Celebrate the unexpected with contemporary odes
One day during plan time last fall, I stumbled upon poet Kevin Young’s “Ode to the Midwest,” on the Poetry Out Loud website. I literally laughed out loud at its opening lines (I want to be doused in cheese & fried.) and knew I would have to introduce the ode to my new poetry class. Young’s poem is unexpected and irreverent; being a native Kansan, it just resonated with me. Click here to read Young’s poem.
So, in order to acquaint my students with the ode, I gave them a brief history on the form. For example, there are four kinds of odes:
- Pindaric odes: According to this Britannica website, these were named for the Greek poet Pindar in the 5th century B.C. and were originally sung for the winning athletes in the Olympic games. These complex odes feature irregular line lengths and rhyme schemes. Wordsworth’s “Intimations on Immortality” is an example of a Pindaric ode.
- Horatian odes: These shorter odes were revived during the Renaissance, but were not meant for public performances… intimate reflections on friendship, love, and poetry itself. The Romantic era poet John Keats mastered the form.
- Irregular odes: Irregular odes follow neither the Pindaric form nor the Horatian form. This style of ode typically includes rhyme, as well as irregular verse structure and stanza patterns.
- Contemporary odes: These odes draw their power from unexpected celebration. Rhyming is optional, as are any other structural details. Classic contemporary ode examples include Pablo Neruda‘s “Ode to My Socks” or Lucille Clifton’s “homage to my hips” or Kevin Young’s “Ode to the Midwest.”
We also watched this awesome video of Lucille Clifton reading “homage to my hips”:
To explore the ode for themselves, my students decided to concentrate on the contemporary ode form and explore it in a fun, freestyle way. There were no requirements to rhyme or be focused on a certain topic. The only requirement I made was that their odes be of at least ten lines.
My students came up with some great odes. Here are a few of the unexpected things they paid tribute to with their odes:
- The Color Orange
- The Sun
- Artificial flowers
- The Renaissance
- Red markers
- A car
- The number 13, and last but not least…
- A dysfunctional gall bladder
See what I mean? Fresh. Evocative. And totally unexpected.
And just for fun, I experimented with my own… An Ode to the Cold War. (It’s always fun to work alongside students when we try something new.)
Odes are a nice way to provide a degree of focus for poetry writing. Odes also allow students to express their unique visions.
If you’re needing an easy and fun poem form to explore with your students, definitely add the ode to your list of upcoming poem ideas. Discuss the form and its classical roots, but then shift the focus to the contemporary form so students can readily apply it to their experiences.
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