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Epic misunderstanding

Richie McCaffery muses on poetic styles

by Richie McCaffery

When I was at school in the early 2000s I started to notice many of my contemporaries suddenly adding the term ‘epic’ to their lexicon. To contextualise its usage, it was generally employed outside of the classroom, during break, for such feats as throwing an empty drink can across the room and landing it in the bin or tossing up a water bottle in the air and getting it to fall upright on the table. I was smug as I reminded them that ‘epic’ was not an adjective at all, but a noun meaning ‘a long poem with some war and fighting in it’. I know my definition back then was very reductive, but I stood by it. I was willing to accept that certain great works by artists could be described as ‘epic’ – Melville’s Moby Dick and Joyce’s Ulysses or Pound’s Cantos, Olson’s Maximus Poems, maybe even classical compositions like Sorabji’s Opus clavicembalisticum, but not the slam dunk of a drinks can.

Such is the hubris of youth. Nowadays, I cringe at the prescriptivist grammarians who tell us – ex cathedra – that things have to be a certain way. I much prefer the Walt Whitman notion (pilfered by Hugh MacDiarmid) that adventurous minds tend to gainsay themselves: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes)’. Whitman himself had stolen it from Keats who spoke of ‘negative capability’ and Burns who coined the term ‘intermingledons’. This is all a longwinded way of saying that the word ‘epic’ belongs to the snobs and to the streets equally, that language is vitally pluralist. I was wrong to scold my schoolmates for using the word in a way I disliked, but we are all fragile beings held together by our pet peeves, superstitions and loves. Still, the urge to compartmentalise and pigeon-hole people remains in us all.

I’m a passionate reader of the poets of the Scottish Literary Renaissance. It’s widely agreed that the renaissance itself was manifested through three distinct waves. Hugh MacDiarmid might be considered the instigator of the first wave but I’m increasingly interested in the tail-end of the movement – the third wave – comprised of writers generally born between the 1930s and the very early 1950s. One poet who arguably belongs to this era is the poet D. M. Black (b. 1941). Black, who had long written formally satisfying, short poems began in the 1970s to experiment with longer poems engaging with fairy-tales. In 1979 Callum Macdonald published his most ambitious collection called Gravitations. This extraordinary book was sparsely reviewed and largely overlooked because of the presumed difficulty of its longer narrative poems, though Black himself, amongst some of his peers, hails it as his finest work. In 2020, I was corresponding with D. M. Black and asking where I might be able to find a copy of this rare book, since I owned everything else he had published (I’m a terrible completist). He sent me a copy with the caveat that ‘it occurs to me that your own poems are about as different as they could be from the poems in Gravitations! I hope you will find things to enjoy’.

Enjoy them I did. I read epic or narrative poetry with a sense of wide-eyed wonder, not to mention jealousy. To resort to one of the most hackneyed idioms out there – I am ‘a sprinter and not a marathon runner’ when it comes to writing poetry, but not in reading it. I don’t have the patience, vision, plot-invention and intellect to write epic poems, or even a sequence of poems. In my whole writing career, the only way I’ve been able to write a poem that went ‘over the page’ was to club together a group of lesser poems I’d written into a sequence of maybe 30 odd lines and hope that it all held together. For now, I am sticking to what I know and love, little lyrical poems that try and capture something fleeting but notable in the world. It’s fine lace-work rather than heavy industrial graft. Both have their place.


Those who read poetry for enjoyment are likely a pretty well-read bunch. I hope that we are a broad church – none of this ‘poetry must rhyme’ malarkey. All of us whose reading of poetry moves us into writing it for ourselves will face the arduous process of trying to find our own voice after imitating things that have appealed to us, such as the deadly allure of Dylan Thomas to the febrile adolescent imagination. Some poets are great shape-shifters – they can move with ease from writing a little lyric to a sprawling epic. To me, that is where the real mystery lies. What is it that inspired such a change, such a reinvention of artistic identity?

A great example of this is Edwin Morgan, whose vast poetic oeuvre encompasses not merely many different modes and forms, but nearly every subject from here to the moon and beyond. Perhaps Morgan’s magnum opus is the epyllion The New Divan – a long sequence of often mysterious episodes, from Morgan’s experience of the North African campaign of World War Two as seen through the prism of Sufi mysticism. The problem with being such a protean artist who can move between forms with ease is that it becomes hard to place the personality of the author, in that they are always hiding behind another guise and putting the ‘art’ in artifice. Morgan was one of the most versatile of poets. But not all poets are capable of versatility and I don’t think that should be seen as a stumbling block.

It’s a fallacy to say that we are what we eat, or rather what we read. My earliest published poetry was extremely condensed, often rarely over 10 lines long. I styled my work on that of Ian Hamilton (1938-2001), a poet who never wavered in his commitment to writing the tiniest, most exquisite poems. Such was his dedication to a certain type of pained lyric that at the time of his death only about 60 poems had ever been published. My own inspiration mainly came from the emotional auras I felt emanated from objects that mattered to me or had mattered to people whom I connected with in some way. I didn’t care much for metre or rhyme but I was vaguely interested in syllabics. Very quickly I became known as an ‘object’ poet and a miniaturist. It’s a label I’ve not been able to divest myself of, but then I think it’s good to be known for something, even if it is restrictive. Still, I really do find it irksome to have people assume that my reading habits as a result never venture beyond the parish pump of pretty neo-Georgian verse or the couthy kailyard of the Celtic Twilight.

Hugh MacDiarmid provocatively titled one of his most unapproachably difficult book-length poems The Kind of Poetry I Want (1961). In the 1940s he’d called for ‘giantism in the arts’. I don’t doubt that he wanted a sort of poetry to act as a pasilaly – a universal language in an idealised society yet to be reached, where people know all of the vocabulary for various scientific and academic disciplines by heart. I’d love that for myself, in theory. I read such poems with fascination and fury in equal measure. MacDiarmid was the first to admit that he wasn’t laying down rules, but merely trying to stir people out of their intellectual slumber. It’s worth looking at the trajectory of his life as a poet. He began in the 1920s by writing small but cosmic lyrics in a rejuvenated Scots that won the hearts of many of his readers. He cited Heine, the German poet who was also lauded for his early short poems, but who felt constrained and moved into longer, epic modes that the public largely ignored. Most people would cite MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926) as an epic poem, but it’s written in a rhyme scheme of three- or four-line stanzas that give a nursery-rhyme or comic effect and downplay the profundity of the message of the poem.

Most poets in their apprenticeship write small, formally conservative poems. Rhyme is often sine qua non and it can become a crutch. Many grow out of it – some leave it behind altogether – and others go off in search of more innovative or ambitious forms. Everyone longs to write a villanelle as good as Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’. Some epic poems are all the more effective and powerful for remaining incomplete, or having failed in the eyes of their creators. Take, for instance, George Campbell Hay’s ‘Mochtar is Dughall’ which is about a chance but ill-starred meeting in the North African desert of World War Two of an Arab and a Scottish soldier, brought together in their death at the hands of a German. The incomplete state of the poem, planned as an epic, not only speaks of lives brutally cut short but also the life-long trauma that Hay sustained during the war that led inevitably to mental illness and prevented the completion of the poem.

One of the best living examples of a poet visibly developing and growing with each new collection is that of MacGillivray who has published three ever more Promethean collections, each one delving into Scottish song, history and myth. Her most recent, The Gaelic Garden of the Dead (2019) is one of the most exciting poetry collections I’ve ever had the chance to review. It is a melting pot of numerous styles of poetry coming together under the epic and overarching themes of the collection as a whole – there are Petrarchan sonnets, calligrammes, speculative writing, prose poetry and much more. It adheres to Ezra Pound’s maxim that ‘poetry is news that stays news’.

It’s generally assumed (like a Victorian sewing sampler) that a poet has to demonstrate a range of work to show that they have found the optimal outlet for their voice. But this isn’t always the case. A number of poets strike on their formula early. Take Michael Longley for instance. His is a life in poetry based on whittling away all redundant expression and padding, to get to the raw emotional kernel of the issue. If you discount ‘A Man in Assynt’, Norman MacCaig hit upon his winning blueprint in short, imagistic poems in the 1950s, after an earlier wartime apprenticeship as a surrealistic ‘New Apocalyptic’ poet.

Some poets find their groove and perfect it over many years and repetitions, some have a stylistic and poetic wanderlust which drives them to ever greater ends. Regardless of what is written, be it a haiku or a heap of cantos, do not assume that the poet in question is blinkered to all of the happenings in the poetry world, that they are only on the look-out for their like-minded cronies who do something similar and give them strength in numbers. Some of the most interesting poets are the lone wolves, not the followers and joiners of schools.

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