"What is an Ode?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is an Ode? Transcript (English & Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By David Biespiel, Oregon State University Poet-in-Residence

3 April 2023

There’s a good argument to be made that most poems, in many languages, are odes, which simply means: a poem that celebrates something -- celebrates or extols or ceremonializes, or even blesses or revels in, or glorifies, or just simply digs into whatever a poem is talking about, be it a person, a place, a thing, an event, an idea. Could be it’s a season, a bird, a state of mind. It could a bad haircut, a scar, a stranger like John Doe, your hometown, a pair of socks, your dog or cat, a blizzard, a diner, a sink full of dishes, even a bridge, or the west wind.

Now, traditionally, there are two kinds of odes: public and private.
What we call Pindaric Odes (named after the fifth century BCE Greek poet Pindar) are odes addressed to people or places or events of a public nature: like Ode to King Charles or Ode to Serena Williams or Ode to the Empire State Building or Ode to the Last Astronauts to Stand on the Moon. You might say that Pindaric Odes were early Spoken Word kinds of poems because they were performed on stage: a chorus moved from one side of the stage to the other, alternating the parts. Now, you need a lot of infrastructure to pull off a Pindaric ode, at least a stage and a microphone and a bunch of actors, though that kind of poetry hasn’t been much in vogue since its most recent heyday six hundred years ago in France.

What we call Horatian Odes (named after the first century BCE Latin poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus) are odes addressed to private matters, and these are the kinds of poems we think of today as the contemporary ode: The 20th century Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was a master of the Horatian ode: he wrote an ode to his pencil, to a tomato, to an onion, to a broken down old movie theater, the dictionary, even to his shoelaces. And a bunch of other stuff he found lying around the house.
I’m going to share a Neruda ode with you in a moment about a fish, but, first: remember: you have public odes and private odes. Either way: Here’s how they all work. Odes move, to one degree or another, like a three-part dance. The old Greek terms for this were strophe, antistrophe, and epode. Think back to the staging of the Greek Pindaric ode I was telling you about: the strophe is said by the chorus from one side of the stage, then they all dance over to the other side and say the antistrophe, and then they do the epode, where the poem ends, having danced back over somewhere near the middle of the stage. Now if you take away the stage, but keep the three part movements you have the order of the contemporary ode, more or less.

Another framing of this three part movement is known as point, counterpoint, and stand. Articulate one thing, move in a different direction, and resolve it. I like to call this focus, refocus, and resolve.
Now in English, the most famous poet of odes is John Keats. He wrote several Horatian odes over the spring, summer, and fall of 1819, less than two years before he died, very young, at the age of 25. Keats wrote an ode to laziness, an ode to his psyche, an ode to a bird (a nightingale), to a vase (that’s the Grecian Urn), to his feelings of sadness, and to a season (autumn). In each of these, as with most modern odes, what you need to know is not that odes seek answers, but questions. To write an ode is to explore, delve into, probe, inspect, burrow, and sift whatever subject you want to with extreme consideration or immersion.
So, here’s that fish ode by Pablo Neruda, written in Spanish, translated into English by Robin Robertson. As you read it, determine for yourself what might be its three parts of focus, refocus, and resolve, or turn, counter-turn and stand, or strophe, antistrophe, and epode.
“Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market” by Pablo Neruda


among the market vegetables,

this torpedo

from the ocean


a missile

that swam,


lying in front of me



by the earth’s green froth

— these lettuces, bunches of carrots — 

only you

lived through

the sea’s truth, survived

the unknown, the


darkness, the depths

of the sea,

the great


le grand abîme,

only you:




to that deepest night.

Only you:

dark bullet


from the depths,




one wound,

but resurgent,

always renewed,

locked into the current,

fins fletched

like wings

in the torrent,

in the coursing





like a grieving arrow,

sea-javelin, a nerveless

oiled harpoon.


in front of me,

catafalqued king

of my own ocean;


sappy as a sprung fir

in the green turmoil,

once seed

to sea-quake,

tidal wave, now


dead remains;

in the whole market


was the only shape left

with purpose or direction

in this

jumbled ruin

of nature;

you are

a solitary man of war

among these frail vegetables,

your flanks and prow


and slippery

as if you were still

a well-oiled ship of the wind,

the only



of the sea: unflawed,


navigating now

the waters of death.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Biespiel, David. "What is an Ode?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 3 Apr. 2023, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-ode-definition-and-examples. Accessed [insert date].


Interested in more video lessons? View the full series:

The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms