7) Ode Journal as Material Object and Labour of Love : Cards that Care, Craft as Cure and Codex as Conjuration

Cards that Care

Your journal of Gratitude Odes is a collection of thank-you cards to the Universe. When we give a card to someone near and dear, there’s no way one with the writing machine printed shows that you care in the same way as a handwritten one, and a little jolly doodle is a nice touch to go that little bit above and beyond. It personalises it, and shows you took some time over it, put something of yourself into it. The same goes for your journal.

When I talk about keeping an Ode Journal, I do mean an actual material object. And as far as I’m concerned, you must hand write it. I don’t want to sound bossy, but well…you MUST. OK?

My next recommendation is that you show the Universe you care by adding some decorative doodle. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece.

My introduction to the power of illustrating a poem came when I was a child. I had written some poem about the wind at school. It wasn’t much – normal sort of thing, rhyming “breeze” with “trees”, but it also contained a long list of wind-related gerunds which I guess must have seemed a bit interesting, and my teacher seemed to see some merit in it, and brought it to the attention of my parents, who also seemed to like it, so they gave it to my grandfather, an amateur artist who knew how to do calligraphy. He wrote it out with his calligraphic pen and added an illustration showing a personified wind with puffed-out cheeks blowing some trees, and then my parents had this framed and put it up on the wall. To be honest I think my grandfathers’ work on it had more merit than the poem itself, but – at least until I grew to an age where it made me squirm with embarrassment – it gave me a nice feeling, a certain sense of pride, and showed me the importance of presentation, illustration and the personal touch.    

As well as making a more satisfying product, the actual process of producing such handwritten and hand-illustrated poetry has benefits. I’m talking about the whole mindfulness thing…

Craft as Cure

When we think of self-illustrated poems, it’s William Blake who comes to mind. And we know from these poems that he felt oppressed by the onset of the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the Industrial Revolution. The manual act of handwriting the poems and decorating them with interweaving arboreal designs worked as an antithesis to creeping industrialisation. In many ways this was the start of the Arts and Craft movement that gathered pace in the Victorian era, and had exactly the same motivation.

A similar need still exists now, in the Information Age, with its instant but often anxiety-inducing access to alerts, updates, news, politics, and so on. This need is demonstrated by the trend of magazines for getting back to the simple things and adult colouring books for mindfulness. But if you’re a ‘creative type’, or have a creative type inside wanting to get out, you will probably feel disenfranchised by such things. Sure, you like the idea of some time-out doing something artisitc, peaceful and mindful, so you bought one. But after colouring a couple of the pages, you got bored, and it was soon shoved in the bottom of a cupboard never to see the light of day again. Mindful soon tipped over into mindless, because no real attention was required. It’s just not in your nature to sit there colouring in someone else’s design. Essentially, if you’re the sort of person who prefers to write odes than keep a simple list of things you’re grateful for, then you’re also going to baulk at mindless colouring in. When you make your own designs, however, there’s enough involvement to keep you absorbed. When you create something, you learn something about yourself.

It’s clear that ever since the Industrial Revolution started, manual art and craft has played an important role in restoring psychological balance, but in fact magnificent manuscript illustrations go back way before that age…so what’s going on there?

Codex as Conjuration

I was once told by a ‘lightwork practitioner’ – who didn’t know me from Adam at the time – that she saw in her vision that as well as a number of past lives in ancient Greece (including one ‘in the circle of someone like Plato’) and one in Renaissance Italy (‘in the circle of someone like Copernicus’) and one as a Tibetan monk (makes sense if you’ve heard me doing my overtone chanting), that as well as these, I also had a past-life as an illustrator of manuscripts in the Medieval period, during which lifetime I apparently took great delight not in the subject matter of the words, but rather in the beauty of the decorations. If indeed she was correct in any of her assertions, or if we consider them hypothetically, then this last past-life as a manuscript illustrator might be the one that would comes as a surprise to me, but considering it at greater length, I can see how it could be of equal worth.

Books sing with the feeling of what’s in them, shine with the aura of their contents – not just the subject matter, but also the loving care that’s gone into the presentation.

All the more when you’ve read it, and properly know what the contents are.

And even more when you authored it yourself.

And even more when you hand wrote it with loving care and attention.

And even MORE when you also added some hand-drawn decorative illustrations.

As a book that sings with an uplifting mood, your Ode Journal will fast become an object with magical power – a talisman. You need only see it there on the bookshelf, or pick it up and hold it, to feel some of that magic power. It re-radiates the value that you pour into it.

If we go back to the early history of the book, when it first started to replace scrolls, we find that they were already richly illustrated, and that they were used as talismans. Such early books are known as codexes. Originally this name referred to books in general, but now it’s reserved for manuscript books (“manu-script” = “hand-written”.) For example, in the Byzantine period (early Christianity in Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period), illustrated books were brought out in theatrical contexts, such as religious processions and carnivals, or could be used as personal talismans with the same status as a religious relic. This is not surprising as this is also how ikons – religious images – were used, and still are in some Greek religious processions, for the books contained beautiful religious images, and so they were ikons. There are traditions in the Abrahamic religions of holy books being placed under people’s beds to bring healing, and Sikhs have holy books which they actually put to bed at night in their own little bed, such is the degree to which they value them as objects. A trace of book-as-talisman is still to be found in law courts where a hand is placed on the Bible when swearing an oath (members of other religions may choose a different holy book to use instead of the Bible; I might insist on the Odyssey just to be difficult.)  

The art of the illustrated manuscript reached truly spectacular heights in the British Isles in the Early Medieval period, with wonderful codexes such as the Book of Kells. The intricacy of decoration on these pages is staggering and has to be seen to be believed. Google Book of Kells and have a good look. From the illustrated codex point of view, this was the great flourishing, and the Renaissance, comparatively, were the Dark Ages.

Not that you need to go to anything like such lengths with your journal! All that’s required is a bit of care and attention with the handwriting and ideally the addition of some kind of doodled decoration executed with reasonable diligence.

You can do it light-heartedly, with tongue partly in cheek, hamming up the persona of flowery Elizabethan, Augustan or Romantic poet – but still do it, that’s the important thing. This type of light-hearted tone, half-in-earnest, half-in-jest, was present when I wrote the following short invitation in the form of a poem (actually it was a song) a few years ago, and this is an invitation I now extend to you, as a potential keeper of an Ode Journal:

How would it be were we
The Emerald Poets three (plus one)
To take our verbal daisy chain
And season it with rain…
And sun? (We’ll have some fun.)

Embellished with fine elaboration
And lavender-sprayed perfumeration
We’ll stitch the pages into a book
And give it a most dainty look…
(And decoration.)

Tricks and Tips for Neat Handwriting

If you Google ‘Keats handwriting’ or ‘Keats manuscript’, or do the same with other Romantic poets, you’ll see that they wrote in a measured but flowery hand, in keeping their poems, with an italic (slanting) cursive (joined up) script – not in their rough notebooks, necessarily, but in their final manuscript versions. A cunning trick here is to draw ruled pencil guide lines on the paper, which you then erase to leave only the ink. These lines can be used to set the height of little letters, big letters and letter tails, as well as keeping the writing straight and evenly spaced, and maintaining a constant slant angle. I won’t pretend it’s not a bit laborious to draw all these lines, but it does produce a better effect. My handwriting is naturally pretty messy, but by using guide lines and also slowing down a bit, even a sausage-fingered oaf like me can produce a moderately neat looking result.

Tree of Life – Taking a Leaf Out of Blake’s Book

Both Blake’s illustrated poems and Early Medieval Celtic art share a common motif – the tree. In Celtic art the unbroken line performs the function of a tree of life, from which all life – the animals, plants, and people – spring. It’s a wonderful symbol of our interconnectedness with nature. And a repeating feature of Blake’s illustrations is a tree whose branches snake up around the verses of the poem. This is what we see, for example, in his engravings for The Tyger, The Lamb, Little Girl Lost, Nurse’s Song, The Argument and more.

I decided to take a leaf out of Blake’s book (there’s a double pun there if you think about it) for one of my gratitude poems since it takes a tree as its subject: my silver birch sonnet. In Blakean style, I drew a silver birch decoration around the poem, as shown here. As you can see, I’m no Titian, but it gave me a pleasant feeling while doing it and it gives me a pleasant feel too to look at it now that it’s done. Since it’s more than likely that trees will turn up in some form or other in your gratitude list (if not, why not, may I ask?) and also because stylised tree-images are actually pretty easy to draw, you might like to do something similar… or (as a creative type), you may have your own ideas. This is what I came up with.

And to give you an idea of what I mean by guidelines for the handwriting, this is what it looked like when I was halfway through and had not yet erased the pencils lines: