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.

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.