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Thinking About My Poetry As Epic (1 Viewer)

RonPrice

Senior Member
EPIC JOURNEY

I remember reading how both Arnold Toynbee and Edward Gibbon acquired the initial inspiration and conceptualisation for the magnum opus of their lives: A Study of History in the case of Toynbee and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the case of Gibbon. Three years ago I began to think of writing my own epic poem and fashioned some ten pages as a beginning. The poetic work of my own life, my epic, I have come to see in terms of all the poetry I have written, the poetry I have sent to the Baha’i World Centre Library and what I have entitled Pioneering Over Four Epochs. T.S. Eliot observed toward the end of his life that he could not be called a great poet because he had not written an epic. Of course, if indeed I be a great poet, it will not be because I have written an epic but in spite of it.

Classical scholar, J.B. Hainsworth says that “the defining feature of an epic is that it combines expansiveness of form with greatness of soul and a clear focus on a central theme of universal appeal.” Hainsworth goes on to say that this combination was first achieved in the Iliad where a concise and focussed narrative centered on the idea of heroism. While I would not want to make any claims to greatness of soul, being only too aware of my limitations and weakneses, my association with the great epic of our time embodied in the history of the Baha’i Faith, gives to this work some of the reflected light of that great epic.

I have begun to see all of this poetry somewhat like Pound’s Cantos which draws on a massive body of print, or the Confucian Analects, a word which means literary gleanings. The Cantos, the longest poem in modern history, over eight hundred pages and written over more than fifty years(1916 to 1968), are a great mass of literary gleanings. So is this true of my poetry. The conceptualization of my work as epic has come long after its beginnings. My poetry slowly defined itself as an epic after half a dozen years of intense and extensive writing and many more years, perhaps as many as thirty, of occasional writing. I began to see my poetic opus as one immense poem. I like to think this poetry gives voice to the Baha’i culture I’ve inhabited all these years.

Pound was twenty-nine when he began to write his epic. I was fifty three when I began to see all my poetry, poetry I began writing at the age of thirty-six or, perhaps, as far back as eighteen, as part of one immense epic. Pound was acutely conscious that the cultural, the historical tradition had broken down and he was searching for a new basis, “new laws of divine justice.” His task was to reassemble this tradition or,at least,search in history where not only the fall from innocence was located but also the locus for the process of redemption could be found. I, too, was aware of this breakdown. I, too, felt the need to reassemble history, not as Pound did, but rather to find truths which were perennial but not archaic within the broad framework of a new Revelation from God, a Revelation which defined and described the continuities and was Itself the basis for redemption.

Written now, for the most part, over a little more than eight years(1992-2000), the epic I am writing covers a pioneering life of 39 years. It also covers much more. I have now sent 39 booklets to the Baha’i World Centre Library: one for each year of this pioneering venture. But the epic journey that is at the base of this poetic opus is not only a personal one of over forty years back to the time I became a Baha’i, it is also the journey of this new System, the World Order of Baha’u’llah, which has its origins as far back as the 1840s and, if one includes the two precursors to this System, as far back as the middle of the eighteenth century when many of the revolutions and forces that are at the beginning of modern history have their origin: the American and French revolutions, the industrial and agricultural revolutions and the revolution in the arts and sciences. Generally, the way my narrative imagination conceives of this epic is itself an attempt to connect this long and complex history to my own life, as far as possible, to that of the religion to which I belong. I have sought and found, in recent years, a narrative voice that contains uncertainty, ambiguity and incompleteness among shifting fields of reference and of a certainty mixed with and defining itself by the presence of its polar opposite, doubt.

Since this poetry is inspired by so much that is, and has been, part of the human condition, this epic it could be said has at its centre Life Itself and the most natural and universal of human activities, the act of creating narratives. When we die all that remains is our story. I have called this poetic work an epic because it deals with events, as all epics do, that are or will be significant to the entire society. It contains what Charles Handy, philosopher, business man and writer, calls the golden seed: a belief that what I am doing is important, probably unique, to the history and development of this System. This poetry, this epic, has to do with heroism and deeds of battle in their contemporary and historical manifestations. It involves a great journey, not only my own across two continents, but that of this Cause as it has expanded across the planet. The epic convention of the active intervention of God and holy souls from another world; and the convention of an epic tale, told in verse, a verse that is not a frill or an ornament, but is essential to the story, are found here. I think there is an amplitude in this poetry that simple information-giving lacks; there is also an engine of action that is found in my inner life more than in its external story. In some ways, this is the most significant aspect of my work, at least from my point of view.

In the Greek tradition the Goddess of Epic Poetry was Calliope, one of the nine sisters of the Muses. The Muses were the inspiration of artists. Calliope was the mother of Orpheus who was known to have a keen understanding of both music and poetry. We know little about Calliope, as we know little about the inspiration of the Muses, at least in the Greek tradition. In the young and developing poetic and artistic tradition of the Baha’i Faith, on the other hand, although gods and goddesses play no role, holy souls “who have remained faithful unto the covenant of God” can be a leaven that leavens “the world of being” and furnishes “the power through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest.”(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings, 1956, p.161.) In addition, among a host of other inspirational sources, the simple expression ‘Ya’Baha’ul’Abha’ brings “the Supreme Concourse to the door of life” and “opens the heavens of mysteries, colours and riddles of life.” (‘Abdu’l-Baha, Source Unknown) Much could be said about inspiration but I shall leave the topic with the above brief analysis and comment.

Mary Gibson says in Epic Reinvented: Ezra Pound and the Victorians(Cornell U, 1995, p.96) that one question was at the centre of The Cantos. It was the "question of how beauty and power, passion and order can cohere." This question was one of many that concerned Pound in the same years that Baha'i Administration, the precursor of a future World Order, was coming to assume its embryonic form in the last years of the second decade of this century, a form that would in time manifest those qualities Pound strove in vain to find in a modern politico-philosophy.

At the heart of my own epic is a sense of visionary certitude, derived from a belief in an embryonic World Order, that a cultural and political coherence will increase in the coming decades and centuries around the sinews of this efflorescing Order. Wallace Stevens’ sense of the epic “as a poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice”(Jay Parini, editor, the Columbia History of American Poetry, Columbia UP, NY, 1993, p.543) is also at the centre of my conceptual approach. This epic is an experimental vehicle containing open-ended autobiographical sequences. It is a didactic intellectual exploration with lines developing with apparent spontaneity and going in many directions. The overall shape is in no way predetermined. In many respects, this long poem is purely speculative philosophy, attempting to affirm a romantic wholeness on a fragmented world, something Walter Crane tried to do in the 1920s. This long poem, or seemingly endless series of poems, is an immense accumulation of fragments, like the world itself, but they are held together by a unifying vision. So,too, was Pound’s epic.

Pound was intent on developing an “ideal polity of the mind”. This polity flooded his consciousness and suggested a menacing fluidity, an indiscriminate massiveness of the crowd. The polity that is imbedded in my own epic does not suggest the crowd, probably because the polity I have been working with over my lifetime has been one that has grown so slowly; the groups I have worked in and with have been small. My style, my poetic design, though, is like Pound’s insofar as I use juxtaposition as a way to locate and enhance meanings. Like Pound, I stress continuity in history, the cultural and the personal. At the heart of epic poetry for Pound was “the historical.” Also, for Pound, was a new world order based on the poet’s own visionary experience. It was part of the reclaiming job that Modernist poets saw as their task, to regain old ground from the novelists. But, unlike Pound, I see new and revolutionary change in both the historical process, in my own world and in the future. The visionary experience that will guide world order is not mine, but that derived from the Central Figures of my Faith.

Those who are quite familiar with the poem Leaves of Grass may recall that Walt Whitman often merges himself with the reader. His poem expresses his theory of democracy. His poem is the embodiment of the idea that a single unique protagonist can represent a whole epoch. He can be looked at in two ways: there is his civic, public, side and his private, intimate side. While it would be presumptuous of me to claim, or even to attempt, to represent an entire epoch, this private/public dichotomy is an important underlying feature of this epic poem (Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, Harcourt, Brace and Co., NY, 1994, pp.447-78). I also like to think that, while this poetry has a focus on my own experience, this experience is part and parcel of the experience of my coreligionists around the world.

In my poetic opus, my poetic epic, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, the reader should sense a merging of reader and writer, a political philosophy, a sociology, a psychology, a global citizen--something we have all become. There is in my poetry a public and a private man reacting to the burgeoning planetization of humankind, the knowledge explosion and the tempest that has been history’s experience, at least as far back as the 1840s, if not the days of Shaykh Ahmad after he left his homeland in those halcyon and terrifying years of the French Revolution.

There is much more than verse-making here, though. Here is the ruling passion of my life: the Baha’i Faith, its history and teachings. It seemed to wrap and fill my being during my pioneering life, the process beginning as far back as 1953 when my mother first heard of the Faith. Indeed, I came to see myself as part of what ‘Abdu’l-Baha called that “heavenly illumination” which flowed to all the peoples of the world from the North American Baha’i community and would “adorn the pages of history” (Citadel of Faith, p.121). My story inevitably became part of that larger story of the Baha’i Faith and, again, that larger story which is history itself. Stephen Sicari suggests that the structural principle in Pound is “the search for unity.” If I had to define the structural principle behind my own sharply fragmented, multifarious material with its vivid multiplicity and diversity, it would be my attempt to express the unity I found and that I believe lies behind and in the world of creation.

For it is the narrative imagination that is at the base of this epic poetry. As far as possible I have tried to make it honest, true, accurate, realistic, informed, knowledgeable. As I develop my story through the grid of narrative, I tell my story the way I see it, through my own eyes and my own knowledge, as Baha’u’llah exhorted me in Hidden Words. I leave behind me traces, things in the present which stand for absent things in the past. The phenomenon of the trace, Paul Racour writes, is similar to the relationship between lived time and astronomical time, a relationship at the basis of calendar time. For history is “knowledge by traces”, as F. Simiand puts it (Paul Ricoeur, “Narrative Time”, Philosophy Today, Winter 1985). And so, I bequeath my traces.

The traces I bequeath are also, to continue an important theme of the epic tradition, those of the wandering hero. It is a hero, a wanderer, with many dimensions described in many contexts. It is a journey of redemption to union with God, as it was for Dante. It is a journey of adventure and finding my home, as it was for Odysseus. It is a journey that attempts to embody my vision of the Baha’i world order, as the poet Virgil tried to articulate his vision of Augustus’ order during the crucial years of the establishment of the Roman Empire(29-19 BC). It is a personal epic, a personal journey, an inner journey, within the tradition of William Wordsworth and his Prelude. There are elements of the Miltonian epic here with the foregrounding of the author, his weaknesses and his strengths, in what is par excellence, a theological-religious journey. And there is the monumental journey of Baha’u’llah over forty years which acts as a metaphorical base for my own journey. The wanderer I draw on is, in other words, a flexible, elastic, figure who allows me to include in my epic poem virtually anything that I want to include in the text.

And so the wanderer that I describe in my epic is a composite. But this wanderer is not in search of the Path; rather, he has found the Path and the wandering takes place on the Path. The wandering through the sea of historical, sociological, literary and other texts, books and articles, etc. is all part of the experience, the context, the definition, of the Path, for this particular journeyman. For the reader will come across many references, many texts, many quotations here. They are laid on a Baha’i-paradigm-map; I am not alone, as Pound was, relying on his own wit and courage with no framework of guidance and meaning within which to sift history’s and experience’s immense chaos into some order. I find that the actual writing of the poem assumes characteristics of the epic journey itself. This was true for Pound, for Dante and, in all likelihood, the mythical Homer.

It may be that my journey on this Path is only half over and that this epic found its initial conceptualization at the mid-point of my Baha’i life. If I live to be ninety-five, my journey within this framework of belief has just passed the half way mark (age 15 to 95, a period of eighty years, with age 55 the half-way point). So I like to think that what I have now, after only eight years of intense writing of poetry, is what Pound had: “a dazzling array of finely wrought fragments straining in their own unique way to achieve order and unity” through the deployment and development of this image of the wanderer in its many forms. That is what I like to think. Time will tell, though, if I can sustain and define in precise and dazzling terms the structural, the organizational, principle enunciated above. This structural principle is based on a view of my poetry as: the expression of my experience, my sense, my understanding, in the context of my wandering, my journey and of the concept of the Oneness of Mankind. Can I continue to develop this epic, beyond the start I have given it, to a satisfying conclusion in the years ahead?

Ron Price
28 March 2002
(revised for: Writers Forum
2/8/07)
 

mammamaia

Senior Member
Can I continue to develop this epic, beyond the start I have given it, to a satisfying conclusion in the years ahead?

um... is this the reason for your post--to ask this question?... if so, i don't know how any of us can answer that for you... sorry... but i wish you all the best with your project...

love and hugs, maia
 

huni

Senior Member
For heavens sake Mammamaia the man wrote an essay. He used a rhetorical question to end it! Not every one here is waiting bated breath for you to answer and solve their problems.

to Ron,
I am about to write a series of essays myself and one will be ego centred, so I was interested to read this one. I'm not an expert on them but enjoyed this one and thought that it was well written. I am curious to see what crit you get (just looking for some idea of what is acceptable or not. what people connected to or not) You sound well read and the content goes beyond my total knowledge. Especially the references the Baha'i faith. I'm off to check out other essays here.

regards huni.
 

mammamaia

Senior Member
i'm just asking if he wants his question answered, huni... if you can read his mind and know that he doesn't, good for you... but i prefer to be polite and ask... and i wouldn't be that rude to you, if i didn't think your post was what i would write...
 

The Backward OX

WF Veterans
A Canuck married to a Vandemonian?

Eh?

Do any of your off-spring have an eye up here (one forefinger points at forehead) and an eye down there (other forefinger points at chin)?
 
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RonPrice

Senior Member
No Problems With Offspring Literary or Genetic

I appreciated the various concerns for my contribution here. Our one child seems to be in good physical shape at the age of 30; as far as my memoirs are concerned it is becoming clearer to me after several years of feedback on the internet that: (a) only a coterie will read my stuff since most people prefer a story to an analysis and (b) my writing is not simple enough for the everyday idiom...."such is life," as the outlaw Ned Kelly said on the way to the gallows in 1880.-Ron
 
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