Looking for a form to help you express some intense emotions? Consider dusting off the classic ode and giving it a modern twist! Imaginative, emotional, and dignified, the ode is an open invitation to show gratitude, grieve, or even make a clever point. The most common rhyme scheme for English odes was ABABCDECDE, but today, odes come in many schemes and sizes. So if you’re trying out an ode for the first time, or want to take the classic form in a new direction, check out these six tips for writing the modern ode.
First, let your emotions in. Allow yourself to react to the things that float through your mind, whether they’re objects in the room, memories, or ideas. Remember that a modern ode doesn’t have to be about something or someone you love. You can also use an ode to unpack an idea or topic that you don’t like—so long as you meditate on the nuances of that thing and use them to write your poem. John Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy” is a prime example of this.
Next, narrow down your thoughts. Choose a few ideas that strike a particular chord with you, then begin imagining the many facets of them. Which ideas seem to open up the most avenues? Which can you draw the most material from? It could be an emotion as all-encompassing as melancholy, or an object as simple as a shoelace. Pedro Pietri’s “Ode to a Grasshopper” is a great example of how poets can take something small and understated, and turn it into a meditation on something much larger.
Once you’ve settled on a topic, choose your angle. Whether you have positive, negative, or mixed feelings towards your chosen topic, it’s important that you have a strong angel to work with. No matter what you choose to write about, make sure it means something personal to you. In “Home Movies: A Sort of Ode,” poet Mary Jo Salter writes about her father’s use of the video camera. The imagery of birthday candles, sunsets, and aging film give this ode a nostalgic filter that feels deeply personal yet familiar.
Next, put pen to paper. Once your creative juices are flowing, just go with it. Don’t worry about form, meter, stanzas, or rhyme just yet. Allow yourself to write down as much as you can about the topic you’ve chosen. Your words may flow out in a poem-like structure, but don’t fret if they don’t. You can sort it out later.
Once you’ve exhausted your creative flow (and perhaps cramped your hand), you can begin sorting through what you’ve written. See what you can rephrase, reorganize, and rethink to give the poem a bit more structure—narratively and rhythmically. Compare Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Ode to Beauty” with Marcus Wicker’s “Ode to Browsing the Web.” While Emerson’s poem follows a traditional rhyming structure, has short lines, and is longer overall, Wicker’s poem is built of lines of two, does not rhyme, and offers a quicker, more frantic pace. Neither style is more correct than the other, but both provide a tone that supports the narrative.
Finally, you can work out the details. Once you’ve got some structure to work with, you can zero in on the smaller things like word choice. These final tweaks will help you nail down what you want to say and the feeling you want to convey, just be sure to keep the idea of the ode in mind.
Don’t get lost in the details and lose sight of the big picture. Be sure to bring it back to the topic at hand. Keeping an ode focused can be challenging, but it’s also a great opportunity to unpack ideas you might normally breeze past. And no matter what, remember to enjoy the process. Writing an ode is a chance to meditate, get to know yourself, and share how you feel.