Lately, the world has got me down, and my reaction has been twofold. I’ve been addicted to dystopian TV shows, yes, but also familiar comedies--namely rom-coms of the early 2000’s. I despair as I try to fit all my spatulas in the kitchen drawer while also feeling more determined than ever to perfect my gluten free pie crust.
But even more interesting is the intersection between the light and dark, and contemporary poets are using the ode’s form to explore that space.
Martha Silano’s “Ode to Autocorrect” takes an everyday object--the autocorrect function on a cell phone--and turns it into a meditation on the dangers of gun violence in America. Listen to Martha Silano read the poem and a short discussion of it at the Poetry Magazine podcast here.
Silano’s poem uses its subject as a way to discuss the current political climate; this is a poem concerned with fear and danger and America, and also communication: the ways we talk to each other through technology. The ways we communicate with our poems.
For Poetry magazine’s editor Don Share, this poem is about “slipperiness”: the ways language can get the better of us while also revealing the unexpected. Here, Silano doesn’t merely discuss autocorrect as a contemporary phenomenon, but writes of it in within the context of composing poetry: speaking to language as language, to correctedness as incorrect.
Form is buried within the language of this poem, but “Ode to Autocorrect” relies on anaphora: repeating “Because” at the beginning of almost every sentence. What effect does such repetition have on the reader? Syntactically, it equalizes each example in the poem, pulling them all under the same umbrella.
Whereas traditional odes may use such structure, the repeated word is often celebratory: “Oh” or “Dear” or “You.” Silano chooses “Because,” creating logical tension and turning the form of the ode on its head, as it doesn’t merely celebrate the object of its title. Nor is it a lament.
“Ode to Autocorrect” complicates celebration by describing her subject’s dirty underside, and yet, because it’s so honest and so raw, there is an undercurrent of praise that rings true.
I’m fascinated by domestic life--the “mundaneness” of everyday objects. If they’re not magical or inspiring, why are they the objects that make up our daily lives? I love poetry for how it can transcend reality and regularity. An ode can attribute the meaning and attention some of these objects are due but rarely receive. And this commemoration can move into honor for the self and the world as a whole, as Angel Nafis does in her poem “Ode to Shea Butter” (first published in Prelude Magazine).
Nafis begins her poem with first person: “I have known you well,” but then it moves into a description of the speaker’s body rather than a description of the subject at hand, shea butter.
This poem is deeply physical, showing an intimate relationship between all parts of the speaker’s body and the object of praise, “Every single day. / & night too.” By the penultimate line, it’s not about the object or the physical body, becoming instead a celebration of self and selfhood: “I could almost be embarrassed but I leave little shining ponds, man. / I leave lakes. Perfect mirrors, everywhere, everywhere I go.” Nafis’s method of writing an ode to an everyday object exemplifies how this form can serve as the pathway to a poem about the self.
In a craft talk earlier this year, I heard Tom Franklin discuss how a list can tell a story. Lists give us hope: they attempt to impose order by either privileging certain details or equalizing all subjects. To work in writing, all lists must have four things: Repetition, Specificity, Variation, and Progression. Many odes enact these four tools when working with anaphora.
With repetition, a phrase or structure repeats. In this case, “You” at the beginning of each line. Specificity: specific details pull us into this story. It’s not “the house where I learned how to cook” and “where I got drunk with my friends” but “You kitchen where rice was burned” and “& whiskey spilled.” The specific details pull us in, and yet there’s variation. The enjambed lines begin with “&” to change up the rhythm, and line 10 has a different structure completely. These variations are part of how this poem progresses, moving from a broad description of an old house to a poignant statement on coming of age and love.
The piling of these images and ideas upon one another creates tension: celebrating and complicating. There’s something about this particular place he can’t quite name or understand:
“It's something about how you sit
on the corner, at the intersection
of where I learned to tell someone
they made me feel like everything
& nothing all at once”
Despite its crumbled shortcomings, this place occupies his heart like no other place can. The house on the corner is witness to a hundred years, but no single person will share those memories.
Our speaker shares only three years with the house, a complication, tension-filled three years. It’s tempting to fall into nostalgia for our old haunts, remembering only the good. But Smith dodges that temptation by facing it head-on, closing with: “How one can be lulled into nostalgia / by the clamor of an audacious love.”
All three of these poems use the “clamor of an audacious love” to lull the reader into not nostalgia but complicated territory: imbuing praise with complexity. The tension of that intersection pulls us in as readers, capturing our attention and reminding us that even while we feel heavy with the weight of the world, there’s always something worth celebrating.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at http://www.staceybalkun.com/