Friday, April 11, 2008

Notes on Three Epic Poems

This is in response to a request made on the last blog post for me to expand on some ideas I've had about the structure and composition of long poems, largely with reference to a piece of scrap paper on which I scribbled a few notes the other week. So, as you can imagine, there may need to be a little creative 'filling in' of the blanks if I'm to construct a coherent argument from my scrap.

I'm not sure if T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets can be categorised as an 'epic' poem, but I'm going to consider it as such for the purposes of this post. The other two long poems under discussion here are Alice Oswald's Dart and Christopher Logue's War Music.

Each of the highlighted links above will take you to a site where you can read an extract from the work in question; in T.S. Eliot's case, you can listen to a recording as well. The Dart link also gives some interesting information on the genesis and researching of the poem.

Back to my scrap of paper. Basically, I am in the process of writing a long poem on Warwick Castle, and although I've actually begun writing it in 'note form', I am still not sure how the finished piece will be constructed. Though each day that passes brings me nearer to deciding that.

One day, I began wondering how other poets had gone about constructing their long poems, and naturally enough reached for the nearest scrap of paper so I could begin making some notes.

My apologies to any academics who have come to this blog hoping for erudite insights into the construction of epics, but my mind works in a fairly haphazard and approximate manner when thinking about poetry. Such inaccuracies are vital, of course, because they allow me room to breathe, creatively speaking.

Here is what I wrote:


continuous structure (i.e. one discrete poem)

non-linear narrative

fluid interweaving of times, places & historical periods

many voices: rarely the poet's own; marginal notes to indicate change of speaker

similar rhythms & line lengths throughout, with occasional shifts for light and shade, and to develop 'characters'; extended lyric approaching the fluidity of music - or water


War Music

divided into books or sections, based on the original (but one poem thematically)

straight linear narrative, with asides

'authorial voice' - not the poet's own. Also reported speech and dramatised mini-scenes/sequences

alternating rhythms, loose pentameter, close to speech patterns, exclamatory, staggered lines, more like dramatic verse than extended lyric


Four Quartets

4 poems in 5 sections each

interweaving of times and places, historical events

poet's own voice, also instances of reported speech or allusions to other poets and writings

stable base rhythm & line length with serial departures; free verse skirting iambics and dactylics, alternating movements to achieve balance, short with long, an attempt at music

What I drew from the loose threads and observations above - not looking at the actual poems behind them but recollecting them as best I could, so I apologise for any mistakes - was a far stronger sense of what it entails to write long. It also allowed me to see, if not how I should go about it, at least how I shouldn't.

For instance, I had originally thought of emulating the very clear-cut structure of Four Quartets. But in the process of exploring these other options, I realised how unsuited that would be to my own poem, and perhaps to my personality. Such a defined form would eventually feel like a straitjacket. I was also aware that the publishing history behind these four poems didn't fit my vision for the Warwick Castle poem, which will be considerably shorter and less suited to being written in 'sections'.

Similarly, while the dynamic power and dramatic range of War Music were very tempting, Logue's style wasn't quite right for me. The publishing in 'sections' business was out, and I love a broad canvas, but perhaps not that broad.

So the short straw fell to Dart, in the end. However, there were still doubts. Was this more fluid, all-of-a-piece, poem really the way to go? What if I began that way and found I couldn't sustain the poem without a more defined narrative structure to hang my poetry on?

In my frustration, I began wondering whether it might not be simpler just to combine the best elements of all three, but couldn't see how to do that without creating a sort of Frankenstein's monster of a poem.

Perhaps a long poem was simply beyond my scope, anyway; I might end up writing the first fifty lines and run out of bottle.

I wasn't really sure which way I was going to swing until the other day when I started looking again at notes taken during an interview at the Aldeburgh Festival, where Alice Oswald - an inveterate country walker, especially at night - had advocated the use of 'field notes'. Which was, I suddenly realised, precisely what I'd been doing as I began to write my own long poem.

Almost by instinct, I hadn't launched in there with a definite form or structure or even voice in mind, but had come at it sideways, employing a more fluid and ad hoc approach ... that of taking 'field notes' towards the eventual poem. And perhaps the poem will end up being the field notes, nothing more.

NB. POSTSCRIPT to this entry available here.


Rob said...

Great posts, Jane. I was struck especially by the quote from Alice Oswald on:

the connection between the rhythm of a poem and the poet's thought processes: 'It's hard when writing not to allow rhythm to boss you about.'

That's put into words an issue I've been conscious of, but haven't been able to articulate. Once I finish the draft of my epic, I'm going to have to examine the rhythm of different sections and decide when I've veered into default mode (the easy options) and when I've really followed what's demanded.

As for 'field notes', I have plenty, but (however good or bad my poem eventually turns out) the world can be glad that my field notes won't be the poem! Mine are total chaos.

david lumsden said...

Interesting notes, I look forward to seeing how the project shapes up. Eliot is an interesting case ... Burnt Norton started with bits that been cut out of Murder in the Cathedral ... in an interview he once remarked "'The Hollow Men', it originated out of separate poems. As I recall, one or two early drafts of parts of Ash Wednesday' appeared in Commerce and elsewhere. Then gradually I came to see it as a sequence. That's one way in which my mind does seem to have worked throughout the years poetically - doing things separately and then seeing the possibility of fusing them together, altering them, and making a kind of whole of them."

Bo said...

If 'Dart' imitates the movements and voices of water (Joyce meets Hughes) could you try imitating stone voices, with layers and strata and mortar and jointing and the odd shaped blocks which jutt out eloquently from ruins?

Jane Holland said...

What a fantastic idea, Bo. Getting in touch with the physical nature of the building. I'd really only been thinking about the people who lived there, not the stone itself. But that adds a new dimension, yes. I also rather want the poem - if this turns out to be possible - to take in my phyical and mental/emotional presence at the scene, as poet, as visitor etc., so that my thoughts, and even my memories - not necessarily of Warwick - can be incorporated.

But again, that may be too ambitious. It would become a sort of Joycean (and you're so accurate in your analysis, mentioning him where I failed to) narrative, Ulysses meets the War of the Roses. And could I handle something that dynamic and unwieldly?

Rob, my notes are utter chaos too. But I'm not bothered by that, oddly enough. It feels like the right way to go. Refusing to impose too rigid a structure on them.

I'm so bored with structure. What does it say to me about reality? Nothing, because the reality of the world is that it is vast and chaotic, and the only structure and logic to it is hidden away at a subliminal level. We impose structure, as humans. But we know nothing, for instance, or next to nothing, about the true structure of the universe. About the true structure of space and time, for instance. Or memory.

David, I didn't know - or had forgotten, which is much the same thing - that Burnt Norton was cobbled together from Murder in the Cathedral offcuts. But it doesn't surprise me. It's quite common for novelists to work in that way, cutting and pasting from one - usually failed - novel to another new project, salvaging, patching, cobbling.

There's a fiction we tend to perpetuate about poetry, probably a hangover from ancient tales of the Muse, that poems come 'all of a piece', straight from the oracle's mouth, as it were.

But it's far more accurate to see making a poem as similar to making other, more solid things - like furniture, for instance, or a building - as a very physical process. Though more ad hoc than following a blueprint or a set of instructions - this goes there, etc. - because we're not mass producing poems and we don't have to sit on them or live in them. We don't need to consider health and safety when writing a poem (though you might be forgiven for thinking so, reading some of the poems in popular literary magazines at the moment).

But we do need to create a structure that is open and flexible enough for the human mind to enter at will and use for differing purposes according to their own expectations and memories.

Jane Holland said...

Sorry, left a rather important word out of my reply to David above: 'it's quite common for novelists to work in that way too' ...

Otherwise it makes it sound like BN and MinC are novels. Doh!

Andrew Philip said...

I was recently really struggling with a poem until I hit upon the idea of combining it with another failed poem. Then it began to work. Quite pleasing, really, even if it's not my best piece.

Jane Holland said...

Excellent, Andrew. A perfect example of two wrongs making a right!