An ode is a poetic form that’s best described as a song or poem written in praise or celebration of an object, a place or an experience. It is a positive, usually exuberant, piece of work that, today, need not be written in meter or rhyme, though a poet may choose to use these devices if she wishes. Generally speaking, the ode is the go-to form for those who wish to offer tribute to something or someone that, in the moment, is no longer present, either in the room, the poet's life, or the world. When looking for or happening upon an ode, scholars agree a reader will find one of three different versions: Pindaric, Horatian or Irregular.
Historically, odes were a sort of spinoff from the ancient Greek aeidein, which translates to "singing" or "chanting." In its earliest days, a poet's ode was always accompanied by music and dance. Later generations would transform the public display that came along with the writing and reading of odes, instead focusing on a goal of intimacy between the poet, his audience and his subject.
The Pindaric ode is so named for the ancient Greek poet Pindar, the man who is said to have brought the writing of odes into fashion. Pindaric odes, in the Greek tradition, were performed with the usual chorus and dancers, and the themes of choice usually centered on athletics — athletes, athletic abilities and athletic victories. Each ode came with a formal beginning, an invocation, prayer, myth, a moral and a conclusion, all spun together in a complex construction of different meters and patterns of lines. The outcome, however, was always a work of great intensity.
The Horatian ode is the Roman take on Pindar's ode and is named for the Roman poet Horace. These odes are the first to introduce the idea of tranquility and subtlety into the form. Horatian odes, according to the Academy of American Poetry, were less "formal, less ceremonious, and better suited to quiet reading than theatrical production." Today, the Horatian ode is seen far more often than the Pindaric ode in books and anthologies, simply because Horace's version of the ode, with each stanza (collection of lines) featuring a consistent four lines of verse, is easier to duplicate.
If you are reading a contemporary ode, the likelihood is that you are reading what is referred to as an Irregular ode. It is the Irregular ode — an ode without any predetermined topic or structure — that may be written with or without rhyme, may be short or long, may be serious or silly, and may meditate on the huge and fantastic or the small and simple. What these odes often have in common, however, is a sense of the speaker being overwhelmed by the very goodness and glory of her subject. This sort of tone might be described as unabashedly indulgent, or even exclamatory. That said, many Irregular odes maintain a quietness about them, a simply spoken sense that conveys the poet's speaker is feeling wonderfully warm, moved and satisfied because of her subject, that which she is praising.
Don't Be Fooled
Those looking for clues as to whether they might have stumbled upon an ode need to keep in mind that, in the end, there really is only one criterion that must be met for an ode to be an ode: It must offer genuine praise to someone or something. That's it. And because of that, odes today are written about anything a poet feels is worthy of praise — everything from broad, beautiful landscapes to slugs and old sneakers. In fact, the challenge many poets face today is to help their readers see, much like Walt Whitman does in “Song of Myself,” all the miracles of the world, all its beauties, both big and small, and all its joys in things we so often overlook.