Post-Literate Poetics And The Coming Epic

It’s been a busy three days. Political conventions, distractions of one sort or another, computer issues, etc. But you don’t want to hear about any of that. You came to read about the future of the epic. So let’s get on with it, shall we?

The Epic Is Not Dead (Thanks Walt Whitman!)

Epics are not dead. But over time there have been changes in form or mode of expression. We’ve talked about some of those changes. If my discussion of the literate age seemed more sketchy than the first post in this series, that’s because there is much more ground to cover for that age. I tried to stick with the highlights and the major divergences. These divergences are important if we are to make predictions.

There are two primary points that I was making with the last discussion, namely, that there have not been too many sweeping changes in the forms and structures of epic poetry over time and, secondly, most of those changes that have occurred took place in the last 100 years. But even those changes were made possible by the one shining example of American epic that came before: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I purposely left Whitman out of that last discussion because I wanted to backtrack just a little to lay the groundwork for what I’m about to unleash.

Whitman, with Leaves of Grass, borrowed from the past to propel poetry forward into the future. More than any other poet before or since, his innovations were extraordinary and sweeping. You can call him a Romantic and that would be true, but it’s just as true to say he was a Realist. His epic poem is not one long poem as most epics are; rather, it is an epic of multitudinous proportions. Parts of it could be called an epic within an epic.

Unlike many of the epics that followed, Leaves of Grass is not an epic of place and unlike many epics that preceded it, we cannot really call it a heroic epic. It deals with the traditional subject matter of epics, but it also deals with subject matter not typically associated with epics. Later epics of place such as Williams’ Patterson and Olson’s The Maximus Poems owe a debt to Whitman for, essentially, inventing the American epic form.

I would prefer to call Leaves of Grass an epic of form because, while it does cast Whitman himself as a sort of larger-than-life literary hero, and while it does give voice to a brand new American national literature, it also establishes a new mode of expression and invents a new poetic form, what has come to be called “free verse”. While Leaves can be called a national epic, a personal epic, an epic of place and time, a new twist on the heroic epic (with the self as hero) or given any other distinctions that could be true, by calling it an epic of form we can give it due honor as all of the above.

But what is an epic of form? Well, an epic of form is an epic work that relies mostly upon its form and structure for effect. In other words, the form itself is intrinsic in the telling of the story. If we study other epics before and since, there is really no other epic anywhere whose form is intrinsic to the story. Whitman’s Leave of Grass is the only one. Take Homer and change the structure but keep the story line and you still have a good story that can be told in any form. Take Milton and change the blank verse to iambic pentameter without touching the story line and you still have a fantastic tale. Take Paterson or The Maximus Poems and change the form – you still have the same story. I’m not arguing whether the story would be just as good or not, merely that the stories’ basic elements wouldn’t change. But if you take Leaves of Grass and change the form and you don’t have Leaves of Grass any more. It would be fundamentally different.

Imagine “Drum Taps” written as a sonnet, or “I Sing The Body Electric” in trochees. Much of Leaves of Grass relies upon Whitman’s sense of urgency, his wild and frantic paces and pitches. Take that away and you simply have a dead lawn.

The Epic’s Future Through The Soul Of A
19th Century Wild Man

Why is this excursion into Whitman important? Because I believe that, going forward, the epic will be much more experimental than it ever has been before. In all of the experimental verse of the 20th century, and there has been a lot of experimenting, the future of poetics has some exciting possibilities. The epic, in particular, can stretch out in ways that it never has. All we need is our modern-day Whitman, ready and willing to take poetry where it’s never gone before.

One of the chief ways in which poetry in the third millennium will advance experimentally is in form. Not just the epic, but poetry in general. Contemporary poets do not care to be painted into holes. Younger poets today would prefer to create and to do away with the lines in the sand. One day, the poet may write a sonnet and the next day she may write a free verse confessional. There is no clear commitment to any one form or structure.

Still, there will be more to inform the poetics of the 21st century than simply personal preferences. That has always been a part of the poetic experience, but there have been other influences as well. And so shall it be in the future.

The Birth Of Gutenberg’s Grandchild

The last time communication media has seen a serious revolution was in the 15th century when Gutenberg printed an edition of The Bible with moving type. Before that, poets and other communicators in written form worked by hand exclusively. Gutenberg’s press allowed, for the first time in history, for mass communication. People in the 20th century were huge beneficiaries of this technology as the proliferation of newspapers and magazines all over the world – but particularly in the West – grew by larger percentages than ever before.

Much of the growth of printing in the 20th century came as a result of widespread use of computers. Much of that growth occurred in the latter half of the century after IBM became a huge force in the industry. Many people contributed to the rise of the computer as a work tool, but another development, which occurred in 1969, led to what will become as big a revolution as Gutenberg’s printing press. The ARPAnet was born.

By the mid-1970s, home computers were beginning to hit the retail stores. Then, the 1980s came, the decade that I would come of age. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs started their competition for dominance in the home computer market. By 1990, it was pretty clear that Gates had won. Then, in that same year, Tim Berners-Lee (with Al Gore’s help) created a hypertext language, which led to the start of the Internet. Yahoo went online in 1994 and by 1995 speculators were throwing money at www dot coms faster than a Las Vegas hooker makes a sales pitch (I’m assuming that’s pretty fast). Suffice it to say, the revolution had begun.

How The Internet Has Changed Poetry

While Gutenberg’s press was a powerful invention, it was still only available to a few people at a time. There has always been an economic hurdle for certain classes of people to jump over before they could acquire the same technology as the privileged. The personal computer made it possible for people on the lower end of the social strata to be creators, but even as late as the 1990s there were economic hurdles for the lower class even if the middle class had knocked down its own barriers. The Internet, however, has eliminated almost all of the barriers – even for the poor.

Poets have always been resourceful self-publishers. Alexander Pope was an 18th century self-published author. Lord Byron published himself. Edgar Allan Poe published his first work himself. Walt Whitman was a self publisher. African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar published his own work in 1893. But perhaps the most famous self-published author in history – though not often thought of as a poet, he did write some hymns – Martin Luther, as early as 1517, not long after Gutenberg stunned the world with movable type, published 95 theses and nailed them to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

But the Internet Revolution is a bit different than the Gutenberg Revolution. The first person to profit from the latter profited from religious texts and the revolution was expanded and hastened by religious innovators like the aforementioned Luther. The early adopters in using the Internet for commercial publishers have largely been pornographers and technology geeks with no particular religious bent. The Internet Revolution is largely an agnostic revolution, agnostic in the sense that a belief in God doesn’t matter. (Pardon the diversion.)

Pornography and technology aside, poetry has been very prevalent online. There has probably been more self-published poetry online in the last 10 years than in print throughout the 20th century. The chief reason for this is because of the breakdown of the economic barriers mentioned earlier. The Internet is accessible like Gutenberg’s press was not. It is accessible to more people, to a wider selection of people from different backgrounds, and it’s accessibility is growing.

Much of the poetry you read online, like a lot of the self-published books on the market today, isn’t worth reading. But that doesn’t stop poets from writing and publishing. They have the ability and the technology is available and accessible, therefore they use it.

Despite the negatives, however, there is still a lot of good poetry online. Many traditional poetry publishers, journals, and publications have their own websites and some of them are publishing material from their print editions. The Kenyon Review is just one example. There are many others.

Many other journals have online versions but no print journals – and the list is long and getting longer. New forms have been invented that can only be produced on the Internet – Flarf and Hypertext poetry are two examples. I expect this to continue and grow.

Not only is the Internet a powerful medium for publishing poetry, but it’s also a powerful medium for marketing it. Resources like Duotrope’s Digest allow poets to research markets online and find publishers to send their work out to. And it’s free (though they’d accept a donation). Many poets online are very capable of marketing themselves through digital delivery systems like e-books, podcasts, and videos.

As an aside, I am not particularly fond of the poetry by Billy Collins, but I do admire the video productions based on his poems. The animated interpretations of his poems are very appropriate for his voice and style. They are complimentary and do not take over, which is how a good poetry video should work. The poem is the original entity. It is the script. The visuals that go with it should enhance, not control. Collins’ videos are some of the best poetry videos that I’ve seen simply because they are not simply a poet standing at a lectern reading from a page. They possess interpretive images that compliment the poetry.

Billy Collins is not the only poet to produce solid poetry videos online, but he is the most prominent poet to have done so with any skill. That is very significant.

Will These Changes Affect How Epics
Are Produced?

Poets have always been innovators. From Homer to the late 20th century Language poets and New Formalists, poetry’s advancement has relied upon innovation and experimentation. You may hate the innovators, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t done their jobs. They have. And if that sparks enmity then that’s as it should be. Poetry is about catharsis and scorn is as legitimate a cathartic reaction as anything else.

Looking back at the 20th century again, the epic stories that have captured the imaginations of audiences in wide numbers have mostly been on film. The Star Wars trilogy sparked a whole new genre of epic science fiction movie-making that has led to some great movies. Prior to Star Wars, other epics captured the popular imagination on film – Spartacus, Ben Hur, The Godfather, just to name a few.

21st century citizens are highly visual. Visual poetry has not captured the popular imagination, but it is one innovation within poetics that has stuck around. In fact, in the Internet age, it has exploded. Online visual poetry is all over the place – in hypertext and in video.

Digital books have not caught on too well. Except for the Kindle, which Amazon introduced last year, e-books have not sold real well. The ones that have sold have primarily been informational in nature, not as entertainment. Videos, however, are very popular online as is evidenced by the success of YouTube and the value that Google has placed on it. While no one has yet figured out exactly how to make money from the production of online video – aside for advertising purposes – it is still a powerful medium for communication.

The success of video soaps like lonelygirl15 proves that there is a market for video entertainment. It’s just a matter of time before someone learns from these early successes and produces something truly magnificent.

Poets who write the epics of the future will have these online tools at their disposal and will be able to rely on the technology of the day without the huge barriers of the past. A little skill and some creativity coupled with the willingness and drive to learn will allow poets of the future to take visual poetics to new levels. I can envision a Shakespearean production on the scale of Hamlet or Macbeth in video form, incorporating elements of poetry, stage production, and 20th century film making – all on a shoestring budget.

Does That Mean Print Will Go Out Of Fashion?

No. Quite frankly, there will always be an element of print production. We still listen to radio, don’t we?

While print production will continue, the best innovation will occur online. There is no reason why the traditional strain of poetry carried over from the 20th century cannot learn from the avant-garde strain – the parent as well as its growing number of children – and use the Internet for production and marketing. Many traditional poets have already started using social networks like Facebook for marketing purposes. But most are still using the traditional tools for writing and creating. I can see vast potential for this to change.

Poets of the future will continue to borrow from the past. The 20th century forms and the many strains that have splintered from Pound’s Modernist mind will continue to splinter and divide, but the best of each strain will be able to reach more people in more places than ever before. The capillaries of poetic thoughts will influence each other, both online and off line. While the near future will favor the short forms, the long future will look to the past – the pre-literate past, the literate distant past, the late 20th century past of film and print production, and the near future past – and take poetry to places that the ancients could never have imagined.

Every strain of poetry has potential with online delivery systems. I can envision an epic collection of sonnets in video, or a New Formalist poem written as hypertext. I can see epics of form, epics of place, traditional heroic epics, personal-narrative epics, ekphrastic epics, hypertext epics, and epochal epics, or fill in the blank, existing in various forms online as well as cross-pollinating into print and when all is said and done we owe a huge debt of gratitude to a few of our poetic forebears for their pioneering spirit.

Thank you Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Pope, Coleridge, Lord Byron, Shelley, Whitman, Pound, Williams, Ashbery, Notley, and many, many others for their ingenuity and their creative imaginations. Let’s carry it forward. The epic is not dead. She is only sleeping.

Did you miss the previous two posts in this series? Don’t fret. You can go back and read them here (part 1) and here (part 2).


Related posts:

  1. The Epic Future: 21st Century Narratives And Poetic History
  2. Mad Hatters’ Review: Millennial Poetics In Action
  3. 20th Century Epics And Carrying The Torch Of Tradition
  4. Watch Out, Man, Don’t Trip Over That Post-Avant!
  5. Millennial Poetics: Adding The Tenth Column
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One Response to Post-Literate Poetics And The Coming Epic
  1. Jim Murdoch
    September 7, 2008 | 3:47 am

    Didn’t quite pan out the way I expected. I kind of thought you’d end up with Ron Silliman’s recently published ‘The Alphabet’ and talk about whether very long is the same as epic but there you go.

    Jim Murdochs last blog post..An interview with Adrian Graham

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