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The American Ode

Professor Stephen Adams
Fall Half Course.

The ode–a notoriously difficult genre to define–is generally a poem of medium length characterized by formality, seriousness and ceremoniousness.  It is often an occasional poem (though not always), a public expression marked by the rhetoric of oratory, featuring heightened diction, figuration, and emotional tone.  Identified with public occasions, the genre is closely tied to the critical moments of American history.  Formally (in the pseudo-pindaric tradition) it tends to extreme intricacy or irregularity.  As a poetic "performance," it often deals directly or indirectly with the definition of the poet's "calling," that is, the cultural function of the poet.

The ode – so frequent in English poetry – is somewhat uncommon, or at least marginalized, in American poetry.  Though this is due partly to a cultural strain that resists imitation of classical or European models, there may be other cultural factors in the American poet's evasions or adaptations of the genre.  Poems in this course tend to be ambitious, self-defining performances–but they often have troubled critical history: Some, once canonized, have fallen from esteem altogether (like those of James Russell Lowell or William Vaughn Moody).

This course sets out to examine several odes or ode-like poems in the American tradition, extending as far back as Freneau or as far forward as Ginsberg and O’Hara.  Texts and topics may include the following: (1) Freneau and Blake ("The Rising Glory of America," "America: A Prophecy);  (2) Emerson, Poe, and the Poet's Calling;  (4) Whitman and the Prophetic Ode ("A Passage to India");  (5) James Russell Lowell and the Civil War ("Harvard Commemoration Ode," Timrod, "Ethnogenesis," Lanier, "Corn," Moody, "An Ode in Time of Hesitation";  (6) Modern Recollections of the Civil War (Tate, "Ode for the Confederate Dead," Robert Lowell, "For the Union Dead");  (7) Naturalism and Aestheticism (Robinson, "The Man Against the Sky," Hart Crane, "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen," Stevens, "Sunday Morning");  (8) Metahistory (Frost, "The Black Cottage," Pound, "Near Perigord," Williams, "History," Eliot, "Gerontion");  (9) Female Bards and Silenced Voices (Millay, "Ode to Silence," Marianne Moore, "In Distrust of Merits," Rukeyser, “John Brown’s Body,” Rich, “Transcendental Etude”);  (10) Ginsberg and the Late Prophetic Ode ("Howl");  (11)  Black Mountain and New York Schools (O'Hara and Duncan).


View the syllabus here: 9043A.

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