The Quest for the Cygnet of Troy: The Duckling wasn't ugly – She just needed a makeover

When we produce cultural works that we intend to be ‘classical’, one way to judge how successful they are is just to look at the degree to which they invoke a classical vibe. This vibe itself is something most people have probably sensed as some time, with varying degrees of subtlety. It’s not the only vibe of value, of course, but it feels uplifting and has a beautiful ambiance to it that seems to resonate back across the centuries, an aura that is rich and refined, and it provides a haven away from chaos and modernity.

If we take the classical vibe as the underlying aim, we have the basis for an exploration of questions about the necessary constituents for new classical works that we might want to produce, such as poems. How important is meter and how import is matter? In other words, is it all about structure and the flowers of rhetoric, or do we also need to draw from Greek mythology to create the best type of classical vibe? Do classical approaches to meter work when used in non-classical languages and does Greek mythology still have the resonance in other times and places that it had in Ancient Greece itself?

That meter is an effective tool in English should not be in doubt, but it’s interesting to recall that an experiment took place to reach this conclusion. The most natural way to write poetry in Anglo-Saxon was not based in the syllable-count type of metrical organisation; conversely, it allowed for quite a few syllables to be squeezed in, as long as there were a
certain number of stresses per line. When we started writing poetry that took a more syllable orientated approach, as per ancient Greek, it was quite a brave experiment. But it worked. You could argue that the result was Greeker than the Greeks, because the measured feel stood out clearly precisely because it was so clearly set apart from normal speech. It felt different, and that turned out to be a good thing in many cases.

So much for meter. But what about matter? I’ve always had a fondness for Greek mythology, but when I started travelling round Greece, and visiting the places that feature in the mythology, it went to a whole different level. I realised that there is a particular resonance that comes when these myths are at home, in the climate and flora and fauna and landscape of the Mediterranean, as well as something even more subtle and metaphysical to do with memory and tradition and mythologised landscapes… local dreamtime.

Based on such experiences I would argue that you can certainly use Greek mythology if you want to and if it feels right, but that there is a yet more resonant Holy Grail to be sought that takes local culture and landscape more sensitively into account.

A few years ago I became fascinated by the title and sub-title of a book by Barbara Hand-Clow: Signet of Atlantis: War in Heaven Bypass. The author claimed that she had channeled
this title – heard it from a voice booming in her head. A signet ring is a token of identity, and in the context of Atlantis is also refers to the concentric rings described by Plato. But I became interested in further layers of meaning that come from considering the subtitle too, War in Heaven Bypass. The title as a whole clearly meant this: to end the war in heaven, you need to find the signet of Atlantis.

I experienced a moment of shivers as an intriguing interpretation came to me, causing me to fancy that I had uncovered a meaning to this ‘channeled’ title that Barbara herself had not been aware of.  What is the war in heaven? The knee jerk response might be the one in Revelations, but that wasn’t where my intuitions lead me. It wouldn’t be the war between the gods and the giants either, as that was a war between Earth and Heaven, not a war in heaven. It must have been a rift between the gods. It had to be the Trojan War. And Barbara heard the
title – she didn’t see it written, so “signet” could easily be a pun. It could refer to identity and heritage (the signet ring) while also being “cygnet” – a child swan. After all, the cause of the Trojan War was the abdication of Helen – who was born from a swan’s egg. She was the cygnet. If the Trojan Prince Paris had found a Trojan swan maiden rather than stealing the Greek one, the war would have been bypassed. And here the story of the Ugly Duckling suddenly becomes highly relevant, a part of the picture. Ugly ducklings turn into beautiful swans. Paris chosen Helen because she seemed more beautiful, just as Greek mythology seems particularly magical and beautiful, but really this is just because She had fantastic make up artists who knew their stuff: the poets, artists, sculptors, playwrights, architects and so on. If your local mythology seems like an ugly duckling at the moment, just wait until it is transformed in the same way into a beautiful swan! The walls of Troy were said to have been built by Poseidon himself, which creates an association with Atlantis, the central citadel of which, with its rings, was likewise founded by the sea god. 

Atlantis itself has various meanings depending on your personal situation. If you are American, then you’ll be thinking of the great continent in the Atlantic ocean that Plato describes. If you’re British, or the culture of your family goes back to British roots, you will likewise be thinking of Atlantis as an Island in the Atlantic. Either way, the idea is clear: if you can find your own, local, ‘Atlantean’ equivalent of Helen, rather than stealing the Greek Helen, then you will have found the way to bypass the war in heaven. For the purposes of the current analogy, Atlantis is any non-Greek culture that seeks displace its own mythology with that of another culture, due to that other cultures’s mythology having already been beautified by means of classical structuring techniques such as rhetoric and poetic meter. The abduction of Helen followed on from Paris giving the apple to Aphrodite and, in the process, spurning Athena and Hera. In other words, he chose surface beauty over Skill/Wisdom (Athena) and Marriage / Tradition / Law / Family / Loyalty (Hera).  Helen is a kind of mortal stand in for Aphrodite, and choosing to have the affair with the foreign queen who was already married was indeed neither wise nor respectful of the institution of marriage. It was an allegorical myth from the start.

And so Helen here could also be a pun. Helen = Hellenic culture. Paris is a philhellene. He’s that Renaissance artist who is enamored by the beauty of Greek culture, but doesn’t realise that this beauty is actually the result not of the matter, but of the skill of the artists, the
time honored traditions handed down from poet to poet, and an honoring of local tradition. The Greek poets were resonating with the myths imprinted into the very landscape in which they lived. A straight abduction of Helen, displacing your own indigenous mythic matter, will not be as successful in invoking the classical vibe as working with local matter, but doing so using the same approach that the ancient poets used, the same attention to form, and
meter, and the time-proven devices of rhetoric.

All this was just theory still, at this stage. To find out whether there was any truth in it, it was obvious what I had to do. I had to have a go at taking a local myth and giving it the classical treatment. Trouble is, first you have to know what that treatment consists of. Then you have to find a suitable story to which to apply this treatment. Initially I homed in on the Irish story of Aengus and Caer, for two reasons. Firstly, of all the Celtic myths I could think of, this one seemed to be inherently the most beautiful, the least brutal and violent and brash. It seemed ideal for classical treatment, especially as the theme of animal metamorphosis had a lot in common with Greek myths. Secondly, I found what I took to be a sign, a good omen. The heroine of the story was indeed a swan-maiden. Every other year she returned to a certain lake and turned into a swan. The hero at a key moment had to pick her out from a whole lake full of swans, and managed to do so because of a gold ring round her neck – just like me picking out the Cygnet/Signet of Atlantis from the body of Celtic myth. (I’m getting those shivers again even now, over decade later, as I recall this train of logic.)

However, my first experiment was somewhat inconclusive. This was a number of years ago and I hadn’t really matured as a poet. I didn’t have a fully appreciation of what the classical treatment consists of. All I did was write up the narrative in heroic couplets, rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter. Just getting the story across within those limits seemed like challenge enough at that time, without bothering to aim for the lofty heights of great poetry. These couplets are both easy to write and to read, which is why they are often chosen to relay long narratives. It’s really only a small step up from a simple narrative. If you’re going to the pub you might change out of your joggers into some clean jeans. That’s basic, unadorned heroic couplets. But if you’re going to the ball, well then you really want to dress in your finest. That’s a Sonnet decked in rhetorical flowers, a lofty English Ode of the Pindaric tradition. It’s not hard to rattle off couplets of iambic pentameter without producing any truly great memorable lines. What was needed was a few real jewels. In a way, the problem was that I had been too ambitious in the quantity of narrative I wanted to take on. Actually, it didn’t need to tell the whole story. It could refer, as Pindar does, to a brief episode, but it must do so through some very carefully crafted and finely honed lines with  lofty language and vividness of image. Also, Ireland might have been closer to home, but it was still, for me, a borrowed culture.

More recently, I finally got round to taking the experiment further along these lines and this time the result, for me, confirmed the theory. Reading back the completed poem, it did give me a sense of a rich, resonant, magical and beautiful classical vibe – not exactly the same vibe as for the Greek tradition, but an equivalent.

The poem’s structure was more sophisticated than simple couplets. It was an ode, with three stanzas all having the same structure, with some lines having six stresses, some five, some four – and the rhyming structure was also more sophisticated than the simple A, A, B, B, but all this was done as part of a balanced plan. The imagery and language was also more carefully considered. And the matter was closer to home. It treated a Welsh myth. I live in England, but not so far form the border with Wales, and Welsh and English ancestry is very intermixed, plus Welsh culture is the descendant of pre-Anglo-Saxon British culture. In any case, it’s on the same island, at least, the same landmass. The maiden this time was Branwen, but even here there is a line of logic that can be traced that makes her a swan maiden. She was a child of the god Lir, while in an Irish myth Lir’s children were transformed into swans.

The positive result of this experiment has caused me to now consider that the theory that precipitated out of the mystery or the Quest for the Signet of Atlantis / Cygnet of Troy is correct after all, although of course not in the hyperbolic terms of the mythology. Writing poems that draw on Greek mythic matter is not actually going to cause a war in heaven, but it might cause an imbalance equivalent to the allegorical argument between the three goddesses over who should have the apple. And applying the full classical treatment to local mythology is not going to be the ultimate panacea for all the World’s problems, but I do feel that, for me at least, it opens a new door, leading to a new vista of possibilities for creativity and the classical vibe. There’s any number of indigenous myths around the World that could receive such a treatment without any sense of colonialism.

Oh and by the way, this is the poem I mentioned, the second and, to me, more successful experiment:

Gloom Breaker – an ode on the tale of the heart-healing
power of the songs of the birds of Rhiannon

I

At dim-lit dawn on Platform 1 in sombre throng 
we stand forlorn in flat, sense-numb routine 
until from trackside trees bright breaks the redbreast song: 
clear, lucent water in a crystal stream 
We tend to think that we’ll not hear 
such music at this time of year 
yet chiffchaff, thrush and finch brave Winter’s squall 
Untensing, in my mental eye 
I spread my wings; I rise and fly 
upon the soothing sound set free, and then recall 

II

how Branwen’s hope lay likewise in her feathered friend 
as she in miniature set down her news: 
‘Come soon! I, Queen of Eire am by brute force detained 
Your sister, Bran, they torture and abuse’ 
She ring-wise rolls her chosen words 
and gently takes the docile bird’s 
frail form and round a tiny leg she ties 
the note. A kiss, to wish it well 
then through the window of her cell 
releases it and skyward, swift the starling flies 

III

It lands, it sings, they read, they sail, but sail in vain: 
A fire claims her child – she can’t but grieve  
and though Bran’s fleet a wood had seemed upon the main 
Just queen and seven soldiers live to leave  
Eleven leagues from their departure 
Branwen dies of broken heart. 
So on in gravest grief the Seven sail  
Yet, over the ensuing years 
they’re healed in Harlech, through their tears 
like me – by bird and bard: sweet song and well-wrought tale.  

Three Poems for Burns Night

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!

The Beast of Dumgilly

In the deep dingly dells of Dumgilly
Where the mists saunter up from the sea
Blown by winds that can be a touch chilly
Stands the Castle of Bonnie King Willy
By a loch that’s as deep as can be (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Now each year a great haggis is made
On the day of the Haggis Night feast
And then into the loch they all wade
As a tune on the bagpipes is played
To call out of the water a beast (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Then deep down in the loch’s murky green
Something wakes from its sleep in a cave
First the surface stays still, nothing’s seen
Then a ripple will break through the sheen
Which grows bigger, becoming a wave (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Up he comes from the far off loch floor
Swimming straight to the source of the sound
Till he comes to a stop at the shore
Where he lets out a monsterry roar
Shakes his fins, says hello, looks around (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Now the people aren’t scared of this meeting
For they know he’s not one for a fight
They just calmly return his warm greeting
Then he puts on a bib and starts eating
And my word! How he loves every bite! (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

But one year as they carried this gift
An old wheel on their cart broke in two
There was no other way they could lift
Up the sausage which made them quite miffed
Cause they just couldn’t think what to do (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

Then at last the wise king of Dumgilly
Who I think that I mentioned before
(If I didn’t, his name is King Willy
And his kilt is quite famously frilly)
Now this chap quickly raced to the shore (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

“We’ve got plenty of room in our hall,”
Bonnie Willy called out to the beast
“So don’t worry about being tall
You’re most welcome to come join us all
And take part in our Haggis Night Feast.” (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

So each year the loch monster now sits
In the hall feeling less and less shy
And still over the Moon that he fits
And in fact he’s just tickled to bits
To have friends and be cozy and dry. (Oh and
anyone whose able, off we
go to find some find some thistle for the
table)

The Festive Flame

Piping Goat-Pan’s* stars** now frame
The Sun,*** and so it’s time again
To sing of that great Festive Flame
          With cheering glow
How Piping Pan the flame reclaims
          And routs the foe

When scarcely passed was Yule’s twelfth night
The winter giants, waxed in might,
From Jotenheim, their home, took flight
           And swiftly came
To steal from human sight
           the Festive Flame.

Their general was Despondency
Then came Despair and with him he
Brought Boredom and Mundanity
         And many more
They came against all human glee
         To wage their war.


Our hearts to them were held in thrall
And drear and sickly was the pall
That billowed darkly over all
         Of Midgard’s plain
So Thor from Asgard gave the call:
         “Let gloom be slain!”

He takes his hammer in his hand
And leads his mighty hero band
They track and chase from land to land
          For three long weeks
At last before their foes they stand and
          Thor now speaks:

‘Give up to us the Festive Flame
This thing alone we’re here to claim
We will return wither we came
         And go in peace
Now end this little game;
         the flame release!’

This was met with blank defiance
From the icy-hearted giants
It was Thor who broke the silence
         With request
To gods to form alliance
         ‘Gainst this pest.

In answer Bacchus brought his crew
With Pan, who on the bagpipes blew,
And Hestia, the goddess who
       Makes hearth-fires glow
And Fast and Feast and Dance as well
       Were brought in tow.

Arriving on his festive float
His ‘Car Naval’, his chariot boat
Came Bacchus, drawn by Pan’s shrill note
          In flowers decked
The giants’ defensive line he smote
          And rear guard wrecked

Hear Bacchus’ donkey loudly bray
As now the god rides to the fray
And sends a fiery whiskey spray
           Into their eyes
The giants for their evil pay
            With painful cries

Pan’s drone and chanter intertwined
To hypnotise the baser mind
But freed the one of higher kind
                  So in that brood
Of giants it spread panic blind
                  But raised our mood.

And as the pipes’ loud skirl flew round
The giants fell upon the ground
And loudly did the Earth resound           
              As down they fell
The pipes for us were heaven’s sound
              For them: death’s knell.

And on the fire fresh wood was thrown
And in the heart new hope was sown
And from the jug of polished stone
                Wine filled the bowl
And wildly were the bagpipes blown
                To cheer the soul

And still the ever-building drone
The timeless, blazing monotone
From out the leather bag, well-sewn
                Cast this fierce charm:
“On giants bring down moan and groan  
                On men, no harm.”

As cheering flames the hall pervade
The brutes retreat, regret their raid
Our captive human hearts now fade
                from their control
And still the piper’s notes cascade
                to cheer the soul.

And so the Festive Flame burned bright
Through Thorablot and Haggis Night
And Carnaval and burned on right
         Through Pancake Day
The Winter Giants’ blight
         Was kept at bay.

* The technical term for the double-reed mouthpiece of the double-piped Ancient Greek aulos was syrinx (“reed”) and it seems that, since Pan was often depicted playing the double aulos pipe, the mythic theme of Pan with his syrinx (the nymph who, when chased by Pan, turned to a clump of reeds which Pan then cut and used to make a musical instrument) at some point referred not to a set of Panpipes (hollow reeds), but to the mouthpiece of the aulos. The double reed is also the type of mouthpiece used in bagpipes, and indeed the aulos with its double pipe sounded much like the bagpipe. So here we have Pan as the god of the bagpipes. See also the following note on the instrument Pan/Capricorn invented and used to spread panic among the Titans, causing them to flee. Hence here we have the bagpipes similarly causing the giants to retreat.

** A standard member of Dionysos’ retinue, and one present early on in Greek material, is Pan, or Aigipan: ‘Goat Pan’. Goat-legged Pan is in the retinue in the mosaic of the fifth century B.C.E. Villa of Good Fortune, Olynthus, and in Euripides’ Bacchae, and in later iconographical examples such as the Triumph of Bacchus and the Seasons sarcophagus in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the mural from the tomb near Ostia now in the Archaeological Museum, Ostia. We have explicit Roman and earlier Greek testimony to this figure being represented in the stars by the constellation of Capricorn. Hyginus (b.64B.C.E.) wrote (Poet. Astr2.28) that ‘Capricorn’s appearance is very similar to that of Aigipan.’ He goes further: ‘Pan reportedly jumped into the river, changed his hind parts into a fish, and the rest of his body into a goat… Jupiter, admiring Pan’s ruse, placed that image among the stars.’ Going back to the earlier Eratosthenes Constellations text (what we have is Pseudo-Eratosthenes’ first century C.E. epitome of a lost original attributed to Eratosthenes) we find the same idea. ‘Aegoceros [Capricorn] is similar in appearance to Aegipan…. Aegoceros is thought to have invented the trumpet which is called Panicus…. the sound of his trumpet caused the Titans to flee…[so]…after he assumed power, Zeus placed Aegocerus among the stars.’ It was, of course, really Pan himself who invented panic.

*** The constellations have moved on from the positions they held when astrology was formulated, so whilst originally the Sun moved into Capricorn towards the end of December around the time of the Saturnalia festival, now it enters that constellation towards the end of the January. In fact, it currently moves into the Goat-Pan constellation just a few days before Burns Night. See for example http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/dates-of-suns-entry-into-each-constellation-of-the-zodiac

The Mystic Revel Fades – As Sapphic Ballad

I’ve tweaked the stanza structure of The Mystic Revel Fades, to what I call a Sapphic Ballad.

The Mystic Revel Fades – A Sapphic Ballad

But Farewell sweet Terpsichore
our twilight hour has passed
And I must end my dancing now
and end my fast

For matters of the day now call me
back across the sea
But I will not forget the hour
I danced with thee

For one full day we kept the fast
with fragrant herbal tea
Thin soup of vegetables, fresh verdant
greenery

Well-slept, we woke and rose in bright
anticipating mood
And then the rich, dark roasted bean
in water brewed

And so in pure and foodless joy
we joined the maenads’ dance
From out the eastern heaven came
ecstatic trance

As Rose-Dawn flushed the marbles
of the three-fold goddess Grace
(Giving, Getting, Giving Back 
in one embrace)

We wove our steps around them
on the flow’ry dancing floor
Giving back by sending out 
our mystic awe

So farewell Fields Elysian
how lightly we did tread
In circles round the dance-ground of
the Blessed Dead!

While fed on beauty only 
how we circled hand in hand!
But now I’m called by business in
the mortals’ land.

So farewell sweet Terpsichore
until some other day
For I must pull my hand back now
and turn away

I’m sad to break the circle but
The Ferry Man is calling
Alas, the time has passed for me
to keep on stalling

The echoes of the Revel fade
to soft and softer strain
‘Though I must sail away I soon
will come again

And Farewell fair Persephone
it won’t be long to wait
Till down Sacred Way I walk
and through the gate

Where opens up the holy view
as mental curtains part
And once again Soul-shocking beauty
floods the heart

The time between is short before
this very week is past
I once again will burn dull sloth
with cleansing fast

And then, well-rested, rise and rave
dream-healed, in Twilight’s space
By thy sweet lyre entranced, O Muse,
in state of grace.

This dawn dance is a treasure that
I’ll cherish with the rest
But now it’s time to leave these Islands
of the Bless’d.

So farewell to the meadows where
our steps the wild thyme pressed
And farewell to the grasses that
our shins caressed

And farewell to those shorelines kissed
by Zephyr from the West
For now it’s time to leave these Islands
of the Bless’d

So farewell sweet Terpsichore
our twilight hour has passed
And I must end my dancing now
and end my fast

For matters of the day now call me
back across the sea
But I will not forget the hour
I danced with thee

Introducing the Gratilude

A recurring theme in the Glory of Glad has been the way Odes can reframe things in a dignified manner. The idea I’ve been reiterating is that while you could just keep a basic gratitude journal to raise mood, if you really feel glad about something, why not show that it really matters to you by writing something far more dignified – a full blown Ode.?

But there will be draw back if this is all you do. Why? Because it’s likely to be consistently serious. The whole point of what we’re doing here is to raise mood by practicing gratitude. The self-image of the serious poet has become rather infused with the picture of the suffering artist, condemned by their nature to sink from time to time into the miserable, maudlin depths of gloom. To have an ongoing good mood, on the other hand, it is obviously vital to be able to lighten up, to see the funny side.

Yes, we want to harness the power of the heavenly ode; no, we don’t want to become po faced.

So I’ve come up with a solution, one that is a lot of fun and which will only expand your options for expressing gratitude. You see, one of the things that’s been found about keeping a gratitude journal is that it doesn’t matter hugely what you express gratitude for, as long as you express gratitude for something. It is the act of expressing gratitude that raises mood. Enter the Gratilude ( “gratitude” + “interlude”.) After a few serious odes, stick in a Gratilude to lighten things up. Gratiludes are short, and easy to compose, and give you the chance, therefore, to quickly bump up the number of things you’re expressing thanks for in your journal, while simultaneously lightening the mood after your more lofty odes. This really is the final ingredient that makes the whole recipe zing. Here’s one:-

To a Doily (A Gratilude)

What a marvellous thing is a doily!
What a wonderful thing to possess!
How divine to be able
To fling on the table
The essence of delicateness!

Gratiludes, therefore, are little, light-hearted poems, almost like limericks. They still express gratitude for something, but in a more frivolous way. They’ll tend to take a mere material object as their theme. They might be partly tongue in cheek – a bit of a parody of a proper ode. They don’t have to be side-splittingly hilarious, though, because comedy is not their sole purpose – they are still, at the end of the day, gratitude poems, they’re just not so weighty.

Here’s another example. Some more follow lower down.

To a Tea Cosy

O Tea Cosy! Tea Cosy! Tea Cosy!
What endeavour could ever be finer
Than, as if it did live,
To most gallantly give
A warm coat to your favourite china?

A lead here comes from the theatrical Dionysia festival of ancient Athens. Even before the Athenians began including full blown comedies as well as the tragedies in the Dionysia, already they had the satyr plays. Each playwright would put on one satyr play and three serious performances. These satyr plays provided comic relief, and were full of bawdy fun, satire and general merriment. The Gratilude is very much like the satyr play – a short interlude for light relief. If we go with the same 3 : 1 ratio as for the satyr plays, then with as few as, say, five short gratiludes, you have enough to cover a full fifteen lofty odes, and believe me a Gratilude doesn’t take long to write. Here’s another:

To a Bed

Oh how grand are clean duvets and sheets
On a well-made and comfortable mattress!
Yes it has to be said
What a boon is a bed
And big pillows all plumped up with fatness

Does this mean your journal will be pulling in two directions at once? Not at all. We’re not talking about undermining that sense of dignity we’ve been establishing with our odes; we’re just talking about introducing a lightness and fluidity and adding another string to the bow. The very act of dignifying ourselves reminds us that we deserve good things, and laughter itself truly is one of life’s good things. Here’s another Gratilude:

To Galoshes

What ecstatical things are galoshes!
(The name that we call’em, I mean)
It’s half “gallop” / half “slosh”,
Oh my word! Oh my gosh!
The whole concept is just such a dream!

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.