With more time to pay attention to the spaces and the people around us, we’re asking you to write odes to the little things.
The challenge: write an ode to something that seems at first to be insignificant.
What is an ode?
The internet tells us that an ode is ‘a lyric poem, typically one in the form of an address to a particular subject, written in varied or irregular metre’. Let’s unpack that…
- a lyric poem – this means it’s a poem expressing feelings and thoughts, as opposed to a narrative poem, which tells a story
- an address to a particular subject – the poem is written ‘to’ something or someone; often, the poem uses the second person (‘you’) to talk about the subject
- written in varied or irregular metre – so it can be in a metrical form (such as iambic pentameter – de-DUM-de-DUM-de-DUM-de-DUM-de-DUM), but it doesn’t have to be!
So odes are poems that express the poet’s thoughts and feelings about a particular subject, addressed to that subject.
We’d like to add that odes usually elevate their subject: through writing the poem, the poet discovers more and more aspects of their subject to marvel about. Odes aren’t necessarily ‘praise’ poems listing ‘good’ things about the subject, but you’ll often find a sense of awe.
One of the most famous odes in English is ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats, which begins:
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
This definitely meets our definition of an ode. Keats is talking about his thoughts, not really telling a story (lyric poem, tick). He starts with ‘Thou’ – he’s addressing the Grecian urn in the title (tick). He has written in iambic pentameter (Thou STILL unRAVish’d BRIDE of QUIetNESS…), and he’s definitely got that tone of awe and wonder (tick tick tick).
Now we’ve established it’s an ode… isn’t it lovely? Have you ever looked at a bit of Ancient Greek pottery and thought it was an ‘unravish’d bride of quietness’? Or a ‘foster-child of silence and slow time’? These are some amazing images.
Keats also says the urn can ‘express / A flowery tale more sweetly’ than his poem – he’s elevating it above even his own writing. He spends the rest of the poem exploring the scene painted on the side of the urn, and he’s so excited about it: ‘Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu’. It’s not just an urn, but something timeless, and it comes to stand for beauty and truth, which can never die. All from an old urn!
Our challenge to you is to write an ode to something that might seem insignificant but which you can find wonder and magic in. We suggest you find something in your everyday life – either how it is at the moment, or how it normally is. You’ll surprise yourself with how much poetic treasure you can find by paying close attention to the most everyday of objects. Take Sharon Olds’s ‘Ode to Dirt’. It begins:
Dear dirt, I am sorry I slighted you,
I thought that you were only the background
for the leading characters—the plants
and animals and human animals.
By choosing to elevate something which is literally beneath us, Olds makes some amazing discoveries and parallels:
… O dirt,
help us find ways to serve your life,
you who have brought us forth, and fed us,
and who at the end will take us in
and rotate with us, and wobble, and orbit.
Olds is talking about dirt here, but she’s also talking about something else. That subtle tension is what makes this poem so great – she doesn’t spell anything out for the reader. It’s classic ‘show, don’t tell’. She doesn’t ask these questions, but she makes us ask ourselves: Who else should we be paying attention to, who we treat like dirt? Who else should we be more grateful to, who have made us who we are?
(As a side note: you might notice that Olds’s poem isn’t strictly in iambic pentameter, but each line is about ten syllables long. It’s like a contemporary twist on IP. You might find it helpful in your poems to put an arbitrary syllable count on your lines – or not!)
Your odes don’t have to be totally serious like these ones have been. Read Michelle Yang’s ‘Ode to Food that is “Too Spicy”’, a winner in the YPN wish list challenge:
Ode to Food that is “Too Spicy”
You, who birth accidental tears and coughing storms,
plow trails down my throat
and remind me of your existence the next morning
when I think the worst has passed.
You, best cure to a stuffed nose,
exorcism of the weak and untrained: an honor badge.
You, who make white boys
trying to impress their girlfriends at Asian restaurants
admit failure and cry.
Don’t let others tell you the right way to be:
You make me remember human mortality
in the best way possible.
Although what the poet is saying is serious – it’s about certain cultures being dismissed with phrases like ‘too spicy’ (and, following on from this, ‘weird’, ‘smelly’, ‘disgusting’ and so on) – she holds the subject lightly. The humour and the awe reverse the shame. Being able to eat spicy food becomes something amazing, something to be proud of – and it is always pretty funny when ‘white boys / trying to impress their girlfriends at Asian restaurants / admit failure and cry.’
Write an ode to something that isn’t normally elevated in poetry – something small or insignificant, from your everyday life. If nothing jumps to mind, look around where you’re sitting right now, or follow a familiar route around your neighbourhood and see if anything jumps out at you. The more random the better.
In your ode, deep-dive into the qualities of your subject. If it’s a physical object, what about its appearance, how heavy it is, how it feels, smells, sounds, even tastes can you find to marvel at? If it’s a person, be careful not to generalise. Be very specific in your poem – what exact meal does so-and-so cook for you? What annoying habits do they have? What are some words or phrases which only they use? Find awe where normally there is none – just as in Olds’s ode to dirt.
Try to address your subject using ‘you’. Sneak in a cheeky ‘O’ if you can. Above all, find something in your everyday to marvel at.
Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and other goodies.
How to enter
This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. It’s free to enter and you can send as many poems as you like. The deadline is midnight, Monday 20 July 2020. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.
Send your poem(s) to email@example.com with the subject line ‘Ode to small joy’, along with your name, date of birth/age, gender, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in, and how you found out about this challenge (e.g. YPN email/Twitter/Instagram/through a teacher/through a friend etc.). This data is used for statistical purposes and help us reach as wide an audience as possible.
If you are aged 12 or younger on Monday 20 July 2020, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.
We welcome entries from schools and youth groups. Use this class entry form to enter students from your class or group.
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You might also want to enter this poem in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, with a chance to win some amazing prizes and further development opportunities. We can do that for you. If you are aged 11-17 on 31 July 2020 and would like us to automatically enter your poem into the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, please write in the subject line ‘Enter me into Foyle’ and provide us with your date of birth, school name (if applicable) and home address (so we can send you a Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award anthology next year) in the body of the email. Please note: published work is not eligible for entry into the Foyle Award, so winners and commended YPN challenge poems will not be entered into the Foyle Award.
By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.
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Published June 2020