An Ode to Writing Odes
When the universe gives you a gift, send a thank-you note.
This wasn’t my idea.
When my Atlantic editors, back in the sweet, untroubled summer of 2019, took me out to lunch and suggested that I start doing something regularly on the inside back page of the magazine, I said: “Sure thing. Why don’t we call it ‘The Riff’? Or ‘The Zoom-In’?”
I was imagining a sort of Pollocky prose explosion, a real showcase/show-off moment for me, the writer. I would riff, go cat go. Or I’d zoom in with my zany critical lens, bearing down and then expanding on some political incident or line of poetry or note from a guitar solo or …
But I wrote some Riffs, and I wrote some Zoom-Ins, and they weren’t quite right. They lacked the necessary surface tension. They lacked, in some cases, a point. “How about we call them ‘Odes’?” said my editor. It’s nice to work with people who are cleverer than you are.
So the Odes were born. Short exercises in gratitude. Or in attention, which may in the end be the same thing. Encounters with the ineffable, encounters with the highly frigging effable. The grace of God, the piece of toast. Seeking always what my friend Carlo calls the odeness: the essence, the thing of the thing, the quality worth exploring and if possible exalting. Songs of praise, but with (I hoped) a decent amount of complaining in there: a human ratio of moans.
I went back into the tradition, too. I read the odes of Horace, good old get-on-with-it Horace: Don’t whinge, don’t poke, don’t pick the scab of Time. / How long we’ve got, the loving gods won’t say (Ode 11, Book 1, liberty-taking translation mine). I read Pablo Neruda, image extruder: He wrote hundreds of odes, to pianos, politicians, fish soup, really ranging through the randomness. He published his odes in the newspaper, insisting—wonderfully—that they appear in the news section.
The point, I discovered, is that ode-writing is a two-way street. The universe will disclose itself to you, it will give you occasions for odes, it will blaze with interest and appreciability, but you’ve got to be ode-ready. You’ve got to bring some twang, some perceptual innocence, some not-worn-out words. Respond to the essence with your essence, with the immaculate awareness that is your birthright. And on the days when the immaculate awareness is crap-encrusted, write an ode about that.
As a practice, I can tell you, it gets results. Squirrels have treated me differently since I wrote an ode to squirrels: They give me the nod, those little fiends. And I see odes everywhere now. I see them boiling up from the ground where my dog squats to do his business. I see them poking down through the clouds in fingers of divine light.
Your odes, too—can you see them? They’re swimming in your ambience. They want to be written, but only by you. There’s an everlasting valentine at the nucleus of creation, and it’s got your name on it.
This article appears in the June 2023 print edition with the headline “Ode to Writing Odes.”