How to Write an Ode

Learning the history of the ode, which has survived from classical through to Romantic times and to the present day, can be a bit daunting for the poet hoping to write one.

There are several varieties from which to choose, each attached to particular rules (on line, rhyme and metre) and subject matter. There is the formal Classical (Pindaric) Ode, the more emotional but even-looking Horatian (English) Ode favoured by John Keats, and the “disjointed” Irregular Ode.

Feel free to try a formal structure—for example, the Pindaric Ode with its strophe, antistrophe and epode—for a challenge. But you don’t have to follow the conventions strictly to write a successful essay or ode. You simply need to respect the essence of the form and what it is trying to achieve.

Essential Characteristics

To write an ode, you need only to address an intended audience; write in praise of something (unless you are deliberately mocking this tradition, as New Zealand poet James Baxter does in Ode to Auckland); and link your thoughts to a bigger or universal theme.

A fourth characteristic, the use of “elevated” language, may sometimes be useful but has fallen out of favour. Jackson and Caffin in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1998), observe that “poetry…has become less grandiloquent and more colloquial…increasingly wary of anything that Ezra Pound might have mocked as ‘sonorous—like the farting of a goose’.”

Speak to Someone

Odes are not intended to be written for the world in general. They evolved as part of the social role of the poet, described by New Zealand writer and critic C.K Stead as “the channel of collective feeling, the packages of myth, wisdom and history”. (Answering To the Language. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1989).

If for the moment you are not inclined to speak to your community or political leaders (for example), try addressing your ode to one person, perhaps a family member, someone whose opinion you would value. (Jackson and Caffin note that, perhaps until recently, women were more likely to write poems of this intimate nature, rather than work directed to the “empty air”.) If you were writing a letter to such a special person, what would you say? Bear in mind that your thoughts could one day have a wider audience.

Poems of Praise

You may, of course, choose to compose a high poem in the classical or romantic tradition praising a war hero or a mountain-top at sunrise. But modern odes can also have more mundane subjects. The great Chilean poet and leader Pablo Neruda wrote the (strangely very moving) Ode to My Suit. Among New Zealand poet Ian Wedde’s Commonplace Odes (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001), are To the Cookbook and To the Korean Pug Dog. In writing odes, Wedde speaks of rediscovering “the grand themes in ordinary details: the emotional truth of the commonplace”.

Speak the Truth

Even a poem about a suit can connect with universal themes: in the case of Neruda’s work, with life and death, violence in society, the reasons he wrote poetry. Baxter wrote, “we have a greater need of prophets than we have of mechanics”; and Stead remarked that while Keats wrote about beauty, he did so “for the sake of the truth it bodied forth”.

Respecting the essence of the ode then may not require adopting conventions of metre and rhyme, but it does require a commitment to the power and texture, the broad expanse, that make the form unique. In Stead’s words, poetry is “a quality”; the ode is merely a vehicle.