
with crevices enfolding scent that floats on air,
and holds the memory of whoever passes by.

Thunderclouds swirl the afternoon with weather.
Still you stand, cambium-flute on ageless knees;
at last, a silver spire that points to higher sky
the traveler's spirit's caught in cedar-bark,
wanderer long-gone, waking to each morning.

Taylor Graham


Post college, I learned to make
Coq-au-vin in my single apartment,
Watching The French Chef.
Nora Ephron’s last film, Julie and Julia,
Took me back,
And once again, I’m cooking beef bourguignon and a spinach tart.
Though not together.
Nora Ephron’s legacy:
Relationships. She got them.
Men, women.
Between and among.
Our bodies. Accepting ourselves as we are.
We’re all we’ve got.
‘Reading is everything. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape.
‘It’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up.
‘A way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real.’
And food.
‘I don’t think any day is worth living without thinking about what you’re going to eat next.’
Heartburn and all.
I’ll have what she’s having.

Lyn Fraser


It's the giving in and the letting go.
There is no free will. No self.
Consciousness, awareness, deceiving, deception,
actualization and affirming, the crap from those sessions,
are all you lying to yourself. All memories are false.
We change them each time we access them.
Of course, life is suffering. I don't need a Buddha to know that.
Depression is the place where we are most honest
about what is really here.
The rest is delusion.
Give in. Let go. Fall into it.

Charles Michaels


To this scent-sational organ of smell.
This wondrous protrusion between my eyes
centered just above my mouth.

From time to time, it remembers
to smell the roses. At other times,
it gets out of joint.

Almost always runs past garbage cans.
Sometimes it runs, and runs, and runs . . .

or gets plugged up. Can explode violently.
Needs a hanky to clean itself up with.

Has been know to ride high in the air,
stuck up and snotty.

Liked best
when it minds its own business.

Liked least
when it's minding someone else's.

Bobbie Townsend


Here I am in a store
With a title Lots for Less
Shopping for shirts though I have many
To wear to work.
I do not choose super serious ones,
Professional white for a black ti

My dress shirts are button down
Striped with navy blue or grey
Or checks with blue and red

My grandmother, an old fashioned lady,
Had a clothing salesman friend.
Each year by year she gave to us
For the ever passing years
White on white dress shirts,
Things that even then were hard to find.

It is comforting
To buy what I do not need,
Comforting to have bills in my pocket
To be able to afford.

There is a consolation
For it is as if my son
Were still alive
Trying on the dress shirts for work
In the crowded aisles of Costco.
He was the sort to do his will
Whether it was right or wrong,
Going through the shirts,
For his work. No longer a student,
He was my size
And we could interchange them
If thinking he had chosen
Something less than cool

We each liked each others style
So though dead
He lives in the items, the little things of daily life.
Both in life and in death, dead.
As in an ode we return
Moving in parallel lines
In a familiar circle
The remnants of the circle of life.

Edward N. Halperin


The valley is a wonderful spectacle
of color: pink poui, red hibiscus,
golden sunflowers; all arranged masterfully
as if by an expert florist.

When the sun shines sincerely
on leaf surface, it sparkles
like a coin; giving the valley a sheen
synonymous to piety.

You marvel at the miracle that is Nature;
the awesome opening of the flower
the brilliant bleat of the goat-

a sound that energizes the valley
like the splendid scrapings of crickets
straight through the night.

Nicholas Damion Alexander


Stars in their grandeur
Wheel overhead
As we live our small lives
Barely noticing.

Until our hearts
Crack open like a nut
And we encounter
More wonder and joy
Than we ever dared
To dream.

Then we become the stars
And we begin to see
Each other for the
Very first time.

You see, the heart
Must be broken.
How else can love get through?

Maddison Ross


ass man
gas man
guru of the duod

a nation of constipation awaits

tossed in a city of acidity

oh maestro of the gastro

repeating and repeating yourself

a plop
a fizz
an unexpected whiz

a world full
of whirls
reflux sucks

marie a. mennuto-rovello


God bless the NRA.
Other cultures can dance their grief away,
As the Irish children do,
Signaling their plotting parents that the British are coming;
Or the South African miners,
Who rhythmically slap and shake the dust from the diamond mines
Out of their clothes, their lungs, their souls.

But we are embarrassed to dance,
And rightly so.
Our fat jiggles,
Our smoke-filled lungs make us gasp.
The coins in our pockets throw us off balance.

What else is an American to do
But use weapons?
A man can only take so much inspiration.
When he argues with his wife,
He wants to please her,
He has spent his life trying to please the women around him.
He knows what he wants to say,
But he says just the opposite,
Imagining that is what she wants to hear.
But it’s the wrong answer,
Always the wrong answer.

He’s jaded, negative, insensitive.
Why did she ever marry him?
Now there’s a question he could never possibly answer correctly.
It might as well be a word problem involving sines and cosines.
Even the Holy Paraclete doesn’t have a bright enough flame
To drop on him for this one.

At that point, he wishes he could flail his arms,
And twist his heavy hips
In some simple folk dance like they do in the South of France,
To communicate to her the depth of his distress.

Instead, he goes to the closet,
Unlocks the box he keeps his pistol in,
Loads it, and goes hunting for an evergreen tree
To shoot it once, twice, sometimes, a clip full,
As Americans have the right to do.

Ron Yazinski