Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Odes; why we write them

The ode is a lyric poem, classically structured in three major parts (as in the Pindaric Ode): 1. the strophe 2. the antistrophe, and 3. the epode.  

The parts of the poem correspond to movement of a chorus to one side of the stage (strophe), then to the other (antistrophe), and a pause midstage to deliver the epilogue (epode). 

The epode is of a different meter than the strophe and antistrophe. For example: iambic tetrameter, iambic tetrameter, trochaic dimeter. This change of meter is a great way to make a final point without being over the top in terms of diction. 

Pindar, as a poet, was determined to preserve and interpret great deeds (athletic and heroic) as divine values. He did this by writing odes to celebrate such victories or values. We write odes for these reasons, even now.

Let's look at the (traditional) Ode and its 3 parts:

1. Strophe typically begins the poem, consisting of two or more lines in a dominant meter, repeated as a unit.

2. Antistrophe, second stanza, is metrically harmonious with the strophe.

3. Epode is a one or two line stanza, in a different meter than the previous two stanzas.

A good contemporary ode doesn't announce itself by ay of overdone meter. In fact some contemporary ode writers eschew meter altogether. Sharon Olds' latest book, Odes, doesn't use any of the traditional poetic devices (rules) for odes. The heralding gesture of these odes is the praising (or scoffing at) of the topics she has chosen for her poems. As Olds shows, the contemporary ode is open for interpretation as to the person, place, or thing it is celebrating or praising. Here is a partial list from her table of contents:

Ode to Stretch Marks
Ode to Dirt
Ode to a Composting Toilet
Ode to Buttermilk 
Ode of the Corner I Was Stood In

One might say that Olds is breaking the form even in her choice of topics. Perhaps she is. There is nothing wrong with breaking form. Clearly Olds' choices are unconventional. I think, however, that she is leading the charge for those who want to fly in the face of tradition and strike out in new directions. It seems to me that poets writing today, especially those who write away from form, will find the praise and honoring of the ode to be a great vehicle for their work. For those who wish to stay with the traditional approach of Pindar's, brava! But this is 2018. We can ode as we are comfortable. 

It may be worth doing a few formal odes, just for the satisfaction and for getting to really KNOW the form. Then, off you go into your own space with odes, reinventing as you go but with the foundation well-built first.

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