On the Sublime: Writing the Contemporary Ode


  • John James
May 13, 20th, 27th, & June 3 from 1-4pm

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On the Sublime: Writing the Contemporary Ode

“the ode [is] the perfect means of expressing the sublime”

—Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics

Since the Greeks, that nebulous poetic form known as the ode (if we can even call it a “form”) has been associated with praise, but also — and more importantly — with rhetorical, emotional, and even topographical “height.” The odes of Pindar celebrate the virtues of warriors and athletic heroes, but by the eighteenth century, odes very often depict Romantic mountains, crags, and deep-cleft cliffs. Yet even in the classical period, as in the crucial treatise of Longinus, the feeling associated with this form — the sublime — slips between emotional and physical elevation. (Longinus’s Peri Hypsous can be translated, for instance, as “On the Sublime” or, more accurately, “On Height.”) In the modern world, this baffling juncture between the physically and emotionally “high” spurs Immanuel Kant to declare that sublime objects “over-bear the mind” and “cast it into a pleasing kind of stupor and admiration.” Hybridizing elements of the writing workshop and the literary seminar, this course investigates the contentious relationship between sublimity and the ode. How, we might ask, does this type of poem capture such a curious (mis)alignment of emotion and physical space? How might the emotional power of the ode be used to interrogate other subjects? Might we, as poets, utilize the ode or the “pleasing stupor” it evokes to refigure our human relationship to a rapidly changing physical environment? Readings will range from the classical period to the contemporary, including works by Pindar, Horace, William Collins, Percy Shelley, Anne Carson, Jorie Graham, Pablo Neruda, Brian Teare, Benjamin Garcia, José Olivarez, and others. We will conclude by attempting to compose our own odes and workshopping these pieces together as a class.

***No experience with the ode or poetic form is necessary for this class. I ask only that you approach this course with a willingness to read and to think adventurously.

About John James

John James is the author of The Milk Hours, selected by Henri Cole for the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize (Milkweed, 2019), as well as two chapbooks: Chthonic, winner of the 2014 CutBank Chapbook Prize, and Winter, Glossolalia, published in 2022 by London’s Black Sprint Press Group. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry Northwest, Best American Poetry, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, among other publications.

Also a scholar, John writes on poetry and poetics across a wide range of time, with specializations in Romanticism and ecocriticism. He has presented papers at Yale University, the University of Chicago, and NAVSA’s 2017 Victorian Preserves conference in Banff, Alberta. His dissertation explores the role of genre and poetic form in negotiating an emergent concept of environment in the later eighteenth century.

His work has been supported by fellowships and awards from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference, the Academy of American Poets, and Georgetown University’s Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. He splits his time between Kentucky and California, where he is pursuing a PhD in English and Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley.

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On the Sublime: Writing the Contemporary Ode

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