I am no expert on odes. I probably recall more about ‘the third of June’ and Billy Joe than a Grecian Urn, Nightingale or Autumn. I should know much of Coleridge’s Dejection having recently spent four focused years bringing a life-size statue of the great Romantic poet and philosopher to the town of his birth in Ottery St Mary. My favourite poem of his is The Eolian Harp, essentially an ode on pantheism, before this is rejected by a moment of mad piety.
I think of odes as intense in focus on a subject, a celebration or lament in the evocation, though this latter emotion seems less traditional than the former.
You can therefore tell I didn’t present many odes to my students in 30 years of teaching English, but I certainly don’t feel this gap in a complete grasp hinders a full engagement with and appreciation of Alan Baker’s A Book of Odes. Stylistically, they clearly don’t follow convention. These are contemporary and free to focus intensely as they will and do. I hear and see eloquent rants, listing and other potent repetitions. I do hear and see lamenting in the recounting of injustice and loss in a modern world.
Ode to the Birds on the Wire would seem to encapsulate this notion of intense lament and/or eloquent rant. Moving from the natural world of birds to that of an itinerant peoples, a link is made about migration and being migrants, this merging in the apparent poles of ‘insect populations’ through ‘gunshot’ (this a pivotal reference) to ‘locals hostile’, and it is the relentless mention and amalgamation that drives this powerful poem. It’s lyrical qualities – that element of tradition perhaps – comes wonderfully through runs in the narrative and is set up, in this poem, by the refrain (the first two lines of this extract)
‘the birds on the wire
have nothing to say
their song emerging in a dream
or in a moment of stillness at twilight
echoing in basement kitchens
the fruit-fields of Lincolnshire…’
This unfolding of a panorama in which there’s alienation and a fight for survival is taken to the darkness of various realities with a hope of
before the soldiers come’
An Ode to Adaptive Capacity is quite different though possibly linked to the previous – not that this is necessary – by the idea of adapting to change and turmoil. In a quite beautiful opening (with such a romantic ‘our’ on the first page!), a mix of science, the natural world and human emotion reflects on
‘the adaptive capacity
& natural systems
to enter at midnight
the fallen leaf
the bleached coral…’
which continues in a lyrical list poem of intense details and possibilities: actually, a bravura rollercoaster of links that prompt and create and emerge in continuing surprises, the ‘she’ of the poem a catalyst for a view of human experience as this richly diverse.
Subsequent odes are more of that rich poetic tapestry, from riffing on the spectacle of an urban landscape to what is heard in the dreamworld of music. These odes are startling at times and always great fun to read – and as is the nature of Red Ceilings chapbooks, invite the reader to return again and again into their compact world-view.
For more details and how to (possibly) get – they have just sold out, but expressing interests may prompt a reprinting – go here: https://www.theredceilingspress.co.uk/product-page/a-book-of-odes-alan-baker