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C.D. Wright on "The New American Ode"

C.D. Wright

[Here Wright resurrects the "sub-genre of the lyric, the ode" to propose a kind of poetry that displays a language of ecstasy in presenting matters or issues that have a political or public setting. Along with brief remarks on the poetry of Lorine Niedecker, included here, she also comments on poetry by John Weiners, Bernadette Mayer and Fannie Howe.]

There is in Western literary tradition a significant sub-genre of the lyric, the ode (from the Greek aeidein, to sing, chant). And as it has come down to us from the ancients Pindar, Horace, and Anacreon (along with one shing example apiece from Sappho and Alcaeus) no longer confined to its original casing, though periodically adherent – the spirit of the ode as practiced by its originators remains intact. By which I intend that while the metrical and strophic arrangements have undergone too many alterations, translation by translation, century by century, poet by poet to save a meaningful material link – the compulsion to honor event and person goes unabated by the most irreverent and the most miserable of poets. Further, the motivation for the ode is so fundamentally powerful as to give continuous rise to unique and exceptional nonce forms.

Making every effort to avoid stepping into what W. S. Merwin refers to as the "quicksand of definition," I will allow that in general the ode celebrates an occasion or individual or more frequently an individual on an occasion. As such it dignifies the event, elevates the person. An air of formality gathers naturally about it; in J. A. Cuddon’s words, it is "a full-dress poem." In the same spirit the ode is given to improving upon things as they are actually to be found. Using the term very expansively from the outset, I am reminded of one of the West’s great odes in stone, Michelangelo’s David. I was gratified to overhear the English tour guide tell her charge of elderly tourists standing directly under and squarely between David’s legs, "Of course you realize, it is an idealization."

Certainly a naked man never looked better.


The ode, then, is one of the few literary tendencies left on the lot that admits wonder and presumes a future. Though Whitman’s only titled ode is to death, Leaves of Grass redistributes the whole history of the ode to its day.

The ode is hortatory by nature. It eggs on. Consequently it sometimes retracts old enthusiasms; so we have Coleridge supporting the French Revolution early on in "Ode to the Departing Year, " and reacting to the Terror in "France: An ode" two years later. Being both partisan and flexible, then, it could not be better suited to a poetry of politics. Responding to the Great Uprising in Detroit in the late 1960s, Philip Levine delivered a powerful incantation, "They Feed They Lion." While it is a lyric with strings stretching back to King David, it frustrates the syntax into a thoroughly contemporary beat. Having an essentially upright character – thanks largely to Horace – the political ode would not bear up under clinical objectivity or brazen, frequently repeated inconsistencies.


Though fallen somewhat into desuetude here in this century, the ode has persisted. The same representatives are cited in every source, insuring they do and will stand for the whole genre. But my purpose here is neither to hack away at the canon or contrive a trend. I am interested in fertile poetic constructions. I am aiming for the ode as a recourse, however short-term, to the same-old careerist poem of no note, no risk, and no satisfaction, and to the equally vulgar obsession with newness. My purpose is to witch out a few contemporary American poets who have contributed something to the ode in which I think a contemporary poetic life can be partially realized. The search for models in my terms becomes a search for alternatives.


In the feverish atmosphere of post-World War II Georgia O’Keefe undertook to compel us to see a calla lily. With Odas Elementales [Elemental Odes] (1954) Pablo Neruda advised us to "look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens … barrels and baskets, handles and hafts for carpenter’s tool chests. From them," he writes, "flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all harassed lyricists." So in Neruda’s elemental odes we stare intently at the kingdom of socks, salt, lemons. … [Wright’s ellipses] In these states it has not been the so-called Confessional poets – the poets more frequently associated with lyrical writing – but the Objectivists who have fixed our senses on the "world of objects at rest," Of the Objectivists none was more devoted to "the little / thin things" in a more essential language than Lorine Niedecker:

Asa Gray wrote Increase Lapham:
pay particular attention
to my pets, the grasses.


Remember my little granite pail?
The handle of it was blue.
Think what’s got away in my life –
Was enough to carry me thru.


There’s a better shine
on the pendulum
than is on my hair
and many times …
I’ve seen it there.

[… ]

"Paean to Place," in particular, lends itself to the category. This is "a full-dress poem." From Niedecker the ode gains a patient intensity of observation with an expression clearly equal to it.


With Frances Mayes, the poem firmly enters the province of women. "Aggressively feminine," I have heard her aesthetic called. Also "an unsentimental intelligence." Knowing her single most valued muse is Colette, you already know a great deal. To say the positive is stressed in her work is to say that she chooses her emphasis with strength and compunction. Friends, houses, soups, a recipe for Rabbit Fricassee, irises that come back one hundred six years later … [Wright’s ellipses] "Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, daughters, babies in long white dresses, the women in black with sleeves like commas … [Wright’s ellipses] From the back room in your mother’s head, the whole brood can march out of the shotgun hall, look heard at you from the front porch." And a woman enthroned in her Georgia-lighted kitchen, telling her daughter, "We feel sorry for men." A freshly exalted status is breathed into domesticity by Mayes’s scrubbed, sensual craft. In a hair-raising clime a new ode would be well advised to appropriate what it could from this root cellar.


If like Keats you find yourself longing to escape from a low-grade funk in which "men sit and hear each other groan," there may be a measure of relief in raising the ode back up. Shut your eyes and see the shine on Neidecker’s pendulum, the blue handle of her granite pail; John Wiener’s mother riding the T saying in an artificial voice: "Oh, for Heaven’s sake"; Frank O’Hara’s incorruptible enthusiasm: "Oh! Kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!" … And Frances Mayes’s Rabbit Fricassee:

Split the body down the middle
Slice the hindlegs at the knee,
Swab with mustard. Wrap with bacon.
Heat the oil until it smokes. Cook.
Bind the sauce with blood.
Serve with croutons, cut
heart shape, fried.

And take the rabbit to the table with her, "steaming, fragrant with wine and cloves, calling it lapin for the children’s sake."

For we cometh, for we cometh to judge the light paling the door, not the darkness it obscures.

From C. D. Wright, "The New American Ode," Antioch Review 47:3 (Summer 1989), 287- 296.

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