Feb 17, 2014

Posted by in All Nine Muses, Poetry | 117 Comments

Letting Go of Irony: Reflections on the Ode (and on teaching poetry)

Over at my friend Kelly Belmonte’s excellent blog All Nine Muses, she challenged us to think about the ode. (You can read all the contributes on the ode here). I found myself wondering why the ode seems to be such an easy target for satire in the modern day.

Certainly it’s hard to imagine writing an ode like Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” But why not, I wondered? And it occurred to me that perhaps what makes it difficult to write (or write about) an ode today is that the form is not the least bit ironic. The ode challenges us to look long and hard at something and take it seriously.

Taking things seriously is hard for us to do, these days. I think we’re afraid of seriousness, because to be serious means that we care, and if we care, we can be hurt.

Last year I taught several sections of the undergraduate English courses, Great Works I and II. I assigned my students into groups to create a dramatization of a short scene from their assigned book, which they presented to the whole class. The results were often highly creative and delightful – ranging from a guided tour of Dante’s Hell (with tour guides, tickets, and snacks provided) to a talk show program interviewing the characters from Beowulf.

After a while, though, I noticed something that disturbed me. The default approach of most students was that of parody. (In fact, I had to veto a few project ideas as being too flippant to do justice to the book at all.) The predominant ‘voice’ that came out in the projects was ironic. There was a sense of distancing, that the students were working very hard to convey a sense of ‘we’re not taking this seriously.’

In my entirely anecdotal and unsystematic experience, it seemed that the groups that had leadership from very engaged, interested students – ones who weren’t afraid to show that they really enjoyed the books – were the least likely to do parodic or highly ironic presentations. Their projects were often leavened with humor, but not to the point of subverting the story. On the other hand, the groups with students who were, I think, somewhat afraid of being ‘uncool’ tended to be much more parodic – as if that were the only way they could engage with the material safely.

But I also sensed a deep yearning to drop the irony, to let go of parody and enjoy these stories for themselves. Several times a semester, I’d have the whole class do an activity that involved reading or acting out part of the story, such as reading scenes from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (in front of HBU’s ten Grecian pillars!) or having the students traipse across campus to act out the pilgrimage from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. We always had fun – unironic, enjoying-ourselves fun. Probably it worked because, if they felt like they looked silly, they could just blame it on the crazy professor.

How does this come back to the ode? I think the ode is profoundly non-ironic, even anti-ironic. The ode calls us to take seriously what we’re looking at, or remembering, or thinking about. It challenges us to use the language of deep emotion, and not be embarrassed by it.

Irony can be a necessary seasoning, like salt; but, just as salt plowed into the ground will sterilize it, irony can kill our ability to feel.

The ode provokes us to let down our cynical, ironic guard – and I think that’s a good thing. If we can’t truly admire, and be awed, and be serious, neither can we truly laugh, and enjoy frivolity. And we need both.


Dr. Holly Ordway is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (revised and expanded second ed. forthcoming 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

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  1. I have been reading Christopher Hitchens recently for a project and came across his definition of the ironic mind. He does not oppose it to seriousness, as his ironic mind is serious. He opposes it to “literal” mind. I want to applaud your nod toward non-parody, of this joke-as-cover. But also I want to submit that irony, parody, and satire in a “mature” writer like, say, Erasmus, is the farthest thing from non-serious. Maybe your students just don’t know how to deploy irony in that fashion.

  2. Holly Ordway says:

    Matthew, thanks for the comment – it prompts me to tease out more what I mean. As you note, irony, parody, and satire can be profoundly serious in terms of how it engages with the ideas. I wouldn’t agree with Hitchens in seeing it as the opposite of ‘literal,’ however. There are other forms of non-literal engagement (metaphor, paradox, image) that are not ironic.

    I think that irony is a distancing mode; along with satire and parody, it works by causing the reader to have a sort of double vision between the surface and the intent of the author’s words. But irony in particular has a double vision of conflict between the two meanings, whereas in paradox and metaphor the different meanings, apparently at odds, work to create fuller meaning. Irony doesn’t do that; it deliberately undermines itself. This can be a very effective form for critique, but I would suggest that the distancing effect of irony is only helpful when the larger culture is, by and large, non-ironic; irony works as a seasoning, but if it’s the main mode of engagement, it not only loses its savor but (I would suggest) becomes sterilizing.

    What I see in pervasive irony is a refusal to allow full imaginative or emotional engagement with an experience (or, to use CS Lewis’s term, to refuse to Enjoy, in favor of always Contemplating). If everything is ironic, then irony says nothing in particular and has no value except precisely as a means of staying detached.

    What I’d hope for, with regard to my students, is that they would be able to fully Enjoy their reading (and other things in their lives) and respond intellectually, emotionally, and imaginatively without that additional self-consciousness always present, and serving to distance them from what they could otherwise engage with fully.

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