During the presidential primaries, I picked up a copy of The Art of the Deal. My financial exposure in the deal I made at the cash register was minimal—it was a paperback.
My underlying business strategy: I would read that thing in the unlikely event its author would win the Republican nomination. Who knows, it might be possible to gain insight into his mind. Also, quoting Donald Trump could become my parlor trick. And I could annoy my wife and children.
I ended up reading that book in the way fundamentalists read the scripture. I hate to admit this, but great fun can be had with The Art of the Deal and a sharp No. 2 pencil. As I did this, I reminded myself that things could be worse. Vladimir Lenin’s complete works are arranged into 45 hefty volumes and Joseph Stalin’s into 16.
The margins of my copy of The Art of the Deal are heavily annotated with exclamation marks, all manner of expletives, even miniature drawings. I didn’t just underline—I color-coded. Here is something one can use in daily life: “I like to think big. I always have. To me it’s very simple: if you are going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.”
“Old man Goethe could not have done better,” I scribbled on the margins.
Also, this from Mr. Trump: “There are people—I categorize them as life’s losers—who get their sense of accomplishment and achievement from trying to stop others. As far as I am concerned, if they had any real ability, they wouldn’t be fighting me, they’d be doing something constructive themselves.”
My response: “Does this not prepare you for pretty much everything that has happened so far and everything that is about to happen?”
And I would be remiss to neglect this: “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and it’s a very effective form of promotion.”
“Indeed!” I concurred on the margins.
Had these lines in The Art of the Deal been uttered by a character in a novel, what would you be able to say about that character? This can be a game. Any writer with a dog-eared copy of the DSM-5 can play. Perhaps a professor at a place like Bard could fashion a lovely workshop to develop this character—how does he live, what does he eat, wear, think?
After my fundamentalist reading of Trump, I resolved to make 2017 the year of reading masochistically. I didn’t plan to read dreck. The Art of the Deal was but my starting point. My next step was to torture myself with good stuff. Heeding the call of inner voice, or possibly an inner chorus, I went to my neighborhood bookstore and bought out the entire Bertolt Brecht lineup, figuring that as a Communist who has seen the rise of fascism in Germany and the heyday of McCarthyism in the U.S., Brecht might have something to say.
The Brecht selection at the bookstore was surprisingly light. So, I supplemented on AbeBooks, acquiring a stack of slender, pre-loved, pre-underlined tomes
Until this year, I experienced Brecht one play at a time. Having self-administered a high dose of Brecht, I felt more than my usual level of anger at the forces of darkness and more than my usual level of resolve to stand up and confront them no matter what the cost. It is with a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction that I must report that I plowed through almost the entire Brecht without even a faint urge to self-mutilate. Disclosure: I am not now nor have I in the past seven years been in therapy.
I emerged with confirmation of the not-entirely-surprising notion that political repression is good for literature. At least for a while, it’s good for journalism as well. Ipso facto, had I been voting to advance my professional interests, I would have voted for Trump.
My pile of slender tomes of Brecht included a rarely produced play, Schweik in the Second World War. Brecht took the Czech national hero, a fictional dim-witted World War I soldier named Schweik (spelled Švejk in Czech), and extended his life and adventures into World War II.
After going through that play, I found myself turning to the novel that inspired it: Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. Mine was a fine Russian translation, but I am sure there are great English translations as well. Just make sure you get the copy with cartoons. They are as good as the prose.
Is Hašek’s Švejk really a dimwit or is he pretending? We never learn, and it’s entirely possible that the author doesn’t really care about the answer. But we do learn that when the world goes mad, as was the case in World War I, it takes a thick coat of feeblemindedness to remain sane.
When Brecht extends the novel to World War II, his Schweik meets Herr Adolf Hitler in the snows of Stalingrad. In Brecht, the chorus always get the best lines:
The times will be changing. The intricate plotting
Of people in power must finally fail.
Like bloodthirsty cocks though today they are strutting
The times will be changing, force cannot prevail.
There you have it: “Force cannot prevail.” From Brecht’s chorus to God’s ear; yes? Few things are as comforting than determinism. For the record, I would support any proposal to have choruses roam the streets or stand on every street corner and just sing. There is no such thing as too much truth.
I am ending the year on a genuinely masochistic note: Ezra Pound.
I had the neighborhood bookstore special-order me a copy of The Cantos. As the specter of fascism pops up in places like Charlottesville, it may or may not be relevant to know that it’s possible to be both a fascist and a great American poet.
I am still on the early pages, but I am putting my No. 2 pencil to good use, and I picked up a copy of The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound, by Daniel Swift, to inject some reality into the situation.
Here is what I am able to report so far: The Cantos are incomprehensible, but I am finding some priceless lines.
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Although 1820 was more than a generation after the Revolutionary War, British critic Sydney Smith was perhaps still smarting when he wrote in The Edinburgh Review, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” He claimed that the recently independent Americans have “done absolutely nothing…for the Arts, for Literature.” American writers have since been involved in a two-century process of crafting a rejoinder to Smith’s scurrilous assertion. We called this endeavor the “Great American Novel,” and since Smith’s royalist glove-slap the United States has produced scores of potential candidates to that exalted designation. But for all of our tweedy jingoism, the United States seems rare among nations in not having an identifiable and obvious candidate for national epic.
After all, the Greeks have The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Romans have The Aeneid, the Spanish have El Cid, the French The Song of Roland, Italy The Divine Comedy, and the British The Faerie Queene. Even the Finns have The Kalevala, from which our own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow cribbed a distinctive trochaic tetrameter in his attempt to craft an American national epic called The Song of Hiawatha. What follows is a list of other potential American epic poems, where the words “American,” “epic,” and “poem” will all have opportunity to be liberally interpreted. Some of these poems reach the heights of canonicity alongside our ”Great American Novels,” others most emphatically do not. [Editor’s Note: See our “Correction” to this list.]
The Four Monarchies (1650) by Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet’s collection The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America inaugurated what we could call “American literature.” Scholars have often given short shrift to her so-called “quaternions,” long poems encapsulating literature, history, theology, and science into considerations of concepts grouped in fours (like the four elements, seasons, ages of man, and so on). Her epic The Four Monarchies follows the influence of the Huguenot poet Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas in recounting the historical details of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, which are commonly associated with the four kingdoms of the biblical book of Daniel’s prophecy. While a committed Protestant (even if her private writings evidence a surprising degree of skepticism), Bradstreet was inheritor to a particular understanding of history that saw the seat of empire moving from kingdoms such as the ones explored in her quaternion, to a final fifth monarchy that would be ruled by Christ. It’s hard not to possibly see a westerly America as the last of these monarchies, as taking part in what John Winthrop famously evoked when he conceived of New England as being a “city on a hill” (incidentally that sermon was delivered aboard the Arbela, which was also transporting Bradstreet and her family to America). Reflecting on that passing from Old World to New, Bradstreet wrote that her “heart rose up” in trepidation, even if she ultimately would come to be the first poet of that New World.
Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton
Despite John Milton being one of “God’s Englishmen,” Paradise Lost is consummately American in its themes of rebellion, discovery, and the despoiling of paradisiacal realms. The poet’s radical republican politics seemed to prefigure that of the country in the way his native England never could embrace. A century later, in the burgeoning democracy across the Atlantic men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin read the Milton of the pamphlets Eikonoklastes (which celebrated the execution of Charles I) and Areopagitica (which advocated for freedom of speech) as a prophet of revolution. Scholarship about the poem has often hinged on how Lucifer, he who believes that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven,” should be understood: as traitor or romantic rebel. For a monarchical society such as England’s, Milton was always more a poet for the radicals than he was one to be celebrated with a monument in the Poet’s Corner. As early Christians once believed Plato and Socrates prefigured Christ, I’ll claim that Milton prefigures America.
The Day of Doom (1662) by Michael Wigglesworth
Milton’s colonial contemporary Michael Wigglesworth has fared less well in terms of posterity, and yet his long apocalyptic poem The Day of Doom stood alongside John Bunyan and the Bible as the most read book in New England well into the 18th and 19th centuries. Wigglesworth epic was the first to fully capture the American public’s obsession with Armageddon (first sacred, now secular), depicting a shortly arriving Judgment Day whereby those who were “Wallowing in all kind of sin” would soon view a “light, which shines more bright/than doth the noonday sun” with the coming of Christ and the destruction (and redemption) of the world. Yet its deceptively simple rhyming couplets about the apocalypse betray an almost ironic, gothic sensibility. A critical edition of the book has yet to be published in our own day, yet the book was so popular that virtually no copies of its first printing survive, having been read so fervently that the books were worn to oblivion.
The Rising Glory of America (1772) by Philip Freneau with Hugh Henry Brackenridge
Four years before the Declaration of Independence was ratified in Philadelphia, the New York born Huguenot poet Philip Freneau stood on the steps of Nassau Hall at Princeton University with his Scottish born classmate Hugh Henry Brackenridge and declared that “here fair freedom shall forever reign.” Six years after that, Freneau found himself held captive for six weeks aboard one of the stinking British prison ships that filled New York Harbor, only to escape and write verse about the ordeal, confirming his unofficial position as the bard of the American Revolution. Those prison ships were notorious at the time, with the bleached skulls and bones of their cast-over victims washing up onto the shores of Long Island, Manhattan, and New Jersey into the early-1800s; as such, Americans thirsted for a soldier-poet like Freneau to embody the republican ideals of independence from British tyranny. Now, two centuries later, the “poet of the American Revolution” is all but unknown, except to specialists. But at the height of his esteem, patriotic Americans, in particular those of a Jeffersonian bent, saw Freneau as an American poet laureate whose verse could extol both the virtues of democratic governance, and the coming prestige of the “Empire of Liberty,” which was to be built upon those precepts. In Freneau’s writings, whether his poetry or his journalistic work for James Madison’s The National Gazette, he envisioned “America” as a type of secular religion, the last act in human history providentially heading towards its glorious conclusion “where time shall introduce/Renowned characters, and glorious works/Of high invention and of wond’rous art.” He may have failed in his goal of being counted among these “Renowned characters,” yet the “wondr’ous art” he predicted to soon arise in this new nation would eventually come to pass.
Proposed Second Volume (1784) by Phillis Wheatley
We do not know what her real name was. She was kidnapped from her West African home at age seven, and rechristened first “Phillis” after the name of the slave ship that pulled her across the Atlantic, and then “Wheatley” after the pious Boston family who purchased her as chattel. We cannot understand how the Puritan family was able to personally justify ownership of this girl who was translating Horace and Virgil at the age of 12. We do not have record of the hours-long examination she underwent at age 18 with the same number of men (including John Hancock and the Rev. Samuel Mather) to successfully prove herself the author of the volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The reading public refused to believe that she could have written verse evocative of John Dryden and Alexander Pope without confirmation from those white men who constituted that committee. We cannot tell how genuine her belief is that it “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land” as a child on the Middle Passage, where almost a quarter of Africans died before they reached land. We do not know with what intonation she delivered the line “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train”. We cannot know what may have constituted the conversations between colleagues like the fellow slave Jupiter Hammon, or the Indian poet Samson Occom; we can only read their odes to one another. We do not know how much the shift in her celebrations of George III to George Washington evidence a change in ideology, or the necessary calculus of the survivor. We do not have record of the deprivations she experienced when finally manumitted but forced to work as a scullery maid, or of her husband’s imprisonment in debtor’s prison, or of her pregnancy (her child dying only a few hours after Wheatley herself died at the age of 31). We do not have her second book of poetry, nor its contents. We do not know if this lost epic sits in some sleepy college archive, or is yellowing in a Massachusetts attic, or rebound in some British library. We only know that in her Augustan classicism, her elegant couplets, her poetic voice always forced by circumstance to speak in her oppressors’ tongue, that we are reading one of the finest American poets of the 18th century.
Visions of Columbus (1787) and The Columbiad (1807) by Joel Barlow
In first his Visions of Columbus, and later The Columbiad, Barlow attempted to consciously write an epic befitting his new nation, whose drama he saw as equivalent to that of universal mankind. Borrowing the narrative structure of Paradise Lost, Barlow envisions a westerly angel named Hesperus as appearing to Christopher Columbus in a Castilian prison cell and revealing the future epic history of the continents he (supposedly) discovered. In The Columbiad Barlow wished to “teach all men where all their interest lies, /How rulers may be just and nations wise:/Strong in thy strength I bend no suppliant knee, /Invoke no miracle, no Muse but thee.” Columbus may have been a strange heroic subject for the eventually steadfastly secular Barlow, but in the mariner the poet saw not the medieval minded Catholic zealot of historical reality, but rather a non-English citizen of Renaissance republicanism (and thus an appropriate patron for these new lands). Barlow’s contemporary Percy Shelley famously wrote that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; in Barlow’s case language, whether poetic or diplomatic, was central in the project of constructing these new men of the New World. Barlow had long rejected the religion of his youth, and saw in the United States a new, almost millennial nation, which would fulfill humanity’s natural inclination towards freedom, where “that rare union, Liberty and Laws, /Speaks to the reas’ning race ‘to/freedom rise, /Like them be equal, and like them be/wise.”
America: A Prophecy (1793) by William Blake
Already critiqued as turgid in its own day, Barlow’s The Columbiad has only become more obscure in the intervening two centuries. Yet what it loses in number of overall readers, the poem makes up for it in the genius of those who were inspired by it, with that mystic of Lambeth William Blake reading Barlow and penning his own America: A Prophecy in visionary emulation of it. Blake is deservedly remembered as a poetic genius, Barlow not so much. The non-conformist eccentric genius “looking westward trembles at the vision,” saw in the rebellion of “Washington, Franklin, [and] Paine” the redemption of all mankind. Inspired by a heterodox religious upbringing, the rich poetic tradition of England, the coming fires of Romanticism, and the particular madness and brilliance of his own soul, Blake composed the most emancipatory verse of his or any era. With his vocation to break the “mind forg’d manacles” which enslave all mankind, Blake saw the great 18th-century revolutions in America and France as not just political acts, but indeed as ruptures in the very metaphysical substance of reality. The narrative is typical Blake, encoded in a biblical language so personal that it remains inscrutable as it is beautiful. The angel Orc, rebelling against the anti-Christ surrogate Albion, prophecies that “The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations/The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up.” In a rejection of his servitude, this spirit of independence declaims, “no more I follow, no more obedience pay.” An Englishman writing in England with a heart more American than any of the revolutionaries he celebrates, Blake writes, “Then had America been lost, o’erwhelmed by the Atlantic, /And Earth had lost another portion of the Infinite;/But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire.” But Blake’s hatred of all kings was consistent, he rejected the idolatrous apotheosis of the god-president Washington, and as is the fate of all revolutionaries, America would ultimately break his heart. For Blake, no nation proclaiming liberty while holding so many of its people in bondage could claim to be truly independent. Freedom was still to be found elsewhere.
Madoc (1805) by Robert Southey
Because his and his friend Samuel Coleridge’s dreams of founding a utopia on the Susquehanna River would be unrealized, Southey’s American dreams remained in England, where he composed an unlikely epic charting a counterfactual history imagining epic battles between the Welsh and the Aztecs. The poem is based on legends surrounding the Welsh prince Madoc, who in the 12th century supposedly escaped civil war in his home country to travel west and dwell among the Indians of America. There is an enduring quality to these sorts of apocryphal stories of pre-Colombian trans-Atlantic contact. The Elizabethan astrologer John Dee used these legends as justification for English colonization of the Americas, explorers ranging from Spanish conquistadors to Jamestown natives claimed to have found blonde-haired Welsh speaking Indians, and in Alabama and Georgia historical markers reporting these myths as facts stood as recently as 2015. The undeniable excitement and romance of such a possibility is threaded throughout Madoc, which pits Celt against Aztec and druid against pyramid high-priest, with a council of Welsh bards naming the prince a “Merlin” to the Americas. The poem is ready-made for the cinematic treatment, even as its imaginary medieval battles allowed the once idealistic Southey to overlook the unequal violence of historical colonialism, and in the process to embrace an increasingly conservative politics. Yet the Arthurian fantasy of the story is inescapably fascinating, as Southey asks, “Will ye believe/The wonders of the ocean? how its shoals/Sprang from the wave, like flashing light…/language cannot paint/Their splendid tints!”
The Song of Hiawatha (1855) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Once Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the greatest American bard, the most accomplished of the Fireside Poets, whose verse celebrated Yankee independence and liberty. The question of what America’s national epic was would be easy for a good Victorian — it could be nothing other than Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. And yet the literary critical history of the 20th-century was not kind to the bearded old New Englander. The degradation has become such that current poet Lewis Putnam Turco derides Longfellow as “minor and derivative in every way… nothing more than a hack imitator.” In the years and decades after its composition, generations of American school-children memorized the opening lines of Longfellow’s poem: “On the shores of Gitche Gumee, /Of the shining Big-Sea Water, /Stood Nokomis, the old woman, /Pointing with her finger westward,/O’er the water pointing westward,/To the purple clouds of sunset.” The distinctive trochaic trimeter, borrowed from the Finnish epic The Kalevala gives the epic a distinct beat intentionally evoking an Indian pow-wow as imagined by Longfellow. Critical history has not only been unkind to Longfellow, it has also been unfair. While Freneau and Barlow consciously mimicked European precedents, and Southey constructed his own imaginary representations of the Aztec, Longfellow tried to tell an indigenous story as accurately as he could (even if his own identity may have precluded that as a possibility). Based on his friendship with the Ojibwa chief Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh and the Sauk chief Black Hawk, the poet attempted to use indigenous history and religion to craft a uniquely American epic. For much of its reception history American readers took the poem as precisely that. Longfellow’s tale sung of Hiawatha, a follower of the 12th-century Great Peacemaker of the Iroquoian Confederacy who preached in the western hills around Lake Superior and of New York and Pennsylvania. Though little read anymore, the poem still echoes as an attempt not just to write an epic for America, but also to transcribe a genuinely American epic.
“Song of Myself” (1855) by Walt Whitman
Both The Song of Hiawatha and “Song of Myself” were published in 1855; and while the former sold 50,000 copies upon release, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, self-published in a Brooklyn print shop, didn’t even sell out its small initial run of 800. Of the few reviews published, most seemed to repeat some variation of the critic who called the slender volume “reckless and indecent.” And yet a century and a half later it is Whitman whom we hold in the highest esteem, as America’s answer to Milton or Blake. For in Whitman we have the first genuine rupture in American literary history, with the New York poet following Milton’s lead in “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” For Whitman abandoned the conventional rules of prosody, loosening tongue and ligament to craft a lusty and hearty free verse equal parts Bowery dock-worker and King James Bible. So what, exactly, was Whitman’s epic about? In short, it took as its subject — simply everything. The poem is about the “marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west,” and “The runaway slave” who came to a house and “stopt outside,” and also “The young men” who “float on their backs” whose “white bellies bulge to the sun,” and “The pure contralto” who “sings in the organ loft,” and “The quadroon girl” who is “sold at the auction stand” and “The machinist” who “rolls up his sleeves,” as well as “The groups of newly-come immigrants.” He understood that in a truly democratic society the Golden Age platitudes of the traditional epic form could not truly confront the vibrant, egalitarian reality of lived experience, and so rather than sing of Columbus, or Washington, or Hiawatha, Whitman asks us to “celebrate yourself.” The “I” of “Song of Myself” is not quite reducible to Whitman as the author, and therein lies the genius of his narration, for he elevates himself in a sort of literary kenosis, becoming an almost omniscient figure for whom the first-person personal pronoun comes to almost pantheistically encompass all of reality. And though Whitman was a type of mystic, he was always consciously American as well, penning that most American of genres — advertisements for himself.
Complete Poems (c.1886) by Emily Dickinson
Dickinson is not the author of any conventional epic, nor would she have considered herself to be an epic poet. What she offers instead are close to 2,000 lyrics, so finely and ingeniously structured, so elegant in the relationship between line and image and rhythm, that taken as a whole they offer a portrait of a human mind anticipating death that is as consummate and perfect as any offered by any other poet. Like Leaves of Grass, the fragments of Dickinson scribbled on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper present an epic that is secretly, yet simply, the reader’s own life story. Dickinson belongs among that collection of the greatest philosophers, whose orientation towards truth is such that she is able to tell us that which we all know, but were unable to say. Take the line “I am Nobody! Who are you? /Are you – Nobody – too?” With her characteristic idiosyncratic punctuation (that capitalized “Nobody!”) and the strange, almost-ironic interrogative declaration. In her logical statement of identity, which is built upon negation, she offered a Yankee version of God’s declaration in Exodus that “I am what I am.”
The Cantos (c.1915-62) by Ezra Pound
His Cantos are the strangest epic, a syncretic alchemy of American history, Chinese philosophy, and ancient Greek poetry. Almost impenetrable in their hermeticism, Pound’s actual phrases were able to distill the essence of an image to their very form. Yet he was also an anti-American traitor, madman, war criminal, propagandist, and defender of the worst evils of the 20th century. He was an ugly man, but as a poet he could cut excess down to crystalline perfection: “The apparition of these faces in the/crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.” Some 20 years after his infamous wartime broadcasts for the Italian fascists, a faded, broken, wrinkled, and ancient Pound found himself living in Venice. Sitting before the elderly man in that Venetian villa was a balding, magnificently bearded Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet and Jewish Buddhist, there to break bread with Pound. Ginsberg brought along some vinyl to play; he wished to demonstrate to Pound the distinct American speech that threaded from the older poet through Ginsberg and to that other Jewish folk troubadour, this one named Robert Allen Zimmerman. The younger poet, reportedly forgiving and gracious to a fault, claimed that Pound apologized for his anti-Semitic betrayals during the war. Yet this was not an act of contrition — it was a request for cheap grace. Beautiful verse can sprout from poisoned soil. We can still read him, but that does not mean that we need to forgive him, even if Ginsberg could.
John Brown’s Body (1922) by Stephen Vincent Benét
The writer from Bethlehem, Penn., attempted his classically structured epic poem at an unfortunate cultural moment for classically structured epic poems. Though it won a Pulitzer Prize a year after it was written, John Brown’s Body remains largely forgotten. Though Benét’s conservative aesthetics that call upon the “American muse, whose strong and diverse heart/So many have tried to understand” may seem retrograde, what’s actually contained is the fullest poetic expression of the definitional moment of American history. John Brown’s Body, which teaches us that “Sometimes there comes a crack in Time itself,” returns to slavery, the original sin of American history, and to the incomplete war waged to bring an end to the horrors of bondage. Benét, most famous for his story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (which if anything has reached the level of fable, its author’s name largely forgotten) attempted to craft an epic to commemorate the Civil War while its veterans still lived. His task is conscious, perhaps thinking of Barlow, Freneau, and others, he writes of his nation “They tried to fit you with an English song/And clip your speech into the English tale. /But, even from the first, the words went wrong.” The poem would be mere affectation if not for how beautiful lines of the poem could be, and if not for how important the poet’s task was, and if not for just how often he comes close to accomplishing it.
The Bridge (1930) by Hart Crane
From his apartment at 110 Columbia Heights the poet Hart Crane could see that massive structure that began to span from Brooklyn into lower Manhattan. Like Barlow, Crane borrows the character of Columbus, as well as other semi-mythic American personages such as Pocahontas and Rip Van Winkle in leading up to his own experience of seeing this new wonder of the world unite two formerly separate cities. Beneath the shadow of the bridge he asks, “How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest/The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him, /Shedding white rings of tumult, building high/Over the chained bay waters Liberty.” The poem was written as a rejoinder to the pessimism in that other epic, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Crane’s own life could be desperate: alcoholic and dead at 32 from his own hand after being savagely beaten by a homophobic crowd. Yet in The Bridge he tries to marshal that definitional American optimism, this sense of a New World being a place that can make new people. A contemporary critic noted that the poem, in “its central intention, to give to America a myth embodying a creed which may sustain us somewhat as Christianity has done in the past, the poem fails.” And yet whether this is said fairly or not, it misses the point that all epics must in some sense be defined by failure, the only question is how well you failed. By this criterion, in its scope, breadth, ambition, and empathy, Crane failed very well.
“Middle Passage” (c.1940) by Robert Hayden
Benét intuited that slavery was the dark core of what defined this nation, and that no understanding of who we could be can ever really begin till we have fully admitted to ourselves what we have been. The poet Robert Hayden concurred withBenét, and his “Middle Passage” was a black expression of the horrors and traumas that defined American power and wealth, a moral inventory that explicates the debt of blood owed to the millions of men, women, and children subjugated under an evil system. His epic is one of the fullest poetic expressions of the massive holocaust of Africans ripped from their homes and transported on the floating hells that were the slave ships of the middle passage, telling the narrative of “Middle Passage:/voyage through death/to life upon these shores.” No complete personal memoir of the middle passage survives (with the possible exception of 1789’s The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano) and so Hayden had to make himself a medium or a conduit for voices that were silenced by the horrors of slavery, writing of “Shuttles in the rocking loom of history, /the dark ships move, the dark ships move.” Hayden had certainly never been in the stomach of a slave ship himself, and yet he conveys the knowledge that “there was hardly room ‘tween-decks for half/the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;/that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh/and sucked the blood.” “Middle Passage” is such a consummate American epic precisely because it enacts the central tragedy of our history, but its ending is triumphant, depicting the emergence of a new hybridized identity, that of the African-American. The conclusion of Hayden’s poem is inescapable: all that is most innovative about American culture from our music to our food to our vernacular to our literature has its origins in the peoples who were brutally forced to this land.
Paterson (1946-63) by William Carlos Williams
Of course a town like Paterson, N.J., could generate an epic five-volume poem, penned by her native son, the pediatrician-bard William Carlos Williams. True to his Yankee ethic, Williams’s philosophy was one that was vehemently materialist, practical in its physicality and imploring us to “Say it! No ideas but in things.” In Paterson Williams’s answered Eliot’s obscure Waste Land with a poetic rejoinder, one that rejected the later poet’s obscurity and difficult language with a paean to the lusty American vernacular every bit the equal of Williams’s fellow New Jerseyite Whitman. That language flowed as surely as the Passaic River across those five volumes, and over two decades of writing. What the poem provides is a thorough and deep history of this particular place, using it as a reflective monad to encompass the history of the entire country from colonialism, through revolution and industrialization into the modern day. In Williams’s epic the reader experiences, “The past above, the future below/and the present pouring down: the roar, /the roar of the present, a speech –/ is, of necessity, my sole concern.”
Howl (1955) by Allen Ginsberg
The Blakean New Jerseyite may have implored us to topple Moloch’s statue, but we used his poem to sell coffee, jeans, and computers. A criticism of the Beats was always that their modus operandi was more style than substance, a disservice to Howl, which when read free of the accumulated cultural debris that surrounds it is still thrillingly inspired. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked” (at a tender age I inscribed those very lines around the white edge of a pair of black Converse hi-tops with a purple felt pen). Howl can seem a mere product of the mid-century counterculture, but that doesn’t mean that his bop Kabbalistic vision of the sacred embedded within the grit and muck of marginalized people — the radials, and junkies, and queers, and addicts, and drunks — doesn’t remain profoundly beautiful. Ginsberg sings the song of “Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection/to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Dedicated to one of these lost children of America, Carl Solomon, who Ginsberg met in a Patterson mental hospital, Howl’s vision is profoundly redemptive, despite its depiction of an America that is more Babylon than “City on a hill.”
The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (1972) by Frank Stanford
The poet Frank Stanford marshaled that Southern history that hangs as thick as a blanket of lightning bugs on a humid July night in his brilliant The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. If not America’s great epic than it is surely the South’s, where the poem is all moonshine and Elvis Presley, yet not reducible to its constituent parts. Following the lead of modernists like E.E. Cummings, Stanford produced a massive poem devoid of punctuation and reproduced without any stanzas, one that never reached the heights of canonicity despite being celebrated by poets like Alan Dugan as among the greatest American works of the 20th century. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You endures as a half-remembered phantom born out of a particular Southern dark genius, and now almost folk-myth as much as it is actual text, out of print for years at a time. Stanford, who killed himself with three pistol shots to the chest at the age of 30 in 1978 endures as a literary ghost, still searching for a deserving audience. As he wrote, “Death is a good word. /It often returns/When it is very/Dark outside and hot, /Like a fisherman/Over the limit, /Without pain, sex, /Or melancholy. /Young as I am, I/Hold light for this boat.”
The New World (1985) by Frederick Turner
Perhaps a central anxiety of American literature, which reflects on the endlessly novel and regenerative possibilities of this Golden Land, is that as the clock ticks forward we become less and less new. Hence the necessity to continually reinvent, to “make it new” as Pound put it. The Neo-Formalist poet Frederick Turner takes this injunction very literally with his provocative science fiction epic appropriately titled The New World. Set in a fantastic 24th century, Turner envisions a fractured and disunited states of America born out of the fissures and inconsistencies that always defined American cultural identity. There are now groups like the anarchic Riots, the Eloi-like Burbs, the theocratic Mad Counties, and the Jeffersonian Free Counties. What follows is an archetypal story of family feuding, exile, and messianism across these designated polities, and in the process Turner tells a narrative about America’s history by imagining America’s future. Invoking the muse, as is the nature of the epic convention, Turner writes “I sing of what it is to be a man and a woman in our time.” What follows is a circus-mirror reflection of America, brilliantly harnessing the potential of science fiction as a modern genre and using the vehicle of the seemingly moribund epic form to sing a new story. The future setting of Turner’s epic serves to remind us that this mode, so much older than America, will also outlive us.
The Forage House (2013) by Tess Taylor
As genealogy-obsessed as we may be, many Americans have an anxiety about fully recognizing their own reflections in past mirrors, with the full implications of where we’ve come from steadfastly avoided. Poet Tess Taylor writes, “At first among certain shadows/you felt forbidden to ask whose they were.” In The Forage House she crafts an American epic by writing a personal one; she interrogates the long-dead members of her own lineage, pruning the tendrils of her family tree and discovering that while genealogy need not be destiny, it also must be acknowledged. A native Californian, she is descended from both New England missionaries and Virginian slave owners, with one ancestor in particular, Thomas Jefferson, as enigmatic a cipher as any for the strange contradictions of this land. Jefferson may not have admitted that branch of his family tree sired through his slave Sally Hemings, but Taylor seeks out her black cousins. To do this isn’t an issue of political expedience, but one profoundly and necessarily urgent in its spiritual importance. Perhaps it is in the collection of people that constitute a family, and indeed a nation, where we can identify an epic worthy of the nation. Rugged individualism be damned, we’re ultimately not a nation of soloists, but a choir.
Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) by Claudia Rankine
The dark irony of the word “citizen” as the title of Rankine’s poem is that this postmodern epic explores the precise ways that this nation has never treated its citizens equally. Combining poetry, creative nonfiction, and a stunningly designed image, Citizen has the appearance of a photography magazine but the impact of a manifesto. The cover of the book depicts a gray hood, isolated in a field of white, presented as if it were some sort of decontextualized object or museum piece. But the hoodie calls to mind the murdered Florida teenager Trayvon Martin; Citizen ensures that we can never view an artifact as this out of context. The awareness that Citizen conveys is that this is a nation in which a black child like Martin, simply walking home from the store with iced tea and Skittles, can be killed by an armed vigilante who is then acquitted by a jury of his peers. But it would be a mistake to think that Rankine’s poem is some sort of sociological study, for as helpful as the adoption of terms like “privilege” and “intersectionality” have been in providing a means for political analysis, Citizen displays the deep, intuitive wisdom that only poetry can deliver — racism not simply as a problem of policy, but also as a national spiritual malady. From Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” to Citizen, conservative critics have purposefully obscured the purposes of these poetic sermons. Yet what Rankine attempts is profoundly American, for Citizen conveys that any America falling short of its stated promises is an America that betrays its citizens. As she writes, “Just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” In answering what our national epic is, Uncle Walt said that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem;” the importance of Citizen is that it reminds us that this poem has yet to be fully written.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
At a wedding last summer, a guy seated at my table told me he hadn’t read a book in four years. I can’t remember the title of the traumatic work that occasioned his renunciation—perhaps it was Ovid’s Metamorphoses—but I distinctly recall panicking when asked by this prodigal reader to recommend something. Which magical text would show him the folly of his non-reading ways?
I entertained suggesting something patently inappropriate. Maybe one of those erotic French tales put out by Grove Press would get him back on track, something like Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, Guillaume Apollinaire’s incest-laden The Amorous Exploits of a Young Rakehall or Régine Deforges’s The Storm, the rawest of the lot. Or I could just say The Goldfinch and get it over with. However, with this tantalizing blank slate offered up before me, I froze.
“Let me think about it.”
I was mercifully saved by the start of a merciless best-man speech.
Ann Patchett would have turned that young man around. In a Washington Post article titled “Owning a Bookstore Means You Always Get to Tell People What to Read,” Patchett writes:
When Karen Hayes and I opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in November 2011, I hadn’t really considered what an enormous boon it would be to my lifelong preoccupation with forcing books on people.
There are many differences between Ann Patchett and me. She is a successful novelist and businessperson — I am most definitely not — but more important, I have a lifelong phobia of forcing books on people.
Patchett continues on the joys of hand-selling: “[Customers] just smile up at me, trusting and curious, waiting to follow my instructions. It makes my heart soar.” The very thought nearly stops my heart, cursed as I am with the neurotic inability to look into the smiling, trusting, and curious eyes of would-be readers and give them what they want.
One could charitably ascribe my hesitancy to recommend books an excessive respect for other people’s time: who am I to tell you how to spend so many hours? But that’s not really it. Reading is an investment, but unlike stock tips, there is profit to be had in even the most dubious recommendations. Nor does it have to do with the fear that the suggested title will reflect on my own aesthetic or moral deficiencies.
And still, as a recent encounter with a new neighbor made painfully clear, I just can’t not make a mess of things.
I first met him as he was pedaling by my house, bicycle-riding twins in tow. When I mentioned that I reviewed books, he naturally asked: “Oh, got any good ones to recommend?” For me, the equivalent of a politician’s “gotcha” question.
The usual reaction occurred: a rush of blood to the face, followed by blubbering equivocations and panicked attempts to stall for time as I cycled through every book I’d read over the last weeks, months, years, then all the books I hadn’t read over that same time. Given what I had gleaned about him in our brief chat, which of these hundreds of titles would be best?
Nothing was coming to mind. The helmeted twins glared at me, justifiably resentful that my deliberations were cutting into their playtime.
Come on, champ. Anything. Erik Larson has a new book about the Lusitania. Too many syllables? Anthony Doerr just won the Pulitzer. Or Phil Klay. Iraq, and all that powerful stuff.
But for some reason known only to my maker, I was seized by an almost Tourettic desire to scream out The Epic of Gilgamesh. I held it in, though as I squirmed I saw a flicker of doubt in his eye. He was wondering, I imagine, whether I had ever read, let alone reviewed, a book. Had a spy moved in next door, using the shaky cover of a freelance writer/editor? The twins grew more antsy, doing circles on the quiet street as they waited for their father to conclude with this stammering yutz.
Inspiration! I’d just read a Kindle Single, Jeff Wise’s The Plane That Wasn’t There, which put forth a rather fanciful account of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Alas, it didn’t seem like the best time to explain how the plane had been diverted to an airfield in Kazakhstan as a Russian-sent warning for NATO to stop meddling in Ukraine. I would save that for a summer barbecue when I had him good and cornered.
Good god, man, spit it out!
A book about neighborly quarrels could be fun, like James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking With Fernet Blanca. No, too arch. Or perhaps he could lose himself in some of Ezra Pound’s Cantos? That ought to keep him busy.
The light declining, I finally decided to put myself out of my misery.
“Let me think about it.”
The family pedaled off, fated to rely on more articulate acquaintances or Amazon’s algorithm for recommendations.
Perhaps because of my book-recommending block, I respect those with the courage to impose their reading will on others. Take my friend’s boss, who stopped him in the hall and “suggested” he buy a 600-page, dry-as-dust tome called Successful Executive’s Handbook, never to indicate any relevant sections or even mention it again. That’s a power move worthy of a successful executive.
Another good friend loved Norman Mailer’s massive CIA epic, Harlot’s Ghost, so much that for a period of six months he pressed it on people he met on the street, baristas, girlfriends, soon-to-be ex-girlfriends, and me. There was no dithering about whether you liked fiction or nonfiction, bios or memoir, character-driven or plot-heavy novels. You even hinted that you were looking for a book recommendation and the next thing you knew, there’d be a 1,400-page brick on your nightstand.
A few weeks after loaning me his copy of the Mailer, which I didn’t dive into quickly enough, he snatched it back to give to someone else. The new recipient trudged through 1,399 pages, hating every minute of it, before seeing “To Be Continued” at the bottom of the last page. This proved too cruel a joke. Released from her self-imposed burden, she refused to read the final paragraph as a matter of principle.
A few days later, when we were having coffee, my friend offered Harlot’s Ghost back to me if I promised to read it promptly this time.
“Let me think about it.”
Image Credit: Flickr/ginnerobot.
I may as well confess, by way of prolepsis, that Mathias Énard’s second novel, Zone, is the kind of book that can tie a critic in absolute knots, not only because, due to its most striking formal feature – it is a single, 517-page sentence – the damn thing more or less confounds quotation, but also because the duty to move beyond a mere inventory of its contents toward some evocation of the reading experience feels unusually…well, critical, the difference between contents and experience being in this case sort of like the difference between staring at the pitted black grooves of side two of Dark Side of the Moon and actually traveling to the dark side of the moon, as in a sense Zone’s narrator and antihero is, or anyway the dark side of something, call it the Twentieth Century, call it human nature, or call it, as he does, “the Zone” (i.e., the wartorn region around the Mediterranean where “wrathful savage gods have been clashing with each other . . . since the Bronze age at least”), and that’s where I had thought to start, adumbrating the particular historical darkness of the Zone and the conflicts swirling in and around it like the eddies of Énard’s prose, except that the attempt to comprehend all this, which as the novel opens is consuming self-identified civil servant Francis Servain Mirković, age thirtysomething, felt in my retelling as flat as the pull-down map in a high-school classroom, and, as I could practically hear readers clicking over to Gawker (and I hadn’t even reached the end of the first sentence!), perhaps something more lively was in order—say, a dramatic recreation of a 2006 editorial meeting at the book’s French publisher, Actes Sud, where a junior editor barely out of puberty is attempting to justify his ardor for the manuscript to a panel of jaded superiors who, not having read it, sigh at intervals and drag wearily on their Gauloises as they hear that F. S. Mirković is actually both a brutish Croatian war criminal and a hyper-literate French spy; that he has boarded a train to Rome under false passport to sell a briefcase full of secrets to the Vatican before getting out of “the game” for good; and that he will still be stuck on the Milano-Roma overnight diretto when the novel ends, so that, despite its noirish Maguffin and feats of syntax worthy of The Guinness Book of World Records, or at least a Guinness, Zone is a novel in which, broadly speaking, nothing happens, unless you count Francis thinking at great length about history in its personal and global aspects, and though the overlords of the publishing house may have perked up a little at this last bit, cerebration being pretty much France’s national pastime, it must still have sounded incroyable, this bouillabaisse of Descartes and Dachau, Sebald and Seinfeld, Mrs. Dalloway and Mission: Impossible, and not in the good sense, and this again (to make a very Mirkovićian recursion) is how I had thought to begin, cool giving way to heat, first pass tragedy, second pass farce, but still like the junior editor I seemed to be failing to do this remarkable book justice, and in fact I began to wonder if Énard himself had felt a similar sense of obligation to his material, only scaled radically up, an obligation to the Zone’s war-dead (“young, old, male, female, burnt black, cut into pieces, machine gunned, naked”) to make it new, per his epigraph-furnisher, cameo fascist, and tutelary shade Ezra Pound, though of course if I were truly to take a page from Énard taking a page from Pound, I would have to plunge into, as opposed to merely gesticulating near, questions about Zone’s seemingly mismatched ethical and aesthetic ambitions (for as Francis finds, in the course of his train ride, bedrock has a way of asserting itself through even the mind’s most turbulent involutions), and also questions about how Énard gets these ambitions to work in harness, how as the clauses mount and cascade and carry the reader forward, Francis’ un-excellent non-adventure manages to generate its improbable urgency, as if in that briefcase were not some soon-to-be papal papers but a bomb that threatens to take our hero with it when it blows, questions whose answers were at first hard to see, as from a train it’s hard to see the trees for the forest, the forest in this case being that enormous formal dare – the novel as single sentence – which should (again, in theory) have killed both Zone’s chill and its heat, yet the more I thought about the novel’s form, the more it, too, started to seem like a kind of Maguffin, every bit as conventional in its own way as that briefcase (paging Ving Rhames!) or, say, as your average act of stunt-reviewing—and here I’m referring not just to Énard’s particular high-Modernist, comma-spliced rendition of stream-of-consciousness, which in less adroit hands than the translator Charlotte Mandell’s might feel at this stage in the history of the European Art Novel positively fustian, but also to the novel’s two least successful gambits, viz., a pattern of Hellenic allusion likewise cribbed from Ulysses (chapters keyed to Homer, recurring epithets, invocations of those Bronze-Age gods), and the irruption of a short story that Francis is reading into the text—herrings whose conspicuous incarnadine distracts us from Énard’s deeper debt, which is not to 1930 but to 1830, which is to say that Zone really makes its bones where the hoariest Balzac novel does, in the steady concretion of detail, from Francis’ recollections of his mother, a fiercely patriotic Croat who “would have made an excellent soldier” (she applies her iron fist instead to teaching piano and browbeating her son, until it seems to him that “with her no, no, no, not so fast, not so fast, from the neighboring room,” she is “directing [his] masturbation”) to his time as an enlistee in the Balkans (where he sneaks across Serbian lines with a comrade to drag back a stolen pig and later must drag that same comrade’s body to a funeral pyre); to alcoholism and depression in a Venice so cold Francis sleeps rolled up in an old rug, with “shoes on because the rigid carpet was like a tube and didn’t cover [his] feet”; to wrecked relationships with two women vividly undeserving of Francis’ psychodrama; and ultimately to the French intelligence services, where a shellfish-loving alopeciac named Lebihan sees in the haunted veteran a potential “asset”—not to mention the brilliant incidentals, erections in tour buses, the zinc tops of bars, “Turkish MCs chanting bingo results in five languages,” a vision of Donald Sutherland as Christ, details knitting train to trench, past to present, the real to the imagined, and as Zone’s locomotive sentence wends through them all out of order, we come to feel that the “impossible gulf hollowed out by war” is not, as Francis suggests, the one separating soldiers from bystanders but the one that, as in the Springsteen song, runs through the middle of his skull, in light of which the stories of other lives that periodically seize the text—stories of battle and exile and murder—might indeed look like Francis’ attempt to forget himself, “to disappear wholly into paper,” were they not also a way of understanding himself, the history of the Zone being, like the history of Francis himself (and, Énard probably wants to suggest, like the history of any of us) one of perpetual strife between the higher faculties and the lower, the civilized and the barbaric, Eros and Thanatos, Apollo and Dionysus, so that in resurrecting Janus-faced Francis, Zone also breathes new life what that had come to seem the lifeless stuff of AP exams, the “nation of the dead” (as the Scottish historian Gil Elliot puts it) that along with the aesthetic disruption of Modernism, that other crisis of representation, had seemed to lay a younger generation of European writers under a heavy curse—on the one hand, your characters can’t just sit around eating French fries (or, as in 2666, Fürst Pücklers) as if the Twentieth Century hadn’t happened; on the other, to write directly about all those deaths is to risk the worst kind of kitsch, the second-worst being perhaps the too-slavish aping of Joyce—but then again, one man’s curse is another man’s blessing, for by seizing these two crises, one ethical and one aesthetic, and smashing them together like two dumb stones, as hard and as wildly as he can, Mathias Énard has found a way to restore death to life and life to death, and so joins the first rank of novelists, the bringers of fire, who even as they can’t go on, do.
Bonus Link: An excerpt from Zone.
“He was drunk and exhausted
but he was critically acclaimed and respected.”
– The Hold Steady, “Stuck Between Stations”
Writing about literature is often figured as a sort of parasitism – “what lice will do, when they have no more blood to suck,” is how I’m told they put it in the Nineteenth Century. For a time in the Twentieth, however, the relationship between a certain school of exegetes and a certain coterie of writers was closer to symbiosis. The job of New Critics and their Formalist counterparts was to decode a text’s meanings through close examination of its language. The job of the poet, meanwhile, was to create a text that would stand up to such scrutiny.
Ezra Pound’s Cantos constitute, it seems to me, the paramount example of poetry alert to – even anxious about – its own interpretative possibilities. It is the tension between Pound’s confidence in the cryptographic stamina of his readers and his desire to make the poems finally unsolvable that makes The Cantos (all 800 pages of them) so frustrating. And so beautiful. Behind the bricolage of quotations (translated, mistranslated, untranslated), the syntactic suspensions, the typographic oddities and the lunatic fragmentation, there’s always a sense of something powerful, mysterious, and epic at work.
John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, which I came to by way of The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America, clearly counts The Cantos among its million billion influences. And at first blush, The Dream Songs seem equally baffling – the kind of private language the philosophers tell us isn’t possible:
Le’s do a hoedown, gal,
one blue, one shuffle,
if them is all you seem to réquire. Strip,
ol banger, skip us we, sugar; so hang on
one chaste evenin.
-Sir Bones, or Galahad: astonishin
yo legal & yo good.
Who is Mr. Bones? Why the dialect? And what’s up with that accent mark over the “e”? These are the same kinds of questions Pound invites. For all their fragmentation, though, The Dream Songs are intensely intimate in a way The Cantos never quite manage. Through a variety of moods and methods, they adumbrate the life and consciousness of a hero as multifarious and singular as Joyce’s Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Also: Berryman’s ear is astonishing. Sometimes a Difficult Book is more swimming pool than jigsaw puzzle. Rather than trying to solve it, we do better just to jump in.
The final poem cycle worth mentioning in this troika of Difficult Books is Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets. Berrigan is often identified as a “second-generation” New York School poet, a designation both helpful and un-. On the one hand, The Sonnets draw on both the suggestive opacity of John Ashbery and the urbanity of Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch. On the other, nothing about these poems feels self-consciously “School”ed. By the time his generation came of age (Berrigan was born in 1934), the New Criticism’s dominance was waning, and with it the legacy of programatic formalism. The fragmentation of The Sonnets speaks of openness and freedom, rather than discipline and constraint. Which is to say it’s a very 1960s kind of book. “And high upon the Brooklyn Bridge alone,” Berrigan writes,
to breathe an old woman slop oatmeal,
loveliness that longs for butterfly! There is no pad
as you lope across the trails and bosky dells
I often think sweet and sour pork”
shoe repair, and scary.
What does it mean? I have no idea. I often don’t, when I read these three marvelous poets. But I don’t know what life means, either – just that, like Berrigan, Berryman, and Pound, it makes me feel alive.
More Difficult Books