Tag Archives: Walt Whitman

What Makes The Epic Epic

We’ve all called something epic – it’s now associated with awesome, big, spectacular – but, as a literary term, the epic means something very specific. Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, the unknown author’s Beowulf, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself aren’t epics because they’re long pieces of poetry, but rather, because they all share a very specific elements which puts them into the epic category.

The movie Epic and epic poetry have nothing in common, I’m sorry to say.

First, epic poems open with what’s called a in medias res, Latin for “in the midst of things.” Beowulf opens with a kingdom in need of a Grendel extermination. The reader doesn’t start with the birth of Beowulf, but rather we start with a scene ripe for action.

The setting of epics are vast. Think the exact opposite of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which mostly takes place in one room. Epics are epic in part because of the vastness of their settings. The Odyssey spans oceans and continents, for example.

Almost all epics call to a muse to set the tone of the piece of poetry to come.

No, not those muses (I knew your brain would go there). The muses were not five gospel singers – and that’s the gospel truth.

In Defense of Love Poems

People who know me might be confused by this post. I don’t come off as one overly sentimental, especially when it comes to love or love poems. But I think love is part of the human experience, and thus, like anything that makes us human, is ripe to be explored in poetry and art.

While I agree with Melanie that it is annoying for all people to assume when one says “I write poetry,” that it is mushy-love based flowery poetry, I still think love poetry is a valid and wonderful form of poetry. There are many kinds of love, and many ways of expressing that love through poetry.

Familial love is often celebrated in poems, such as W.B. Yeats’s poem A Prayer for my Daughter written about the birth of his daughter and his hopes for her in the future, or Dylan Thomas’s poem Do not go gentle into that good night written to his father to encourage his dad to fight against his death. Langston Hughes also wrote a poem titled Mother to Son, about a mother summing up her fight for equality and passing the fight and her fire onto her boy.

Brotherly love, or bromance (which is actually a word now, so I don’t feel bad using it), is another theme often explored in poetry. Shakespeare did it in the first 126 sonnets of his 154 sonnet sequence (although, these poems can also be read as being about more than platonic love but there are many subtle things, such as Shakespeare encouraging the youth he admires to procreate and marry so that Shakespeare and the world can admire his offspring, that point to a more platonic reading for me). The best example of brotherly love from Shakespeare’s sequence comes in the form of Sonnet 30, a sonnet that explores how Shakespeare would mourn for his friend in his friend’s death. Robert Frost wrote A Time to Talk about the values of slowing life down to appreciate a chat with friends. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also wrote a poem The Arrow and the Song about how our actions, both physical in the way of an arrow and spiritual in the way of a song, take root in the world around us and are often carried by those we are close to when we feel that these things are lost.

A Poetry Starter Kit

Last week, I ventured into the university bookstore to buy Collected Poems by Philip Larkin. The store was out of the book, so I placed a special order with one of the clerks.

As she was helping me, the young woman said, “I never read poetry.”

I told her, “You’re not alone. Most Americans don’t read poetry.”

She asked, “Why is that?”

I told her that many academics had many quirky theories, but these were only theories. Everyone has an opinion, but no solution. “What is your major?” I asked.

She told me she studied the social sciences, and might go into social work. Then she said, “I read Keats and Whitman in high school.”

I said, “You could spend the remainder of your long life studying those two dead guys, and that brand of reading might contribute to a happy life.”

Then I wrote her a list:  Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sandra Cisneros. I told her to go to the internet and Google every poem she could find by these poets. Give every poem a chance. Read each poem at least twice.  If she found a poem she didn’t like, don’t stop there. Keep looking for more poems by each poet. Put together an anthology of poems she liked.

She promised she would.