Maybe it’s just related to experiencing the resplendent unfolding of a Midwestern summer after a few years in South Florida, but I’ve been thinking a lot the last week or so about odes, the poetic form that is a praise poem exulting an often ordinary subject.
Here are some of my favorite examples of odes written by a few of its most well-known practitioners:
“Ode to Sleeping in My Clothes” by Ross Gay
“Spoon Ode” by Sharon Olds
“Ode to Tomatoes” by Pablo Neruda
The emphasis on details and description in odes connects to this idea of slowing down, which I was pondering the last time I sent you all a letter (indeed, there is a whole poetry podcast out there called The Slowdown). I’m interested in slowing down as an anti-capitalist practice and as a person who has coped with the pandemic by staying extremely busy with my work, reading, writing, and even hobby accrual. Slowing down goes against the grain of my life, but I think going against the grain leads to insight.
Successful odes contain insight and complexity. Something needs to be at stake; there needs to be some kind of danger or tension accompanying the joyous treatment of the poem’s central subject.
If you’ve been looking for a writing prompt today, here it is: Write a poem that praises an ordinary object. The more ordinary, the better: plastic fork, doorstop, spent lightbulb, streetlight, dog toenail clippers, Q-Tip, downspout.
After you write a draft and as you revise, you might ask yourself some questions like these: How does the ordinary object or action you’re praising connect to larger social and political themes? (Lots of room for metaphor here.) Where is the tension in your ode? (Is there a tender underbelly or a sharp edge?) What questions about relationship, community, danger, and nourishment does your detailed treatment of your ode’s subject bring up?
Writing as Practice
What does your writing practice look like right now? Or do you not have a current writing practice, but wish you did? I’m endlessly interested in this question.
Since the last letter I wrote you, my partner and I have moved into a 100-year-old house in a small town in Illinois, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the ordinary objects that make our lives possible: plumbing pipes, floorboards, roof shingles, circuit breakers, electrical outlets, wooden chairs, and kitchen tables.
The contours of my daily routine have shifted a lot in this move, and I’ve also been putting a lot of energy into trying to step up my writing practice. I’m late to the party on this article, but I recently read Kiese Laymon’s 2015 blog post “We’re not good enough not to practice” for the first time and it really spoke to me.
“I write and revise almost 4 hours a day because I don't have kids yet, and I'm not good enough not to practice. You probably aren't either. If you don't commit to a routine, you're likely to think everything you finish is good simply because you wrote it. It's not.” —Kiese Laymon
It was hard for me to hear this because it was true for me!
I also hesitated to include a link to this piece in this newsletter because I think that some of us can begin thinking that if we don’t have four hours to devote to writing every day, we shouldn’t write at all. I don’t think that’s what this blog post is saying, and I’m not saying that, either. If you have 10 or 15 minutes to devote to writing, then that’s time extremely well-spent. But you may also be like me and have a bit more flexibility throughout your week and could move from, say, 15 minutes up to 30 or 60 or 90 or 120 minutes of practice on a given day.
There is a connection to be made here between odes and the ordinariness of practicing as a means to learn what is “good” in your writing. Ordinary practice deserves praise.
Join me this summer:
My online class Lineation Laboratory: Harnessing the Power of the Poetic Line begins next week. There are still some spots available.
I’ll be teaching a one-day virtual class called Poetry for Prose Writers through the Nebraska Poetry Society on July 10th.
Would your organization or community like to host a literary workshop, class, or reading? Hit me up!
Until next time,