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Whither American Poetry – Part 5

The Poet’s Responsibility: Learning from the Moderns
The narrative is…to be regarded not as an end in itself
but as a vehicle of the tribal encyclopedia which is…
dispersed into a thousand narrative contexts.
Eric Havelock

And although such a claim runs counter to most of our
present assumptions, the effort to formulate a convincing
“tale of the tribe” still seems an undertaking of enormous
value, one not only central to the continuing authority of
verse, but to the very possibility of making sense of the
conditions of our common history.
Michael Bernstein

That is to say poetry begins in the domain of the epic.

Edouard Glissant

In a recent interview, the poet Clayton Eshleman offers this advice:
…in the spirit of Charles Olson’s idea of the “saturation job”…, I would propose that the
novice create a big project for himself that will not only test his resolve but possibly be a
service to the poetry community at large.
Rain Taxi

Eshleman’s own contributions have extended from his translations of Vallejo’s European poetry in his youth to explorations of what he calls “Upper Paleolithic imagination,” using ancient cave paintings like those at Lascaux as the source of his inspiration. Although his continuing contributions to poetry and its community are unquestionable in terms of opening new ground and offering outlets for poems of vision and psychological depth in his editorship of literary magazines, Caterpillar in the 1960’s and Sulfur until recently, limiting the responsibility of the poet to the genre seems short sighted. Olson said of William Carlos Williams’ work, it reveals that “the ego is responsible for more than itself,” which is an assertion at minimum in line with Eshleman’s, but also true of Eshleman’s work as poet and translator on a much larger scale in as much as the Paleolithic imagination encompasses the whole of human kind and human time. As Eliot Weinberger has insightfully said of Eshleman’s poetic practice: “It is an immersion in the [lower] body; not the body of the individual, the ‘bourgeois ego,’ but the body of all: the ‘brimming over abundance’ of decay, fertility, birth, growth, death…” (quoted in Poems for the Millennium, Volume Two). In spite of the fact that he tends to write what would generally be classified as personal lyric, Eshleman strives to not only locate himself as a poet within the “poetry community at large” but also within the human communitywhich is perhaps the same move.

Ezra Pound’s assertion of responsibility is much to the point: “it is the business of the artist to make humanity aware of itself,” which is to suggest that the poet brings to the level of consciousness, makes manifest in the form of a poem, what the race would otherwise not know about itself. However, and only seemingly paradoxically, for Pound the artist’s intent is irrelevant:

It does not matter whether the author desires the good of the race or acts merely from personal vanity…. In proportion as his work is exact, i.e., true to human consciousness and to
the nature of man,…so it is durable and so it is “useful”; I mean it maintains the precision and clarity of thought…in non-literary existence, in general individual and communal life.

(Literary Essays)

In other words, responsibility to one’s art is, of necessity, responsibility to one’s community and to one’s fellow human beings, clarity and the lack of preciousness or posturing leading inevitably to truthful assertion. The increased complexity in postmodernity of this responsibility is in some sense the gist of the remainder of this section of the essay, but for the moment the assertion stands as a simple equation: the attempt to achieve poetry that is humanly authentic is an act of responsibility toward both poetry and the world, which is to say that the poet who writes beyond his/her solipsistic cocoon is of use to his/her culture.

Whatever the final outcome, or more accurately our postmodern response to the final outcome a posteriori, for Pound the ultimate act of responsibility the poet could perform for the race was to write a verse epic a la his Cantos: possibly a life long work in line with what Eshleman prescribes but, contrary to Pound’s previously quoted assertion as regards intention, precisely intended to be a dynamic record of the poet’s historical milieu, and as honest an appraisal in language as language itself allows. As Michael Bernstein notes, “For Pound, there is no radical separation between his text and the world, between the language of poetry and society’s public discourse, except when one or the other suffers a ‘falsification’ and becomes diseased” (The Tale of the Tribe). Pound’s own misguided affiliations with fascism may be proof of the decay of both his poetry and its covalent discourse, and it could be argued that at present both poetry and the greater discourse are deathly ill, but perhaps the greatest lesson the moderns bequeathed us was precisely the poet’s responsibility, as the premiere users of the language, to both. In the eloquent words of the contemporary poet C.K. Williams, We are in history, like it or not. The question is how conscious we will be of how history is affecting us, and how we are possibly to affect it… . The grounds of our despair are compelling, our sense of impotence and hopelessness insidious and debilitating. But what is asked of us then is a greater consciousness of our plight, for human history is, finally, consciousness; it is the ground for our experience and our despair, but it is also the recognition of our triumphs over that despair. What our poetry cannot allow itself is a perfunctory acceptance of experience as it is received, however elegantly that experience can be expressed, for this is to slight both history and ourselves, the selves we are and the
selves we might become, both as individuals and as nations, peoples and humanity.

A heightened definition of history as the consciousness that is forged of events, that apprehends and depicts events and thereby changes history even as consciousness itself is changed, is also part of our bequest from the moderns. Present generic definitions still tend to separate the lyric from the narrative epic, however, along precisely these lines, the personal and the public, to poetry’s great loss. For example, Michael Bernstein offers Stephane Mallarme’s idea of the “Grand Oeuvre,” or Great Work, as an “illuminating antithesis to the ambitions of epic verse.” He says that, rather than expressing the fundamental struggles and beliefs of a society, the “Great Work” would absorb the entire, anarchic raw material of human life into its own depth, transforming it into a sacred text, self sufficient and autonomous. The words of such a poem would themselves contain (or rather “be”) the noumenal meaning absent from the concrete realm of human activity, and the relationship between text and values would be not one of embodiment but rather of absolute identity.

Bernstein’s assertion is that at one poetical pole is the tale of the tribe, the narrative of its audience’s cultural, historical or mythic heritage, the work that attempts to offer up models for behavior in the form of voices that enact the people’s shared values, while at the other pole is the subjective assertion of the poet’s life as lived. On the surface this remains a useful distinction in as much as the idea of absolute responsibility to the culture on the part of the poet is inherent in the former but may or may not be present in the latter, perhaps according to Pound’s criteria stated above but certainly relative to any assertion of intent. However, while as types the narrative epic hardly exists in postmodernity and the personal lyric is so rampant as to be epidemic, or more accurately the lyric-as-function-of-the-bourgeois-ego is epidemic, the distinction between history and personal experience, at least that beyond the merely solipsistic, is not necessarily an easy argument to make. It is especially difficult to separate the life as lived from purely objective narrative in the wake of poststructural assertions about language and our subjective relationship to it, about authorial certainty or the malleability of history based upon who gets to tell it. Absolute identity, to use Mallarme’s term, is not even a possibility within the parlance of poststructuralism, of course; but, that quibble aside for the moment, the identity of the speaker in the poem is an inflection of that speaker’s time and place: the shared assumptions of speaker and audience including what both know about the human project at large. Which is of course only to speak the obvious, that no text is “self sufficient and autonomous,” but also that Homer’s famous epic and Pound’s famous epic are two totally different animals: the former, at least as we currently simplify it in our pangeneral imagination, a portrait of the known world and the latter of the world as one man knew it and attempted to convey it to the people.

The proposed postmodern epic will be yet another animal, one in which subjective identity is a paramount question, in fact, given this premise: that subjective being both inflects the story told and is inflected by it. But the question of identity will also be central given our present problematic and diminished notions of what subjective being is. Consequently, the purposes of the lyric and the narrative epic as traditionally defined must merge in the next permutation. The life as lived is emblematic of the historical moment, is its encapsulation. Thus Dog is an emblem for our mongrel American selves (Sioux, Cree, Navajo and white European) and a product of violenceengendered in an act of rape to represent our colonial and colonized selves, forged as a man by loss and the desire to overcome his/our atomization. In “Dog’s Apocrypha,” he says, “heedless of irony”:

I have no words. Voice
itself is a burden I carry
in my throat as the tubes
pass through, as I lie
on the terrible white field
of over-bleached hospital
sheets, as skin of my chest
tingles under impeccable
catgut stitches that hold
me together, body to soul.
Where in this mournful
mortal dream can I find
language to equal resurrection?
This pain—to breathe, roll
over, to bark at a comesome
nurse whose hands rouse
me to desire even as it hurts
to breathe—is precious
beyond anything else of earth.

Another important gift from the moderns is their realization of the limitations of the epic that coexist with its pretensions to speak for a people. Pound initially referred to the Cantos as the “tale of the tribe” in The Guide to Kulchur, a term for which he gives Kipling credit. Pound’s original plan was that his tale be inclusive, a totalized version of modernity in verse that, like Homer’s for his era, would be “a sort of encyclopedia of ethics, politics, history, and technology which the effective citizen was required to learn as the core of his educational equipment” (Havelock). However, he discovered relatively early in the process of the writing that any poem as cultural totality was impossible and thus settled for, famously, idiosyncratically chosen exempla.

Williams made a like discovery regarding the difference between the Homeric and the modern epic in the process of writing Paterson. As Pound had earlier in the century, in Book Four Williams “awakens from the dream of the whole poem” (IV, iii: 200), which in his case, however, is also a recognition that there could never be closure to the epic given the ongoing and dynamic nature of history (which Pound perhaps also realizes in the final fragment to the Cantos, where he poignantly laments, “I have tried to write Paradise…”). But Williams larger realization is that it was impossible for a singular poet to tell the tale for the tribe, that the tribe must somehow “speak for itself,” which could never happen in any unified fashion, but must be dynamically polyvalent and polyvocal. Hence the myriad voices in Paterson in the form of dialogue, epistle, and recounted history, in the voices of the actors as well as the voice of the historian and the poet.

The result of both poets’ realizations are important in discerning the possible shape of a new epic. Pound’s response to the impossibility of totality became increasingly rhetorical, not so much as in a method of overt argumentation (and there are, of course, notorious instances of this), but as regards his stridently inclusive and stridently exclusive choices in terms of historical data and ideas. In places he is, again famously, didactic unto propagandizing; but at its best the Cantos, regardless of what one thinks of the concept, is an implicit argument for an eclectically assembled high culture. His exempla become the premises, but also the models for, societal change, his attempt to hold off decadence and to transform it. Pound’s definition of an epic as a “poem containing history” thereby takes on multiple meanings, hinging on the multiple possibilities in the word “containment”: the text seeks, without hope, to hold this semi-totalized vision of the race and its time, but also to convey an argument for the poem’s shape as the potential form of history, to contain an alternative view, a potential version.

Williams, however, chose to “reject historical positivism in handling documentary material and instead [to] existentially embrace the drama, rhetoric, and artifacts of history to fuel a finely textured vision of the present” (Doreski, The Modern Voice in American Poetry). Although a less than transcendent version of the concept than he would approve of, Mallarme’s vision of the Great Work as the project of absolute being here collides with the traditional version of the epic as the embodied Zeitgeist. This is not to suggest that the epic’s premiere goal is to display an ego as it is spun out by the forces and within the fabric of history, but that history (as in the past but also the present moment as lived experience) is indeed reciprocal. History as the living construct of individual human actions includes what is written in and out of the epic and by whom, and individual human actors are inflected by the time and place within which they act. As Jose Ortega y Gasset famously said, “tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.” Which is to say, a man/woman is the product, of his/her “terrain,” of history. But the further implication for the next permutation is that as its idiosyncratic compiler he/she is also the maker/shaper of history. Thus the epic becomes an active agent in the culture, both as process, as it acts upon the poet, and as dynamic artifact acting upon/within the world.

One result for a new vision of the epic in both Pound and William’s realizations is that the tale of the tribe must be protean and provisional. Pound, whose realization as regards the individual’s relationship to history is, in hind sight, only partial, ultimately deemed his argument a failure of his own will-to-order, the failure to make it cohere, and in that single assertion of failure perhaps constrained his poetical progeny, who might otherwise attempt an epic, unto silence. But Williams chose to enact the historicity of human consciousness itself. Hence Paterson is a multitude of voices, sometimes unto cacophony, the flow of history as it moves by the poet observer and the reader one moment at a time. And the protagonist is ultimately protean as well, a fluid identity in response to the changing conditions of his being, which is to say he is a historical being and, consequently, inevitably, “[in] Paterson no ideal form, whether of individual human relations or of communal ethics, is allowed to stand unchallenged by time and, whenever the poem seems to arrive at a fixed position, that certitude is dissolved in the continuing flux of lived experience” (Bernstein).

For our delineation of the perameters of the next epic, the situation becomes more complex still. The poet’s responsibility becomes not merely a function of being true to one’s art, “to human consciousness and the nature of man,” although the assertion still holds as far as it goes, but a function of giving voice to the voiceless, the traditionally dispossessed of history, because “the true subject matter is articulated in the labor of an entire people.” The poet’s responsibility is also a function Charles Olson deemed “methodological,” its implications “as much moral as technical, and as much political…as aesthetic”(Bernstein). In other words, all choices as regards presentation, the what and the how and the who, have ethical implications for which the poet must accept accountability. The paradox for the moderns was of course that an epic can only be the response of a particular man/woman writing from his/her own limited experience, but which nevertheless gives voice to historical forces that exceed any single consciousness, which of necessity means that the verse epic will be a limited document aspiring nonetheless to totality.

What was paradoxical for the moderns, however, has become a seemingly unassailable enigma for contemporary poets. It is presently accepted as a given that any report of history, of any single moment in history, is inflected by the person giving it. Strangely, however, any report becomes not merely partial in the hands of too many poets of the present, but pathetically so: unabashedly incomplete unto being false. In concert with their poststructurally engendered distrust of language generally as a vehicle of truth and the culture’s currently diminished notion of subjective being, many postmodern poets have chosen not to assert anything beyond their own solipsistic cocoon, chosen not to report on the world-at-large, not to make an epic. And thus they have chosen instead to offer so attenuated a version of our complex situation that their meager attempts at least border on being lies. Given their constricted interpretation of these premises, the picture they offer of their small world is incomplete too, of course; but who will know, and, more pointedly, who will care? The result is an abdication of responsibility, and silence where there should be a vivacious and dynamic, multivalent and polyvocal, tale of the tribe. The result is an impasse that disallows us an opportunity to better understand our common historical condition. The result is the current metanarrative operative in America that not only fails to broach such large questions but that disavows the necessity in favor of a benign acceptance of the shallow ethos of consumption, along with whatever invidious circumstances are necessary to allow that ethos to exist.

Given the dynamized vision of history and the truth that the new epic must contain, and although there are constituents that must be excluded and some modified and some added to the poem as simple model, of the epics under discussion Williams’ Paterson comes closest to a kind of archemodel for our contemporary version in the way that the poet works out the paradox in the poem’s symbology. The text’s premises change before the reader’s eyes, and the speaker changes as well: history moves, the text moves, history, the text… . The subjective identity of the speaker moves toward an ever receding destination, Mallarme’s absolute identity (one that would encompass all that the poet is or will be), as the text moves toward an equally impossible ideal: the totalized vision of the race in an absolute present. All certainty dissolves as it arises. It melts into the great morass of the text as the falls represents the morass of all sound, all utterance, as it represents history itself which is omnivorous and swallows not only any human action but any presentation and any interpretation of human action. History refuses to be contained for but the moment it takes to utter it: “…and the imagination soars, as a voice/ beckons, a thunderous voice, endless/ that has ineluctably called [us]/that unmoving roar!” Williams’ poem is, ultimately, the enactment of history as it is lived and imagined by a single poet, a task he was drawn to, and believed his successors would be drawn to as well. The poem is not a reiteration or recapitulation, but history’s activated energy let loose in the text a la Olson’s reenacted “kinetics” of psychic experience, a dynamic allegory set loose upon the reader who must come to terms with the complexly “textured vision of the present” the poem offers.

Williams’ Paterson is testimony to the fact that the indeterminacy and problematization of truth, and the dynamization of history and individual experience, are not the demise of either history as it is manifested as panhuman force or individual lived experience. Thus the responsibility to speak remains, daunting as that role has become. There are multiple vectors, economic and political and as regards class to name but a few, that influence what the poet will say and how he/she will say it, but it must all be saidhowever impossible the task of saying it all will always be. The true tale of the tribe is:
Like history itself…both a process and a communal task.
It is a process because the tale of a living culture can never
be completed, and a communal task because, from the
examples of his predecessors, every new poet learns how
to define the contributions his own perceptions and
technique can bring to the evolving tradition.

In short, many voices must make up the tale of the tribe, the voices of many poets but also of the various people the poet presumes to speak for (and to explore the experience of history through). And even then the tale will always be incomplete, part of an impossibly large and dizzingly shifting mosaic. If there is to be a next permutation contemporary poets will have to, as Williams did before them, feel at home in the current morass, to accept the facts of history as provisional, shifting even within the moment they are uttered, accept the effects of the facts on the individual as dynamic and ongoing. Then speak with authority, as out of fashion as that concept is at present.
[space=5] Michael Bernstein relates a story told by Rudyard Kipling at a Royal Academy Dinner in 1906:

A man who had accomplished a most notable deed…wished to explain to his Tribe what
he had done. As soon as hebegan to speak, however, he was smitten with dumbness, he
lacked words, and sat down. Then there arose—according to the story—a masterless
man, one who had taken no part in the action of his fellow, who had no special virtues,
but who was afflicted—that is the phrase—with the magic of the necessary word. He
was; he told; he described the merits of the notable deed in such a fashion, we are
assured, that the words became alive and walked up and down in the hearts of all the hearers.
The stories of heroic deeds in the classical sense aside for the moment, the “magic of the necessary word” is a grave responsibility, which is what makes it an “affliction.” In the absence of a multivocal, dynamic tale of the tribe, the culture has one less means to understanding, one less route to the ever evolving truth of our humanness. Whatever the moderns’ shortcomings from our vantage in time, and however limited their perception of the world as individuals, their attempts at verse epic gave us this: a map that is also a mirror made of runes we must decipher to understand, that alter and shift as the days pass. Poets of the present, if they can exceed the impasse that is the poetics of the present embodied, still have access to the tools to offer the race a dynamic alternative to the deadening metanarrative we are currently subjected to, an epic to stand in opposition to stasis and conformity by attempting, however vainly, to give voice to us all.


Dear Dog, Dog reads on the last page,
his hands trembling. If you hear this I am dead
and you refuse to follow.
I forgive you, but remember,
the compulsory work of the imagination
has become a necrophile’s paradise.
Humans have humped the dead earth
to engender here the machine,
and now they hump the machine
like a cross-eyed stray
humps the unsuspecting leg.
Our fellows have downloaded their dreams.
The sizzle and crackle of desire,
of purpose, has become the static wave
of soulless metal and wire.
I cannot live in a land
where no tragic poet sings.
Farewell, and may you find a way.

The next permutation of the epic will contain the voices of the many, including the lost and the outcast and even the dead, not merely to mimic the dynamic of history as multivalent experience but to articulate the multiplicity of perception as it both interprets and seeks to alter the human condition. Dog made a suicide pact with his unnamed friend, and indeed witnessed his horrific death. They both despair over the demise of human purpose and the failure of language to articulate their dark realizations and as a tool to seek significance. But they represent two diametrical responses: the suicide, whose impasse yields madness, and the searcher who turns from the descent to battle upward toward the light of understanding and communication.


But the various voices in the epic are not merely the polar choices lurking in the poet as regards his/her own internal struggles in/with the world. Via an act of creative empathy, the poet must attempt to enter the skin of the other, in order to tell it all, however hopeless of an absolute accomplishment of the task. Assertions by other speakers in the poem are inevitably tied to the concerns of the perceiver, the poet, but they will spin in ways he/she never imagined. Because Dog has a reputation as a seeker for meaning (an early poem is entitled “Dog Hunts God”), a gang leader asks him to serve his “people”:

We are in a holy war
of sorts, says the man,
a struggle for ground
and identity. We need
a priest, someone to bless
the warriors, to bury
our dead. I am a gimp
and a drunk, says Dog.
Not a holy man, barely
a man. His voice, no longer
trembling, trails into silence.
The men in bandannas rise.
That is the point, Dog.
When a Mac 10 barks in my hand,
sacred sparks flying from its rude
mouth, neither am I… not holy, not a man.
Neither am I animal,
but an extension of the machine
in my hand and I am praying to the only things of worth
left on the planet:
power and survival….

(“Dog and the Tigers of Wrath”)

The recognition is one of community on the outskirts of mass culture and of personal identity within it, but also of the perverse ramifications of poverty and exclusion at the juncture of the machine and information ages. How does one achieve power, participate in the national obsession with hierarchy and prestige, if one is without access to the socially acceptable modes of being powerful? The answer lies in an ethos t

The Next Permutation

…the question is not whether a contemporary
epic exists or why writers keep manipulating
the genre. What remains to be seen are the
dimensions of the next permutation.
Robert Hamner

This is the morning, after the dispersion, and
the work of the morning is methodology: how
to use oneself, and on what. That is my profession.
I am an archaeologist of morning.

Charles Olson

This Rhetoric is real!
Williams, Paterson

If for Pound the inevitably subjective creation of the verse epic was a matter of purposeful choosing among received ideas and synthesizing them into a coherent whole, that is implicitly rhetorical; and if for Williams that included the acceptance of the dynamic of history as a reciprocal flux for the speaker-of-history and for his text; for Charles Olson the epic poet reenacts the “kinetics” of psychic experience in the poem, the subjectively inflected, ongoing change that is the speaker and the tale. In other words, he took both his predecessors assumptions to the next level: the epic is not only a dynamization of experience as it is inflected by both the historical moment and the historical past (and hence his slipping from one time domain to the other in the space of a line), but it is overtly rhetorical as well. Olson’s goal in the Maximus poems is not merely an aesthetic or representational rendering, but to persuade in order to achieve societal change. The opening poems which take the form of epistles are, especially, frequently overtly political, “overtly committed to social and economic measures of ‘polis,’ which for Olson constituted the full and determining company of the social body” (Robert Creeley). In the critic Jeffrey Walker’s terms, Olson reappropriated the rhetoric he inherited from his predecessors and presents his readers with a version of “the myth of untransacted destiny” wherein he offered himself as “a voice of long suppressed, redemptive identity.” That is, in Maximus the poet speaker becomes the active embodiment of history.

In postmodernity the word is recognized as a weapon, specifically in Olson’s case, as Paul Metcalf said of the first volume of Maximus, “as a political weapon.” Pound intuited the fact that language had repercussions beyond traditionally defined literary ones of representation, of course, but lapsed into allusive pedantry and propaganda. Williams, in his tropes that capture the terror of the modern world (i.e., the bomb), also seemed to understand that language is not merely descriptive or the innocuous conveyance for ideas, but in Paterson the political remains sublimated in the personal. Consequently, although Olson’s attempt at epic is not as powerful as art as Pound and William’s poems (and it would seem that he was enough an intellectual but perhaps not enough of a poet to pull it off), he is our bridge to the next version of the epic in his unabashed attempt to convince the reader of the truth of his polemic: “Gloucester too// is out of her mind and/ is now indistinguishable from USA.” The traditional role of the epic as a model of “good” human values has therefore been consciously extended to a critique of the status quo and assertions for the necessity for reconstruction.

What was once within the range of the traditional lyric voice again encroaches on the traditional ground of the epic. However, the epic so defined, as an explicitly subjective assertion, demands a recognition of new or revived (in the case of Olson) or modified psychological, ethical, emotional, political, and aesthetic imperatives. The verse epic here becomes a tool for both critique and change, a polemical representation that is meant to serve as a heuristic as well, wherein dissent is expected because it is part of the human function. The epic as classical metanarrative, a conservative monopoly of extant but also ideal values, gives way to epic-as-provisional-assertion, becomes a field of dynamic signification wherein history is enacted as subjectively achieved experience: explored, railed against, deconstructed, and perhaps reconstructed in more positive terms as an alternative to what is generally accepted:

an actual earth of value to
construct one, from rhythm to
image, and image is knowing, and
knowing, Confucius says, brings one
to the goal: nothing is possible without
doing it. It is where the test lies, malgre
all the thought and all the pell-mell of
proposing it. Or thinking it out or living it
ahead of time. (Maximus, III)

This is not to suggest that the next epic cycle need be expressly didactic nor the poet tenaciously political (although that may well be in order). However, it is an assertion that in order to be heard, in order to have one’s portion of the tale become part of the dynamic mosaic that is the tale of the tribe, it is not only necessary that the poet strive to include his/her voice in the chorus of voices but absolutely necessary that he/she have subjective gumption before the status quo, which is in the end a conservative and exclusionary version of the overarching discourse, the tale of the tribe as currently constituted. As previously stated, a multitude of voices are necessary in order to approach anything like an adequate tale of the tribe, but those voices will have to vie for contention among the other versions of the tale that (in spite of the culture’s lip service to the contrary, our false homage to diversity) must strive to be accounted worthy and, in some cases, struggle for a place within the extant version of things by virtue of the lack of Ur-epic material available. In some cases, where a whole people may have been displaced, their past stolen, a co-optation of the dominant epic is necessary in order to write themselves into it.

In Omeros, for example, Derek Walcott appropriates the myth of the conqueror and peoples it with the conquered. All of his protagonists are castaways (in both senses) with names like Philoctete and Achille (pronounced A-sheel). This version of the tale of the tribe is what Robert Hamner calls a “ ‘foundation epic,’ one that inscribes a people’s rightful name and place within their own narrative.” Such an epic, however, is not merely an attempt by the other to locate him/herself within the dominant mythology, but an attack on their original exclusion. The formerly dispossessed by/of history become the actors in the reader’s imagination. They become the makers of their own history and the rhetorical figures within an assault on those who have excluded them, or rather those who have forced their own history upon them. Their experience is not only made real by being depicted but struggles toward meaning, an explanation. For example, Walcott gives us the common plight of all dispossessed peoples, including a summation by the “hero” Omeros, who has been named after a creolized wanderer appropriately named Homer, and thereby links dispossession to the history of civilization, to colonization; but he also links all the displaced and absorbed into a single symbolic people whose shared culture is their shared slavery:

“This was history. I had no power to change it.
And yet I still felt that this had happened before.
I knew it would happen again, but how strange it
was to have seen it in Boston, in the hearth-fire.
I was a leaf in the whirlwind of the Ordained.
Then Omeros’s voice came from the mouth of the tent:

‘We Galloped towards death swept by the exultation
of meeting ourselves in a place just like this one:
The Ghost Dance has tied the tribes into one nation.’”

Which is also to suggest that the classical figure of the hero as the center of the epic, the Odysseus whose values as they are reflected in his actions are the culture’s idealized core values and self perception, is ultimately modified: the center of the next permutation is an everyman/woman who is nonetheless heroic precisely for not being the culture’s paradigmatic icon, who have become the keepers of the status quo: politicians, actors, soldiers, and sports figuresall having become so-called “personalities,” which is to say they are products endorsing products. The new “heroes” are such by virtue of their willingness to battle for recognition of their experience and its inclusion in the mosaic that is the tale of the tribe, by virtue of their attempt to give meaning to their experience within the context of history, and their attempt to alter the core values of the culture to include them, by speaking the truth.

Once again, the next epic cycle must be polyvocal, but it must also be value laden in a dynamic fashion as opposed to merely being representational, a heuristic that incites further explorations of our place and time, especially relative to the dominant assertions by the dominant voices. The poet’s responsibility is to the whole truth, of course, the partial tale a lie and the totalized tale impossible, an ideal, which is the paradox the epic poet works within. However, history is an argument as much as it is a reiteration, and the attempt to tell the tale ongoing and brutally dynamic. The next permutation is in some cases an argument for the speaker’s own existence but always for the validity of the speaker’s experience as an historical manifestation. As Walcott says: “the good poet is the proprietor of the experience of the race, …he is and always has been the vessel, vates, rainmaker, the conscience of the king and the embodiment of society, even when society is unable to contain him” (“PoetryEnormously Complicated Art”). Perhaps more accurately, however, the master poet’s assertion could be changed to “especially when society is unable to contain him.”

The very attempt to write an epic as it has been here defined is a radical act, an attempt at the tale of the tribe as a strident assertion: one that grows outward from the poet’s subjective experience, which is a culmination of “history, politics, geography,…religion and metaphysics,…music and language” (Paula Gunn Allen, Off the Reservation), toward a provisional synthesis that transcends our postmodern alienation without denying it. Such a work is Pound’s ideal vortex incarnate, continually taking in and spinning out ideas, transmogrifying before the reader, transubstantiating into dynamic meaning before us all, “a series of chrystalizations or illuminations, vitally bound to the particular concerns of the perceiver” (Michael Bernstein), but that extend to the concerns of the race. In fact, in the environment of the current metanarrative, to write an epic may be more than simply radical, but a necessary act of hubris if we are to again to have any sense of ourselves as beings-in-time, as radically alive.

You have wakened me from a dream
of self-immolation wherein flames
turn to words that flow from me
hot as fire, the smell of my flesh
burning given up as smoke offering
to heaven.
“Dog’s Apocrypha”

“Poetry is power,” as C.K. Williams reminds us, and perhaps “it is a power that we are a little afraid of… .” We know from our experiences in the contemporary world that power is a synonym for manipulation, and our heightened use of language, that tool we must have mislaid once to allow the dark magicians who wield it now to pick it up, becomes a burden. If poets abjure that responsibility, or make light of it by writing trivial poems that deny our historicity, there is one less assertion of human worth in the vortical swirl of history. It all becomes simpler, to be certain. We all become what we are told we must become, and sleepwalk through time.

As Dog says over a dead and nameless man to an audience of the passive and the dispossessed:

Some archaeologist of the future
will find runes, tales
of pestilence, a curse
on this man’s scapula, incised
there by the teeth of the universe
as it devoured him…
will read there the text of his suffering.
There will be no script
of your passage…our passage…
left to decipher. Our husks,
brittle exoskeletons filled with nothing
but stifling air, will rot
to dirt in the blink of an eye
without a single tooth mark. I
would damn you, but you
have damned yourselves.
The failure to speak, to argue hard for inclusion of us all in the tale of the tribe, is to not be, despite all assertions to the contrary streaming from the blue and flickering screen.


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