The ode poem is an ages-old poetry form that praises and celebrates people, places, things, and ideas. Poets have written odes to Grecian urns, the west wind, the hymen, and to childhood intimations of immortality. If you’re looking to write a poem in praise of something, you might want to learn how to write an ode poem.
The ode dates back to Ancient Greece, but while the classical form has strict requirements, contemporary odes sing the praises of the things they describe without the restrictions of form. As such, this article looks at ode examples both classic and contemporary.
What is an ode, and how do poets wield the form effectively? We’ll look at how to write an ode poem, but first, let’s define the form and find inspiration in different ode poem examples.
What is an Ode?
Technically, an ode isn’t a singular poetry form: it can take the shape of a sonnet, a ghazal, a villanelle, an elegy, or (most contemporarily) a free verse poem. What unifies each ode is the desire to celebrate the minute and mundane: to praise the little beauties in life.
What is an ode? A poem that celebrates beauty in life, often focusing on the minute and mundane.
Take, for example, the poem “Ode to the Electric Fish that Eat Only the Tails of Other Electric Fish” by Thomas Lux. Read it here, in Poetry Magazine. The poem finds beauty in specificity, paying close attention to the way eels feed on only what they need in order to survive as a species. Language like “I defer to biology’s genius” both praises the eels and lets the poem lean into the mystery of nature.
Such is the art of the ode poem: focusing the poetic lens to dissect, understand, and communicate the beauty and mystery of life. Let’s see this in action through different ode examples.
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Ode Poem Examples & A History of the Form
The ode has evolved a lot since the first pieces were written (approximately 2,500 years ago). As such, we’ll give ode examples from each iteration of the form through history, but we’ll emphasize the contemporary ode poem, as the advice we give on how to write an ode poem corresponds with the contemporary form.
1. The Pindaric (or Grecian) Ode Poem
Pindar (ca. 518-438 B.C.) is one of the most well preserved poets of Ancient Greece, and his lyric poetry established the form of the Grecian Ode.
The Pindaric ode is irregular in length, meter, rhyme, and construction. What unifies the form is a three part structure:
- Strophe—the first stanza. It presents the first half of a debate or argument and is usually sung by a chorus.
- Antistrophe—the second stanza. It presents a counterargument to the strophe, complicating the argument and obfuscating the correct decision a character should make.
- Epode—the concluding stanza. It uses a different meter than the first two sections, and it resolves the conflict established by the strophe and antistrophe.
This form of poetry was developed for Ancient Greek plays, such as Antigone or Oedipus Rex. As such, the ode is interwoven with the story itself, and since it is only sung by the chorus, it reflects on the journey of the protagonist through verse.
For a while, the form was lost to obscurity. However, the Renaissance reinvigorated interest in European antiquity, and English poets adapted this structure to write their own Pindaric ode poetry. As such, you can see strophe, antistrophe, and epode in the following poems:
- “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687” by John Dryden
- “Alexander’s Feast” by John Dryden
- “The Bard” by Thomas Gray
Revival of the Pindaric Ode didn’t last, but it did create a lasting interest in the Irregular Ode form, which we’ll discuss shortly.
2. The Horatian Ode Poem
The Horatian Ode, named after the poet Horace, is a poem that dwells on more intimate themes like love, friendship, and art. It is a reflective poem, often written in couplets or quatrains, and it more closely resembles the contemporary ode poem.
The Horatian is considered “nonce stanzaic” or “homostrophic”—meaning, in essence, that the stanza form is not prescribed, but is developed for the purpose of the poem itself, and is consistent throughout the entire piece. If the poet decides to write in tercets of trochaic tetrameter, for example, that form is specific to the poem and used throughout the piece.
The Horatian is a direct Roman descendant of the Greek Aeolic.
Like the Pindaric, the Horatian Ode eventually found its way back to modernity when European poets looked to antiquity for inspiration. Here are some examples:
- “Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” by Andrew Marvell, retrieved here
- “The Ship of State” by Horace, retrieved here
- “Ode to the Confederate Dead” by Allen Tate, retrieved here
3. The Contemporary / Irregular Ode Poem
The popularity of the ode poetry form in Victorian England led to the Irregular Ode. Poets like Wordsworth and Keats frequently experimented with this form, and in contemporary poetry, ode poems are often irregular as well.
“Irregular” simply means that the poem has no consistent form: it is written in free verse, rather than with a formal meter or rhyme scheme. You can find many examples of the Irregular Ode in Romantic poetry—for example, “Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (Poetry Foundation), “Ode on Solitude” by Alexander Pope (Academy of American Poets), “Ode to my Socks” by Pablo Neruda (AAP), and ”Ode on a Grecian Urn” (PF) and “Ode to a Nightingale” (PF), both by John Keats
However, let’s look at a few contemporary examples that showcase the many possibilities of how to write an ode poem.
“Ode” by Ray Amorosi
is this strange muscle in my mouth.
Child’s tease, lips’ balm, baton of speech
unless it’s tied.
What’s forgotten is on the tip.
Sides slip out the truth. The root
is how far a kiss can go.
One can lose it when guilty.
Be lashed by another’s.
Feel it twisting over rooky woods and wordless
hear it swinging in a bell, sliding through a groove
or placed firmly in a cheek. Beware it
should be held most often for most often
a forked one has no friend.
This short, simple ode poem is a clever exploration of the tongue. By examining the tongue’s biology, uses, and colloquialisms, the speaker highlights the many possibilities our tongues present to us. Note that this is also a contemporary sonnet poem, with 14 lines and a volta, or “twist,” occurring in the middle.
“Ode to Friendship” by Noor Hindi
The night so warm I could fall in love
including myself. My loves. You are the only people
I’d surrender my softness to.
The moon so blue. And yes, what’s gold
is gold. What’s real
is us despite
a country so grieved, so woke, so death.
Our gloom as loud as shells.
Listen. Even the ocean begs.
Put your hands in the sand, my friend.
It’s best we bury ourselves.
What’s heavy. What’s heavy?
The speaker in “Ode to Friendship” wants to stay tender-hearted, despite despite despite. Although the world is often heavy and hard to live in, it is the speaker’s friendships that make living possible, and this poem captures that softness with swift, stunning lyricism.
“ode to the flute” by Ross Gay
by opening his
mouth a man
sings by opening
his lungs by
turning himself into air
a flute can
be made of a man
nothing is explained
a flute lays
on its side
and prays a wind
might enter it
This poem showcases how poetry can lean into mystery. In short, simple language, it blurs the lines between the man and the flute, then offers that striking final like: that a flute might pray for wind to enter it. If this is the case, what might we pray to enter us, make us beautiful or complete?
Other Contemporary Ode Poems
Below are a handful of the many different odes published in contemporary poetry. Notice the wide variety in form, structure, and language, and how the subject of the poem influences the way the poem is written.
- “Ode to Shea Butter” by Angel Nafis, in Prelude Mag
- “Ode to a Yellow Onion” by C. Dale Young, in Poetry Foundation
- “Ode to the Midwest” by Kevin Young, in Poetry Foundation
- “Late Night Ode” by J. D. McClatchy, in Academy of American Poets
- “Ode To Kanye West In Two Parts, Ending In A Chain Of Mothers Rising From The River” by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, in Poetry Society
- “Ode to History” byMary Jo Bang, in The Paris Review
- “Ode to the Beloved’s Hips” by Natalie Diaz, retrieved here
- “Ode to the First Time I Wore a Dress & My Mother Did Not Flinch” by torrin a. greathouse, retrieved here
- “Ode to Branca” by Valzhyna Mort, retrieved here
- “Ode to Northern Alberta” by Billy-Ray Belcourt, in This
4. Other Forms
If you’re interested in investigating other types of ode poetry, you may be interested in the following forms:
- The Aeolic, which is the Greek precursor to the Horatian.
- The Qasidah, a pre-Islamic Arabic form often used for panegyrics and elegies, though later replaced by the more popular ghazal.
- The Anacreonic, a lesser known form from Ancient Greece that is built with heptasyllabic couplets.
- The Ronsardian, a form developed by the French poet Pierre de Ronsard. It consists of 9 line stanzas (nonets) arranged in a particular syllable and rhyme scheme. The syllables for each line are, respectively: 10-4-10-4-10-10-4-4-8. The rhyme scheme is ababccdcc. It can have any number of stanzas.
How to Write an Ode Poem in 5 Steps
There are countless ways to write a poem, and no singular article can tell you the process your work should take. In truth, each poem requires its own process, because form, language, and process are all indelibly intertwined.
Nonetheless, here’s one process that has worked well for me and for some poets that I’ve known. You can use this process again and again and again, each time discovering something novel and beautiful about the world.
1. How to Write an Ode Poem: Turn to the Small and the Everyday
It’s easy to praise the large and life-altering, but we praise those things all the time. If anything, a poem in dedication to the sky, to sunlight, to God, to love, or to your winning lottery ticket might be cliché and restrictive.
Rather, turn to the small and the everyday. What’s minute and quotidian will likely provide fertile ground for your ode poetry. What beauty can you find in your tea cabinet? Your favorite shirt? The smell of lavender?
Turn to the small and the everyday.
Think of something that’s meaningful in your life. Spend some time on this: the best poetry often slows down and meditates on the little things. Don’t be afraid to be granular, either: you can write an ode to your hairbrush, or you can write an ode to the hair trapped in your hairbrush, too.
Finally, you can turn to the conceptual, just recognize that this is a harder poem to write effectively. Praising concepts like “free will” or “democracy” will require you to use a lot of visual language and concrete imagery, otherwise the message and impact will get lost on the reader.
2. How to Write an Ode Poem: Write a List of Praises
Once you’ve found where to focus your poetic lens, write a list of praises. This doesn’t have to be “poetic”—it just has to be honest and heartfelt.
Try to make your praises both global and granular. In other words, focus on the entire thing you’re praising, but also get lost in the details.
For example, let’s say I was trying to write an ode to my toothbrush. Here’s a quickly written list of praises—things I’m grateful for, find beautiful, or otherwise want to focus the poetic spotlight on.
- Keeps my teeth from falling out (obviously).
- Keeps my tongue from turning yellow (obviously).
- Keeps my left bicep moving (which it so rarely does!)
- Its bristles stand like tiny redwood trees.
- Analog or electric, catalogs the eclectic library of soot, smoke, and bacteria fermenting my mouth.
- My own private fortitude of mint and spit.
- Rub a clean one on the fur of a cat’s head and it feels like the scratch of their mother’s tongue.
- Lasts many months after I should have thrown it out.
Note, also, that an ode poem does not have to be universally positive. We can dislike aspects about the things we love, and the best poetry embraces nuance.
3. How to Write an Ode Poem: Consider Form and Structure
Every poet has their own relationship to form and structure. You might figure out the structure of the poem beforehand, or you might figure it out as you write it. Either is fine!
For now, just take a moment to consider the form your poem could take. Is it a sonnet, a villanelle, or a ghazal? Is it free verse or iambic pentameter? Do you dare write an acrostic?
Consider, also, whether you might speak to the object itself or write about it abstractly. Should I write to my toothbrush, or just about my toothbrush?
Finally, think about recurring lines, something which ode poems often have. Repetition helps emphasize the importance of the topic you’re writing on, and it often juxtaposes interesting ideas. For inspiration, read “Praise the Rain” by Joy Harjo.
4. How to Write an Ode Poem: Stitch Language Together
You have your list, your form, and maybe some recurring lines. Now, start stitching things together!
Take your list and start weaving your ideas into the poem. You don’t need to use every item in the list, and you can certainly write in new ideas as you come up with them.
Fiddle with language until it starts to say what you mean, then fiddle even further.
Have fun with this process. Experiment with how different lines sound next to each other. Experiment with line breaks, stanza breaks, and punctuation. Fiddle with language until it starts to say what you mean, then fiddle even further. Push language to its breaking point; let sunshine leak through the cracks in words.
5. How to Write an Ode Poem: Edit for Clarity, Originality, Vibrancy
Once you have a first draft, take a breath, a step back, go for a walk, clean your cat’s litter box, clean my cat’s litter box, etc.
Then, come back to the poem with a fresh set of eyes. Read how the reader might. Continue to tinker with words until they fit right. Make sure that each image is crystal clear, that no words are unnecessary, and that you’ve said all you need to on the topic.
Finally, don’t edit too much. Let your poem embrace mystery. In my opinion, a “perfect poem” couldn’t move the reader: it needs a little imperfection to stay human.
Master the Art of the Ode Poem at Writers.com
What will you sing the praises of? When your ode poem is ready to workshop, consider taking a poetry writing course at Writers.com. Praise poetry, praise language, and praise the act of creation.
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