Commentaries - September 2011

The muse of epic poetry

Muse Calliope, Athenian red-figure pyxis C5th B.C., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some of my students find it outrageous that I would ask them to actually walk into a library and find print sources for their research. They believe that they can find everything they need to know online — and in some cases they might be correct. At, you can learn “How to Build a Concrete Storm Shelter”[1] or “How to Clean Your Coffee Maker With Vinegar.”[2] Using the information collated there, a friend of mine renovated an entire house to ready it for sale. But wait, there’s more: should you decide to write an epic poem, eHow breaks the process down into seven easy steps. Here are steps one through three:

1) Write a brief statement of the poem’s purpose before you begin recounting the story — say, to detail your dog Champ’s heroic crusade against backyard birds — followed by an invocation of the Muse.

2) Give a short, general outline of the action of the poem in the statement of the poem’s purpose.

3) Invoke the Muse next by first praising her, then by asking her to aid you in the writing of your poem. The Muse of epic poetry was Calliope, but you can also invoke Thalia (Muse of comedy) or Melpomene (Muse of tragedy).

(Read more: How to Write an Epic Poem |

Praise and invoke:


As ye may se,

Regent is she

    Of poetes al,

Whiche gaue to me

The high degre

Laureat to be

    Of fame royall ;

 — John Skelton, “WHY were ye Calliope embrawdered with letters of golde?”[3]

 “Calliope,” whose name comes from the Greek and means “having a beautiful voice,”[4] is sometimes pictured with a harp, and sometimes with tablet and stylus. According to The Theogony of Hesiod, of the nine Muses who dwell on Olympus, Calliope “is the chiefest of them all, for she attends on worshipful princes: whomsoever of heaven-nourished princes the daughters of great Zeus honour, and behold him as they pour sweet dew upon his tongue, and from his lips flow gracious words.” So blessed, the singer becomes a servant of the Muses, “For it is through the Muses and far-shooting Apollo that there are singers and harpers upon the earth; but princes are of Zeus, and happy is he whom the Muses love: sweet flows speech from his mouth.” The singer “settles causes with true judgements” and “chants the glorious deeds of men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus.” Given this gift of singing “at once he forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all.”[5]

 While in the Classical tradition, the Muses serve as an intermediary between the supernatural and the singer/poet, in other traditions, such as that of the griots in West Africa, the poet possess supernatural powers him- or herself. In my series of commentaries, I will be exploring the manifestations of the epic in different cultural and historical contexts. And I wonder, poets out there, what epics do you consider to be part of your own lineage? I’ll be contacting some of you to ask.



[3] From Marshe’s ed. of Skelton’s Workes (1568).

[4] “Calliope.”  A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Edited by Elizabeth Knowles. Oxford University Press, 2006. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  University of Pennsylvania.  1 September 2011.

[5] The Theogony of Hesiod translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White (1914).

World Poetry Portfolio #38: Charles Bernstein
ed. Sudeep Sen

“What Is it” (Bee/Bernstein: a chat)  and “r––” are both from 1973. The poems were first published in a section of Susan Bee and my time in Ruskin, BC, near Vancouver, as a feature in The Capilano Review (3:12, 2010), which includes other early poems, pictures by Susan, and an interview with us.
“The View from Nowhere” is from Dark City (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994)
“Language, Truth, and Logic” is from Girly Man (Chicago: Univeristy of Chicago Press, 2006).
“Morality” first appeared in onedit #12 (2008)
“For M.G.” first appeared in 1913: A Journal of Forms #5 (2011)
Not on My Watch“, previous unpublished, will be part of a public art project: at Shreiner-Concord Cemetery, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, at the grave of radical abolitionist and civil rights advocate, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.

read the pamphlet here

'Social usage determines what is visionary.'

Wall label for Buckminster Fuller's "Partial Enclosure of Manhattan Island" (1960) as presented at MoMA's "Visionary Architecture" exhibit, fall 1960. Text probably written by Arthur Drexler.

I'm fascinated by the “Visionary Architecture” show put on at MoMA in the fall of 1960. The exhibit consisted of materials (photographs of models, plans, drawings) from 28 ideas for cities and urban structures “considered too revolutionary to build.”  “Ideal projects,” writes the show's curator Arthur Drexler, “afford the sole occasions when [the architect] can rebuild the world as he knows it ought to be.”  And: “When ideal projects are inspired by criticism of the existing structure of society, as well as by the architect’s longing for a private world of his own, they may bring forth ideas that make history.” Theory and practice — vision and realism — merge in this presentation. “Today virtually nothing an architect can think of is technically impossible to realize.” Here, then, comes a definition: “Social usage, which includes economics, determines what is visionary and what is not.”

Buckminster Fuller's project on display here was brand new — done in 1960, just before the show opened. The wall label from the MoMA exhibit is reproduced above. This is vintage dome-obsessed Fuller, but now with a hint of ambient-coverage aesthetic the manner that would emerge with Christo and others. A dome over “a large part” of Manhattan.

The Louis Kahn represented here was Kahn at his most unbuildable: “Center City,” plans completed in 1957. (The “Center City” referred to is Kahn's Philadelphia. The chances that the Main Line fathers of planning in that city would build a Kahn around Philly's baroque City Hall were nil. One wonders what Drexler means by "social usage" in that instance.) Kahn's radical idea is that “a street wants to be a building.”

William Katavolos is here also. His “Chemical Architecture” (also dated 1960) implies the claim that chemistry had advanced far enough so that powdered or liquid materials which, “when suitably treated with certain activating agents,” expand to great size and then become rigid.  New City: just add water.  Read and observed today, these materials truly seem a conceptual poetics. In the architect's descriptions of the project, he has assumed the existence of such materials, and has indicated “the growth forms they might take.”

Frederick Kiesler's “Endless House” (1949-60) is here too, the city as a “twisting, continuously curved ribbon wrapped around itself.”

Norman Finkelstein (left) and Harvey Shapiro

In the fall of 2005, Harvey Shapiro and Norman Finkelstein came together — to read their poems in tandem, and to talk about the objectivists, which, in Harvey's case, entailed remembering them through years of personal as well as aesthetic interaction. Bob Perelman moderated the discussion, and here are audio recordings of a few highlights:

on the Jewishness of the objectivists
on reading Zukofsky
on Lorine Niedecker.

And there's more. Consult PennSound's Shapiro-Finkelstein page.

One more Rabbit

Rabbit #1 cover
Rabbit #1 cover

Free verse isn't just for students. One of the most interesting practitioners of the line - perhaps the most - in Australia is Claire Gaskin. Gaskin's use of the line is always working the line over other formal elements, even when she enjambs it:

suppose, for instance, that men were only

represented in literature as the lovers of woman

says Woolf

This is from the poem 'Paperweight', just one more poem from Rabbit #1. Whereas other poets worth reading work the line to energise a stanza or their poem as a whole, Gaskin's focus is on the line. This allows, I suppose, for readings of her work as dispersed, disjunctive blah blah, but such readings miss the point. Gaskin's power is that of a haiku-inflected, feminist-charged, Surrealist fission. Not fusion, as a lazy music as soup metaphor might have it. (Because we who love to not love formalism have heard all that 'line' before.) There is a post-formal feel to such 'free verse' too; not the echo of metre, but the echo of the line-based form of, in particular, the pantoum, in the recycling of sentiments and the 'soap in the stocking' line. In the above, though Gaskin is making a point, a not perhaps startling one, the emphasis comes down on 'says Woolf', giving her an authority that is common in many places, and yet in texts by men, generally subsidiary to the list of modernist men.

Feminism is back on the table says Gaskin and it's not letting anything worthwhile blow off:

Very Easy Death Beauvoir says

The sight of my mother's nakedness

had jarred me. No body existed less for me:

no one existed more.

Here the Beauvoir allusion takes on a materiality that gives it weight rather than signing power. Gaskin claims Beauvoir as a peer rather than as authority or influence. Gaskin's assurance is manifest in her refusal to italicise or use quote marks around Beauvoir's title.

the graves are shallow because the soil is rocky

it is not self indulgent it is self expression

the dead are useful as paperweights

Three one-liners from the poem, that suggest that saying something is back in town - the lyrical aspect balanced by Gaskin's determinedly social attitude. This is not Robert Gray or Dorothy Porter, two of Gaskin's local precursing purveyors of the line - seemingly dispensed with in the couplet: 'the moon is full/the pain in my uterus'. There is something new in Gaskin's tone I think. In this pair of couplets for example,

a world of comfort and family

that disappears when the match goes out


cooking and cleaning is an act of love

writing is an act of survival

Gaskin uses banality as a lulling weapon. The point of her method seems to be experiential - 'lifelike' in a real sense - not a reified 'modern life' - rather than cumulation for an end effect. Gaskin presents the homely without being reductive (or Freudian). The writer takes time out in a café, where the workers are 'pissed off'. There is a conscious sacred aspect, that knows that sacrifice is inevitable:

Woolf would say it's not good to work from anger or defence


so long as you write what you wish to write

she says

for another six pages while my vegetables get hot in the car


functional like a piece of soap in a stocking

tied to a tap over a bucket

There's no point in wishing for servants; Woolf is functional. Gaskin's narrator drinks 'three pots of tea'. Gaskin's poems don't reject in order to define themselves (her definition of 'cool' in the poem). There is warmth and there is bullshit. Gaskin gives her all in an effort to separate out the latter.