Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Epic (Narrative) Poetry

Poet Beth Vieira asks:

Is epic a mode, genre, or what have you, that poets work with anymore? If so, I would love to hear about it and maybe gather some examples. I am having trouble finding anything. If not, then why not? Is there something inherent in the ambition of epic that makes it suspect?

It occurs to me that the question that underlies this question is a more urgent question, and solving that one would also solve this one. I would say, therefore, that the real question about whether epic is possible in poetry anymore is entirely dependent on whether one believes that narrative, especially long-form narrative, is possible anymore in poetry.

Since Browning and his generation of epic narrative poets, since the Modernists, a great deal of poetry, even the confessional lyric, has been anti-narrative, and therefore non-epic by deafult. (Even most Modernist poems on the grand scale, such as Pound's Cantos do not qualify as epic, individually, because they are fragmentary, not sustained; nor are they single narratives. His state goal was for the entire tribe to speak through the overall, unfinished poem.) Similarly, because of the accelerated pace of modern life, with all its clamor for attention, the incresingly short attention span of the reader who wishes to be passively entertained is also a factor. Epic requires concentration and duration of attention, so you have to ask yourself if your reading audience is even up to that. (For example, what's the overlap between the populations that have read all the Harry Potter books and those that have only watched the movie versions?)

The only poems in recent memory I can think of that might qualify as epic are ones like Vikram Seth's book-length Golden Gate, described as "a novel in sonnet form." Another example is Craig Raine's History: The Home Movie, a "novel in verse." What's interesting here is the conflation of the novel form—a prose narrative form, which is the dominant form of fiction published in the last several decades—with the book-length poem. I note that the word "epic" is not used, whereas the word "novel" is. Is this because the general reader is more likely to pick up and read a novel than a poem? Does it rely on the general readers' interest in fiction over poetry? (When's the last time a book of poetry was on the best-seller list? For that matter, how often do books of short stories make the list? The novel is king, clearly.) Is this purely a marketing tactic, a label that's designed to sell more books? I wish that could be ruled out, but I don't think it can.

Epic poems are still being written—Frederick Turner's Genesis, Harry Martinson's Aniara, Robert Penn Warren's Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, Robinson Jeffers' The Double Axe, to name a random sampling—but they are not being well-read. Not even the average reader of poetry reads them. The short-form poem has become the dominant mode in poetry's mainstream, just as has the confessional-lyric poem. One feels at times that even poets don't read such longer works, except out of a sense of professional obligation.

Even most poets seem to think that "epics" are poems of the past—in many cases, about the past. Even most of the long poems of the Victorians that reach epic length, be they verse drama, or narrative poem, are set in the classical past of ancient Greece and Rome, or the more recent past of the Renaissance and Middle Ages. (I am thinking of Browning, Arnold, Shelley, and Tennyson, primarily.)

Anthropologist and linguist Alfred Lord wrote his most influential book, The Singer of Tales, to demonstrate that epic poetry, performed by a bard accompanying himself or herself on a musical instrument (lyre, harp, lute, etc.) is a sung or chanted genre of performance. Formulaic phrases and imagery are used to fill out the line; and alos to give the singer time to remember the next event in the plot. By comparitive textual analysis between epics sung in indigenous cultures throughout Europe and Central Asia, Lord and his contemporaries effectively proved that the Homeric epics were also sung performances. There are the stock phrases and imagery, the descriptive passages that pause the action, and much more: all the elements of performed epic poetry, as described by Alfred Lord, are there. The same sorts of textual analyses have been effectively applied to the Anglo-Saxon and Olde Englisch poems still surviving, such as Beowulf or The Pearl. Even if these texts were later written down, they retain earmarks of their sung or recited pasts; and the more recent texts in the same style, even if they were written first, contain the tropes and patterns of sung formal poetry.

The big difference between these historical sung epics and contemporary poetry is that contemporary is not a performance art. it is poetry that has moved away from song—has usually self-consciously divorced itself from song, popular or otherwise, and now declares itself to be a "pure" artform. There is also the issue of technology, in that sung or recited epics were an evening's entertainment; nowadays, we have movies, TV, and other media that fulfill similar functions.

How many readers nowadays sit down of an evening's entertainment with a long book, and read it aloud to a room full of listeners? Do such venues still exist? (I discount poetry readings from this category, since most of these at this time are about reading a variety of short poems to an audience, usually of other poets, rather than a single long poem. Issues of ego-display are also relevant, but I'll save that discussion for another day.)

So, is the epic poem dead? No, not really. There will always be poets who seek to paint across a very large canvas: poetry of large scale and scope. But the question of its viabilitiy as a poetic form that connects to the reader remains a good question.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a great fascination
with/for epic poems

some examples:
HD - Helen in Egypt
Anne waldman Jovis (2 volumes)
Alice Notley
The Descent of Alette
Anne Carson
Autobiography of Red
Diane di Prima - Loba
Les Murray - Fredy Neptune

3:42 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the list. There are no doubt more.

As I said, I'm sure the epic poem is still being written. I think the question of its relevance, and its audience, remains an open question.

1:53 AM  
Blogger Schildan said...

I am currently writing an epic with strong narrative element. It actually has the feel of a sci-fi/fantasy novel. Feel free to let me know what you think of it.


4:14 AM  

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