High schoolers think they hate poetry. Let's be honest - most people think they hate poetry. In my experience, poetry is considered a foreign language - either communicating an unrelatable emotion or using language and punctuation (or the lack thereof) in a way that is baffling. That was the case for my ninth-grade students until I introduced them to Pablo Neruda's elemental odes - poems praising everyday objects - and suddenly poetry made a lot more sense.
While definitions vary slightly, an ode is a lyrical poetic form which addresses and celebrates a person, place, thing, or idea. Stanzas and tone may vary depending on the author. One of the most famous odes is John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn". While we read this as a class, this is the kind of poem that frightened my students and kept them from wanting to read more poetry; its elevated style and use of language didn't speak to the teenagers in my class. "Ode to the Onion" by Pablo Neruda was a different story.
Teacher Tim Nance reads Pablo Neruda's poem "Ode to the Onion" and provides some additional information about Neruda.
"You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
you are to my eyes
a heavenly globe, a platinum goblet,
an unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone
and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature." (Neruda, lines 64-74)
— Neruda, Pablo. "Ode to the Onion." Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009, 51-55.
Neruda wrote 225 odes praising all sorts of things: watermelon, socks, the atom, laziness, wine, poverty, and Walt Whitman. If your interest has been piqued for more of Neruda’s odes, here are some to explore:
Brainstorm something that you want to praise and celebrate; likely something that brings joy, ease, or comfort to your life. Consider all the daily aspects of your life - a favorite sweatshirt, your cellphone, a band-aid, sunshine. Extra credit challenge: choose a person, place, thing, or idea that generally doesn't bring joy or admiration (think pollen, traffic, cockroaches) and describe the subject in such a way that we all have a new appreciation for it.
Once you’ve identified the object, person, or idea that you want to praise, jot down all the qualities and characteristics that make your chosen subject so special and important to you.
Begin drafting your ode. Play with line lengths, stanzas, and imagery. Be carefree in the construction of your ode. Remember, the only requirement of an ode is that it exalts and celebrates the subject.
Feeling particularly ambitious? Submit your ode for inclusion in the Richland Library publications Access or Kids in Print.
Ode to a Paperclip
Small and unassuming
with three bends of metal
capable of containing
a stack of papers
A jumbled mass of
paperclips sit in a jar on my desk,
like fishhooks and lines
in a messy tackle box.
Once extracted each
can stand alone,
moving from chaos to a single purpose -
Cheap and plentiful,
(too permanent and unportable)
but is a staple
of my office
Collecting in my pockets
absently placed there by
a wandering hand and distracted mind
I mine them out each afternoon
surprised by the sheer volume
accumulated so quickly
in tiny metal;
feeling I've struck gold
in the silver sheen
Not quite ready to write your own ode? Need a little more inspiration?