As a follow up to my shingle post the other day, my friend Tom asked if I had any advice about writing devotional poetry. It turns out that I do!
There are a couple of different styles of poetry that I write for my gods, but they share some commonalities that make for a good starting place. Trying to find the starting place is hard enough. Sitting down with the idea of writing a poem for your favorite god or goddess can be overwhelming. How can you funnel all of the thoughts and feelings your god inspires into a single poem?
First, you want to start with an idea of the god you’re writing this for. Not just in the obvious sense of knowing which god you’re writing to, but also in the sense of which aspects and names of that god will be appropriate. If I’m writing a poem to Odin, for example, I will want to consider whether I’m writing with Odin Allfather in mind, or Odin Storyteller, or Odin Berserker… you get the idea. It’s possible that you want to write a devotional poem with all aspects of a god in mind instead, and that’s also a valid construction. The idea is to know what kind of poem you’re writing.
Once you have an sense of who the poem is for, think about why you’re writing it. Were you told to? Is it an act of pure devotional love and praise? Is it a prayer or request of the god? Are you trying to explain some aspect of the god to other people? Again, the goal here is to get a sense of what you’re doing and why.
Now that you know what you’re doing, hopefully that blank white page looks a little less intimidating. The next step is to actually put pen to paper – or fingers to keys. Start by writing down your goal and any images that come to mind.
For example, if I was writing a prayer-poem to Odin Storyteller, who I refer to as Wodanaz, to help me with my writing, I might start by noting the image of the wandering storyteller in front of the fire. A prayer-poem is a good place to start when you’re getting comfortable with writing; more imagery-heavy poetry can come later.
I always start prayer-poems with a call to the god in question. You may have noticed that I tend to start with “Hail Mara” because I spend a lot of time in the Norse/Northern European POV. Most traditions will have their own traditional greeting, but as a fall back, “O Name” is probably a safe construction for everyone. I generally follow this up with a couple of kennings, nicknames or titles to make sure that the prayer is on the right track:
Hail Wodanaz, God of the Typewriter and the Road,
Storyteller, Wanderer, Most Furious of Poets
That’s a pretty good start for now. I’m feeling a Jack Kerouac vibe that I hadn’t been planning originally, thought that’s a reasonable fork of the wandering storyteller idea, so I’ll go with that. You may or may not feel the sting of inspiration as you go through this process. If you don’t, you can still produce a great poem that honors and praises.
Now that you’ve got your god’s attention, in a prayer-poem like this, it’s time to make your case:
you know the burden of the author and the skald,
how we bear the twin responsibility of creation
on one hand, inspiration, on the other, hard work
I put in my hours, bent over the clicking keys
every night, banging out neat rows of crisp text
Once you’ve laid it all out like that, you can ask for what you want:
my half is fulfilled in offering to creative gods
please let me get drunk on your Mead of Poetry
grant me inspiration, free-flowing and plentiful
show me how to bang those words on the keys
an endless role of never-ending stories
By itself this is probably enough. You can see how the On The Road hints are woven in, (hopefully) without overwhelming the rest of the prayer. If you want to keep going at this point, you have a few options. You can repeat the basic structure with new titles and a new request, or you can go on to promise something in return for having your request fulfilled.
I’d like to come back to this later and discuss how to write other types of devotional poetry as well. I also recommend checking out the series How To Make a Polytheist Prayer Book. If you write anything based on this explanation, I hope you’ll leave me a link in the comments!