A Song to Rejoice: on My Fascination with Odes

Two things have been going through my mind recently:

1) The last few lines of Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me,” “come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.”* 

2) A couple of lines towards the middle of Héctor Lavoe’s signature song, “El Cantante,” “Yo soy el cantante / Vamo’ a celebrar / No quiero tristezas / Lo mío es cantar”**

What grabs me about each of these quotes is the call for celebration. In the case of Clifton, celebration in the face of and triumph against certain destruction, “born in babylon, / both nonwhite and woman.” In the case of Lavoe, the call for celebration (and just as strong, the shunning of grief and sorrow) in a song which also points out the frailty of its speaker earlier with the lines “Nadie me pregunta / Si sufro, si lloro / Si tengo una pena / Que hiere muy hondo.”

I’ve been thinking about both of these in the context of the ode, as I’ve been wondering lately why I write so many odes. I know that I didn’t start writing them (at least not with any kind of frequency) until I started reading/listening more intently to Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s odes, using them as a model, but the more I think about it, the more I come back to the two quotes provided above. 

Celebration has always been a big part of my life. It goes back to my parents, as reserved as they both are, always finding room and ways to celebrate with my siblings and me. Whenever we would clean the house with our mom, she’d make a function out of it and put on some Prince and Stevie. She’d pause to dance and sing along so much that it often took at least an hour longer than expected to finish. As a kid, our washer and dryer was frequently breaking and I would go to the laundromat with my dad. Just about every time, after we were done, we’d stop for burgers on the way home. I know those examples don’t seem like much, but they taught me from an early age to celebrate, often and without apparent reason. As a poet, the ode provides an avenue for celebration.

Clifton's ode provides me, as a poet of color, with the opportunity to celebrate in the face of all of these institutional forces that want me to fail. It allows me to rejoice in the fact that I have survived. On the other hand, I’m also interested in the way Lavoe uses the idea of singing praise while also acknowledging great pain. The celebration that Lavoe invokes is in many ways a compliment to Clifton. It also allows for a celebration of everything that has kept me alive—the figures and songs and places to which I owe that survival—and in doing so forces me to meditate on the failings of those very same sources.

This isn’t to say I don’t find use in other forms, or even that my approach to the ode is without its flaws. But in the ode I find something this world, entrenched in racism and imperialism, doesn’t want me to have. I find a song to rejoice this life, fragile and continually under attack, beautiful in the face of all that threatens it.

*Clifton, Lucille. “won’t you celebrate with meThe Book of Light. Copper Canyon, 1993, 25.
**Héctor Lavoe. “El Cantante.” Comedia, Fania, 1978.

Read Malcolm's poems "Cover: 'I Just Can't Stop Loving You'" and "Ode to Stevie Wonder, or Mom Calls after Milwaukee and All I Can Do Is Listen to 'I Wish'"

Malcolm Friend is a poet and CantoMundo fellow originally from the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, and an MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including La Respuesta, Vinyl, Word Riot, The Acentos Review, and Pretty Owl Poetry.

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