Prompt: Instant Odes

Poet and teacher Matthew Burgess has made a discovery: when it comes to poetry, first graders can teach college students a thing or two! In his delightful essay, “Serious Play: Odes to the Everyday,” Burgess writes about his own experience as a poet-in-residence in New York City elementary schools and as a college professor of creative writing. Since one of the aims of writing poetry is to defamiliarize the familiar, younger writers have a natural advantage. They already live in a world in which an overturned chair can become a rocket or the filling in a tooth can pick up a radio station on Mars. In other words, they know how to play. But when it came to encouraging his older students to draw on that playful imagination in one’s writing, Burgess wondered, “How could I get the college students to behave more like the children?”

One way was to create an atmosphere in the classroom that encourages play. Another was to devise writing prompts that require students to, in Burgess’s words, “emphasize process over product, that challenge strict notions of authorship, and that nudge us out of our familiar style or mode and keep us on our toes.”

So here is the challenge for us this week: write an ode to an object or feeling you encounter everyday. Begin by reading Matthew Burgess’s article. Since we are not in a room together, we can’t exactly follow his assignment, so instead, we will adapt it slightly. Look around the room and write your own everyday ode to an object within sight, if not within reach. The more ordinary, the better. The goal is to be spontaneous and playful. In your first go, spend no more than 30 minutes writing, then put your ode away. Wait a day or two, and take it out again. Read it aloud. Revise if you like, but for no more than 30 minutes. Then release your poem to the ether as you might blow on a dandelion puff–and post it here.

Hmmm, I don’t know about you, but that laundry basket has just gotten a whole lot more interesting….

Happy Writing!

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3 comments

  1. Jennie Kiffmeyer

    A response…
    Ode to a Laundry Basket

    You hold
    the dirty laundry
    that everyone
    wants to see
    except
    the one who wears it.
    O Keeper of secrets,
    here
    are the cast off, creased
    not yet deceased
    articles
    from the newspaper
    of our lives.
    Not to mention
    the unmentionables:
    underwear
    printed with stars,
    jeans that burn
    with light, hot
    from the dryer
    along with that
    gray cotton shirt
    who never dreamed
    it would once
    be taken off by a lover
    and folded neatly
    on a chair,
    its finest moment
    caught
    unaware.
    O Laundry Basket
    you fill me
    with gratitude.
    Knowing
    that always more
    fresh,
    straight off the press
    articles of clothing
    will come back
    with space
    for the day
    not yet written.

  2. Jennie Kiffmeyer

    And another one…
    Ode to the Dark Side of the Moon

    My eyes
    are dry hands
    running
    along the bedpost
    searching for
    the blunt objects of day:
    keys,
    email left unanswered,
    laundry
    to be put away.
    Every night
    I travel to
    the dark side of the moon
    with its promise
    of scarcity.
    I cannot hope
    to see.
    Swinging open
    the door
    my toes
    tentatively ask
    which way to turn.
    All is lost,
    the crone keens
    by the stone wall.
    All is lost, says
    my younger self
    ambling home
    from the hair dresser’s,
    the library, the bar.
    How could
    this have happened?
    Voices that tug
    at the loose thread of my body:
    awake!
    How could I have known
    that brittle jaws
    crack even at this age?
    Stomach muscles can ache
    from tears
    pressed out like flowers?
    A garden
    all the same color
    in the dark.
    Twenty years ago
    I never stayed
    awake late
    enough to discover
    the time,
    but now
    it is my thumb
    which absent-mindedly
    traces a circle
    clockwise.
    My eyes
    are dry hands.
    O Dark Side of the Moon,
    who cannot be known
    by sight,
    you announce
    your presence
    in the incessant hum
    of a stalled train
    a few blocks
    from my house.
    Even so,
    I can sense
    your spotlight
    left shrieking
    at the reckless
    green
    foliage by the tracks.
    A blazing green
    which shelters
    nothing
    but absence.
    Hides nothing
    but the self
    from the self.
    Do you roll
    your eyes
    when I ask:
    What is on the other side
    of you,
    illuminated
    by the sun?
    I will wait for
    your answer
    in the dark
    while
    so many
    urgencies
    call to wake up:
    Do not slumber!
    See the invisible
    before you
    even as
    it is stripped away.

    • Jonathan Graham

      Ode to a Dishwasher

      So loud
      Like an artifact
      Of the industrial revolution
      A listener expects
      A smokestack
      Churning iron gears
      And a stooped, shirtless man heaping coal into its fiery maw

      But no
      It’s just creaky —
      And any day now it’ll quit
      With a steamy heave
      Leaving dishes still dirty
      But very, very hot
      And an old repairman will heap invective at modern machines, built to break

      It is, after all, a Frigidaire
      So maybe in its soul
      It is a refrigerator —
      Confused and hurt
      It whines and cries
      And gnashes gears
      As scalding water fills what — by all rights — should be its crisper

      — Jonathan Graham

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