So we’re writing odes to form the content of a glorified version of a gratitude journal. It’s time to consider the genius question, because if we can unleash our inner genius, we’ll surely write better odes.
‘What is the genius question?’ you may ask. Well to be fair there are a few different ones. We could start with: ‘Is there such a thing as genius?’ However, that’s a silly question if we’re talking about the subjective appreciation of artistic genius. Of course it’s real, within that subjective conception. But there are of course different ideas about what constitutes genius.
So that’s the next question: What is genius? Some aspire to please as many people as possible as much of the time as possible, while for others it’s not true genius unless it deeply affects a select few who the artist themselves considers capable of heightened appreciation – other geniuses.
But that brings us to the next question. ‘Is there such a thing as a genius?’ Certainly there are those who have demonstrated an impressive consistency. They’ll write a Kubla Khan and then manage a Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner; a Lady of Shallot and a Charge of the Light Brigade. They’ll get a Tangled up in Blue and a Twist of Fate under their belt and then come up with a Visions of Johanna and a Desolation Row, or follow an All My Loving with a Yesterday and a Hey Jude.
How do they manage this? Is it a result of:
⁃ developing and using a creative method?
⁃ having brains that are very well wired?
⁃ achieving some kind of mastery at the Soul level?
⁃ or developing a confident self-image based on past successes that then enables them to repeat the trick?
The key thing here is that all of those can be cultivated, even the way your brain is connected up. So yes, there are geniuses, but no, there is nothing preventing us from joining their ranks.
It’s really the last bullet point that I want to look at here – self-image. It’s been shown that placebos can increase creative thinking. For when participants smelled an odor that had been told increased creativity, their creativity increased, while other smelling the same odor but not being told this, stayed the same. What if the placebo is your self-image? Believing yourself to be a creative person is therefore the ultimate on-going placebo. You are creative because you see yourself as creative. This is why it is a good idea to crack on with your odes in your Ode Journal, and get some under your belt, so you can start building some confidence. Isn’t there some free-masonic thing to do with the Great Work being yourself? Well here it is your self-image.
As you write your odes, there are some winning formulas to get the self-image ball rolling. If you start by identifying a theme from your gratitude list that you want to write about, and you choose a good stanza structure, and develop your ability to understand and work within the ‘rules of verse’, then you’re combining passion with form and the results will probably seem pretty cool.
A confident self-image of yourself as a great creator can be a very powerful generator of creativity. If you look at the autobiographical statements of the likes of Dylan and McCartney you find that they were surfing a wave of enormous creative confidence when at the height of their powers in the mid-60s, and this was undoubtedly a crucial ingredient in the recipe.
In the same way, I would argue very strongly, there would have been no Athens-centered Golden Age in classical antiquity without a self-image that envisaged some divine blood flowing in mortal veins. As well as the placeboeic reclamation of the projected archetype of divine genius by means of things like wine, which they believed to be full of the essence of Dionysos, the god of creative genius, they also had a self-image rooted in myth that had a similar power. The Athenian myth traced their ancestry back to the god Hephaestus, the master craftsman of the gods, and also allowed a connection to the brilliant-minded Athena. Hephaestus had been told by Poseidon that Athena was on her way to make love to him, and when she arrived he leapt to her and issued forth his seed onto her thy. She wiped it off and it fell down from Olympus to Athens where it impregnated Mother Earth, who then gave birth to Erecthonius. Athena would bring the child up as if she were his mother, and there was some sense that when the seed had landed on her, it somehow partially impregnated her, so that in some way she was his co-mother, with Mother Earth as a kind of surrogate. He then went on to be the king of Athens, and a first ancestor figure for the Athenians. Thus they had some Olympian blood flowing in their veins.
There were many examples in Greek mythology of the gods mixing their seed into human bloodlines. The Athenian story just given is but one example. Such conceptions enhanced the Greek self-image in a very concrete sense. If you were an ancient and you became initiated into a Mystery Cult, such as the Mysteries of Eleusis, these mythic connections were drawn out to blur the boundaries between mortals and gods. For example, a piece of gold foil from a burial around 400 BC had hexametric (Homeric style) verse inscribed on it giving an instruction for what to do when entering the Underworld. There would be a pool with a white cypress next to it. This was the pool of Lethe – forgetting. Although thirsty, you were to go nowhere near it. Instead you would approach another pool, the Pool of Memory. The guardians there would let you drink from it if you told them you were ‘a child of the star-filled heavens and Mother Earth.’ Then, according to the inscription, you would be able to travel along the Sacred Way that the initiates take to reach the Elysian Fields. The road between Athens and the sanctuary of the Mysteries in Eleusis was also called the Sacred Way, showing that that journey was seen as an earthly counterpart and prefiguring of the journey they would take to paradise when they passed on. So being of the lineage of the gods who reside in the starry heavens was crucial, and a key feature of the Mysteries was thus an enhancement of self-image, so that someone who before had seen themselves as a mere mortal, was now practically a demigod. These were the people that then achieved the extraordinary creative and inventive flowering of golden age Athens. I do not think this flowering would have occurred if their myths and Mysteries had not enhanced their sense of self by giving them this sense of kinship with the gods.
Another such myth was the Orphic story of the creation of humans. The titans killed and ate Dionysos, and for their crime they were blasted by a thunderbolt from Zeus. Humans were then fashioned from the resulting soot, which contained the essence both of the titans themselves and the god who was in their stomachs at the time of the blasting – Dionysos. As a result, humans had both titan and Dionysian blood in their veins. The name titan, I understand, comes form a Greek word meaning to outreach oneself, as when the titans outrageously attempted to fight with the Olympian gods. Dionysos was of course creative genius. Put them together and you have a creature who is capable of amazing creativity, but who all to easy lets this go to their heads and runs the risk of letting this power become destructive through Icarus-like flights of hubris.
And this is highly relevant here – if we’re going to develop a confident self-image than it’s extremely important that we simultaneously work on balancing factors, cultivating humility and graciousness to complement this confidence. Without such balance, we would come a cropper sooner or later. Where the Greeks talked about the danger of hubris, we might talk about having too big an Ego. In fact, the most creative types of self-image are not egotistical; they’re more like a collective self-image, non-dualistic in the sense that they aren’t too concerned about who the creativity belongs to. The creativity of others inspires you about what’s possible and so in some sense you own that image too just as they may co-own images based on your creative successes.
An intriguing case study of this is the 60s. There was a great surge of creative self confidence at this time. Why? To be honest I think there was a subtle way in which the older generation was not as obstructive as it might have been. Two world wars close to each other had created a deep sense that a seismic change was needed, and that maybe the next generation ought to be allowed to try new things. So when Dylan came along with his boldly poetic lyrics based on the idea that it was time to do things differently, he was stepping into a space that had opened up ready for just such a voice. Then you get this kind of mutual respect and inspiration between key movers and shakers. Just as Dylan moved on from his acoustic folk roots out of a desire to be a bit more Beatlesy, the Beatles were listening to – and inspired by – Dylan, and then Dylan was in turn inspired by the result of their fusing the edgy folk thing into what they were doing – Dylan’s 4th Time Around is really a tribute to Lennon’s Norwegian Wood, which was itself Lennon attempting to be more Dylanny.
By the time of their album Rubber Soul, the Beatles had adopted some of his bold lyrical confidence as if it was their own, and were exploring much more interesting, nuanced, and subtle themes. Rubber Soul in turn greatly impressed and inspired Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. He loved the way that here was an album with just good, creative songs, while most albums at that time had a fair bit of filler material. Wilson said he didn’t want to do the same thing as them, but he did want to do something of the same artistic standard. Having given up touring, he was ready to throw his energy into composition and production, and the result was the album Pet Sounds, and the single Good Vibrations. Never had so much time and money been spent on production. The use of a string quartet in McCartney’s Yesterday must have influenced the musical style of Pet Sounds too, which has been called Chamber Pop, in reference to chamber music. These were popular and critically highly acclaimed in Britain, and the Beatles themselves were fans of this new idea, and God Only Knows, off the album, became McCartney’s favorite song. By now they too had given up touring, and they were inspired to produce their own answer to Pet Sounds. Now it was they who wanted to produce total masterpieces. The results were the Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields double A side single and the album Sergeant Pepper.
So you can identify this thread of collective, burgeoning creative self-confidence. But setting the bar so high brought challenges and underlying insecurities caused problems, and periods of stifled creativity. For example, John Lennon had been the driving force, the leader of the Beatles in the first half of the 60s, but something changed with Yesterday. This was a pure McCartney song, and John didn’t even play on the recording. Yet it’s brilliantly haunting melody made it the most popular Beatles song there had ever been. But it was John who, suddenly, wasn’t half the man he used to be. His confidence took a wounding. Of course, he continued to write his own masterpieces, but he also went through periods of depression, and there were times it felt like he was just along for the ride. It was Paul who had become the new leader of the band by the time of Sergeant Pepper.
Dylan had been going from strength to strength himself, following Highway 61 with the lyrical awesome Blonde on Blonde, but hidden insecurities came flooding to the fore when he heard Sergeant Pepper. He’d never heard anything like it and he had no idea how to make that kind of music. This was also the time when he had his motorcycle crash – his Icarus moment – which damaged his spine and meant he had to take a break from everything for a while. When he came back, somehow his wings had been clipped.
In fact, even the Beatles themselves spent a while not bothering to try to repeat the masterpieces of Sergeant Pepper. The White Album was deliberately a sparsely produced, lo-fi affair, rough around the edges. It was’t until Abbey Road that they really set the intention to produce something of similar mastery. And those last years were a bumpy ride, inter-personally. When McCartney wrote Yesterday, he felt a strong sense of gratitude, because the tune had come to him in a dream. Literally, he was asleep when it came to him. In fact for the first month he couldn’t shake the feeling that he must have subconsciously remembered somebody else’s song. So it did’t go to his head as much as it might have done. Talents are gifts, after all. They can go on the gratitude list. That’s the opposite of arrogance.
But as one success followed another, Paul did perhaps develop a cockiness and when Lennon took more of a back seat and Paul stepped forward to lead the band, after a while it was taken as bossiness, and John and George started getting the hump. By the end of the decade, that particular party was over. There were other parties to come, but that flowering of poetic self-confidence had somehow faded.
Why have I taken this big diversion through 60s rock history? It’s just so illustrative of both the power of confident self-image, but also the need for care, for balance, for graciousness, humility, and a generous, collective sharing of the image, being inspired by others rather than being too competitive and egotistical/insecure. Really, it’s best not to compare yourself too closely to others, but just get on with your own thing. Indeed, in the wider context of the history of poetry in general, it’s vital that we don’t get suffocated by a feeling that we’ll never be as good as the great masters of old. How will we crack on and write our Gratitude Odes if we’re worried about things like that? It was with such thoughts in mind that I wrote the following Sapphic Ode some years ago.
The Poet’s Task
What poet now would ever dare
To sing an ode to morning air
The rosy mist that hovers there
O’er sea-girt folds?
What mind could ever fully grasp
The magnitude of such a task:
To frame in verses built to last
Vapours of gold?
Perhaps some master’s careful brush
Could set in oil the heart’s full rush
Paint here and there a windswept bush
With well-mixed hue
But how could we with words sing praise
And capture this ambrosial haze
To place on page for later days
This heavenly view?
Now most assume in ancient time
Some poet placed a fatted chine
Upon Aurora’s hillside shrine
None now could equal
And so the theme of their refrain
Will tend to be one more mundane
For who among them still would deign
To pen a sequel?
But poets! To her shrine turn back
Tread rhyming steps along that track
And do not worry if you lack
A perfect gift
For when we see the rosy glow
We will be comforted to know
We’re not the first to see the show
As sea mists lift.