Get your imagination sizzling with this creativity prompt to create an ode.
In this post I walk you through Ellen Bass’ lovely poem Ode to the First Peach. I show you what makes the poem sing and how to create your own ode in any art form you choose.
This prompt is not just for writers. Although I will talk about principles of good writing here, I will also share ideas of how to translate these principles to other art forms.
Whether in writing, painting, dance, sculpture, photography or some other medium, I invite you to craft an ode.
First, let’s look at what an ode is and how we might make one that really shines.
Read Ellen Bass’ Ode to the First Peach here.
The Marriage of Content and Form
Notice how the poem is juicy with language in the way a peach is overabundant in its sweetness and deliciousness. This poem positively spurts with rich, vibrant language. The language matches the subject.
If Ellen Bass were describing a prison cell, the language would need to be colder and harder. Reading this poem provides a rich pleasure like eating a ripe peach.
What Is an Ode?
An ode is an homage, a poem of praise to a specific person, place or thing. Like a letter of appreciation to that thing.
Typically, the ode addresses the thing being praised directly, speaking not just about it but to it. Such as starting with, “O beautiful ____”. Ellen Bass’ poem does not address the peach directly, but it’s still very much an ode.
Let’s look closer at her ode and see what we can discover to inspire and inform our own creations.
By doing this, we will learn how to approach a work of art to glean both information and inspiration. We will gather information about what is strong and effective. We’ll also harvest inspiration to create our own beautiful and true work.
Choose Verbs That Tremble With Aliveness
I start by looking at the verbs, because exciting verbs are so vital to vivid, effective language.
One of the first things you can do to improve a piece of writing is to go back and look at your verbs. See where you might change the verbs to more specific, accurate, alive ones—not speak but whisper, not run but gallop, not laugh but chortle.
Of course, like all things, this can be overdone, and you need to consider the style and tone of the piece when choosing your verbs. However, a well chosen verb can do a great deal of good work for a piece of writing.
Here are all of the verbs in Ellen Bass’ ode:
feasted, plugs, severed, shines, silvered, darken, turn, imagine, be, reflected, becomes, shoots, ravished, were, fallen, dreamed, curried, remaking.
Notice how she only uses the word “to be” twice. Most of the verbs she chooses shiver with life.
If you aren’t a writer: What is the equivalent of a verb in your medium? What propels the action, brings movement and energy? Is it a fast run of notes in music? Is it bright colors in painting? Or perhaps a specific verb like “shiver” instead of “was cold” is equivalent to a subtle blending of colors instead of using a primary hue. You decide and then examine your use of that element.
Use Adjectives (and Adverbs) With Care
Next let’s look at the adjectives.
Adjectives need to be used with care. Too many adjectives begin to cancel each other out. And they can make the writing feel overburdened, cumbersome.
Yet a well-chosen adjective can bring something radiantly to life for the reader.
Notice how sparingly Ellen Bass uses adjectives in this poem, which nonetheless achieves a lushness. Most of the nouns in the poem stand alone without an adjective to define them. They don’t need an adjective because the nouns themselves are so well-chosen and vibrant. We’ll look at them in a moment.
Here are the adjectives in this poem:
one, clear, next, golden, heavier, sudden, dense, first, lustrous, silent, swollen, clefted, flaming.
Look how wonderful and apt the adjectives are for their subject, the peach. And at the same time how vivid they are as words, not just “round” or “orange,” but “clefted” and “lustrous.” The adjectives not only have specificity but also feel good in the mouth to say. And we feel them in our bodies.
If you aren’t a writer: An adjective is something that modifies or describes a noun. If the noun is the subject matter of your piece, what might be the equivalent of an adjective? In a dance piece, it might be a gesture of the hand or a bend of the head that modifies the larger movement and gives it a particular flavor. In music, it might be an ornament, a trill, a bend of a note or distortion.
Be Specific With Your Nouns
Now let’s consider the nouns.
Here they are:
insect, stub, resin, scar, hollow, stem, juice, fur, caul, minute, hairs, palm, flesh, weight, newborn, marriage, citron, blush, planet, hall, mirrors, swan, fairy, sky, dawn, beginning, world, pith, stars, coins, pockets, night, chaos, scent, morning, sugar, bruise, hunger, life, remnant, ripeness.
What an extraordinary collection of nouns!
Some of them are concrete descriptions of aspects of a peach, such as stem, scar, juice, scent.
But many of them are imaginative metaphors to help us appreciate the peach in a new light. Metaphors can work magic in a poem.
If you aren’t a writer: The nouns are the nuts and bolts of your piece, its subject matter or foundational elements—a key phrase in a dance piece, perhaps, or a musical theme.
You might think of the nouns as the building blocks of the piece, the verbs as what connects and gives momentum to those building blocks, and the adjectives as flourishes or ornaments that add nuance.
In whatever medium you are working in, make sure your “nouns” are strong and apt, as vivid and right as they can be for the piece.
And what about using metaphor, likening one thing to another to help us experience your subject in a richer or new way?
Create Your Own Ode
Now that we have gathered this information about what makes this poem come alive, let’s use it for inspiration to create our own ode.
1. Choose a subject for your ode, something you wish to praise. It could be something you love, but it could also be something difficult, which you will use your ode to learn to appreciate. For instance, I recently wrote an ode to frustration.
2. Start by free-associating a list of lively verbs, nouns and adjectives, or phrases combining them, to describe the subject of your ode. Include startling, original metaphors.
You might also make notes of memories of your subject, details of the specific pleasures it has brought to you.
3. Now choose the best of these to begin making a first draft of an ode. Or start by just allowing yourself to play freely with the subject and see what arises.
Let yourself experiment. Be wild, inventive, playful. Odes often are. Or be melodramatic, over-the-top in your exaltation of this thing. Discover the voice that is suited to your subject.
Don’t try to be perfect in the first draft. That kills creativity. Just get some ideas on paper or in your medium-of-choice.
If you aren’t a writer: Even if you are working in a non-verbal medium, such as dance or painting, you can still begin by writing out images, associations and metaphors to more fully delve into your subject. You can also begin by deciding key elements of your piece—musical or dance phrases, color palette and so on.
Refine and Revise
Then, go back, refine, revise, hone.
If you are writing, look at every verb. Can any be strengthened?
Look at every adjective. Can any be removed and the line will be as strong or stronger? Can any adjectives be replaced by using a more vital, specific noun instead?
Look at your nouns. Are they the most dynamic and apt ones to meet your subject? Have you used metaphor to bring your subject more vividly to life and to bring delight and surprise to the reader?
If you are making an ode with dance, how could you use non-representational movement to create an ode to a peach, for instance? Instead of showing someone eating a peach, how could you suggest the ecstasy, sweetness, surprise of biting into a ripe peach? How could you metaphorically depict the juice running down your face or the slow ripening to colors of sunset?
If you are writing music, how could the notes reflect the burnished quality of a peach, the lushness?
If you are painting, what in the painting, in the background perhaps or the colors or textures, leads us to experience the subject in a new and deeper way? What is it you most wish to communicate about this subject to the viewer? Perhaps the painting is non-representational but takes us to a place of feeling the subject.
Let yourself have fun with making an ode.
Perhaps you would like to give yourself the project of making a series of odes on different subjects. Odes engage our senses, our gratitude, our imagination.
To get more ideas about wild and wonderful odes, check out Pablo Neruda’s odes. Here’s my favorite of those: Ode to My Socks
What are you inspired to make an ode about now? Begin making some notes.