I am at MLA in Seattle this week, doing a lot of talking with folks from various fields about “epic.” Epic, it seems, touches us all. Speaking yesterday on what feels to be an important distinction between “orality” and “performance,” I was reminded of the following response sent to me by poet cris cheek on his relationship to the epic form:
out of London in the mid-twentieth century i would point to my engagement with any sense of epic form emerging from the quest (the Jabberwocky), travel writing (The Owl and The Pussycat and The Jumblies) and i became aware of epic thru The Odyssey and that larger scale of going out and coming back through challenges and confronting demons and learning through experience and of how one lists the gathering, the production and the circulation of such resources. of course the multi-modality written of in terms of the delivery of such an epic form energizes me . . . that the oral is a grounding for poetry, that it is sounded and sonically projected through architectural design, that it is spatial and embodied and connected to gesture. that poetry is performance and is performed and witnessed . . . that poetry is live . . . (or at least can be) and subsequently socially dispersed and carried in memory as acts of language.
i have questions. what do you mean by epic. the only “epic” i teach and enjoy teaching is the epic of gilgamesh. i’m not sure what definition you are using for epic. but in my immediate literary heritage and influences, the book length poetry selection that has deeply influenced my own writing and appreciation for literature is langston hughes’ montage of a dream deferred. there is nothing else in what might be considered the epic category that i relate to with any enthusiasm.
Drawing on African American popular music “jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie and be-bop” (Collected 387) Montage of a Dream Deferred is made up of eighty-seven parts and shows Hughes’s ultimate conception of the poem as epic and as a book-length work. In the epigraph to Montage, Hughes writes, “this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the matter of the jam session” (Collected 387).
More than half of the Langston Hughes poems in the second edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (2004) are short lyrics from the 1920s — those poems for which Hughes is most well known such as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921) and “Danse Africaine” (1922). The works of Hughes first published in the 1950s that are included in this Norton anthology (“Juke Box Love Song,” “Dream Boogie,” “Harlem,” and “Motto”) that appear to be short lyrics as well are all actually part of Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951). Yet there is no indication of that, leading readers to believe that Hughes’s poetics had not shifted in thirty years.
Importantly, Hughes’s use of the epic genre in the late 1940s and early 1950s[i] signals that his concern with African American collectivity began to require a longer form.
In my last post, I shared Aaron Shurin’s recollections of translating Homer, beginning around 1980, with fellow students in the Poetics Program at New College of California. According to Shurin, the group met weekly for over six years. I admire both the dedication and obsessiveness of this process. I also asked Shurin to describe how the epic form informed his own writing.
Of the work of translating the Iliad, Shurin writes:
The loping, cantering, leaping and lengthening hexameters (released from their words) kept me awake at night, and my ear was forever newly attuned to the rise and fall of poetic measure. In hindsight, the tensions of sweeping dramatic arcs crosscut by microcosmic intensities — long shot and close-up, crowd scenes and popping eyeballs — emboldened my interest in narrativity, in collective voice, in panorama and descriptive detail and in the agency ofperson.
Of the effects of the epic on his own poetic methods, Shurin states, “it was guaranteed that mythopoetics would abide in my work, shamelessly shadowing collage operations, fragmentation, ellipsis, and dancing syntax: no problem!” He nows sees evidence of the epic in his long poems of the 1980s and ’90s:
with their constructed histories and legends, their dynamic landscapes and clairvoyant sorrows, and their interplay of character and silhouette. And at the root, ever-informing, always forming, the sense inside my body — having chanted proudly, having deep-nosed dictionaries, having fallen asleep in alien syntax, and risen to transcriptions, transliterations, and trances — the sense of a poet’s commitment to horizon constructed of single steps: from the engraved shield of bronze to the bright shield of reeling stars, syllable by syllable gathering the work of the tribe, gathering history, gathering the poem.
As those of you who read my first commentary know, I have sought out contemporary poets in order to discover how they might frame their own relationship to the epic form. The responses coming in have been fantastic. (For those of you who read commentary number one, I also cleaned my coffee maker with vinegar. The results? Similarly fantastic.)
The question (stripped of framing apparatus) that I posed to a wide variety of writers was this: “Which epics do you consider part of your own lineage (as a poet, performer, teacher, scholar, reader . . .) and why?” I purposely defined neither “epic” nor “lineage.” I wanted to see in what ways these terms were generative to contemporary poets, and what definitions were alive for them.
Given the epic’s role in nation making, through the retelling of nationalist history, I found Aaron Shurin’s response exciting, especially its own retelling of a period in poetic history.
I spent an entire day teaching heroic couplets. I taught my tail off in Forms of Poetry, covering heroic couplets from Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672) to Thom Gunn (1929–), and followed up in African American Literary Heritage with a session on Phillis Wheatley, the young slave girl who wrote almost exclusively in heroic couplets.
What causes such a form as the heroic couplet to endure? What do “The Author to Her Book” (Bradstreet) and “The J Car” (Gunn) have in common, if anything? As I looked over the range of poems we discussed in class, I concluded that the particular space of the heroic couplet, in which the end-stopped rhymes (AABB, etc.) close off each rhyming pair in the manner of a stanza or little room, lends itself to contemplative thought. Each two-line reflection builds into a larger meditation, for Bradstreet on the status of women poets and for Gunn on the loss of a friend and promising writer to AIDS.