Modernizing the Traditional: The Use of the Ode
What is great about poetry’s various forms is how contemporary poets can remake older forms into something new. As of lately, the ode has been central to this type of remaking. For many poets, the ode offered an opportunity to refurnish an approach to topics once considered subversive or taboo.
In general, the ode is a poetry form that acts as a formal address to either an event, a thing not present, or a person. Since its inception, the ode has taken on many formal qualities, influenced or imbued by the precursors of the form. Because of this, several types of ode-forms have flourished and been taken on by later poets.
The Pindaric ode, which originated from the Greek poet Pindar was historically performative usually including dancers or a full chorus. Formally, the Pindaric ode is composed in three parts. It opens with a strophe that has a specific metrical structure followed by an antistrophe, which mirrors the opening pattern. Odes usually end with what is called an epode, which diverges from the rest of poem with a different metrical pattern.
The Horatian ode, named after the Roman poet Horace, is a departure from the previous in that the only requirement is that the poet must establish a recurring stanza pattern that is consistent throughout. A good example of this form is Allen Tate’s Ode to the Confederate Dead.
There is also the irregular ode, meaning its form varies by great usage while its thematic or tonal qualities have remained intact. The irregular ode has unleashed a great amount of creative possibilities. Even in 1998, we can see a glimpse of this radical redeployment of the ode take place. Exemplary of this is Bernadette Mayer’s Ode on Periods.
Ode on Periods attempts to normalize menstruation in a tradition where most male writers have mystified or shamed women for their normal bodily functions. Considering the extent in which the lyrical tradition of the ode has been male dominated, Mayer’s redeployment of the ode is a radical refashioning. She utilizes and takes back the ode in order to celebrate what has been too long considered a taboo.
Mayer isn’t the only one to tackle the ode in a similar fashion. Just take a look at Sharon Olds’ Ode to the Tampon, published by Tin House last year. Her recent collection, Odes, regularly uses the Ode form to discuss the taboo topics not usually considered to be poetic. For this reason, her poems transverse the grey areas of what poetry is especially around the topics of aging, female body parts (like the hymen or vagina), or of a composting toilet. They reflect how accessible the form really is.
It is curious to see how influential their work really is. Emerging writers too also show an inclination towards the form such as Hieu Minh Nguyen who wrote, Ode to the Pubic Hair Stuck in my Throat published by Boat Press. His usage of the form catapults its way through a moment of speech into the later thinking of language’s ability to expunge from the body.
Odes have become a source of mixed celebration, reverence, and introspection. They have become poetry’s surprise in a time where poetry needed a renewal. The form captures the political parallels that fuel human existence while still pointing to the mundane objects of everyday life that we continually overlook. Epitomizing this quirky nature is the way Pablo Neruda ends Ode to My Socks:
of my ode is this:
beauty is twice
and what is good is doubly
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool
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