'Out of London': cris cheek

Memory and acts of language

Edward Lear's illustration for The Owl and the Pussycat

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.

The point that really strikes me here illustrates that epic poetry is “socially dispersed and carried in memory as acts of language.” What can be blurred, sometimes, in broad discussions of what are called “oral traditions,” are these elements: social dispersal, memory, and history. Through the “act” of language that is the oral performance of epic, histories are constructed that subsequently give shape to group and individual identities. The epic, in a sense, can tell us who we are (or, alternatively, who we are not, depending on whose histories are centralized.)

That African American poets (to return to my own research) would look to the epic form in the 1950s, as national identity was being reconstructed via legal interventions that redrew the boundaries of citizenship (think Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 1954) is a particularly important intervention into the construction of national history. As a precursor to Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) and Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961), Langston Hughes's “Prelude to Our Age: A Negro History Poem” (1951) begins that work. Taking the time to work through the vast array of allusions in that poem is a history lesson in itself.

One final note on form: cris cheek typed all of his wisdom into the “chat” box on Facebook. I'll leave the analysis of the implications of that act on temporality and memory for another time.