I’d never written an intentional ode before learning that I was going to be honored with the 2014 Kean University Distinguished Alumni Award. Apart from being profoundly grateful for such an unexpected honor, I found the idea of making a ten-minute speech at the awards ceremony a little daunting. I knew from the get-go that instead of a traditional speech, I’d much prefer to write and read a poem for Kean U.
It didn’t occur to me until much after the poem was written that it is indeed an ode, not in any formal sense, but definitely in spirit. I began to research the form, having little prior interest in odes other than perhaps Keats’s “Ode to A Grecian Urn” (and that only because I like Keats).
An ode is generally defined as a poem in which someone or something is addressed in an elevated style or manner and written in rhymed or unrhymed form with varied or irregular meter.
Historically, odes were invented and popularized by the Greek poet Pindar. Originally accompanied by a chorus and dance, and then taken to heart by the Romantic poets to convey strong sentiments, there are three types of odes: Pindaric, Horatian, and Irregular.
Pindaric odes contain a formal opening (a strophe) with a complex metrical structure, followed by an antistrophe (which echoes the opening) and an epode (the closing section of a different length and composed with a different metrical structure). William Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” is a good example of an English-language Pindaric ode.
Horatian odes are named for the Roman poet Horace and tend to be more tranquil and contemplative than Pindaric odes. Less formal, less solemn, and geared more to gentle reading than performance, Horatian odes typically use a regular, repeating stanza pattern. An excellent example of the Horatian Ode is Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”
Irregular odes have been written with a range of formal possibilities, sometimes recalling the themes and tones of Classical odes. Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which I mentioned earlier, was based on the poet’s experiments with sonnet form. Other well-known odes include Percy Bysshe Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind,” Robert Creeley's “America,” and Robert Lowell's “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.”
Of course, it’s not poetically incorrect to write an ode that’s not Pindaric, Horatian, or Irregular. You can make up your own form and simply write a poem that honors or praises someone or something in any way that you choose (see #6 under “guidelines”). So ... don't be frightened off by what may seem lofty or ambitious. Have fun with this!
1. Generally, stanza length, meter, and rhyme are flexible in ode composition, which leaves you lots of room for experimentation and creativity.
2. The ode is traditionally a longish poetic form. Because you’re honoring someone or something, you’ll want to include a fair amount of description and/or detail. Think about writing your ode in four-line stanzas with a minimum of about five stanzas.
3. If you choose to write a Pindaric Ode, remember that this form of ode traditionally tends to be serious in tone and often has a historical perspective. Typically, Pindaric odes celebrated deities, important people, places, and events (rather than more commonplace people or things) in a tone that was somewhat distant or detached and something less than passionate. Keep in mind that Pindaric Odes repeat a three-stanza pattern throughout the entire poem (a triad that consists of the strophe, antistrophe, and epode).
4. If you choose to write a Horatian Ode, remember that this form of ode doesn’t have a fixed stanza length, but each stanza in your ode should have the same number of lines (as few as two or three lines or as many as 20 or 30 lines). Every stanza in a Horatian Ode should be the same length—if there are four lines in your first stanza, then every other stanza should have four lines. Traditionally, Horatian Odes are personal but are somewhat reserved with emotions more muted than wildly fervent.
5. If you choose to write an Irregular Ode, be aware that this form of ode has no predetermined number of lines and, unlike other ode forms, each stanza within a single ode can contain a different number of lines (though they may be the same or similar if you wish). An Irregular Ode might consist of five three-line stanzas that are book-ended by two stanzas of five lines each.
6. And … I’ll add the “Freeform Ode” in which you praise or honor someone or something without any attention to format all: no set number of lines, no set number of stanzas (stichic format is fine too), no rhyme, and no prescribed meter. You’re free to be as distant or as passionate as you like!
1. An ode should only be focused on a single topic, so choose wisely.
2. Think in terms of person, object, place, idea, relationship, animal/pet, or a time in your life for your subject. Because an ode praises and honors its subject, be sure to choose a subject that will allow you to develop a strong emotional center.
3. Decide how long you want your ode to be, and be sure not to over-write it. Although odes have been on the long side by tradition, that doesn’t mean yours has to be a long poem.
4. Decide on a stanza format that appeals to you (number of lines and number of stanzas). You may want to write for a while before making these determinations.
5. You may want to try a rhyme scheme for your ode—if you do, be sure to avoid the pitfall of making meaning subordinate to rhyme.
6. Edit carefully and delete extraneous material, details, and overstated emotions.
7. Work toward a sense of elegance in both content and style.
8. Don’t be afraid to adopt a lighthearted approach, especially if you choose to write a Freeform Ode. You might enjoy writing an ode on an unexpected subject (i.e., a cockroach, a head cold, weeds in your garden, a person you dislike). Be sure to “play” with your idea through romantic language, linguistic frills and flourishes, and a convincing argument for praising your unexpected subject idea.
By way, of sharing, click here to read the ode to Kean University that I read at the Alumni Awards Ceremony.