5) Making a List, Selecting a Topic and Starting to Write an Ode (e.g. my Ode to Books)

Maintaining the List

Keeping an Ode Journal doesn’t so much replace as include and go beyond keeping a simple Gratitude Journal, because you’re still maintaining a list of things you’re grateful for as part of the process; it’s from that list that you will pick things to write odes about. Look to add more to this running list at least once a week.

So the running list serves a double purpose. It is both a tool to help you select topics for your odes, and is itself a mood-elevating reminder of all the good things in your life – which is the purpose of the gratitude journal. Allow the list to have worth in itself, because there may be things on the list that you feel profoundly grateful for, but which you are not going to write an ode about, just because the topic is not suitable. For example, you will likely feel deep feelings about friends and family, but might feel awkward writing actual odes about it. That’s fine. Acknowledge the value, add it to the list, then choose topics for your odes that you feel comfortable with.

So how do we think of things to add to the list? To get yourself in the right frame of mind, you might want to start by just thinking of things you like, and then think about what type of liking it is. Is it the type that is more of a badge of identify – you tell the world you like it to so they know who you are, how good your taste is, how fashionable you are, what you stand for or against – or is it that type of deep, emotional, celebratory liking where identity is neither here nor there? If it’s the latter, then it is something that can go on the gratitude list. (There could of course be things that are both.)

Another thing I recommend when adding things to your list is meditation. Just put on some gently droning ambient meditation music, do some static yoga poses, breathe gently and slowly, allow thoughts to drift by as you go to the calm centre of things, and then, once you find yourself getting into that empty, mindful state, reach up to the spiritual side of yourself and ask it to help you bring to mind things you are genuinely grateful for.

When you come back from this, write down the things you thought of and record your insights in a notebook. This is your basic Gratitude Journal. You’ll have a separate notebook for your finished odes – Your Ode Journal.

Making Your Selection

You may already know which of the things on your list you’re going to write an ode about, or it may take some more mulling over. The ideal here is the over-spill principle. Like an ornate water feature where each tier over-spills and then fills the tier below it, you let your gratitude build up and spill over in an enthusiastic bust of creativity, and just go with it. The gratitude itself provides the motivation. In reality, you may also need to consider the siphon principle – a little bit of applied suction maybe required to start the flow, but then it will self-perpetuate. Fake it till you make it.

There are some things that we all feel grateful for, and for which odes have already written. This doesn’t mean you can’t write your own odes about them, but there is the chance that this could invite unwanted comparison. Most of us are grateful for the invention of music. One of my first attempts at a gratitude ode was a celebration of music, but I then read the equivalent odes by Dryden and Pope and my own seemed rather inadequate by comparison, and I also realised I hadn’t been quite as original as I’d thought. To avoid this type of thing, there is an argument for going for more niche subsets. So for example when I wrote odes to the specific genres of Uplifting Trance and Emotional Trance within my Rhyme of the Hungry Dawn Raver, I felt I could be a bit more confident they wouldn’t be compared directly to the grand odes of the Augustans.

The Creative Process Begins – The Divergent Thinking Stage

OK, so you’ve got you’re running list, and you’ve chosen one of the items from that list to be the theme for an ode. How do you then set about writing it? One technique which I’ve used on a number of occasions is to start just by writing my ideas out as prose. No rhymes, no meter. Then you just tinker and juggle bit by bit. You spot a first rhyme, just by chance, and this gives you an opening, and before you know where you are, it’s taking shape. This, apparently, was a method favoured by Ben Johnson. This is what I did with An English Ode for instance, as I mentioned in Part 2.

Another method I have found enormously fruitful is going for a walk. (Again, it was while walking that I came up with the ideas for An English Ode, then when I got home I sat down and wrote them as prose (or rather free verse), before finally turning it into an ode over the next couple of days.) There’s actually scientific research that confirms that walking leads to better divergent creativity – coming at things from a fresh perspective. See for example this Stanford study: https://news.stanford.edu/2014/04/24/walking-vs-sitting-042414/ The overwhelming majority of the participants in these three experiments were more creative while walking (or when sitting just after a walk) than after extended sitting. In fact there were twice as many creative responses. However, there were marginally lower scores for ‘convergent’ thinking while walking. This is the stage of the process where you concentrate on avoiding mistakes, dotting the i‘s and crossing the ts. For the poet this means a period of working while sitting might be a good idea when it comes to the final polishing, tightening and tidying up.

Another advantage of walking for the writer of gratitude odes is that it will lift your mood and put you in a more positive frame of mind, helping you to bubble over with the type of gushing enthusiasm for the topic that such poems are supposed to embody. Walking also has a natural rhythm to it, and this is conducive to phrasing things in the rhythmical form of a poem; it’s no coincidence the stresses syllables are called feet.

However, when you generate a first draft in this way – i.e. letting it bubble up while walking – it might well have a simple repeating rhyming scheme and a driving ballad-style rhythm. It will therefore need to go through a full re-write to take the form of a more complex scheme and contemplative mood, such as with an English/Keatsian ode. I’ve done this on a number of occasions. For example, the Ode to Bath Locks I shared in the previous section started off with a driving seven-stress ballad meter and simple rhyming pairs. I then rewrote this in the form of an English ode to produce the first stanza, then came up with stanza II and III a-fresh.

I’ll share here another example, to illustrate how this process can work. During a recent meditative siesta, I reached up towards my spiritual side and thought of things I was grateful for. I became flooded with a strong sense of gladness for the human ability to become enjoyably absorbed in the process and products of literary and artistic creativity. This came during a period of ‘media fast’ that I had been trying out – a month with no phone – and so was tied together in my mind with a growing realisation that there are plenty of substitutes for the likes of social media, news alerts and all the rest of it, and that these substitutes are conducive to a more wholesome, calm and enjoyably creative way of life.

I next realised I already had some lines of poetry on a similar theme that I might be able to rework and reuse to start me on the way to my next ode. I struggled with a title for this one, but for simplicity am calling it here An Ode to Books. These lines, written very quickly while staying on holiday in an air b’n’b in Lewes this summer just passed, were as follows:

Here beneath the castle in ramshackle Lewes town
Where tidal Ouse has found a way of exit ‘tween the Downs
The little houses in a line beside the ancient green
Are messy, arty, curious
Chaotic yet serene
In this one where we’re staying
There’s a sense of slower pace
There’s no TV but life gets lived
In contemplative grace
There’s objects perched and dangling
Strange mementos from afar
Seed pods, drums and conches brought from some exotic shore
The summer comes the winter comes then summer comes once more
And still the ivy grows around the whitewashed brick shed door
The summer comes the winter comes then summer comes once more
There’s patterns to be gazed at in the rug upon the floor
The summer comes the winter comes then summer comes once more
There’s books and books and books to read
There’s books to read galore
Gardening and cooking books
Upstairs there’s plenty more
Poetry and history
And Art and How to Draw
There’s books and books and books to read
When winter comes once more
There’s those out on the shelves and then there’s others held in store
There’s no TV but pictures hang in every empty space
There’s no TV but life goes on with slow bohemian grace
The summer comes the winter comes then summer comes once more
There’s novels, poems, books to write
There’s pictures we could draw
But mostly one can sprawl upon the chaise lounge in the hall
And gaze upon the paintings hanging crowded on the wall
Or even at the space between where there is only thought
And let the mind in some creative musing become caught
There’s no TV but books are read as since the days of yore
And still the summer comes and then the winter comes once more.

I could argue that the sense of a long rambling jumble of lines fits with the theme of a house that has a jumble of stuff in it, and as such this version can exist in its own right. This is the present tense version, written while I was still there, within the experience. But I can also now write the contemplative, after the fact version, looking back on the experience with a more ordered arrangement and a more measured mood. How?

Meter: Making a mood more measured

I don’t want to spend too long on poetic meter because it’s obviously something that’s been dealt with a lot elsewhere. Stephen Fry’s Ode Less Traveled is readable and at times highly amusing. I’ll just make some very general points.

Firstly, you don’t have to worry about rhythm and meter. But the thing is, if you want the odes in your glorified gratitude journal to have that measured feel you get from the classic verses of old, then you are going to have get into the practice of thinking about these things. The simplest way to say it is that – if you want that measured vibe – you must work according to a particular scheme whereby you give each line the right number of syllables, the right number of stresses (or feet, or beats of the bar), and think about how the stresses land on the parts of words so it doesn’t sound clumsy.) That’s basically it.

If you want to sound like one of the old greats, five stresses per line could be the way to go.

ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

The stress has to fall on ‘King’ not ‘dom’ or it would sound weird. In the above it falls on “for” which might in another line be odd but in this one it’s kind of OK, as it brings out an assonance with “horse”. The following still has five stresses but they’re not well placed:

A horse! I’ll give you my kingdom for one!

There’s no hard and fast rule, but if you want your odes to have that measured, classic feel, you want to avoid squeezing in lots of syllables in a short space between stresses, even though that’s how we speak. (Bold in the last sentence is stressed, unbold is unstressed. Notice there are anything from zero to five untressed syllables squeezed in between stresses in that sentence. That’s how prose is different from measured poetry.) In measured verse you stick to a pattern. If it’s iambic, the pattern is just one unstressed syllable between each stressed syllable. With pairs of little joining words like “to the” or “for a” etc., you may find it sounds better to treat the pair as a whole as one syllable, and some words also might contain syllable pairs that sound better contracted together. So o-bli-vi-on might work better as o-bliv-yon, for example.

For my Ode to Books I’m going with iambic pentameter for most of it, but because of the pattern there are also the four lines of tetrameter per stanza – four stresses per line, as per the section on stanza structure below.

There are also ti-ti-tum ti-ti-tum ti-ti-tum type rhythms, with two unstressed syllables between each stress. E.g. How can we Harness the Heavenly Power of the Ode? That’s starts on a tum, but the ti’s before the first tum are pretty optional.

There’s a lot more to it, but that should give you some idea.

Rhetoric: Making a motif more memorable

It’s flabbergasting how many of the famous lines of poetry, the ones people remember, use recognised rhetorical devices, structural techniques that even have their own names. People would’t still read Shakespeare if he hadn’t used them. His name wouldn’t even ring a bell. I’m not going to go over all of them, or go into any great detail here. I recommend Mark Forsythe’s readable and lighthearted Elements of Eloquence. Basically, and without bothering to use their fancy names, we’re talking about structures such as this:-

  1. a, a, a Repeating a word for emphasis. e.g. Location, Location, Location. or Education, Education, Education. A Horse! A Horse!
  2. a, b, c. A list of three, the third often being longer. E.g. Mad, bad and dangerous to know.
  3. ab, ac, ad. E.g Someone, somewhere, someday.
  4. a, b, a (and a, a, b, a) A word sandwich. E.g. Bond, James Bond or To be or not to be or A Horse! My Kingdom for a horse!
  5. a b c ; a b d ; a b e. Pairs or longer groups of phrases that are the same in pattern, have the same grammatical set up, but with variations. E.g. Like father, like son or I came, I saw, I conquered. (which is also an example of 2.) Also Marking a Mood More Measured c.f. Making A Motif More Memorable.
  6. a b c ; c b a An inversion, such as of subject and object around the same verb. E.g. Think not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
  7. a, b, c, 4, e A deliberate grammatical mistake, a word performing the wrong function. E.g. The Glory of Glad.
  8. ab ac. Alliteration. Using words that start with the same sound. E.g. The Glory of Glad & Making a Mood More Measured & Making A Motif More Memorable & How can we Harness the Heavenly Power of the Ode? etc.
  9. a, b, c? Use of a question for rhetorical purposes. E.g. How can we Harness the Heavenly Power of the Ode?
  10. a leads to b. b leads to c. c leads to d. E.g. Gratitude raises mood. Raised mood lowers stress. Lowered stress boosts health.
  11. a, a-ed, a-ing. Use of the same word in different cases within the same phrase. E.g. Making the moral more moral (see below)
  12. a, b, c, d | e, f, g, d | h, i, j, d. Always ending with the same thing, such as repeatedly ending with the same phrase at the end of a verse, paragraph or section. Very common in poetry and song. E.g. There’s a lot more to it, but that should give you some idea.

There’s a lot more to it, but that should give you some idea.

Substance: Making the moral more moral

Memorability is not the sole goal of poetry, nor even necessarily a good thing in every case. Some advertising jingles are simultaneously memorable and hateful. And also be careful not to use rhetoric as a cover up job, to make foul seem fair (that’s alliteration, of course). There are some people, Forsythe included, who say that the beauty of poetry is all in how it’s said, not what’s being said. This is an example of a comical over-steer to make a point. It’s not literally true of course. It’s blatantly obvious that what’s being said is still vitally important – from a point of view of morality if not memorability – and it’s only because that is so self-evidently true that Forsythe and their ilk can get away with claiming the opposite and come across as nothing worse than cheeky rascals.

Using rhetoric as a cover up can be worse than using no rhetoric at all, because it leaves a funny taste in the mouth. For example (and I know I may be expressing a fringe view here, but bear with me) Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 has never worked for me because, for all its flowery devices, it expresses fowl sentiments. This is the ‘Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?” sonnet.

What he was basically saying in plain prose was this:

At the moment I find you beautiful because you’re young.
That won’t last long, though, and soon you’ll be old and your beauty will be gone.
Oh, well, at least we’ll still have this poem as a reminder of your former beauty. Aren’t you lucky that I’m such a great poet?

Hmm, way to make a girl feel special, Bill.

Shall you? No, you most certainly shan’t.

When it was dressed up with iambic pentameters and flowery rhetorical questions and nature similes, and structured as a sonnet, it seemed like it must be a sweet. romantic compliment ending with a spine-tingling revelation about the power of poetry, but all that stuff is no more than a floral nosegay used to try to cover the unsavory stench of egotism and cruelty. (Bearing in mind here of course that I should be allowed my own over-steer to make the opposite point.) For me, the whole thing still reeks of the polite but shallow mannerisms and affectations of Elizabethan courtly life. They were cruel and rude times. They may have been walking around with big ruffs and puffy pants but they still poured their wee out of the window and hung people willy-nilly. Really it’s just shallow chauvinism and more a narcissistic compliment to himself as a great poet than to the beloved, and with an ending that’s trite and not even true, because the poem actually spends very little time – only the first two lines – describing the beloved’s beauty. You may say, oh, but it’s so beautifully worded and it’s not really meant for the beloved to read but for other lovers to read, to give them some succor by showing someone else felt the same thing they are now feeling. Well, not to me. I’m not just trying to be politically correct. I’ve genuinely never liked it. For me it’s worse that it’s dressed up with flowers, because that’s what makes it seem so dodgy. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. To me it’s always seemed slippery and snaky, two faced, and fork-tongued, the kind of mendacity you’d expect from a second-hand car salesman or a corrupt politician. I wouldn’t want my daughters hanging around with someone like that. I don’t like it. OK?

How much more lovely would it have been if the same rhetorical skills had been used to glamorise a philosophy of benign Platonism. I.e. I love you but I’m not going to patronise you with florid flattery. The beauty we see in physical forms – including the shape of the beloved’s face – is really just a resonance with the universal, eternal Platonic form – the Idea – of Beauty Itself, and there are many, many was to establish this resonance, including appreciating the beauty of a person’s character. The physical beauty of the lover, says Plato, is just the first stage of a great process of initiation. When you grow old I’m sure you’ll do so gracefully and still look great to me, but the important thing is that I will increasingly see the beauty of your lovely character.

Now imagine that idea dressed up with Shakespeare’s flowers. No, I’m not going to have a go myself – I don’t relish the idea of entering into a poetic dual with Shakespeare! Although it’s about his own growing old rather than a beloved, Coleridge’s poem Youth and Age is the one to stand up against Shakespeare. But anyway, this was only meant to be a short digression to make the point: don’t use rhetoric to make what’s fowl seem fair, or someone out there will get a nasty taste in their mouth, but rather use it to make what’s fair stand out above what’s fowl. So let’s move on.

Politicians themselves have been fooled by rhetoric. The Greek orator Demosthenes once said the three most persuasive aspects of rhetoric were action! action! action! and politicians have been making fools of themselves by waving their hands around ludicrously while speaking ever since. All Demosthenes really showed was that repeating the same thing several times (epizeuxis) is a very powerful theoretical device. Perhaps he should have answered epizeuxis! epizeuxis! epizeuxis!

That’s one type of epizeuxis, anyway. There’s a lot more to it, but that should give you some idea.

Stanza Structure

In previous sections I’ve given my reasoning for choosing the English Ode as the default form for the Gratitude Ode. To recap briefly, it seems to me to be at the sweet spot between the dignity of the Pindaric Ode and passion of lyric poetry.

There’s no need to think of the Ode as something that has ossified. Whilst the Pindaric Ode traditionally uses the power of poetry to persuade other people in society at large that someone or something is worthy of praise, and the poems of the Romantics used the power of poetry to persuade other people of the value of the poet’s internal feelings, reflections and revelations, the Gratitude Ode uses the power of poetry to spark, stir and amplify feelings of gratitude, whether the poem is kept private or shared, for the sake of the benefits of that emotion.

Neither the Romantic Poets nor those who preceded them had quite the same aim as us. They weren’t just trying to flounce up their gratitude journals; they were trying to be poets by vocation. And if our aim is slightly different, it may also be the case that we could benefit from tweaking the form slightly too. The formal ode is a poem where the order of the pattern becomes apparent across stanzas and groups of stanzas, more than within the individual stanza. There is no need for a Gratitude Ode to be especially challenging, so is there any reason why there can’t be a self-evident order within the stanza too? I don’t see any reason why not. I have come to think in terms of a fairly simple ordering principle. I’m used to thinking in musical terms, with beats in a bar, and groupings of bars that add up neatly into mathematically symmetrical groups, i.e. for the most part, 4s and 8s and multiples thereof.  The ordering principle I’ve been developing works as follows.

While we are used to thinking about how many accented syllables there are per line of verse, why not also count the number of beats to the in-breath between each spoken line? As such, the ode can have its variations in line length without disrupting the timing. For example, one line of iambic pentameter can be treated as 8 beats long, made up of five spoken beats (the accented syllables) and a further thee beats for the in-breath before the preceding line. 5 + 3 = 8 (Fibonacci numbers, you might observe.) So there is an unspoken ‘and six and seven, eight’ at the end of the line, as if chanted by a ballet instructor. This could be why pentameters seem to suit a contemplative mood – they imply a relatively slow in breath, indicative of a calm state. As you read the following, even though you’re not speaking it out loud, breathe out during the spoken bits and in for the three unspoken beats. This encourages us to read more slowly, too, which is good, because poetry should never be speed-read.

 &1 &2 &3 &4 & 5 (&6 &7 &8)

E.g.:
They also serve who only stand and wait and six and seven, eight.

or

To err is human; to forgive, divine, and six and seven, eight.

or

The course of true love never did run smooth and six and seven, eight.

Etc.

The cool thing about this is that you can easily see how one line of pentameter now equals two breathless lines of tetrameters, because 4 + 4 = 8 = 5 + 3:

&1 &2 &3 &4 & 1 &2 &3 &4  = &1 &2 &3 &4 & 5 (&6 &7 &8)

So with the following stanza from my Ode to Uplifting Trance, for example, there might seem to be a somewhat irregular 10 lines of varying metrical length, some of four and some of five feet long, but let’s look at the timing.

      And when, as if a choir of angels sings
      The soft chords sound as drums dissolve away
      My gladness turns to slower types of things
      That drift and float, move fluidly, and sway
           To gentle waves on golden sand
           To cloud-wisps moving in the air
      A gentle, tidal purl, by dawn-light glazed
           Such things surround me where I stand
           I see, and fascinated, stare
      Take stock, breathe slow, consider, feel amazed

The idea is that after line 4 (ending ‘and sway’ and after line 7 (ending ‘glazed’) you take a deep breath ready to read the next three lines all from one breath. If we look at it from a beats-per-line perspective including the in-breath counts for the pentametric lines, then we have 8, 8, 8, 8, 4, 4, 8, 4, 4, 8, and each of those 4s is actually half the length of an 8, so we can just add them up, and realise that really we have a nice, round, musical 8 lines, each of which is 8 beats long, even though, as written on the page, it still looks like the quirkier and the more mysterious 10-line stanza and a, b, a, b, c, d, e, c, d, e rhyming scheme of an English Ode. It’s still a relatively complex pattern that repeats across stanzas, but it also has its own internal order, since it corresponds to a nice, neat 8 x 8 pattern of beats. The reader is given a helpful indication of the shorter 4-beat lines by their slight indentation on the page.

There’s a lot more to it, but that should give you some idea.

Sleeping On It

Right then, so, what did I come up with for the Ode to Books, taking the quickly written ballad and turning it into a careful structured three stanza ode? I realised fairly quickly that I wasn’t gong to be able to borrow many of the rhymes from Version 1 – essentially, I had used repeated rhymes with ‘more’ – galore, draw, store, floor – throughout the poem, which wasn’t going to lend itself to the more complex rhyming scheme. I also realised there was a lot of repetition in that simple version. I couldn’t use that either. In fact, truth be told, it was a bit of a challenge, until I used another the technique for increased creativity – sleeping on it. I thought about it before bed and then when I woke up the next morning, suddenly the ideas came to me for how to do it.

There’s actually a fair bit of research showing that sleeping on it can enhance creative problem solving. For example there’s this and this and this.

This is what I came up with:

An Ode to Books

I
In Lewes town we stayed a little while
Beneath the castle by the Paddock green
The house had a relaxed bohemian style
Artistic, full, chaotic yet serene
Here life at slow untroubled pace
Is lived, as in the days of yore
With paintings everywhere but no TV
Upon the shelves were books to read
And up the winding stair were more
On gardening and art and cookery

II
Other homes are tidy, smart and new
Appointed with the best technology
A comfy space to sprawl at ease and view
The latest shows and movies on TV
A fortress built against the fear
That screenless time is drear and gloom
‘There’s bound to be some programme we can find’
But rarely do we see what’s here
And gaze in peace around the room
While too much screen-time enervates the mind.

III
But here were shelves crammed full of curios
Mementos brought from some far distant shore
With patterns to be gazed at half in doze
Within the Persian rug upon the floor
The bo-ho richness of this place
Now makes my heart with gladness fill
To think, with screens turned off, I could survive
This thought of life at slower pace
Now makes my gladness over-spill
To think, with screens turned off, why, I could thrive!


Did I actually use any of the rhetorical devices there? Not a huge number, but there was some isocolon, i.e. the use of structures that closely parallel each other. So this:

The bo-ho richness of this place
Now makes my heart with gladness fill
To think, with screens turned off, I could survive

…is obviously closely paralleled by this:


This thought of life at slower pace
Now makes my gladness over-spill
To think, with screens turned off, why, I could thrive!


Mental note: use a bit more rhetoric in my next ode.

To recap then, we’ve looked in this section at a number of methods and tricks of the trade, including:

  1. Meditating while thinking of things to add to running gratitude list
  2. Writing first as prose then tinkering to turn it to poetry
  3. Going for a walk to get the creative juices flowing
  4. Writing first in a simple pattern of rhythm and rhyme and then rewriting as an ode
  5. measured use of meter
  6. use of rhetoric
  7. sleeping on it to get over a difficult block

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