Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Devil's Engine, No. 4

Most eras have had their own epic subject. Homer had gods and heroes, and Virgil had empire; Dante had salvation and civil society. Spenser's subject was the British spirit, and Milton's the nature of hierarchy; Wordsworth and Whitman had the growth of the individual mind, Pound had language and myth, and Pratt had westward expansion. Is there an epic subject of the 21st century? What might it be?

Shane Neilson

The epic subject of the 21st century is obvious: the internet. It's fucking us up. We're doomed. We're blogging furiously to promote ourselves. We're tweeting our thoughts. We can't separate ourselves from how we're seen; we desperately, desperately, want to be loved, but it's at the end of a wand of electrons. We Facebook to breathe, to stay alive. Some of us even think the internet matters, and have invested our futures in it. As for poetry, the internet has told it to go fuck itself. The internet may be the subject, but it'll never be conducive to poetry, though it may be the medium for poetry. Poetry will try the internet on for size. And the internet will do what the internet does. The tweets will ring out, the status updates will sound: poetry is a ghost in the code. The poets won't see dead people, though; they'll see viral cat videos.

David Starkey

I guess our epic subject now is the complete and utter availability of information and images. It takes very little time to hunt down an arcane reference or a picture you barely remember seeing twenty years ago. Everything is there--still an amazing realization for anyone over forty. I'm basically a lyric poet, so I don't feel compelled to tackle this vast, unwieldy topic. Fortunately. How could you ever get it right? Or wrong, for that matter?

Amanda Jernigan

My own sense is that, in broad terms, we write about the same epic subjects, era to era: creation, destruction, journeying, change. The particular canvas a writer stretches over one of those armatures will be as much personally as historically determined. So, as you say, Wordsworth had the growth of the individual mind; but Blake, his contemporary and countryman, had the role of the artist in the regeneration of the cosmos. In the 21st century, Norm Sibum has imperial decay, while Eric Ormsby has familial migration. An epic is a cosmos, a whole world, and thus it takes a whole person, marshalled behind it. A writer will write what he/she knows in his/her bones, whether that is a body of myth, or a body of experience.

One thing that interests me is the potential of the lyric sequence as an epic form. Richard Outram thought that the lyric sequence might be a medium particularly well-suited to the literary desiderata of our time. I suspect he was thinking, here, of the ability of the poetic sequence to model, on the level of form, the kind of intense part-whole relationality he saw in the ecological world (that being very much the world of spirit, for him, as well as the world of flesh). In his poetic sequences Hiram and Jenny, Mogul Recollected, and Benedict Abroad, he wrote epics of community, kind, and cosmos, using personae, voice, and (often varying) verse-form — rather than linear narrative — to create the sense of a world entire. Peter Sanger, too, has written lyric sequences that are epic in scope, though piecemeal in form; I'm thinking of the Abatos sequence in his book Aiken Drum, and also of his more recent sequence John Stokes' Horse. Jay Macpherson is an important Canadian predecessor, here; her Welcoming Disaster is an epic in lyric motley, as are some of the shorter sequences within her collection The Boatman.

I'm interested, too, to see which of the older epic poets my contemporaries revive. We have Logue's Iliad, Hughes' Metamorphoses, Heaney's Beowulf. Here in Canada, George Murray has translated bits of Dante, Steven Heighton bits of Dante and Homer. George Johnston translated various Scandinavian sagas. In his book The Stone Canoe, Peter Sanger collaborated with Elizabeth Paul to translate epic tales told by the Mi'kmaq storyteller Susan Barss. It seems to me that this work of translation and adaptation is very much in the spirit of the early epic poets, whose work flowed from inherited verbal tradition. It may be that there are certain things a poet can explore through interpretation of a traditional epic, that he/she cannot explore through his/her "own" words (not least the vexed question of what constitutes his/her "own" words).


TKM said...

(An Interviewer's Response)


Thanks for your lovely answer re: the epic. I think even your first paragraph reveals something of your preoccupation (defining epic effort as the sum of a person's being is I think a blending of lyric subjectivity with epic genres already)--but your interrogation of the question's premise gave me something to munch on. I agree re: the cosmos, but I'm still not entirely sure that it follows that "thus it takes a whole person"--I mean, certainly it does, but I wonder if it doesn't take everybody else too. There's 2000+ years' of knowledge funneled into Paradise Lost, and only slightly less into The Divine Comedy. Yet in an era when the proliferation of information makes knowledge acquisition increasingly problematic, and equally when social cohesion isn't upheld entirely as a virtue (ahem cough understatements!), I think the lyric or the fragment is probably a form that does reflect the multitudinousness (to use a word that Shelley likes) of civil society. I suppose splitting hairs over whether the epic subject is personal or social at that point doesn't get one very far.

But! But. The lyricization of epic (or the epic-ization of lyric?) has been going on since at least the time of your Mr. Blake--Shelley is a good example, with Prometheus Unbound, and whatever the heck The Triumph of Life is supposed to be--and Pound too. Do you know Tilottama Rajan's essay on "Romanticism and the Death of Lyric Consciousness"? She comes at the question from the flip side, arguing that the lyric voice, which saw its pinnacle in the 17th century, has by the time of the Romantics become an unstable thing, increasingly embedded within larger structures of knowledge (and larger poetic structures). It's part of a larger argument about the 19th century and its drive towards the totalization of knowledge. Is that still the predominant zeitgeist? I don't know.

I think I am guilty of the charge in your first paragraph--I was speaking as if somehow the epic voice for any given era was a singular effort exacted in joint concentration by society and a voice together--and as if there was only enough collective energy in the world for one. That's me I think being unreflexive about epic mythology. Yes, too much Milton, Murphy, it's time to quit drinking the koolaid. Also, it's true that I don't think of Blake's Jerusalem and The Prelude in the same terms either--but that's more because I see the former as informed by prophetic modes and less (at least less than in Wordsworth) by classical. That is perhaps unfair of me.

To sum up, I guess my question is: yes, Norm Sibum has imperial decay, and yes, Eric Ormsby has familial migration, and those are the subjects into which the energy is channelled, but are they epic subjects? Are those really the subjects that reflect the shape of the contemporary cosmos? To my mind the epic poet also commits to writing what isn't in their bones--or at least to incorporating everything they don't already by training or inclination possess. That to me is the responsibility of the thing, and why few epics (historically) have been recognized as such. And why the Prelude (or In Memoriam or Aurora Leigh for that matter) is so problematic a text.

All right. Enough philosophizing on the company dime.

Amanda said...

(extracted with permission from an email)

Hi Tara:

I agree with you about the extra-personal nature of epic: I think that's what I was getting at, too, when I was talking about the early literary epics emerging from inherited verbal traditions. BUT: the writer has to know the tradition in his/her bones, I would argue, in order to be able to make something convincing of it, in epic form. And, you may be right, it's increasingly rare for a writer to have assimilated to his/her mind any kind of cohesive cultural tradition. Most of us are piecemeal creatures, for better or worse. But that doesn't mean the end of epic: as you say, epic and lyric have had a dialogic relationship for a long, long time. I think it goes both ways, though: the lyricization of epic, the epicization of lyric.

(And, I should clarify: when Richard Outram spoke of the poetic sequence as a form particularly well suited to the literary desiderata of our time, I don't think he was implying that the lyricization of epic is something new: merely that it was a [potentially] poetically useful development, for a contemporary poet.)

As for your question about Norm's imperial decay, Eric's famillial migrations: are these epic subjects? Sure. Will Eric and Norm ultimately make epics of them? Well, we'll see. Or, our children's children will see. I'm not sure if the sort of distinction you're probing is one that can be made out at close range. At least not by me.

If I seem to be being evasive in regards to you original question (what is the great epic subject of the 21st century), it's because, well, I'm being evasive. If the answer comes to me, so will the epic!

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