To Wine – an incantation (spoken word / video)

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!

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.