We should not suppose this return connotes a literary topography akin to PARADISE LOST, BHAGAVAD GITA of the MAHABHARATA, or THE ILIAD. Of course, we don’t think of ourselves as poets engaged in preserving, in verse, traditional epic contests with warrior battles, supernal interventions, or topical armageddon between conspicuous forces of good and evil. Rather, a more modern epic form of poetic relevance establishes a consequential context for the events explored and also reflects the values of the particular time and place.
There are recent longer poems or collected series of poems that capture the values of an age, which values often oppose each other within the poem, and do so through an unusual telling of remarkable, singular events. Examples that immediately come to mind are C. D. Wright’s ONE WITH OTHERS and Cornelius Eady’s BRUTAL IMAGINATION. Wright wrote this book-length poem about the way a mentor and others conducted themselves in the midst of civil rights events, more particularly, the 1969 March Against Fear (from West Memphis, AR to Little Rock, AR). In the work, we learn much about complicity without redemption and courage with redemption. Previously in ONE BIG SELF, Wright relied on a similar approach (accompanied by photographs – applied, in an adjacent style, by James Agee and Walker Evans for LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN) to communicate life in the Louisiana prison system. With a different structure, Eady employed a long cycle of related poems that discover and explain the environment in which a white mind invokes an imagined black man to cover up a murder; the cycle conveys, among other things, the perspective as shown through the eyes of that fictitious black man whom Susan Smith tried to blame for the killing of her two sons in South Carolina. Both of these longer works qualify as epic pieces, not simply for the length of each, but also for the considerable examination into the complex and extensive worlds that produced the events on which these poets relied.
It would be incorrect, however, to surmise that Eady and Wright are working alone in this new epic verse mode. Several other American poets have claimed it in their own discrete styles. Kindred examples include: Nicole Cooley in BREACH, which examines in a cycle of numerous poems the immediate effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans (Cooley’s hometown) and the concomitant aftermath; and Van Brock’s UNSPEAKABLE STRANGERS, a book-length set of poems “about and related to the Holocaust, its causes, and the persistence of its causes and effects” – in the words of Brock.
Some poets, on the other hand, alter the epic mode through intriguing and surprising methods to produce a unique slant. Kimiko Hahn in TOXIC FLORA probes science (actually, articles on science that appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES) as the underlying universe for a long set of inter-connected poems. At the same time, Davis McCombs chooses in ULTIMA THULE the interiors of a network of caves, located in south central Kentucky, to extrapolate into epic dimensions an almost endless context of history, vistas, conflicts and death.
So, who says that Homer and Virgil do not live? Undoubtedly, they do; it’s just they now choose another means of travel. While I’ve tried my own hand at various applications of the latest use of the epic verse form, it’s best and most prudent for this poet to let the pieces cited in this article stand for the conclusion that long sets of linked poems or single, expansive poems, composed in the new epic verse mode, embolden and enrich the current American poetry world in ways that are both original and convincing.
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