11) Lightening the Load of Your Odes : Embracing the Gifts of Thalia

A theme in the Glory of Glad has been the way Odes reframe things in a dignified manner. You could just keep a basic gratitude journal, but if you really feel glad about something, to show that it really matters to you, you can write something far more dignified – a full blown Ode. However, I would also recommend that you include some interspersing comic or at least lighthearted poems in the journal. Why? Partly, just for balance. It doesn’t do to take ourselves too seriously. But also because the very act of dignifying ourselves reminds us that we deserve good things, and laughter truly is one of life’s good things.

So far I’ve equated odes with the ancient initiation mysteries of Eleusis – both celebrated divine gifts and conferred dignity on humans. Restoration of the dignity that the Soul deserves requires depth of emotion. How can you truly remember the Soul’s dignity if you cannot FEEL the falseness of the indignities which obscure it? Perhaps that is why we talk about Soul searching. Those somber emotions are part of our search for the dignity that the Soul is due. To the ancient Greeks, tragedy was an art form that allowed such Soul searching. The myth upon which the Mysteries were based was not ultimately tragic – in fact it had a very happy conclusion – but this triumph, akin to finding the Soul – came after a temporarily tragic incident: Demeter lost her daughter to the land of the dead. As well as fasting, the initiates of the mysteries observed or perhaps took part in a re-enactment of this temporarily tragic story. Tragedy and fasting in the Greek mind had a similar purpose, catharsis, in other words purification. An emotional engagement with the story of Demeter sitting at the well grieving over the loss of her daughter allowed a group catharsis to take place which would ultimately lead to the euphoric climax when Demeter and Persephone were reunited. This purification was seen as a cleansing which had to take place in order that the individual might be fit to pass through the gate to the Elysian Fields. Plunging into the depths of such emotions was part of the initiation, just as you had to pass through the dark Underworld to reach the Elysian Fields.

But this plunge into deep and somber emotions wasn’t the full story of the Mysteries nor of Greek culture in general. In the Greek theatres Tragedy was paired with Comedy, with even the gods not immune to being figures of fun; the comic even formed a part of the Eleusis Mysteries; in Homeric epic the gods themselves managed the odd quip, and comedy itself was represented among the divine Muses.

Let me flesh that out. Firstly, let’s look at the presence of comedy in the Mysteries. The myth underlying the Eleusis festival was that of Demeter’s daughter Persphone being taken into but later returning from the Underworld, the land of the dead. The most official form of this myth was given in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. This includes an episode that took place while Demeter was in the Eleusis:

For a long time she sat on the stool, without uttering a sound, in her sadness.
And she made no approach, either by word or by gesture, to anyone.
Unsmiling, not partaking of food or drink,
She sat there, wasting away with yearning for her daughter with the low-slung girdle,
Until Iambê, the one who knows what is dear and what is not, started making fun.
Making many jokes, she turned the Holy Lady’s disposition in another direction,
Making her smile and laugh and have a merry thûmos [spiritedness]
Ever since, she [Iambê] has been pleasing her [Demeter] with the sacred rites.

That last line is a reference to the Mocking Jests. At a certain spot while walking along the Sacred Way to Eleusis the initiates shouted obscenities in memory of when Iambe made Demeter smile.

Of course comedies were performed at the Theatre of Dionysos in Athens as part of the celebrations of the Great Dionysia festival. In Aristophanes’ brilliant comedy the Frogs we find such refreshing elements as Dionysos himself being a figure of fun, and jokes that laugh in the face of death, and even a mock procession of the Elysian Initiates.

Dionysos wants to bring a poet back from the land of the dead, and he asks Herakles the best way to get there. Heracles describes a route that goes past a great river of dung, in which those who were evil wrong doers while alive are flounder, but to the list is added those who have “quoted a speech of Morsimus.” Morsimus was a playwright of whom Aristophanes was obviously not a big fan. Not a real reason to wallow in filth in the Underworld for all eternity – this is added as a joke – a comic aside which still seems thoroughly modern. Although we might not know of Morsimus, we can easily imagine substituting some other mild irritation to make the same joke. Having passed this, says Heracles, you will come to the Elysian Fields:

And next the breath of flutes will float around you,
And glorious sunshine, such as ours, you’ll see,
And myrtle groves, and happy bands who clap
Their hands in triumph, men and women too.

Dionysos asks who they are and Herakles tells him they are the mystic bands…

Who’ll tell you everything you want to know.
You’ll find them dwelling close beside the road
You are going to travel, just at Pluto’s gate.
And fare thee well, my brother.

Dionysos’ asks his slave to pick up the baggage so they can set off on this journey, but the slave says why not ask a recently died person to carry it down for them. They then see a corpse being carried and ask him if he’ll take their bags, for one and a half drachmas.

“I’d rather live,” says the corpse in a comic inversion of the normal phrase – a genuinely great gag.

At length they do indeed see the band of initiates dancing along the Sacred Way, and there is even a representation of the mocking jests mentioned above, and a reference to the all night vigil that occurred when they awaited the great light* that shone forth in the initiation temple at the moment celebrating Persephone’s return:

Now wheel your sacred dances through the glade with flowers
bedight,
All ye who are partakers of the holy festal rite;
And I will with the women and the holy maidens go
Where they keep the nightly vigil, an auspicious light to show.

Then there’s the next event that took place in the Mysteries following the revelation of the light, the exit to the Rharian Meadow prefiguring the Elysian Fields:

Now haste we to the roses,
And the meadows full of posies,
Now haste we to the meadows
In our own old way,
In choral dances blending,
In dances never ending,
Which only for the holy
The Destinies array.
O happy mystic chorus,
The blessed sunshine o’er us
On us alone is smiling,
In its soft sweet light:
On us who strove for ever
With holy, pure endeavour,
Alike by friend and stranger
To guide our steps aright.


Long before Aristophanes, Homer has depicted jokes taking place between the gods in Olympus – the Ares/Aphrodite/Hephaestus/Hermes/Net episode. There’s no need to go into the details here. Suffice it to say that after Hermes’ quip ” laughter arose among the immortal gods.”

And so it should be, because laughter is a type of ambrosia. Just Google ‘healing power of laughter” and you’ll find plenty of support for this: releasing endorphins, reducing stress, anxiety and depression, lowering blood pressure, and so on.

The most obvious evidence that comedy was welcomed in Olympus is the fact that one of the Greek muses, Thalia, included comedy as one of the arts within her patronage. She was also the goddess of rustic poetry, and of banquets and feasts. The Greeks also made one of the Graces – Euphrosyne – the goddess of merriment.

Euphrosyne was the goddess Milton invoked and called to come to him, tripping on the light fantastic toe in his L’Allegro:

But come, thou Goddess fair and free,
In heaven yclept Euphrosyne,
And by men, heart-easing Mirth,
Whom lovely Venus at a birth,
With two sister Graces more,
To ivy-crownèd Bacchus bore;
Or whether (as some sager sing)
The frolic wind that breathes the spring
Zephyr, with Aurora playing,
As he met her once a-Maying—
There on beds of violets blue
And fresh-blown roses wash’d in dew
Fill’d her with thee, a daughter fair,
So buxom, blithe, and debonair.
Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful jollity,
Quips, and cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods, and becks, and wreathèd smiles
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides:—
Come, and trip it as you go
On the light fantastic toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee
The mountain-nymph, sweet Liberty;
And if I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew,
To live with her, and live with thee
In unreprovèd pleasures free;

Notice Milton chose iambic tetrameter – four stresses in the line – rather than the ‘heroic’ five stresses of pentameter. Generally speaking, this meter, which suggests a down-to-earth simplicity and lacks the suggested slow in breath at the end of the lines of pentameter, lends itself better to lighthearted themes. This includes the ballad form, even though that could be described as seven stresses per line: from a metrical point of view it is really one line of four stresses plus another of three, plus a breath:, making it equivalent to two lines of four stresses, but with a short breath, i.e. 4 + 4 = 4 + 3 + 1 = 8.

Lighthearted verse doesn’t necessarily have to be the kind of gag that makes you laugh out loud. One of my favourite lighthearted poems is Matthew Prior’s Protogenes and Apelles. It’s doesn’t make me guffaw but I just love the delightfully ludicrous tone. It includes ancient Greeks taking afternoon tea. Again, it’s in tetrameter – four stresses per line. Here’s the tea bit:

But, Sir, at six (’tis now past three)
Dromo must make my master’s tea:
At six, Sir, if you please to come,
You’ll find my master, Sir, at home.

Tea, says a critic, big with laughter,
Was found some twenty ages after.
Authors, before they write, should read,
’Tis very true; but we’ll proceed.

Comic verse will sometimes make use of two ti-s between each stressed tum. It gives a lively, lilting feel. This was the case with verses delivered by the dancing choruses in the plays of the Athenian playwright Aristophanes (such as the Frogs mentioned above), and it’s also found in limericks.

ti tum ti ti tum ti ti tum ti
ti tum ti ti tum ti ti tum ti
ti tum ti ti tum
ti tum ti ti tum
ti tum ti ti tum ti ti tum ti

E.g. Lear’s:

There was a Young Person of Smyrna
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her.
But she seized on the cat,
and said ‘Granny, burn that!
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!’

A comic poem I wrote myself with a ti ti tum rhythm similar to the limerick follows here. It’s not an ode, so hasn’t gone in my Grati-Ode Journal, but it shows the effect of choosing this type of lilting rhythm. As is quite common in limericks, some of the syllables are drawn out over two feet. So for example both “stone” and “Scoon” in the phrase “Stone of Scoon” are treated as long syllables, so there’s only one ti between them instead of two.

The Goggle-eyed Laird of St.Claire

Repair to the lair
Of Laird Duncan St. Claire
And behold his fine pink pantaloons
He’s ignited a craze
With twice-monthly displays
And a plate of fresh-baked macaroons

With the finest jugged hare
Served straight from tupperware
That ever has touched mouth from spoon
To his cullin’ry flare
And his savoir-faire
Your tastebuds will not be immune

Then a millionaire
With brill creamed hair
Will softly commence to croon
He’ll delight the whole place
With such elegant grace
As he warbles his favourite tune

But beware of the stare
Of this Duncan St. Claire
For he’s stolen the Stone of Scoon
His goggle-eyed glare
Caused quite a scare
When beheld by a lassie named June

The earlier phase
Of his childhood days
Was spent looking up at the moon
He’d been left in the care
Of a monk with no hair
Who would feed him cold tea with a spoon

He was too debonair
To be left in the care
Of this man who knew nothing of runes
Who had taken his hair
For a wig to wear
And had forced him to feed his baboons

So he slid down the stairs
In a crate of eclairs
With a cry of “I’ll be back soon!”
Then he rolled up his wares
In a pair of green flares
And joined up as a mounted dragoon

And while out on manoeuvre
In far off Vancouver
He met up with that lassie named June
They were soon quite besotted
And together they plotted
To steal that old Stone of Scoon

But when it was stolen
His eyeballs were swollen
Through heaving to lift up the stone
And young June did declare:
“Ma wee Duncan so fair,
Wha d’ye lift it up all o’ yer own?”

So beware of the stare
Of that laird of St. Claire
Who once lifted the Stone of Scoon
And whose goggle-eyed glare
Caused quite a scare
When beheld by that lassie named June.

You get the picture. But how could such lighter pieces sneak their way into your Grati-Ode journal? I managed it with the following, which is really two ballads I co-wrote with friends. They are not themselves odes, but they’re contained within the frame of an ode. I call it a Horation Ode because essentially a Horation Ode has simple stanzas with four lines, as does this, but a rose by any other name and all that. It’s not ti ti tum but it is tetrameter (of the ballad type mentioned above).

On Fine Fellows and Expeditions 

– Horatian ode written upon remembering the days we composed the Avonsong Ballads (included)

My thankfulness I now express
For fine co-roving chaps
For crazy missions, expeditions
Routes drawn out on maps

It makes me glad to think we’ve had
High times on Summer days
While sometimes hiking, sometimes biking
Ancient, sacred ways

From Shepton down to Glaston town
We walked then camped the night
Then joined the flow of Beltane’s show
With dragons red and white 

Reliving all with fond recall
Full well do I remember
How well we liked it when we biked
Through Hengeworld last September 

Then there’s that time we made a rhyme
When out in a canoe
I’ll give it here for it makes clear
How fun it was to do:

Avonsong I, co-written with James Wormel 

There were we two rowers free
So keen, a greenly going
We took a skiff to Avoncliff
The sap was greenly flowing

We calmly coaxed with gentle strokes
The waters with our rowing
A sultry grey hung o’er the day
But softly warmth was blowing

I never saw such calm before
As we did see that day
Such silence and such sleepiness
Soft-settled on the way

We check the clock: a sudden shock!
Enough the spell to break
Our boat fast tied against the side
A land route we must take

And then once more upon that shore
Within a leafy dell
Hear wood doves coo of Xanadu
And reinstate the spell!

‘Twas calm, my dear! So calm to hear
The doves those notes expel
Which echoed round: a soothing sound
To lull a leafy dell.

We took a pew adjacent to
A tavern of renown
And in good cheer we supped on beer
And watched the Sun go down

Much we refilled until they spilled
Those cups, gen’rous and deep
We drunk so much, the strength was such
We neared the verge of sleep.

‘Neath dark’ning skies we did surmise
‘Twas time to wend our way:
Two rovers green right glad to’ve seen
The calm-tide of that day.

That was the rhyme we wrote that time
But later that same year
We rowed again and wrote again
I’ll give the sequel here:

Avonsong II, written with input from Andrew Cowper and James Wormell while canoeing on the Kennet and Avon to Avoncliff Aqueduct and beyond and then visiting the chapel of Mary of Tory in Bradford-on-Avon.

When auburn-red and Autumn dread 
O’er Avon’s vale were cast
Then we once more did take up oar
And rowed our humble craft

With colouring of pheasant’s wing
The chasms boughs o’er vaunted
By distant roar of monstrous boar
The awful vale was haunted

No longer two for to the crew
An extra oar did add
It’s power: a man of noble clan
From crown to heel well clad

The mist half cleared and there appeared
Aloft upon the air
A stone constructed aqueduct 
In crumbled disrepair

A curse is cast on all who pass
Across this ghastly span
But some strange song pulled us along: 
We crossed, to Elvenland

The Elven Queen, mist-cloaked, unseen 
Had caught us in her spell
And planned to keep us locked in sleep
Within her dreadful dell

Had we not prayed we would have stayed
Asleep forever more
But pray we did and somehow hid 
Upon the forest floor

The one who slept we dragged, and crept
And Mary’s chapel found
Safe at last the spell un-cast
 We kissed that holy ground.

As well as being the Muse of Comedy, Thalia was also the goddess of feasting, which like laughter, lightens the mood. And just as comedy formed part of the Mysteries, so too did feasting. After the fasting and the revelation and the celebratory circle dancing came a great all day feast – a prefiguring of the happy banquets that would take place in the Elysian Fields. Include feasting as a topic in your Grati-Ode journal is another way to lighten the load of your odes. Burn’s Address to a Haggis is a fantastic model for odes to feasting. It’s an ode to the Haggis and it’s an invocation said over the haggis, but because it is not in the lofty tones of an ode, it’s title is not Ode to the Haggis, but Address to a Haggis.

I used the same form – the meters and rhyme pattern making up each verse – for my own poem. I read this one during a Burn’s night at the Pump Rooms in Bath after wining a competition with it, which was fun.

Address to a Feast of Burns

A dreary gloom’s hangs o’er the town
For Christmas tinsel’s taken down
But Spring’s not yet put on her gown
Of finery
Dark Winter still retains his Crown
In January.

So at this time what we desire
Is merriment and warming fire
With blazing logs heaped higher and higher
And hearty food
These are the things that we require
To raise our mood.

And so we’d do well to embrace
Cold January’s one saving grace
The meal that Scots folk love to taste
Where all take turns
Hot haggis with strong whisky laced:
The Feast of Burns.

And by this feast that they hold dear
A second burst of festive cheer
Lights up the dark part of the year
To warm the heart
So call the piper here
And let it start!

  • What was this great light that shone out in the temple? The ancient Greeks did have access to a way to make a very bright light – by burning white phosphorus. In other words the climax of Persephone’s return form the dead might have been celebrated in a way closely related to the rising of Christ from the tomb celebrated by the Greek orthodox church in Jerusalem – in a whole host of ways. The vigil. Extinguishing then relighting of Torches/Candles. Fast followed by feast. I don’t think it’s a hint that we find the first references to this Christian ceremony at the very time that the Eleusis mysteries were closed down. The Greeks were now free to appropriate the pagan ceremony in the new Christian context.

10) A Marriage Made in Heaven : the Remarkable Synthesis of Fasting-Induced Euphoria and Grati-Ode Journaling in a Harmonised Weekly Cycle (including my Ode on Returning Home)

Having looked at various aspects of grati-ode composition in the previous sections, we could now think about the process as a whole, and how it fits into a healthy weekly cycle. Curiously, you might think, this cycle involves fasting (by restricted calorie intake to 25% normal intake on certain days), and exercising in the fasted state (‘Hungry Dawn Raving’), which might sound like a bit of an ask when this is supposed to be about writing poems…but bear with me – it really is the most remarkably valuable strategy and it will send your ode-writing into the stratosphere. Fasting and grati-ode journaling is a match made in heaven, and here below I attempt to explain why.

The various phases of the weekly cycle I propose complement each other wonderfully. In fact, it’s really quite remarkable how well they do this. You see, each stage has strong points and gaps which are filled by the other phases. Beyond the fact that the journaling is a good way to spend quiet, relaxed time as a balance to the period of exercise, Hungry Dawn Raving (HDR) also gives you tangible, non-subtle feelings of gratitude as a balance to the subtler benefits of gratitude journaling. HDR’s boosts are strong but temporary emotions rather than ongoing uplifted moods, but gratitude journaling, on the other hand, has been shown to uplift long-term mood. Yet, tjhe benefits of gratitude journaling only build very slowly, starting off very subtly, and there is of course the tricky bit: you have to think of things to add to your list of what you’re grateful for or you’ll have nothing to journal about. And if you’re going to go for the glorified version of the gratitude journal and write full-blown odes, then you also need not just an idea but a rush of motivation.

The predisposition towards grateful emotions experienced during fasting-state euphoria, though, is the perfect way to easily and naturally come up with things to add to the list, and to give yourself a quick boost, and experience that motivational rush that is the ideal first stage of writing a poem. HDR is a mere 24 hours of fasting in the making, while gratitude journaling would, left to its own devices, take a minimum of around a month of regular journaling before you notice a lift. And like a statue by Polykleitos in contrapuntal pose with its balance of tensed and relaxed muscles, the aesthetic of the ode relies on the balance of careful composure and dynamic passion that comes by means of a well-measured after-the-fact reflection upon something that was deeply felt, and so really the carefully composed ode structure naturally craves for and needs it opposite: wild Bacchic ecstasy experienced in the moment. Keats wasn’t able to answer his question ‘what wild ecstasy?’, and that was fine at the time, but if the ode is to continue to progress, it must close that gap, lest it withers to nothing through lapses into rhetorical cliché in lieu of ever having its bliss, though winning near the goal. Through HDR, the ode writer can directly channel that Bacchic life-blood, that sap of the gods which the ode needs flowing through its veins to stop the flower from wilting.  So can you see how this is a marriage made in heaven? If not, then perhaps it is because I have not yet properly described the cycle I am recommending.

On a fasting day, you will eat only low calorie plant-based food stuffs, calculating the calorie intake and keeping it below a quarter of your normal intake. So for a man, 600 kcals, 500 for a woman. By early evening it will be getting on for 24 hours since your last big meal, and this is when you’ll start to transition into the fasting state. The euphoria may come on at this point – an evening lift. Alternatively, the big rush may come the following morning, before breakfast, during the dance workout.

Celebratory dance and music are part of the hardwired human Celebration Response, as I’ll explain below. What you’re going to do then is to have a morning pre-breakfast workout the day after your fasting day, still on an empty stomach, listening to Uplifting Trance music. I assure you that if you stick to the calorie intake guidelines, you will find it easy to let go into a euphoric rapture-rush. Maybe not the first time you try it, but once your body gets better at being in the fasting state, you will find the phenomenon surprisingly robust. You can use black coffee to help you sustain this prolonged physical activity – and it should last at least an hour because it is only after 40 minutes that the extra endorphins of the Runner’s High begin to release. This morning workout in the fasting state to Uplifting Trance is what I call Hungry Dawn Raving (HDR).

Once the euphoria comes over you, all I ask you to do then is to make a mental note of what things are particularly inspiring you to feel grateful, and also to observe how your thoughts about this traverse a landscape that might be suitable for the stanzas of an ode.

Later you will go through other stages, each of which are appropriate to the changing phases of the cycle. There will be the composition stage. Physically, you are at rest, but you’re giving your mind a workout now with the intense mental concentration that’s required to write the poetry. 

Following this there is a period when both body and mind are relaxed – you engage in the relaxed, mindful, peaceful phase of neatly handwriting your ode in manuscript form, and then decorating the page with doodled flourishes and/or illustrations. Don’t skip this and make do merely with a computer keyboard. HDR like other forms of exercise needs a recovery period, and the body recovers best when you activate the Relaxation Response. Drawing achieves this very well.

I make no apologies for the way this cycle asks you to restricted calories regularly – if you’re not doing this already, whyever not? Along with exercise, it’s still the best health hack there is, for most fully-grown people (though not for everyone, of course – underweight pre-menopausal women being an oft-quoted exclusion.)  

Of course, in this cycle fasting and exercise are combined. This has been found to be a particularly rejuvenating combination. It very effective for stimulating the birth and growth of new mitochondria – the energy dynamos of your cells.

Can you yet see the beauty of this unified cycle of fasting and grati-ode journaling? If not, perhaps it’s because I haven’t really explained the connection between fasting and gratitude. Genetic expression changes when we enter the fasting state. That state, by the way, is not the hunger you feel in the first few hours of restricted calories. It comes on after around 24 hours. Prior to that, you might be the only one in the room who feels cold. After that, you might be the only one who doesn’t. Prior to the 24 hours, you might be the quiet one in the group; after it, you’re the upbeat, chirpy one, lifting everyone else’s mood. You go from finding it a little difficult to focus mentally to suddenly having the most brilliant ideas you’ve had all week! There is a definite and pronounced switching moment at around 24 hours, when the sets of genes being expressed changes. And it profoundly enhances your ability to feel grateful. Why?

It’s to do with the reward system, social bonds, and reinforcing behaviours that supported the tribe, in the evolutionary context. The question is: why did an increased ability to feel grateful provide an evolutionary advantage?

The answer is clear as day; it’s staring us in the face as soon as we consider what gratitude is within a societal setting. Gratitude is the giving back, the reciprocation, that follows receiving, and which does so for a reason: to communicate that the gift is appreciated and to support more giving of that type in the future. Now it makes perfect sense. Gratitude is a strategy for success. Grateful tribes were successful tribes with good bonds and lots of sharing, and so they fared well and passed on their genes – genes that switch on when they’re needed, i.e. when food is scarce. Thus, they are triggered by the fasting state.  

If this is still not striking you as obvious, then consider the strong degree to which hunting trips weren’t a given. They could have carried on scratching around in the sand digging up roots and tubers. But they would have come up short on calories and protein, iron, B12, lysine, choline, healthy fat, and the rest of it. A successful hunt would benefit the tribe, but what was required of hunters? A great commitment. Hunting trips would often take several days. The hunters would go out into the unknown, taking very little food with them, running the risk of getting lost, running out of water, meeting dangerous animals, and expending a lot of time and energy but potentially coming back empty handed. What all this means is that hunting was an activity that needed a lot of incentivising. How does the tribe provide this? What attitudes and behaviours support and reinforce hunting as a regular activity? The answer is simple: Appreciation. Gratitude. Celebration.

The natural human hardwired response to a successful hunting trip can be illustrated with some quotes from The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. These quotes concerns the San people, the oldest population on Earth, the most direct descendants of the group of people to whom we are all related:-

“On the day that Short/Kwi came home dragging the heart-shot ostrich that had charged him, the women in the camp stood up and started dancing, just from the joy of seeing the meat and from having a man like Short/Kwi living among them, bringing a bounty of life-giving food to share with his people.”

Elizabeth Thomas Marshall’s mother Lorna Marshall wrote in The !Kung of Nyae Nyae of another, similar occasion involving the San. “The hunters were sighted moving toward the encampment in a dark, lumpy, bobbing line in the golden grass, carrying their sticks loaded with meat. We heard the sound of voices in the encampment, rising in volume and pitch like the hum of excited bees. Some people ran toward the hunters, others crowded together at the edge of the encampment, some danced up and down, children squealed and ran about, the boys grappled and tussled together.”

Another example from the San people of such exuberant celebration when a time of hunger is about to end is to be found in the customs surrounding a boy’s initiation into manhood by means of his first eland hunt. It features trance dance, gratitude, celebration, dissipation of tensions and waking in the morning knowing that the end of a fast is immanent. The eland hunt in general consisted of two phases: first, the animal, once located and stalked, was shot with a poisoned arrow. Then it was tracked until found again in a weakened state. This period of hunting was also a period of fasting for the hunters. As Elizabeth Thomas Marshall wrote of the San in The Old Way, “from start to finish a hunt could last a week or even longer…during lengthy hunts, the hunters might eat very little, if anything.” On the occasion of the first eland hunt of a young man, as described by David Lewis-Williams in Believing and Seeing: Symbolic meanings in southern San rock painting, once the animal had been killed, and before its meat was eaten, a trance dance was performed in praise of the fat provided by the eland, and the supernatural potency it contained, this time with men doing both the music making and dancing, as the women were still back at the camp. Certain portions of the meat were cooked overnight and were said to smell wonderful by dawn. When the eland was brought back to the camp there were great celebrations, with the women shouting “Euu! Euu!” to praise the eland “because it has fat” and pounding their digging sticks on the ground. At this point, says Lewis-Williams, they are in a “happy state in which social tensions are dissipated.” The boy is also praised. Before the feasting began a complex ritual was carried out to complete the transition of the young hunter from boyhood to manhood. Then came the feasting, accompanied by eland songs.

What we can see from all this is that, contrary to the expectations of our satiety obsessed culture, the celebration was not merely a post-eating thing – it was not a matter of waiting until the food was tasted and then celebrating relief from hunger. The celebration started the moment the hunters returned – and before the eating started. As such, the hunters’ reward systems were strongly imprinted by the state of euphoria as a reward not for the eating, but for having gone out and obtained the food and then brought it back to the tribe.

This hardwired human ability to suddenly flip into euphoria while in the fasting state when realising that food has been acquired is something I call the Celebration Response. It’s as real as other responses such as laughter, or the fight-or-flight response, or the Relaxation Response but it is something that has been forgotten about in the modern world, because the fasting state is not entered.

We can do it intentionally, however, by having a day or two each week when we limit our food intake, and avoid all animal-based protein, so as to trigger that state. This is the ideal time to get inspiration for your next gratitude ode.

If I still haven’t convinced you yet of the benefits of combining fasting and gratitude ode journaling, perhaps it’s because I haven’t yet given any examples. To start with, I should mention that for me the whole gratitude ode thing erupted into being in the first place as the result of an episode of fasting state euphoria. This is what inspired my first gratitude ode: An English Ode. As is not difficult to guess, my odes to Uplifting Trance and Emotional Trance were directly inspired by HDR, and so was The Mystic Revel Fades.

I can give another example that I wrote more recently. I had the idea for it in a euphoric state on the evening of a fasting day while commuting on a train home from work, listing to that very close relative of Uplifting Trance: Emotional Trance. This ode on returning home is one of those examples where I was not only supplied with a topic for an ode by feelings of gratitude for something; I also found that my train of thought in that lofty state of mind naturally took a course that lent itself well to expression in the traditional form of an ode. To be specific, my thoughts strayed to a mythological archetype for the thing I was feeling. Namely, having felt an intense joy at the thought of returning home, I considered I had gained an insight into why the Odyssey of Homer had remained popular down through the ages. This is the ultimate story of a great return to home and family.

My train of thought therefore followed the pattern of the odes of Pindar, which generally in the middle sections stray to mythological episodes relevant to the topic in order to dignify the subject by means of a blurring of the boundaries between the mundane mortal world and the realm of gods and heroes.

Here’s my ode.

Ode on Returning Home

When work is done, thoughts turn to home’s warm glow
Behind me has now closed the office gate
Bright images shine forth that lift me so
Familiar smiles of little ones who wait
   And onward leaps my heart to say
   To them that I’m well on my way
And echo back the joyous, radiant cheer
   Returning is a Treasured Thing
   That makes my Soul and Spirit sing
For they to me are infinitely dear.

This love must be the fire that warms the tale
Of he who journeyed far on leaving Troy
And neither towering wave nor raging gale
The will to reach his loved ones could destroy
   Nor could the lulling lotus flower
   With all its hedonistic power
Obliterate the thoughts of wife and child
   Nor could the cyclops rude and strong
   Nor sirens with their luring song
Prevent him reaching his beloved isle.

Our old savannah tribes would send a band
Of huntsmen, ranging far in search of prey
By reading clues laid down by hoof in sand
To guide them on for days upon their way
   Until, at length, the prize attained,
   They yearn to see those who remained
In camp, awaiting that long hoped for sign:
   When finally the band they spy
   Across the grassland wild and dry
Their hearts explode for joy, and so does mine.

9) Grounding your Genius by Taming your Titan (plus and extended digression on the mid-60s creative flowering)

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.

8) Poetry and the Power of Placebo : Invocation, Incantation and Inspiration (including my sonnets to Wine and to Chamomile)

Thus far we’ve focused on gratitude, inspired by the studies which show how keeping a gratitude journal is good for happiness and health, and using the poetic genre of the ode to create a glorified version of the gratitude journal, with a correspondingly amplified potential to uplift.

When we compose such odes, it’s inevitable that at some point there will be an overlap with the placebo effect, if you’re singing the praises of something because of its healthy benefits. For science is also well aware that, within certain limits, this effect is real. There are certain areas where this gives more leverage than others. Some areas where it has been shown to be particularly effective are inflammation (e.g. skin rashes and irritable bowel syndrome), pain (e.g. chronic lower back pain), cognitive performance, creativity, fatigue, anxiety and depression. 

What part could poetry play here?

Incantations

Studies have shown some very interesting features of the placebo effect. Firstly, the doctor’s ‘bedside manner’ has an effect. A study showed that the placebo effect was enhanced when the doctor had a demeanour that seemed both warm and competent. Another study, widely reported, showed that the placebo effect still works even when you know it’s a placebo, while others have shown that even branding can enhance the effect.

This is great news for us poets. What we do is basically an act of branding, re-framing, adding spin. And this begins to explain why spells are almost invariably little rhymes, little pieces of poetry, and indeed why poetry can be so enchanting. We’re simply going to use the power of poetry to create an enchantment, sitting somewhere between marketing, medicine and mesmerisation.

Does this represent a lapse back into the dark ages, back into quackery? There’s an easy way to avoid this. Just as with rhetoric the rule is: don’t make what is fowl seem fair, but rather make what is fair stand out above what is fowl, in the same way, with our placeboeic incantations, rather than giving a placebo effect to something neutral, we’re going to amplify the effect of something which science has shown to have an inherent effect, stronger than placebo alone.

Not that this balance was not attained in the ‘dark ages’. For example, there is an Anglo-Saxon poem known as the Nine Herbs Charm which was to be said aloud while administering a potion made from several herbs, many of which do indeed have healing qualities. So we are suggesting nothing new here as this already meets the description of what we’re after – a potion with genuine health-promoting properties which are then further amplified by the addition of a placebo effect, generated by means of a poem.

If we’re adding anything new to this idea, it is by taking this intuitive witchy wisdom and combining it with voice that sounds more authentic and authoritative to our civilised post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment ears : the language and style and structure of Romantic poetry. This will be more powerful for us than something redolent only of dark ages quackery. Here below is an example of an incantation I’ve written myself about chamomile tea. Chamomile’s relaxing properties are very real – it contains a chemical that connects to the same GABA receptors in the brain as the tranquilizer Valium. So by singing its praises as a bringer of calm I’m not descending into quackery. I’ve used that same sixteen-line sonnet form that I used in my Silver Birch poem. It’s got the odd “thou” and “thy” in there – normally I wouldn’t dabble with these, but in the language of incantations it is common to find archaisms. I was a bit cheeky with the way I wrote this. I took Keats’ sonnet To Sleep, and changed first a word, then another, moved things around, then removed whole lines, substituted different lines with different themes and different rhymes, and kept tinkering and changing until at last it was a totally different poem that said what I wanted it to say, with only the first line having an obvious similarity to Keats’ poem. This is what I came up with:

To Chamomile – An Incantation

O soft enchanter of the candle glow,
   With gentle, caring fingertips caress
Our eyelids, with a stroke soothing and slow
  Dissolve our thoughts in sweet forgetfulness
Thou angel of the cup, kind Chamomile,
   Thy golden tisane, warming, wets the lip
We feel the face relax into a smile
   Then raise the cup and take another sip
But how’s the mixture made? First fill the pot
   And heat the water till the bubbles roar
      Then add your spoon of flowers and let steep
Until the liquid’s neither cool nor hot
   Now take your chosen cup and carefully pour
      The potion, and partake before you sleep.
  While drinking, say aloud or read this spell,
  Which calms you and by calming keeps you well.

Invocation

Closely related to such incantations is the invocation. A figure, such as a god or goddess, is used as a personification of a quality, and then in the poem you invoke that figure, in order to conjure that quality. There is an ancient poem by Sappho where she starts by calling Aphrodite, as follows:

Leave Crete and come to this holy temple
Where the pleasant grove of apple trees
Circles an altar smoking with frankincense.

Of course for Sappho this was, more than likely, intended as an invocation of a goddess that was believed to be real, but this cannot really be separated from the invocation of qualities, because such pagan deities were closely identified with particular aspects, in contrast to a monotheistic god who must be all things, and therefore stands for nothing specific. When I lived in Brighton&Hove I felt inspired to borrow Sappho’s opening for my own poem – written in the form of a Sapphic ode – which is both a celebration of the beauty of one of the seafront squares there – Brunswick Square – but which is also an invocation to Venus to come there and further enhance the sense of place with her divine qualities:

The Venus of Brunswick Square

Leave Crete, Surf-Born, for Brunswick’s glade
Where sea-breeze whispers in the tops
Of thick-grown firs that cast their shade
Under the copse

Around the green the terrace lies
Where frontages, curved round in bays,
Make lookout posts for seaward eyes
To cast their gaze

The column curves catch varied light,
With spiral capitals of cream,
And finely frame a bounteous sight
Where wavelets gleam.

Corinthian pilasters hold
Their load upon acanthus leaves
Still spiralled, as their curves unfold
Under the eaves

Aphrodite, come, we pray
And grace this finely crafted cove
And softly smile upon our play
In surf-flecked Hove.

 

What I didn’t realise, when I wrote this, is that the Italian Renaissance prince, patron and poet Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote a poem which also borrows this idea from Sappho, this time calling the goddess to some spot in the Tuscan countryside around Florence. The first lines, in English translation, read:

O LEAVE Cithera, your beloved isle,
O leave your gentle kingdom, come away
And rest, O goddess, by this stream awhile
That sprinkles every tender green grass spray.

Inspiration

We pen poems. That is the business which we’re about. That’s how we come up with our gratitude odes. As such, there’s one area of effective placeboeic leverage that is of particular interest to us here. The placebo effect has been shown to enhance creativity. In a study described in a paper published in 2017, participants were given an odour to smell. Some were told that this odour boosted creativity, while others weren’t told of any particular benefits. Those that had been told it would make them more creative then proceeded to excel on tests that measure creativity, outperforming the other group!

 There have been potions used in cultures of the past with the intention of boosting creativity. In ancient Greece there were springs that were held to be sacred to the Muses, with the obvious implication being that if you drank their waters you would be inspired, and it was also believed that the genius of Dionysos was present within wine, and the composers of a type of Dionysian song, the dithyrhamb, believed they were giving birth to the god when they wrote these songs under the god’s influence, i.e. when drinking wine. Similarly, the Taliesin poems of medieval Wales make it clear that invocations of the Muses and words of blessing were said over fermented beverages, e.g. mead, so that bards would be filled with awen, poetic inspiration. 

Of course, there are many other substances that people have used believing they will enhance creativity. How often is this really the placebo effect?And is there anything that science tells us a real beneficial effect on creativity beyond placebo? If so, we can embrace the placebo aspect while knowing that it’s not pure spin.. As it happens, Austrian scientists carried out a study involving two types of beer, one that contained alcohol, and one that was alcohol free, but tasted like the real thing. They were then given tasks that tested creative problem solving. Those that had drunk the alcoholic version did indeed perform better! 

Great, so a moderate amount of a boozy beverage really can help to get the creative juices flowing, just as the Greek and Welsh bards of old believed. Not something to overdo, of course, as the whole point of from the point of view of Glory of Glad is the art of living well, and healthily. Here’s my sonnet to wine.

To Wine – An Incantation

O Effortless Discoverer! O Wine!
   Two-Things-at-Once! Dark Sunshine! Old-but-Young!
Bestir to tripping dance the Muse of Rhyme
   Great Uninhibitor, loosen her tongue
Send forth your shelt’ring leaves over my mind
   Embrace with dappled shade the grapes of thought
Protect them from the light of Trying-to-Find
   Lest nude in Reason’s burning glare they’re caught
For season after season we entrust
   This treasure to the cave of rustic stone
      As silently the ruby liquid dreams
Long slumb’ring in the cellar’s dark and dust
   What secret mysteries to you were shown
      By under-dwelling nymphs of chthonic streams?
O gen’rous partner in the poet’s art
Now set the pen in flight, and help me start!

Explanations

Two-Things-At-Once – Dionsysos was called He-Of-The-Two-Natures, the Paradoxical God, He-of-the-Two-Gates and such like. Here this fits the theme of wine as Effortless Discoverer – creative insight comes from linking previously unlinked frames of reference, i.e. finding something that is in both frames, and is so is two-things-at-once. Alcohol has been shown to increase the ability to make such creative leaps.

Dark Sunshine! Old-but-Young – two examples of how wine is two-things-at-once, being both bottled sunshine and a dark liquid, and being both long matured and playful/energy-giving.

Loosen her tongue – i.e. uninhibit the Muse of Rhyme and encourage her to speak, inspiring poetic ideas.

Send forth your shelt’ring leaves over my mind
   Embrace with dappled shade the grapes of thought
Protect them from the light of Trying-to-Find
   Lest nude in Reason’s burning glare they’re caught

These lines refer to the myth of Dionysos – the infant was protected from the fire of Zeus by a covering of ivy leaves, just as in the vineyard grapes need the shelter of vine leaves to grow under hot summer Sun. Simultaneously it represents the way that increased creativity can result when the bright glare of rational thought is kept at bay, as this doesn’t allow the creative insights of lateral thinking. This is thought to be how wine can help creativity.

For season after season we entrust
   This treasure to the cave of rustic stone
      As silently the ruby liquid dreams
Long slumb’ring in the cellar’s dark and dust
   What secret mysteries to you were shown
      By under-dwelling nymphs of chthonic streams?

This poem is supposed to harness the placebo effect, and branding has been shown to enhance the placebo effect, while at the same time the wine industry has a masterful, artful and rather beautiful tradition of branding wine. I join in with this here, with romantic-classical images of the wine cellar, as a cavern of rustic stone, a place of dark and dust, and a grotto of the nymphs. Simultaneously it continues the theme of mysterious creativity thats occur away from the bright glare of the rational.

cthonic – relating to or inhabiting the underworld.

O gen’rous partner in the poet’s art
Now set the pen in flight, and help me start!

The last rhyming couplet of the sonnet is a final reminder of the intention underlying the incantation, i.e. to invoke the power of wine to assist with creative insight while writing poetry.

Alternative title: A Decantation Incantation.

Interesting fact: Although this poem makes me sound like an old soak, it was actually written while stone cold sober, while in the zone not through alcohol use but rather by means of the early morning aerobic dance workout I had just finished. So wine here could be a symbol of anything that allows this kind of creativity.

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:

6) Expanded Options for your Gratitude Odes (plus my ekphrasis of an ekphrasis of an ekphrasis and my Silver Birch sonnet)

As you write more odes in your glorified gratitude journal, you will want to introduce slight variations to the both your chosen stanza structure as well as your genres, modes of expression and the type of things you are expressing gratitude for. Such variation provides continuing interest. Here we’ll consider some of the options available to you, starting with ekphrasis.

Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis is a mode that is well worth considering for some of your odes, especially if the object of your gratitude is itself a work of art. But what is it?

Ekphrasis is the ancient Greek name for a rhetorical mode where a narrative voice is inspired by something, usually a work of art, to give a vivid description of that thing in such a way as to give more depth and life to the object, while using expressions that carry those complimentary feelings. The description itself is a work of art and becomes part of a co-creative artistic synergy, drawing out some essence of the object, giving it extra dimensions either of the imagination or the intellect or both. What was once expressed in one medium now becomes a multimedia experience, with increased engagement.

A common rhetorical feature in ekphrasis is a description that implies a magical aspect to the art via the power of imagination, for example depicted characters imagined to have come alive, or the suggestion that other senses have become involved, that sounds can be heard or aromas smelt even though the object is a visually depicted scene such as a painting.

Already the connection between the Gratitude Ode and ekphrasis is clear because both are inspired by appreciative feelings for something. There’s a fair chance that at some point a work of art might find its way into your running gratitude list and that you may decide to write an ode to it. If so, the ekphrastic mode is definitely an option.

One of the most famous odes from the Romantic period of British poetry is Keat’s Ode on a Grecian Urn. This is actually an ode in the mode of ekphrasis, or an ekphrasis in the form of an ode. Or at least it could be confirmed as a true ekphrasis if the actual urn he describes could be identified. Has it been? Yes, but the object is not a single vase. It was a combined ekphrasis of the Sosibios Vase, a sculpted marble krater from the Hellenistic period of which Keats himself did a drawing, giving the ‘marble men and maidens’, and the Townley Vase, a sculpted Roman marble amphora in the British Museum, (which Keats often visited), giving the lovers and the wild pursuit, plus an engraving of a third vase ‘A grand vase from Piranesi’ by Henry Moses, giving the priest at an altar to which a heifer is being lead and the crowd from the emptied town.

Townley Vase, Pursuit (left) and Lovers (right)

And the mode of expression is definitely ekphrastic. He has been inspired to write it because he is grateful for the urn’s existence, calling it a ‘friend to man’ because of its transcendent beauty, and he describes the figures in the scenes on the urn as if they are alive, with their own feelings, albeit frozen in time.

I won’t include Keats’s ode here, but encourage you to dig it out some time soon and dive in. He used his English Ode as the form and ekphrasis as the mode of expression, and you could think about doing the same. I’ve done so myself, as you’ll see in a moment.

The most comprehensive example of the art of ekphrasis from antiquity is Pilostratus’s Imagines, which contains 64 ekphrastic descriptions of paintings in a villa near Naples. We’ll pick here one example, the painting of Cupids/Eroses (‘Loves’) picking apples in an orchard near a shrine to Venus, and the reason why I’ve chosen this one as appropriate to the theme of the Glory of Glad should become apparent from his opening lines. I won’t include the whole description, but here are a few excerpts:

See, Cupids are gathering apples; and if there are many of them, do not be surprised. For they are the children of the Nymphs and govern all mortal kind, and they are many because of the many things men love.

Many loves, many things to be grateful for. He continues in classic ekprhastic style:

Do you catch aught of the fragrance hovering over the garden, or are your senses dull? But listen carefully; for along with my description of the garden the fragrance of the apples also will come to you.

…the Cupids’ quivers are studded with gold… they have hung their quivers on the apple trees…

Their wings, dark blue and purple and in some cases golden, all but beat the very air and make harmonious music. Ah, the baskets into which they gather the apples! What abundance of sardonyx, of emeralds, adorns them, and the pearls are true pearls; but the workmanship must be attributed to Hephaestus! But the Cupids need no ladders wrought by him to reach the trees, for aloft they fly even to where the apples hang. Not to speak of the Cupids that are dancing or running about or sleeping, or how they enjoy eating the apples…

…two of them are throwing an apple back and forth, and the second pair are engaged in archery… Nor is there any trace of hostility in their faces; rather they offer their breasts to each other… It is a beautiful riddle; come, let us see if perchance I can guess the painter’s meaning. This is friendship, my boy, and yearning of one for the other…

And let not the hare yonder escape us, but let us join the Cupids in hunting it down…

…and do you look, please, at Aphrodite. But where is she and in what part of the orchard yonder? Do you see the overarching rock from beneath which springs water of the deepest blue, fresh and good to drink, which is distributed in channels to irrigate the apple trees? Be sure that Aphrodite is there, where the Nymphs, I doubt not, have established a shrine to her…

The silver mirror, that gilded sandal, the golden brooches, all these have been hung there not without purpose. They proclaim that they belong to Aphrodite… And the Cupids bring first-fruits of the apples, and gathering around they pray to her that their orchard may prosper.

If you were now to go to Titian’s painting The Worship of Venus you would see many of these same features, if not all of them, because the Venetian painter recreated the ancient painting in the Italian Renaissance by reverse-engineering from Philostratus’ description. Titian includes the hovering cupids picking apples, the quiver of arrows hung from a tree, the baskets studded with jewels, the blue wings of the cupids, dancing cupids, the pair engaged in shooting darts of love at each other, the pair wrestling, the cupids trying to catch a hare and those that form an audience, those collecting water from a spring under the shrine of Venus, the nymphs by the shrine, the mirror…it’s all there.

The Worship of Venus, Titian

In truth here the painting is an ekphrasis of the description, a reversal. In general terms, ekphrasis is where one artist medium engages with another in a friendly, supportive manner, so a picture can be an ekphrasis of a story just as much as story can be an ekphrasis of a picture. So here Titian has provided a ekphrasis of an ekphrasis. Since Titian has long been one of my favourite painters, and I feel a genuine gratitude for the existence of some of his paintings, (that they are ‘friends to man’), it struck me that I might take this one stage further and provide an ekphrasis on an ekphrasis on an ekphrasis, by composing an ode to this painting.

Before I share this, a little note about its meter and structure. As I mentioned above, as you write more and more odes, continuing variations to the pattern will keep things feeling fresh. But if I were to give the pattern of this next ode on paper, with numbers for stresses per line and letters for the rhymes, you could be forgiven for thinking that my poesy had progressed up its own Pindaric posterior, with a confusing array of line lengths, some with two, some three, some four and some five stressed feet:

5a, 5b, 5a, 5b, 4c, 3d, 5e, 4c, 4d, 2e

However, the variations have been introduced for very definite reasons, and in the performance it feels natural. For this one, I wanted to take the same pattern I used for the likes of my Bath Locks ode and the odes to Trance, but add in some extra gaps for pregnant pauses and for breath. In previous sections, I have described the basic stanza structure I favour for my Gratitude Odes. It takes the 10-line rhyming pattern of an English/Keatsian Ode: a, b, a, b, c, d, e, c, d, e, and it has meter of iambic pentameter for most lines, but with lines 5 & 6 and 8 & 9 having four stressed feet. However, each pentameter is consider to have three silent in-breath beats after it, while the four-stress lines have no break after them, so that in terms of duration, or total number of beats, one line of pentameter equals two of tetrameter. As a result, though ten lines long, it is really eight lines long in the musical sense, where each line is two bars in 4/4 time.

However, the thought has occurred to me that a break for a short breath after the first two tetrameters would be beneficial, and then an even bigger break would be good at the end of each stanza. Such a break not only allows the performer time for breath, but it also gives the listener time to digest what has been said. So I decided that instead of two lines with four stresses in the middle of the stanza, it could be one of four and one of three followed by a one beat in-breath, then at the end the last line could be a mere two beats long, then six beats of silence. Such an early ending can have a dramatic effect. When you make a dramatic exit, you have to leave before the other person so it’s your words that are left hanging in the air; you have the last word, by leaving earlier than expected. So by ending with a short line then leaving a longer pause, you both get time for a breath before the next verse, and you leave time for the verse to be digested, and you give more definition to the stanza, separating it form the next one, and you also make use of the dramatic, pregnant pause for rhetorical effect. The form of the Sapphic Ode made such use of a short line at the end of a stanza.

The pattern for the stanzas of my next ode in full, with spoken beats in bold and unspoken pauses in brackets), is therefore:

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

OK, so without further ado, here is the ode:

An Ode to Titian’s Worship of Venus

(an ekphrasis of an ekphrasis of an ekphrasis)     

I
Philostratus in his Imagines
Has countless Loves by Aphrodite’s shrine
Place apples, plucked while hov’ring in the trees
In baskets of Hephaestus’s design
   Then Titian used the brush so well
      To paint the apples’ green
And ripen them with cheeks of blushing rose
   You’d swear their fruitful Autumn smell
   Had floated from the painted scene
         To reach your nose.

II
True to the book, with blue he paints the wing
See here he’s shown the little wrestling pair
See there the nymphs beside the sacred spring
See too the tumbling chase to catch the hare
   The scene’s a worthy one to paint
      Upon the canvassed board
And bring to life with skilful master’s art
   The countless loves here represent
   All cherished things that folk adore
         With gladdened heart:

III
The fragrant rose, the flash of halcyon
The singing harp and wood flute’s trilling coo
The warmth upon the face of Summer Sun
And when it sets, the ruddy-golden hue
   E’en Gratitude itself’s a gift
      It leads to Happiness
And Happiness in turn increases Health
   Let now the mental eye uplift
   Appreciate the gracefulness
         Of Grace itself.

 

The Sonnet

English Odes and Sonnets are close relatives, and a sonnet is another option if you’ve been writing lots of odes with the same structure and want to freshen things up.

A sonnet is a poem in the form of one, longish stanza. It has certain similarities both to the Pindaric and the English Ode. Like the Pindaric, it has a three-part structure, but this time it’s within the one stanza: line nine is a “turn”, were the change of rhyming pattern is accompanied by a change of perspective, and it may end with a resolution in the final lines. And the similarity to the English ode is in the rhyming structure. While the English Ode starts with a group of four lines (quatrain), e.g. with alternating rhyme a, b, a, b, followed by six lines in two groups of three (a sestet) i.e. with rhyming pattern c, d, e, c, d, e, so that there are two lines between rhymes rather than one, the original English equivalent of the Petrarchian sonnet, starts with eight rather than four lines as the first chunk, but still ends with the c, d, e, c, d, e; indeed the sonnet is what gave Keats the idea for the English ode. You could call the sonnet a stretched English Ode.

The Elizabethans realised that sonnets sounded good if the last two lines were paired together with a simpler, punchier rhyming pattern: just a rhyming couplet:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

However, to do this while keeping to the 14 lines of the Petrachian sonnet meant you could no longer end with the c, d ,e, c ,d, e pattern of rhymes, The later Romantic poets took issue with this, and went back to the original pattern. However, looking at it from my beats-to-the-bar perspective, they were both right. Howso? Well, what they got wrong is the number of lines. It should be 16, in my opinion.

Why? Well, after your two 4 line chunks (quatrains) and your six line chunk (sestet), you have, if all the lines are the same number of beats, a rather unmusical 14 units. A more rounded, symmetrical, balanced 16 could be achieved if two extra lines were to be added onto the end. 16 = 8 + 8 (and 8 = 4 + 4 (and 4 = 2 +2)). And as luck would have it, we don’t need to cast around very long to find a way to add those two extra lines: that’s EXACTLY what the Elizabethan sonnet gives with it’s final rhyming couplet. It seems almost as if that must have been the original idea, but then this idea was lost when the 14-line assumption took precedence, by a misunderstanding. (Since I reasoned this out myself, I’ve now came across a Sonnet type that also has 16 lines: the Meredithian Sonnet, but I understand that just has four quatrains, rather then the pattern I am suggesting, with two quatrains, a sestet and then a couplet.)

There are no variations in line length here – that’s part of the deal to end up with your round (or rather square) 16.

Keen to try this out, I choose something from my gratitude list: birch trees. I ruddy loves ’em. Notice that the turn at line 9 (the start of the sestet) changes the mode to that of ekphrasis, i.e. description. So this is what I came up with:

The Silver Birch: A Sonnet

My gladness of the silver birch I wish
   To share, that slender goddess of a tree
Her shower of silken hair moves in a swish
   That stirs in me a mystic reverie
As turns this verdant, grassy leaf-fringed glade
   Into her sacred grove, and I, her priest
Mid-frisson in the dancing, dappled shade
   Call druids, bards and ovates to the feast
But let us now the details try to trace
   The little leaves, heart-shaped, serrated trail
      Along each pliant twig to form a spray
That’s bright and airy, made with measured grace
   Cascading sprays together form the veil
      That by the gentle breeze is set to sway
Her stretch of sky she turns to shimmering show
And whispers Summer’s secrets soft and low.

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