Any Last Words?

Kirsten Irving muses on how, and how not, to end a poem.

As anyone who’s received editorial suggestions from me will no doubt have noticed, I have a predilection for hacking off the end of poems. I was concerned about this for a while, wondering if it had become a reflex action, but having mused on it, I stand by my conviction that a lot of poems go on longer than they need to. A strong ending is as essential as a good opening line. There’s little worse than feeling the writer has gotten bored halfway through, or doesn’t have a particularly clear idea of what they want to do with the poem and is rambling to a close; instead, the impression should be that the author chose an ending that maximises the impact or purpose of the piece. I don’t mean to say that all poets should begin with the exact wording of their closing in mind (indeed, there is value in the stream-of-consciousness approach), just that there is value in knowing where to stop.

Just as an example, imagine a poem ending:

“I drive the motorway
that will take all my friends
that will steal all I have
even the remnants of snot from this clinging cold
even this flattened snatch of grass
where I feel you with me always.”

Cutting the last line would in this case do the poem a world of good, because it clumsily spells out what could be left neatly implied. The flattened grass is a strong image, and on its own suggests that the recent presence of a person or persons and their absence is in some way significant.

Overexplanation is a big offender. I sympathise if a writer feels nobody is going to understand what they’re on about, to the point of not enjoying the poem. If that’s the case, road-test it on some readers. Ambiguity can be great – perhaps they’ll like it. If, however, they’re baffled to frustration, go back through and see where you might make subtle alterations throughout the body of the poem, instead of tying one big ugly knot of “This was why” at the end. Often, simply by presenting an image the author says what they intended to explain and more.

Say, for example, a piece ended along these lines:

“On that day, I returned
to find, nestled in my toy chest,
flowers and a gun.
The tools of murder.”

Why not leave the gun to speak for itself? The added explanation in the last line speaks of a lack of confidence in the image.

Ending on an abstract noun is difficult, but not impossible, to pull off. Too often, reams of excellent grabbable images flit by, only for a poem to end on “I just wanted forgiveness”, or “into the darkness”, or “Finally, we had closure”. The reader needs something solid to hold onto, something specific – an action, an object – which imprints itself on the memory. Why mention “The lake’s beauty” when you could leave the reader with “a glow on the lake”? It doesn’t have to be action-packed or shocking, or even highly emotive. But abstracts, for all their functionality, lack colour and taste – it’s like finishing the dessert course of a great meal and then being made to eat a spoonful of mashed potato.

Punchlines are a dangerous area. Richard Katrovas makes good use of one in ‘Love Poem for an Enemy’, proffering forgiveness and reconciliation to his foe while adhering to a classical structure, before closing with “while you’re down there, kiss my ass”. It’s a trick that can’t be played too often, however, as it grows old quickly. Children’s verse manages to get away with the cymbal clash on occasion, though the best writers, like Allan Ahlberg and Roger McGough, don’t rely on it. Humour, irony and food for thought are best when carefully sustained throughout the length of a poem, rather than saved as a sting in the tail (what, so the rest of the poem was just preamble?). Think of it like getting a lasting sun tan: it’s best to do it gradually in small doses, rather than in one short, sense-frying blast. Punchlines, wrongly used, can come across as an attempt to save a lazily written poem, or as a diatribe in rhyme. If it’s an obvious or oft-repeated sentiment, it’s hard to get away from the sense that it would be better explored in speech or prose.

It’s not just humorous poems, either. The very worst examples are those pieces that try to assert a political or ideological point or that attempt to generate a revelatory moment by meandering hopelessly before whacking a great “Ha! But really she was a ghost!” on the end. I’ve done it, you’ve done it. It doesn’t make it right.

To return to Roger McGough, his poem ‘The Lesson’ has a great last line. Strident and amoral, the murderous teacher, surveying the bodies of his pupils, hits an Arnie note: “Let that be a lesson, he said.” Given the context of the poem – a classroom massacre – this might seem like a punchline of sorts, but McGough has thought of this, mirroring the speech in the earlier lines “I’m going to teach you a lesson/one that you’ll never forget.” The first reference to the title provides the threat; the second, though similar, denotes grisly satisfaction, since it arrives after the bloody events. This neat rounding-off, so odd considering the horror that has just taken place, is highly effective when read by children, playing on their experience of fairytales (the soft, non-Grimm varieties that are peddled in schools and in children’s publishing in general) always ending “happily ever after”. Yes, it’s ended very tidily, but everyone is dead! Immediately the poem raises questions and ignites interest.

Equally, abrupt endings can be very effective. Gregory Corso’s ‘She Doesn’t Know He Thinks He’s God’ places the gentle, dreamlike state of John Rasin, as he comes to grips with his realisation and experiences a rebirth of sorts, against the frenzy of his wife, terrified for their sick child and firmly rooted in reality. The final line of the poem is simply the wife screaming “John the baby will die!” The open-ended note Corso strikes here, by refusing to wrap up the sequence of events or even really to break the spell that pins Rasin in his delusion as his wife hits breaking point, is magnificent. For a short poem, it’s got an incredible right hook on it.

In terms of practising and improving the clout of last lines, I find writing pantoums can be a very useful exercise. For the uninitiated, a pantoum features an abab rhyme scheme and follows a pattern whereby every line is at some point repeated, with the final line matching the line the poem began on. Knowing that this is the way the poem will end minimises any tendency to meander. Instead, the writer is forced to examine the ending as they begin, and look into generating a start line that is flexible enough to register some level of development or added significance by the end of the piece, and at the same time sufficiently powerful to kick the poem off.

This article, of course, has not made things easy for itself. Now I’ve banged on about the importance of effective endings, I’ve got to wrap it up well. I think I’ll leave it to Tony Hoagland, who bucks the trend and gives us a resonant abstract-noun finish, proving that no rule is without exceptions. Here’s the ending to ‘When Dean Young Talks about Wine’:

“When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension.
When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.

“But when a man is hurt,
………………..he makes himself an expert.
Then he stands there with a glass in his hand
staring into nothing
……………… if he were forming an opinion.”

Interview: Richard Tyrone Jones

Grand Overlord of the Utter! poetry franchise, serial Ted Hughes impersonator and London/Edinburgh poetry stalwart, ginger rights activist Richard Tyrone Jones dropped in for the following chat with us, back when he was the picture of innocence.

Tell us a bit about yourself, to start with.

Born Rechavia K. Silvermann 1981 in Tel Aviv, one of identical twins. After my brother died in infancy I was adopted by Gloria and Tyrone Jones and so grew up in Wolverhampton, a slightly less glamorous location. Some of my comic poetry takes the piss out of my granite lion-guarded upbringing and deals with issues of adoption and genetic survival. I did comedy at Cambridge with Fat Fat Pope, described as ‘God’s gift to comedy’ by the Observer and ‘wanky, self-important brats’ by the Independent. We did sketches about Max Ernst, Viking settlement patterns and the pre-Russian revolution proletariat selling their joints to the aristocracy so they could reticulate like massive arachnids, but I dropped out before my finals to work in the Gulf. Moved to London 2003, did a load of shitty public sector admin before finally having the balls and the contacts to say ‘fuck this shit’ and become the subtle, considered poet I am now. I run ‘Utter!’, have at least one biological child, with up to ten pending, and have performed everywhere from the O2 Wireless festival to Welwyn Garden City.

Who has influenced you in general?

John Peel for his eclecticism and chatty style – he was like a surrogate uncle growing up in a frankly cultureless home. In poetry my first exposure was to Lear, and his influence lingers. Tims Wells and Turnbull, Clare Pollard, Paul Birtill, Betjeman, Bukowski and many more. Comedy: Louis CK, Larry David, Chris Morris, Kenny Everett, Mark Watson, Simon Munnery. Fiction: Self, Eco, H.P. Lovecraft, Stewart Home, Blyton, Poe. Tell you what, that Shakespeare’s not bad either.

Reclaiming ginger. Discuss.

Or ‘the G-word’. As you probably already know the word was coined in the eighteenth century, as an anagram of, and corollary to, ‘the n-word’, expressly to foment anti-Keltic racism along the same lines of anti-Afrikan prejudice. In the New World the former failed; the latter sadly retained its hold for socio-demographic reasons. In the Old World the situation is now reversed: due to the imperium’s centripedal post-war settlement patterns, it is considered unacceptable to define an ‘out-group’ on the basis of skin colour, but acceptable, humorous even, to do so on grounds of hair colour. This is partly due to the aforementioned prejudice against the Celtic fringe/diaspora and the recessive nature of the sixteenth chromosome’s MRC1 gene. This is compounded by recent reports of, and including a photographic project predicated on the premise that, the Ginger phenotype will die out in the next 150-300 years. Such defeatist predictions, were they applied to blacks or Koreans, would rightly result in accusations of racism.

Utter! Gingers, a night we held featuring a wealth of Ginger talent including A.F. Harrold, Eric Gregory award-winner Heather Phillipson, Tamsin Kendrick and John Anstiss, sought instead to celebrate our genetic diversity, its global spread and the cultural heritage of the original, pre-Ice Age inhabitants of the British Isles through the spoken word. It also featured a lecture on Ginger History and achievements and free genetic tests for the ginger haplotype, to show just how many of the population were blessed with carrying the recessive Afro-Kelt genes!

How are the writing workshops going and what’s been the overall response so far?

The Utter! writing group has been meeting for five years now, on Saturdays (except the first in the month) from 11am-1pm in Wood Green library’s community room, welcoming many guest poets and writers. Roddy Lumsden ran one of the workshops last year. It’s been great for the confidence and skills of all involved, many of whom have been there since the very beginning. It’s a lot of fun getting people to write in new styles like sci-fi, pulp, sonnets and villanelles. I only wish the members of the writing group would actually finish more stuff and submit it to exciting quality publications such as Trespass, The Delinquent or Fuselit!

What’s been the best/worst live experience you’ve had, either as a performer or as a compere?

Probably my best live experience has got to be the very first ‘Utter!’s, or more recently winning over 400 punters crammed into the Rhythm Factory – who were obviously only there to see Pete Doherty – by charmingly putting down their heckles and saying we’d got some guy called ‘What’s his name? Keith Goggerty?’ doing five minutes of open mic at the end. I enjoyed baiting them. Thank fuck he turned up. The worst live experience was my second stand-up appearance when I was totally cocky from initial success and was woefully unprepared. That taught me to graft! With poetry it’s difficult to have a truly bad gig (unless it’s really badly organised, usually by someone else), because you’ve done all the hard work writing the things and poetry audiences are more open to experiencing a range of emotions and subjects. In the end it’s just reading off some slices of dead tree and the humans like it or they don’t.

What would you like to see more of and less of in poetry, in both performance or the written word?

I’d like to see a UN peacekeeper-enforced moratorium on versions of ‘The Revolution will not be televised’, ‘dying Dad’ pieces to be rationed to one per poet, and for whiny American girls to realise that rapping your personal problems with a hanging article at the end of each line only makes me want to laugh at them, no matter how many of your puppies died of Aids at the hands of THE MAN. I’d like to see more daytime and outdoor readings, sestinas, villanelles, clerihews, ventriloquism and pantoums delivered using loop pedals.

Whose poetry are you currently enjoying?

Julia Bird’s long-overdue first collection Hannah and the Monk is beautiful. Each poem has a definite plot or argument and works symmetrically as a contraption. Reminds me a little, in her historical empathic imagination, of the Forward-commended Angela Cleland. Matthew Sweeney is another favourite. Well dark, dreamy unspecified menace. S’boss crunk. Rising’s always great. Live, Jow Lindsay is a strange, intelligent and fearless performer and I hope to get him to remix some of my ordure. What swings you more with a poem? Subject matter or execution/style?

To the extent that, as Don Paterson has it, poems are ‘little machines for remembering’ themselves, both subject and style support each other. However, I possess a very visual imagination. Thus, probably if one were to encounter a poem with sparkling subject matter, yet badly executed, one would in any case later reconstitute it narratively in the manner one would wish to have heard it. On the other hand, wonderful execution cannot save an essentially slight conceit from being forgotten.

Having seen the quote from Tim Wells about you ‘bridging the page/stage divide’, what do you make of the whole argument and are you plotting a collection?

Hah, that was an adaptation of some lazily-written Apples and Snakes copy. There exists no divide but a continuum, and wherever I find myself on it at a particular reading I can’t help but bloodymindedly take the piss out of its conventions. I know that my over-use of mocking ironic detachment could be seen as a safety net to protect me from actually feeling any emotions but hell, we all need a psychological stab-proof vest of some kind, and better that than OCD or drug use. I have some silly, learnt ‘party pieces’ that I wheel out when it’s necessary but generally I like reading stuff out from ‘the page’ because unlike some hosts I like to turn over new material and it makes you look more intelligent to all dem gaal in the audience. Coming from a failed comic background, I can forgive nerves but not mumbling or lack of eye contact.

I have been plotting (I like that, it makes it sound as if it’ll be full of coded references to the return of a Catholic to the throne of England), and have realsed, with Vintage Poison, a compendium of dark poetry, daft poetry, fiction, diagrams and slightly inept fanboy pictures entitled Germline. I’d like to make it clear to the Forward judges it is, as such, not a first poetry collection.

Finally, what plans do you have for expanding the Utter! empire and for your own work?

I’m in talks with various Arabs about jetting out to set up ‘Utter!’ Bahrain, Qatar and United Arab Emirates and a second anthology. An episode of is forthcoming and I hope to do an MA and more schools work.

For my published work, there are three second books in the pipeline. All the beautiful ones self-harm will be a compassionate but bathetic sonnet redouble about my meagre sexual conquests. I have but one more Pokemon to catch to crown that. Crush All Liberals may or may not have an ironic title and Wisdom and Depravity will be a revised collection of Burroughs, Carter and Eco-influenced sick fiction I wrote in the early 21st century.

In other words, Richard Tyrone Jones shall perfect Hubris as an Art form.


Richard’s first collection, Germline, is out now from Vintage Poison. For more things RTJ, consult his cavalcade of upcoming events on Facebook or stalk him on myspace. Or if you feel official, get thee to the Utter! events site.

Advanced studies in poems of the light and of the dark

Part 3 of a trilogy of articles in which Andrea T Judge discusses the history and evolution of lyric and epic poetry and what they mean to us today.

It is only a trick of the historical lens that leads us to see philosophy as a discipline separate from the sciences. Originally the word meant ‘lovers of knowledge’, and it certainly did not restrict these thinkers from fields like astrology, physics, biology and mathematics. The efforts of men in many ways ill-equipped to understand the world were sometimes misguided or insufficient, but in their own way, they could be illuminating. The most interesting of their theories, in terms of our studies in poetry, are those most ambitious and aggrandising: their ideas on what the universe was composed of and how it worked.

Specifically, we are interested in the theories of those among the Greeks who were looking for the essence of the universe – those who sought that mysterious spirit you got when you reduced all difference from the tangible world, that which we all have in common. In poetic terms, these men were seeking ‘O’. Of course, the great paradox of studying ‘O’ is that you are essentially studying nothing. The ‘O’ represents the void; it is a form self-same from every angle, and even back then it meant nothing as a word. What is remarkable is not that the worldview of the Greeks discovered the ‘O’ as the end of difference, rather the other way round – that in order to understand the universe and everything about it, the Greeks thought the best method would be to seek the end of all difference. Their guiding principle of science and cosmology was directed by ‘O’, rather than by demonstrable observations of the world around them – so much so that when Leucippus and Democritus developed atomism, a conceptual precursor of atomic theory, it had no empirical evidence to back it up. After the classical ages, it fell into oblivion for almost two millennia.

To the extent that ‘O’ also means death, it seems less audacious to see it as the telos (the ‘end’) towards which philosophies were naturally directed. And atomism, the doctrine dictating that everything in the world is subdivided into equal, indestructible, unchangeable atoms (allowing only for some slight differences in their shape), was a quest strictly informed by the tension between both the ‘O’ and the ‘I’. On one hand, it sought the essential ‘stuff’ that everything is made of, the material of each atom (or, the atom for all materials), which is the ‘O’. On the other, by propounding an equal individual unit as the component of the universe, Democritus was postulating 1, which is also ‘I’. And 1 is not the end of difference, but its fundamental building block: Democritus saw an ‘I’ in the universe. He saw a difference. For ‘I’ is difference itself, much as ‘O’ is the end of difference. And the atom was the predicate of both difference and non-difference.

This becomes of poetic interest when we compound it with some of the other directions taken by the Greeks in their quest to follow ‘O’ (and ‘I’) and find the essence of the world. By far the most popular cosmological philosophy of the time was the theory of the four elements developed by Empedocles, which would later be picked up by Plato and Aristotle. Arising at a similar time as atomism, it stated that the universe was composed of four elements (air, fire, water, earth), and that combinations of these four elements produced all the objects of the world. Inasmuch as these four elements represent not objects but the common substance of objects, they are, of course, a rudimentary expression of ‘O’. More importantly, they provide a unified groundwork for a study not so much of the sciences, but of poetics and poetic imagery. For it is not hard to imagine that Empedocles, had he set himself to literature, would have argued that all the great classical poetic images – the sea, the sky, the clouds, sunlight, dust, rain – were no more than raw forms of the four elements. Traditional tropes of poetry like, say, the sea, the wind, or darkness, to the extent that they possess qualities of non-difference (they are endless, fractal, lacking defined boundaries, substantially unstable, mutable and shapeless, equal in all parts), are indeed signifiers for ‘O’. Now if the language of lyric poetry has traditionally demonstrated particular concern with these images and tropes, and these tropes in turn are expressions of ‘O’, then does this suggest that there is a link between what we know as lyric poetry and the telos of the ‘O’?

There are several words which Empedocles would have reconnected to the four elements – the words ‘sea’, ‘river’, ‘rain’, ‘vapour’, ‘foam’ are forms of water. ‘Dust’, ‘ash’, ‘mud’, ‘clay’, ‘rubble’, ‘mountain’, ‘stone’ are forms of earth. ‘Wind’, ‘mist’, ‘fog’, ‘breeze’, ‘clouds’, ‘smoke’ stand for air. ‘Light’, ‘sun’, ‘flame’, ‘heat’, ‘warmth’ are all of fire. What follows from Empedocles’ suggestion is that it is possible to represent O linguistically. Words describing objects which have qualities of blurred borders, equality of composition, undefined temporality will all ring with the sound of ‘O’.

The personification of the four elements and all their natural predicates was assigned, by the Greeks, to gods and goddesses – a very obvious way of counterpoising an ‘I’ to the naturalistic expression of the ‘O.’ As an individual, a god/dess is necessarily an ‘I’ in every sense – of word, letter or sign. You had a god/dess of the sea, of the heavens, of the wind, of each individual river. Anything that was non-differentiated and ascribed to the ‘O’ (including, say, death or love) was given an equivalent in the dimension of the ‘I’. As representatives of the ‘I’ (and like everyone who can say ‘I’), gods have an agency, and the attempt to invest agency onto natural phenomena with no agenda was an aspect of the tension between ‘I’ and ‘O’. This ties in to the fact that ancient lyric poetry is most commonly addressed to the gods, from the Greek representatives to the poetry books in the Bible. After the dark ages, when writing returned to Europe in a predominantly Christian scenario, lyric poetry was no longer allowed to address multiple gods and allegorical figures were introduced. Characters like ‘Lady Love’ or ‘Lady Philosophy’ are elementary examples of an alliterative tradition which remains unique to the middle ages. Then came Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura, and from then on, the default addressee of lyric poetry evolved away from a divine force and towards the figure of a loved one.

Thus the ‘I’ and the ‘O’ evoke each other in what is known as poetry of address (often considered a synonym for lyric poetry – an ill-advised affiliation, as we will see). The ‘O’ is produced simply by placing speech against an ‘I’. Calling the god or goddess or beloved necessarily implies an ‘O’, even if it is not explicitly written. Rimbaud’s “O pale Ophelia” and Leopardi’s “Silvia, do you remember…” are not substantially different – you can extract the first letter from the former line and add it to the beginning of the other, and it makes no difference. Unless the preponderance of the ‘O’ is reverted by the poet later in the text (for instance, by rejecting or condemning the addressee, as Baudelaire does when spitting “Hypocrite reader!”), the poem will stay under the domination of the ‘O’ and therefore remain lyric throughout.

The fact that ‘O’ can be represented linguistically suggests that the same could be done with ‘I’. But while words like ‘dust’ and ‘clouds’ can be linked back to ‘O’, the words representing ‘I’ must possess, like the gods, an agency, and this can seldom be achieved with nouns. First names, which imply someone who can say ‘I’, are a better option. More flexibly, you can use words which perform agency and action linguistically. The most common example of this are verbs. A verb, as something that acts but can never be acted upon, is the kinetic element of the sentence and is therefore most easily associated to ‘I’, which is constitutive but never constituted. There are of course plenty of exceptions. Inactive verbs like dying and surrendering are related to ‘O’ (and are, in fact, typical themes of lyric poetry). Conversely, some verbs are inflexibly active – fighting, destroying, winning. Others yet, the vast majority, determine their active or inactive quality by the context of use – burning can refer both to ‘burning the houses of the enemy’ and to ‘burning in the flames of the enemy’.

We mentioned that a lyric poem is a poem dominated by the ‘O’. Given the potential ‘I’ quality of verbs, then, one of the simplest labels of the lyric is the transition from ‘I’ to ‘O’ – that is to say, starting a phrase with an active verb and closing it with a signifier of ‘O’. Here are some very famous examples, with signifiers for the ‘I’ in bold and signifiers for the ‘O’ in italics:

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (Dylan Thomas)
These thoughts that wander through eternity … (John Milton)

O thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars! (Christopher Marlowe)

A more complicated version of the same basic effect:
I am no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils
A mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand. (Sylvia Plath)

Here, the succession of verbs and elements makes for a (surprisingly regular and very harmonious) I-O-I-I-O-O sequence – fundamentally, still a transition from ‘I’ to ‘O’.

We also note in the quote by Milton that it is not a ‘natural element’ that stands for the ‘O’, but ‘eternity’, a word about time. This is not a distortion of the original concept. Time is a category which makes its own distinction between ‘I’ and ‘O’ signifiers: ‘now’ and ‘today’, as platforms for individualisation and specification, belong to the ‘I’; ‘forever’, ‘never’, ‘always’ and the like all stand for the ‘O’. The exact same is true of space, where ‘here’, ‘there’ stand for the ‘I’, and ‘nowhere’ or ‘everywhere’ for the ‘O’. Numerical or quantitative words fall under the same rules. See Blake’s opening to the poem ‘London’, which is a typical case-study for the lyric sentence-structure: “I walk through every chartered street.” (Note, in passing, that this is an example of a lyric without an addressee, showing that equating poetry of address to the concept of the lyric is illusory). But perhaps the best example of how a temporal category can be used to produce the lyric is given to us by Edgar Allan Poe in his celebrated text ‘The Raven’, with the repetition of ‘nevermore’ following upon every line and therefore closing every stanza with an ‘O’.

Since one way of achieving the lyric is by a transition from ‘I’ to ‘O’ signifiers, then inverting the order of those signifiers will produce the opposite result – and this is what we call the epic effect. The passage from ‘O’ to ‘I’ results in a feeling which is the absolute opposite to that of the lyric – a sense of exhilaration rather than tenderness and melancholy. For instance:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul. (William E. Henley)

This is the opening stanza to a short poem called ‘Invictus’, renowned for its epic atmosphere. It is composed of four stanzas, all of which repeat the effect of the first – the transition from the ‘O’ signifiers in italics to those of the ‘I’ in bold. The last two lines end with a repetition of active verbs next to words indicating agency: I am the master of my ship, I am the captain of my soul.” A real epic combo.

Though the institutionalisation of the term ‘lyric’ as synonymous for poetry since Petrarch, as well as the failure to extricate the structure of the epos from the canons of the epic genre, have led to a difficulty in identifying the binding quality of epic poems, these texts are in fact much more common than we expect. Almost every poet writes verse of an epic as well as a lyric kind. Poems which are usually dumped into the category of the lyric, even which are famed as illustrious examples of that field, may reveal themselves to be manifestly epic, notwithstanding traditional lyric ‘symptoms’ such as an addressee. Shelley’s celebrated ‘Ode to the West Wind’ is a prime example. It opens with a wealth of ‘O’ signifiers (‘being’, ‘ghosts’, the death imagery of the seeds, ‘stream’, ‘sky’, ‘clouds’, ‘Heaven’, ‘Ocean’, ‘rain’, the ‘aery’ surge, the ‘dying year’, the ‘closing night’, ‘vapours’, ‘summer dreams’, ‘sleep’, the ‘sense [which] faints’) and gradually introduces a speaker – an ‘I’, first introduced in Part IV – which becomes increasingly pervasive. This transition, encapsulated in the poem’s closing line (“If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”) is the defining quality of the epic, much like the opposite transition is that of the lyric.

Consider these two lines from Shelley’s poem:

“Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”

While the words tend towards the lyric (the final verbs are passive), they do include yet another example of the poem’s epic drive – the passage from saying ‘me’ to saying ‘I’.

‘I’ and ‘me’ are both signifiers of the self, but they define it respectively as the subject or object of the sentence; a linguistic passage from object to subject (‘O’ to ‘I’) is the equivalent of an epic transition, while one from subject to object (‘I’ to ‘O’) is lyric. This opens up the world of pronouns to the possibilities of the epic and the lyric. The objective case belongs to the ‘O’, while the subjective case belongs to the ‘I’. So most poems using ‘I’ towards the beginning and closing with ‘me’ towards the end will tend to be lyric, and vice versa for the epic (note the pronouns in the above quote by Henley). The same can be said of individual lines: “I do not think that they will sing to me.” (Eliot, from the Prufrock poem). But the principle holds true across the first, second and third person as well. So a poem starting with ‘us’ and closing with ‘I’ will be epic (the distinction between ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ has decayed, so the case of ‘you’ is contextually determined). Here is a sensational example: “How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?” From subjective case to objective case, and we have a lyric line. Note that in this passage from the Book of Psalms (one of the world’s most ancient collections of lyrics) the signifiers for ‘I’ and ‘O’ are multiple, including various verbs and ‘for ever’ alongside the pronouns.

It should be clear by now that the tools available for poets to produce these two cardinal effects are numerous. Others which we shall only gloss over include:
a) Repetition. See Sylvia Plath’s queen bee: “she is old, old, old.” Repeating the word nullifies its specificity, and therefore ties it to ‘O’.
b) Conjunctions like ‘and’, ‘or’ can nullify the value of difference between words, also relating them to ‘O’ – “I am: yet what I am none cares or knows.” (John Clare). Starting a phrase or line with ‘And’ is the equivalent of starting it with the vocative ‘O’.
c) Other active uses of pronouns. For example, if the pronoun ‘my’ is followed by an object internal to the speaker and a verb: “My heart aches” (Keats); “My nerves are bad tonight” (Eliot). In both cases it is lyrical, because the sentence implies an opening verb of perception: “[I feel] my heart/nerves/etc.”
d) Logographic tricks, like never using capitalisation to imply that all the words are equal in value.
e) The use of symbols, which, like gods, are implicit signs of the ‘I’.

The possibilities are multiple and well beyond our ability to list them all. One last effect would cause a wealth of confusion if left unexplained, so we shall point it out before closing – the idea that the lyric and epic effect of a phrase can be reversed by the simple use of negatives. An inspirational phrase like “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Exodus, 20:5) has a clear epic ring to it – it sounds like the kind of thing you use at sport rallies – yet it passes from an active verb (‘shalt’) to a passive one (‘serve’) and from subjective case to objective case pronouns. This would file it under the category of the lyric. The trick lies in the fact that the negatives ‘not’ and ‘nor’ nullify the value of the verbs and in fact reverse their effects: ‘shalt not’ becomes passive, while ‘nor serve’ is now active. The ‘I’-to-‘O’ transition is negated and flipped onto its head to become an ‘O’-to-‘I’. The sentence, then, becomes epic. It is a comparatively minor detail, perhaps, but the power of negation is not to be underestimated. The lyric turns to which it can lead are among the simplest you can imagine:

To be, or not to be. That is the question.” (William Shakespeare)

Andrea T Judge grew up in Rome and has studied literature in the UK and the Caribbean. He has worked as freelance critic of movies and games, as translator in Germany, and as sports journalist in France (where he made money by dressing up as a cartoon in Disneyland). He has also kept up a blog of rants and cultural criticism at The Rant Machine. He is currently employed on cruise ships in the Caribbean.

Interview: Michael Curran

Michael Curran is the man behind kicking, screaming publishing den Tangerine, the home-bound hardback joy Dwang and the promotion of insolent and exciting poetry. We ambushed him down a dark alley…

Could you give us a brief rundown of Tangerine’s birth and evolution?

Well, to go way back, it all began with a book mail order company I ran between 1996 and 98. This was called Tangerine Books. I championed small press publications, primarily from the USA, as they had it down. It was my full-time occupation, though I needed an evening job to get by—cleaning aeroplanes at Heathrow, telephone surveys, kitchen porter, etc. Tangerine Books did not work so I threw 500 unused catalogues and a sluggish pc into a skip and entered the construction industry. But the itch was still there. So in 2006 I started Tangerine Press. William Wantling’s poetry was the inspiration to start publishing. I am eternally grateful to a man I shall never meet. Tangerine’s roots seem to lie firmly in counterculture, and Dwang especially has a strong 1960s feel. Do you have a mantra in mind that reflects this when you’re selecting, editing, writing etc.?

Tangerine is all about the counterculture, the underground scene. Occasionally it goes overground. The 1960s feel is something I had not thought about. I just like the look of certain publications, in particular Loujon Press’s The Outsider; also Spero, Wormwood Review, dust, Second Coming, so maybe that observation makes sense. My mantra in publishing is this: mix it up. No limits on subject matter, style, etc. Dwang, the yearly journal I publish, says it all. Where else would you find that dirty boozy bastard Joe Ridgwell published alongside Praemium Imperiale winner Richard Long?

What do you feel is successful and wanting in current poetry publishing?

There seems to be a more discerning publishing scene out there, that will not just publish anything. Care over presentation is equally impressive. Many small presses are letterpress printing too: Blackheath Books, Kilmog Press, Bottle of Smoke Press, X-Ray Book Co, etc. Wanting? The same it has always been: mainsteam publishing is a rotting carcass.

William Wantling and Billy Childish, two Tangerine favourites, must have, in their respective ways, presented interesting editorial questions and challenges. What did you enjoy and what tested you when putting together their collections?

Wantling certainly opened my eyes to what was possible with poetry. He experimented with different forms: sonnets, haiku, as well as the free verse style popular in the underground scene. He made the other stuff seem okay. He is known for powerful poems on the Korean War, heroin addiction, San Quentin Prison, but in putting together the two-volume celebration in 2008, the idea was to subtly show off that vision, that scope, the sheer breadth of his talent. He was undoubtedly a flawed poet and I did include some pieces I was not so keen on. But I thought: this is a career, with highs and lows, and I decided to leave it all in and let the reader decide. This is the impression I got of him as a man too: genuine but flawed.

After publishing the Wantling books, I was stuck on what to do next. I had published an obscure, dead US poet, now I wanted to publish an obscure, living English poet. Billy Childish was the only person I could think of, but thought it was impossible, as he published his own work with Hangman Books. However, after I invited him to contribute work to the first Dwang journal, there began talk of a book. I have been reading Billy’s work for many years and always admired his honesty and not shying away from any subject. Having met him many times during the course of putting the book together and, to a certain extent, getting to know him, the poetry took on another dimension. The ‘cult’ had become human, if you like. So the poems were more immediate and on occasion felt too personal to be reading. In addition, Billy’s dyslexia was a challenge. Proof reading blew my head off. I began misspelling and not trusting my own judgement on grammar. It was a very intense time working on that book.

Each publication is lovingly made and juggles looking professional with a warmth and uniqueness. How did you learn to bookbind and what is important to you about design in books?

Design and certainly binding by hand adds a very sensual element to reading a book. There is the story of the writer at the forefront, of course, but the binder/publisher has a presence too. That is what appealed to me about the Loujon Press publications. You can feel Jon and Lou Webb in the books, you can imagine them discussing the poems, taking breaks from printing and you can certainly feel their sorrow, relief and elation at the completion of a book. I often think how a poem hangs on the page is like the appearance of a door. It has to look right, balanced. With a well designed and bound book, you do not need to read the poems to know they are good. I spent five years in the Tibetan mountains, learning to bind books. With monks. If I made a mistake, they would beat the soles of my feet. I never spoke in all that time.

Who would be your dream Tangerine poet or poets?

In the four years I have been doing this, I have published my dream poets: Wantling, Childish, Voss. In terms of proper dream poets, as in they are dead, I would have loved to have been involved with Robinson Jeffers, Raymond Carver and Akiko Yosano. The latest issue of Dwang features a stunning long cartoon sequence, almost like a flickbook animation? Did you consider giving over such a huge chunk of the book to one sequence a risk, and what attracted you to the piece?

Yes, Kelsie’s cartoon did feel a risk of sorts. Only in terms of length, as it merits publication on its own. I was not sure if Kelsie would be interested in having his 40 year old cartoon-story reprinted in this way, as part of a journal. I am grateful he did. He is an extraordinary man and I feel privileged to know him. At the time of writing, Kelsie has tried ringing me a few times, from Reno, Nevada. He keeps calling at odd times in the evening (last night 3am, for long chats about the underground scene, Loujon Press, etc) but I have to be up at 6.30am for work, so it is proving difficult. Hopefully we can sort this out. The cartoon is extraordinary in its simplicity. I was profoundly moved by it—I had no choice in the matter. It tackles everything and draws you in. It still amazes me that he was only 19 years old when he created it.

Are you writing a great deal yourself?

I have to admit, I am one of those despicable creatures, someone who writes poetry and also feels he can judge what good work is as a self-styled editor. No, I am hardly writing anything at all. The work I receive for Dwang and the other books I publish just consumes me and I welcome it.

How on earth do you find time to run all of these projects and what motivates you?

I find the time because I want to. It is there. My motivation is to put out great writing in the best way I can, while I can. If I did not do this, you would probably find me on a bench in Tooting Bec Common, drinking cider and gently rocking, rocking.

I see you’re planning a new Billy Childish collection. What else does the future hold for yourself and the Press?

Yes, there will be a new poetry collection with Billy later this year. He found a number of unpublished poems from the early 1980s, I assume as part of going though material for this year’s ICA retrospective. We went through them and decided there was enough good material for a collection. There will be a third Dwang next year, due May 2011. I am still deciding what book to publish in November 2011. After that, I will be taking a break. I intend to have a mass book burning of all unsold Tangerine publications in 2013. In which case, you may well find me on that bench in Tooting Bec Common.


For more information, investigate the equally delicious and mischievous collections available to buy from Tangerine Press.

Dream Jobs and Reality: Poetry in the Workplace

Chrissy Williams discusses her new line of work: digitising a century’s worth of printed poetry at the Southbank Centre Poetry Library at the Royal Festival Hall in London. 

The first time I entered the Poetry Library as an official employee I felt like I was walking into Oz: everything suddenly turned into colour, becoming more fantastical and vivid than before.

Explaining my new job at the Poetry Library to people who have no interest in either poetry or books has been interesting: “No, you don’t stamp the books in rhyme”; “No, I haven’t made tea for Carol Ann Duffy”; “No, I don’t take my glasses off and shake my hair out for Andrew Motion”. I have a long history in editorial work (in educational, children’s and mass-market reference books, videogames magazines, and even makeover “bookazines” – if you don’t know what those are, you’re lucky), and some people expressed surprise that I was giving up my tangible career path in favour of something they deemed to be “less ambitious”. In previous editorial job interviews, when asked, “What would be your dream project?” I’d always answer, “Something to do with poetry?” and wait for the inevitable hysterical laughter. Other people, however, understood exactly what this new job would be like: heaven.

For starters, even without the poetry, the workplace is wonderful. I’ve got a lovely view of Somerset House and a bit of the Thames out of the window. Covent Garden’s just over the bridge. There’s free tea and coffee, shiny new stationery and whimsical internal emails from the Southbank Centre asking things like “Do you want to take part in our production of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or “Fancy abseiling down Capital Tower?” Colleagues are all helpful, polite and friendly. My chair is comfy and adjustable. I have more staples than I know what to do with. I’m already in employment bliss.

My job title is Digitisation Coordinator and I look after the online Poetry Magazines archive at For the most part, I digitise physical magazines, putting the content onto the website and proofreading it before it goes live. I’m not actually working behind the front desk though; I’m tucked away in the office (I have received the front desk training, however, and can confirm that stamping books with the big “cha-chung” date stamp is as completely thrilling as my 10-year-old self suspected it might be – “Look, Mum, I’m a li-bra-ri-an!”).

The digitisation itself is very systematic work which I suppose could technically be described as “rather tedious”. Everything has to be done in order, one step at a time: saving and labelling files, scanning pages, extracting text and images and reformatting them for the web, not to mention actually entering the content onto the website in tiny chunks, split into title, author, publication, poem, and so on, before proofreading the whole lot. It’s odd to be so entirely governed by short, repetitive administrative tasks in a workplace that centres on a creative art, but I actually find it immensely satisfying. There’s a structural purity to the tasks, and the goals in sight are obvious and attainable.

My primary concern is that each poem is reproduced faithfully, making an accurate transition from page to screen. The difference in spacing and size between two different fonts (the one in the magazine and the one on our website) can mean the difference between clarity and obscurity, so everything needs very careful attention. I’ve caught myself looking at poems to assess at a glance how easy they’ll be to translate into online text. Formalist lyric poetry is generally no problem. Experimental free verse that dribbles down the page with multiple spaces, inconsistent tabs and an assortment of typographical oddities is the only material I deal with that brings on a sensation approximating anxiety.

In addition to the systematic entering and proofreading of work, I also generate keywords and phrases that will help our search engine locate each poem. With each piece I have to ask myself: “What would someone want to search for in order for this poem to be a useful result?” It’s an interesting exercise in comparing the different ways poems communicate meaning, and I’ve added all sorts of keywords, from “death” and “divorce” to “tigers” and “Ben and Jerry”. To look at it coldly, I’m simply assigning keywords to web pages after paying close attention to abstract data. To look at it another way, I get paid to spend a reasonable portion of my days reading poetry.

Of course, it’s frustrating that the whole process is such a drawn-out one. When you combine the digitisation, uploading and proofreading processes with the business of clearing copyright with each individual poet, you can imagine how complicated it can get, especially when some of the magazines have been out of action for 30 years or more, and some of the poets dead for even longer.

The collection is building up, however, and reflects the diversity of poetry magazines, from the first ever issue of Poetry Review (published in 1912 with reviews of trifling contemporary books like Ezra Pound’s Canzoni) to poetry packaged in matchboxes (Matchbox ran from 2006 to 2008).

Forthcoming additions include the bizarrely compelling 1970s magazine Strange Faeces and a 1926 copy of Oxford Poets featuring poems by W. H. Auden and Cecil Day-Lewis. And these don’t even begin to touch the wealth of amazing poetry magazines housed within the Poetry Library’s main collection.

I expect people come to the site for all sorts of reasons. Some will just want to find poems about dogs, some will want to research specific poets, others will want some help and information on getting their poems published in magazines. The site is useful for all of these purposes. Having these magazines online means people can read them even if they’re not able to come into the Poetry Library itself. It’s not about replacing books or magazines – we never put up issues that are too recent without the editor’s consent, as we don’t want to interfere with magazine sales. In fact, the feedback we have had from editors is that their magazines having a strong online presence actually increases sales of the physical magazine. We’re slowly building a digital archive in the same way that we have a physical archive in the Library – a collection that’s freely accessible to anyone who wants to look at it. Imagine if we got a million pounds tomorrow, enough to hire a small army of digitisers, enough to put every archived magazine online, so that every single poetry magazine published since 1912 was right at your fingertips. You can’t see, but I’m actually salivating right now at the thought.

For me, the essence of the work is simple: I’ve arrived at the Emerald City and been given a job by the Wizard(s). It’s a daily pleasure not only to be surrounded by poems from floor to ceiling, but to have a hand in creating a home for them, making it easier for people to find, enjoy and be inspired by poetry. I fear all this has made me sound a bit idealistic. It’s probably because I am.

Visit the Poetry Magazines website here:

Interview: Kevin Reinhardt

Kevin Reinhardt is a member of poetry collective and publishing press Vintage Poison, host of the monthly ‘Touch me I’m sick’, ‘cELEBRITY eUTHANASIA’ and London’s premier poetry karaoke bingo night, Bingo Master’s Breakout, as well as being co-editor of ‘If anybody asks – you haven’t seen us’ and a poetry reformer. How could we not interrogate this man?

Tell us a bit about you and what you get up to.

I hail from the East End where my devout Catholic parents still live and are convinced, amongst other things, that the ‘Fat Singh’ they live next door to is getting foxes to make love in front of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes they have at the bottom of their garden. My Mum told me at an early age that ‘although you can think outside the box, you still have to live in it’, a philosophy I promptly plagiarised for my first poem, aged four.

How did Vintage Poison get started and what would you say is the general ethos with it?

Vintage Poison was the idea of Lucy Leagrave – she’s pretty much the Chrissie Hynde of VP. Frustrated by a poetry scene which was fast descending into oligarchy, rather than pandering to it, Lucy decided to approach like-minded talented people who shared this frustration. So VP was started with myself, Gareth Lewis, Robert Yates and Toby Davies, who, working with his commitment issues, took affiliate membership, just to be on the safe side of disappointment. Following the French Revolution, we created The Committee of Public Safety comprising of Maximilien Robespierre (myself), Georges Danton (Lawyer Lewis), Jean-Paul Marat (HRH Lucy Leagrave) and Camille Desmoulins (Toby Davies). Robert Yates retired from Vintage Poison to take up his residency in the Bastille as the Marquis de Sade. Our ethos is very much an inclusive one: poetry is for anybody who wants to do it and not the reserve of an anointed few. Which is at odds with what we’re seeing in the main.

What would you say makes for a good gig and a bad gig? What have been your best/worst?

A good gig is where everybody enjoys themselves. Only the performers enjoy themselves when it’s bad gig and the audience can tell. My best gigs have been the nights I’ve hosted that have felt like a party. As a performer, the best night out I had was a couple of months ago when I read in South London. It involved a poem being read out about another feature’s mistress, then said mistress turning up after the poem and going berserk at reader of poem before she went on to do her feature and drunkenly trying to bring another poet on stage who wasn’t billed to read or doing a floorspot. The host was having none of it and brought it all to a halt. I’m not sure if it was this which was the last straw; if not, then it probably was said mistress feature announcing to the audience: “You see those three sitting together over there? [Poet she was mistress to, Poet she tried to get on stage, another feature] I’ve fucked them all.” It was all very Kiki and Herb.

As for bad nights? They’re always the ones I go out to thinking that ‘maybe it’ll be OK, the line up looks reasonable’ and they’re invariably interminable and seem to last forever and were at some point ‘a good idea’.

What could you stand to see more of/less of in poetry?

I’m less interested in the Emperor’s next big thing and the self-congratulation that goes with it. I’d like to see more characters, and poetry being as widespread as karaoke.

Your events are usually interactive, be it the poem-swapping at Touch Me I’m Sick or the bingo/karaoke/poetry mix of Bingo Master’s Breakout. What do you enjoy most about this format and which is your favourite?

I like both because the poetry scene can be so self-obsessed and incestuous. So I like the poem swapping because it could be anybody in the room who reads your poem; you’ve no idea about how it’s going to be read out or interpreted. A good exercise in how not to be precious. Poetry and Karaoke, it’s my cause. The karaoke song you choose may not be your song, but it is your poem.

Who or what is exciting you at the moment?

Brian Clough is exciting me at the moment. He’s the kind of Robespierre I’d like to be. Rob Auton is definitely one of the most exciting young bingo callers in London at the moment and I’m also quite looking forward to getting my hair cut soon. I’m also excited about any act that can ‘go either way’.

Who have been your own influences, both in poetry and in general?

Everybody and everything influences me. I pick up a lot of phrases from people. For instance, I have work colleague who seems to be an endless source of material: ‘We don’t charge like a wounded bull for our product’; ‘ABC’ (‘Anything but Chardonnay’); our ex-cricket club Captain commenting on the state of our wicket that ‘nobody wants to come and play us, we’re like Oldham on the plastic’; my Nan’s favourite description of being drunk (‘I felt like the world was not my own’). Everything Pop influences me (I like Pop because it’s what you make it), as does my Mum, who taught me how to stick two fingers up at the world after extensive training on Margaret Thatcher. Half Man Half Biscuit were influential in showing me how you could create a world of your own, Dusty Springfield is my Saint, Scott Walker that influential cool careers advisor from my secondary school. In regards to traditional poetry influences, Martin Stannard was a very early and abiding influence on how I wanted to write and, like Mickey Rourke at the end of Angel Heart, I must concede, whether I like it or not, that I am heavily aligned with the beats.

What’s coming up in the future, in terms of publishing and performing?

Vintage Poison may be organising a one day festival and there may be a Bingo Master’s Breakout by the sea. In terms of publishing, I’m editing Toby Davies’ first collection, Letters to the Sultan, as well as starting on my own collection (Project Birdworld), now that I have a printer and am becoming adept at MS Publisher.

What do you fear?

Mark Chapman getting parole.

Finally, if you were to go on a real-life Celebrity Euthenasia spree with an arsenal of weaponry, which slebs would you take out first and in what manner? 

I guess it should be those counter-revolutionary oligarchs of the poetry scene, who incessantly bleat on about how they may be on BBC3 for 2 mins next Monday at 1:30am, or the types who post links on Facebook saying, “I’m in the London Paper Pg 37”, only for you to click on the link to a scanned image of the horoscope for Scorpio circled. I’d gas them with indifference – that, or shut down their Twitter accounts. I’d draw the line at making them sit through a reading of their own poetry.


For more things Reinhardt-shaped, check out Vintage Poison and keep an eye peeled for more Bingo events via Facebook. Scan the horizon too for his upcoming collection, Birdworld, due May 2011.

Poems of the light and of the dark

Part 2 of a trilogy of articles in which Andrea T Judge discusses the history and evolution of lyric and epic poetry and what they mean to us today.

If someone told you that there is a word in the English language that means nothing, you would probably respond, “Big deal.” After all, there are several. But what if they told you that this one specific word meaning nothing exists in all spoken European languages, and in Ancient Greek and Latin too, and that it is identical in all of them for spelling, meaning and use – even, almost, for pronunciation? Does it still sound familiar? And what if they went on to tell you that this is the only word in the English language – or in any language – which is used almost exclusively in poetry, including non-lyric instances of poetry such as dramatic verse or the poetry books of the bible, or when another mode of writing tries to mimic poetic discourse (ancient historical texts or early novels, placing ‘poetic’ speeches in the mouths of their characters, or modern novels in deliberate linguistic satire)? Finally, what if they told you that the spelling for this universal ‘word for nothing’ is the simplest you can imagine – so incredibly simple, in fact, that it consists of only one letter?

Ladies and gentlemen, meet ‘O’ – the letter ‘O’, and the word ‘O’. The word, let us be clear about it, has a double meaning. On one hand, it is a mark of the vocative – it indicates that whatever name or object appearing next in the sentence is being called or addressed. “O wild west wind,” begins Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’. “O Goddess!”, opens Keats’ ‘Ode to Psyche’. The word originates from Ancient Greek, where the letter Omega (Ω, ω), pronounced like the long o in ‘broad,’ was used in much the same way, in both lyric poetry – Pindar, Pythian IV, line 59: ‘ωμακμρ υιε Πολυμναστου’, “O happy son of Polymnestos” – and dramatic – Aeschylus, Agamemnon, line 1577, ‘ω φεΥΥος ευφρον ημεραζ οικηφορου,’ “O fluent glimmering light of justice.” It was later picked up by the Latins for the same use (Quis deus, o Musae, tam saeva incendia Teucris / avertit?, “Which god, o Muses, from such raging fire saved the Greeks?” – Virgil in the Aeneid, IX, 77-78). From there it spread to all the modern European languages.

The second meaning of ‘O’ is the one that indicates nothing in the best sense of the phrase (though to some extent this is also true of its vocative form, at least inasmuch as it sets up the register of the sentence but indicates no specific object in and of itself). Its meaning is that of an exclamation of sudden and/or intense emotion, be it surprise, pain, joy, longing or what have you. Blake gives us an example in ‘The Little Black Boy’: “And I am black, but O! my soul is white.” This version of ‘O’ later evolved into ‘Oh’, presumably to distinguish it from the vocative use, and this new word became the one to be used in novels, journalism and correspondence – leaving the pristine ‘O’ alone for use in poetry, where (bizarrely) it nonetheless retained its double meaning. Now this second use of O truly means nothing in a way that no other word in language does, not even the word ‘nothing’. The meaning of ‘Oh’ is practically ‘I cannot speak’; “I am too surprised to emit anything but this inarticulate sound. I haven’t regained my conscience or had the time to formulate a proper sentence.” Or: “I am in too great a pain to speak. This cry of pain is all that can worm its way out of my mouth.” Or: “I am so deeply in love that I cannot speak it, yet I cannot stay silent either, so this sound will be my compromise.” Where ‘O(h)’ appears – or, for as long as it appears – language ends. It is a sign that signals the impossibility of utilizing signs or formulating meaning. It represents the crisis of language, and as such, it verily means nothing.

Ironic as it may sound that poetry, the most meaningful mode of language, should gain its most exclusive signifier in a word that means nothing, the mating is in reality quite sensible. Lyric poetry is normally based on an underlying dialectic of speaker and receptor – it is ‘an utterance that is overheard’, as John Stuart Mills defined it, or a case in which the poet ‘pretends to be talking to himself or to someone else’, in the words of Northrop Frye. This is the case regardless of whether the receptor is personified, as in Sappho’s Aphrodite or Petrarch’s Laura, or merely implied, by the echo of the reader who ‘overhears’. The vocative ‘O…’ projects an addressee and therefore creates a true lyric register. The exclamatory or emotional ‘O’ is an extension of this function, and this reveals the connection between two otherwise unrelated uses of the same ‘O’: to the extent that an internal monologue cannot make meaningless statements without ceasing to be either internal or a monologue, a void expression of emotion cannot subsist in such a speech, nor a sign that signals the absence of signs. More likely, such expressions are staging a call for attention of some kind. The emotional ‘O’ is the raw cry of pain, the bark of surprise, the peal of wonder, the wolf’s howl. Though it never says anything, it always signals something to some other. “O, I am so in love!” means “[Dear Sir/Lady], I am so in love!” Where there is an ‘O’, there is always the O/ther. (Of course, the argument can be extended to propose that the whole notion of an internal monologue is an oxymoron, as any ‘logos’ implies an Other, but that is a discussion for another day).

Let’s extend the original shibboleth. What if someone told you that there is a word which means the opposite of ‘O’, the opposite of nothing, a word which represents the other pole of the dialectic, the other side of the Other? What if this word, too, were spelt by means of a single letter? It is not too hard to find: here comes ‘I’. The universality of this one is not quite the same – the letter remains in the German ‘Ich’ or the Italian ‘Io’, but it is substituted with other, similarly elongated vertical letters in languages such as French (‘Je’) or Spanish (‘Yo’). On the other hand, the word is more polyvalent in its signification – the same pronunciation, but with different spellings, can signify the eye, the pained expression ‘Ay’ (similar to ‘O!’), and ‘Aye’, which is another form of that fascinating syllable that is ‘yes’.

The ‘I’ represents the opposite of the ‘O’ for fairly obvious reasons. While the ‘O’ projects another person, the ‘I’ indicates the self, subject and origin of speech. ‘I’ cannot be spoken of someone else, while ‘O’ cannot be said without someone else. Yet the opposition runs deeper than the semantic. We mentioned that the lyric genre is based on a dialectic of speaker and receptor, but we cannot help agreeing that such an identification, while useful to great extents, is not enough to exhaust all poetry, and that there are some poems which popular consensus would call ‘lyric’ or ‘lyrical’ yet are not directly referable (much less directly addressed) to a specific Other – including a deal of the lyric poetry belonging to the ancients and important hermetic traditions such as the Japanese haikus. Interestingly, though most of these poems do not respond to the dialectic of the self and the other, they do respond to the values represented by ‘I’ and ‘O’. These two words/letters are more primal than the dichotomy of the self and the other – the latter is an expression of the former, not the other way round.

The ‘I’ and ‘O’, as graphic shapes, are the most elementary signs for the most powerful opposition in the realm of signification, and it is incredible how many symbols, themes, and effects in poetry can be linked – or even directly translated – into this couple. Nietzsche identified this opposition in his famous antithesis of Apollonian versus Dionysian principles, claiming that the development of all arts was inextricably bound up with their duality. Upon the foundations of ‘I’ and ‘O’ rest, for instance, the oppositions of light and dark, man and woman, truth and dream, order and chaos, self and other, difference and sameness, good and evil, law and anarchy, reason and emotion, life and death, civilization and barbarism, and an infinity of aesthetic conflicts. In its original form, the Greek omega was written by means of a simple circle (the looping symbol ‘ω’ evolved later as a conjunction of two small Os, to distinguish it from the letter omicron). The reasons why such a shape was chosen as the graphic sign for this vowel are, of course, impossible to investigate – it is amusing to speculate that it may be because the lips need to form a circle to pronounce the O, if only because Aristotle discussed the matter in the Poetics – but the choice is highly significant.

The circle is a shape which is self-similar from whichever position you look at it. It does not end and does not begin at any given point, it has no top or bottom or sides, no front nor back. It is perfect and, of course, haunting. The Greeks picked up the Babylonian belief that stars were arranged in a circle which determined your destiny in life (the zodiac, from zoe and dias, ‘life’ and ‘circle’), Dante chose three circles, one within the other, to represent God, and Shakespeare coined the expression “The wheel is come full circle” (Lear, V, iii, 175) to mean moral and temporal completeness. Incidentally, representations of history are usually either cyclical, where history is shown as a wheel, or teleological, in which it is shown as a straight line. The straight line, when it is vertical, becomes the ‘I’.

The geometric appearance of these two letters is extraordinarily illuminating, and it may just account for their (relative) universality. This dialectic also nourishes two fundamental drives which, once translated in linguistic expression, do much to determine whether a poem will be positive or negative in its outlook. The ‘I’ is at the heart of all questions of identity – the possibility of saying ‘I’ is itself, already, an aspiration. It implies distinguishing oneself from the rest. The straight line of the sun-ray and arrow were symbols for Apollo, the sun-god. A poem where the teleological focus is ‘I’ is a poem of light – the poem of a speaker who will be, will become, will mean. The act itself of becoming ‘I’ is an epic quest. It means becoming one, final, finite, complete, indivisible, true to the one-self, a force in opposition to all others. To become ‘the chosen one’ (a classical epic quest from the Gospels to The Matrix) could be represented, in Latin numerals, as becoming the chosen ‘I’ – or, in modern graphology, as the chosen 1. For the sign ‘I’ originally meant both the letter and the number, and we have retained the principle of representing 1 by means of a straight line. Indeed, the number 1 is the basic unit of individual identification – the heart of identity, we may provoke, for there can only be one. And I will always be the chosen one.

Since all numbers are composed of the basic building block ‘one’, all numbers are replicas of one, and there can be no other numbers than one (the original Roman numerals make this even more explicit – I, II, III…). The only alternative to one that is not a repetition is a non-number, and this, in mathematics, is represented by the number zero – that is to say, a circle. As stated, ‘O’ means nothing – even in the language of mathematics. To call by means of ‘O’ means to call for nothing – and in fact in the lyric, no-one replies (otherwise the genre is not lyric but dramatic). ‘O’ means death. It is the self-same, timeless, non-differentiated space where all tensions are reduced to nothing, the womb that came before birth, or the heavenly harmony on the grasses of Eden. The ‘I’ is where we want to go when we want to become; the ‘O’ is where we want to go when we want to stop being, to fade away, to dissolve, to sleep, to be undone. For these reasons, poems where the ‘O’ is predominant over the ‘I’ are usually more melancholy and nostalgic in tone, and these poems we commonly call ‘lyric’. The ‘O(ther)’ has dominion over the ‘I’, who no longer wants to be, and would rather escape this state of inagency by fading into death or into the other, who are, by this stage, the same thing (rest and/or bliss). Dionysus is the god of fading away from reason – Nietszche spoke of the ‘intoxication’ he causes as the god of wine, of madness and of cults of dance and ecstasy. Dionysus is associated to the silver circle of the moon, which gives him a symbolic connection to women, whom he was also inextricably related to, and to the circles. This value finds its opposite in the masculine Apollonian values. In psychoanalysis, the ‘I’ and the ‘O’ are the two geometric shapes symbolizing the phallus on one side and the vulva or womb on the other. The opposition of epic and lyric values, of heroic quests on one side and interiority and sensitivity on the other, plant their roots in an opposition which is historically related to that of the masculine and the feminine. Thus the poems of the light and of the dark, and of reason and passion, become intimately bound in their representation with tropes of gender – in ways which can be illuminating or discriminatory.

The duality of poems of the light and of the dark, or more simply epic and lyric poems, is the core dialectic which informs distinctions of poetic genre. The tradition of poems where the ‘I’ predominates constitutes the foundation for all verse on identity and ideology, from national to ethnical and cultural statements. Where the ‘O’ is dominant, we find the building blocks for centuries of love poetry and religious verse. Pride and humility are suggested by the two poles and become genres of their own. So powerful, perhaps even so inescapable, is this opposition, that Nietzsche had no doubt in calling Apollo and Dionysus the ancestry rather than the progeny of Olympus.

Andrea T Judge grew up in Rome and has studied literature extensively through courses in the UK and the Caribbean. He writes football journalism for the website Football Italiano and kept up a blog of rants and cultural criticism at The Rant Machine. He has recently set off adventuring.

The Future of the Book

Some end-of-2010 thoughts by Jon Stone on the rise and stumble of the e-book

Shuffling around Foyles on Charing Cross Road in the days leading up to Christmas, it’s hard to reconcile everything you’ve been hearing about the popularity of the Kindle with the dozens of people crowding out every aisle and corner of the shop in search of appropriate Christmas presents. What will these people do when the book goes electronic? You can’t buy someone a megabyte’s worth of downloaded data for a gift. You can’t steal their e-reader, change their credit card details to yours, purchase the desired bonkbuster/Booker winner/how-to manual, change the credit card details back, tie a ribbon around it and leave it under the tree. You could give them some kind of gift card, I suppose, but you might as well give them money.

The Kindle’s designers seem to have thought of books as mere vessels for vast volumes of text. The user is trying to get the information into their brain through their eyes and isn’t really bothered about the method of conveyance.

As it is, books remain the ideal present for anyone who will have them. They’re the easiest things in the world to wrap. They come in a wide range of forms &ndash fitting a wide range of budgets &ndash from £7 paperback thrillers to £30 coffee table monsters. And most importantly of all, there’re millions of them. Compare book-browsing to the purchase of a DVD, where the recipient’s narrow taste in genre restricts you to a few dozen titles, any of which they may already own or have seen recently. Pity the poor parents in Game or HMV trying to remember which Sims 4 expansion pack is needed and for which console. In any decent-sized bookshop, there will be something they like. There must be. If they read at all, that is. And if they don’t, they’re out of the equation anyway, as far as the book versus e-book debate goes.
But then you get home and take a good, long look at your flat. If you’re anything like me, your last week-long overhaul of your living space resulted in you finding just enough space to fit most of the things you own, though only after bidding goodbye to various treasured possessions. You also don’t own your flat and the way the world’s going, you’ll never own a flat. Four years is the longest you’ve lived anywhere, and you remember what the most irksome thing to move last time was: the boxes and boxes of books. If only you had some kind of Star Trek-style device that you could point at the heaving, bowing shelves to turn all but the most stylish of your tomes into data, to be stored away and retrieved only when some title bears re-reading.

But then, if you’re like me, you’ve had a Kindle for a year now and found it an endless source of annoyance. Forget the fact that the screen was broken by a light nudge from a shoe and that no one seems to be able to tell you how to get it fixed (accounts of whether Amazon replaces them for free, no questions asked, rub up against complaints about the company offering no solution other than the purchase of a brand new model). Forget also the fact that you’re restricted to what Amazon stocks in its online store (without even touching on the subject of censorship, in the past year I’ve simply not been able to buy most books I’ve wanted to. “Think of a book and start reading it in 30 seconds” my foot). There’s also the fact that most books are plainly run through some sort of conversion software without an editor or proofreader taking the time to check the quality of the end result. So where the editor of the original book has used soft return to fine-tune the letter-spacing, removing the space from between two words and replacing it with a line break, those two words appear stuck together in the e-book file. In the e-book version of Under the Ivy: The Life and Music of Kate Bush by Graeme Thomson, which cost about £10, there was at least one such accidental compound word every second page or so.

And why does the Kindle insist on rendering everything in the same so-so font? Why are designers, copy-editors and typographers &ndash each vital to the book-crafting process &ndash dumped altogether in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach to every genre under the sun? Supposedly, one might think, to give the user more control over how they view the text. Alas, not so much. The user has no choice of font either (at least up to the Kindle 2), and very little in the way of other options. You can make the text bigger or smaller. That’s about it. It’s not much help when trying to read a book like Ways of Seeing by John Berger, where the Kindle seems incapable of fitting an image on the same page as its caption, no matter how big or small you make the writing. The Kindle’s designers seem to have thought of books as mere vessels for vast volumes of text. The user is trying to get the information &ndash or the gist of it &ndash into their brain through their eyes and isn’t really bothered about the method of conveyance, so long as it doesn’t put a strain on their arms or their wallets. If only human beings had a USB port on them, we could do away with text altogether.

In regard to looks as well, the book is still way out in front, with far more potential for character and individuality in its design. Covers can still wow us. They can still make me, as a wannabe graphic designer, miserable with envy. Despite Amazon’s best efforts, even the latest Kindle has all the verve and charm of a pager or electronic organiser. As with all gadgets, it will hold no interest as a physical object after a year on the high street (at least until it’s long forgotten), which is presumably why Amazon is releasing a new version almost annually. How many people are going to regularly upgrade, at £100 a pop, for a bit of fizz and freshness in the feel and appearance of their reading matter?

But then, what to do about the space problem? And the taking-books-on-holiday problem? And the increasing-costs-of-printing-for-independent-presses problem? OK, here’s my solution, my best-of-both-worlds future: books on cartridges. I’m imagining them about the size of Nintendo DS cartridges. Because they come in boxes, skilled designers can still run wild, but the cartridges can also be stored in storage cases, enabling you to fit a bookshelf into something the size of a glasses case for your daily sojourns. The boxes can be displayed prominently in shops, are easily wrapped as gifts, and look super on a shelf, but are smaller than conventional books and &ndash more importantly &ndash much lighter, a mercy when it comes to moving. A design team has full control over how the book looks on the screen when it’s initially booted up, but the user is able to tinker with it themselves. E-readers, in this scenario, would become as ubiquitous as MP3 players, since they’d no longer need to be attached to any particular online bookstore. If books were designed with a touch-screen interface in mind (again, as with Nintendo DS games), the only physical controls you’d strictly need would be an on-off switch.

Of course, being physical objects, cartridges would be more costly than e-books (although they should be recyclable). They’d also be less transferable &ndash but then, Amazon and Apple are already firing on all cylinders to lock their file formats down as tightly as possible in order to discourage “illegal” copying and sharing. At least with a cartridge you’d be able to physically lend someone a book again.

My absolute ideal would be the Star Trek device, enabling books to be magically switched from a physical to an electronic state in moments. But by the time we have anything like that available on the high street, food replicators and teleporters will have changed the world in unimaginable ways. So I’ll stick with my cartridge idea for now. The rest of the world, meanwhile, will likely go on duelling over the imperfections of the two present formats, with the result that both will stick around for a good while yet, neither taking the upper hand.

Approaching the Divine Comedy in the 21st Century

Andrea T Judge takes a modern look at Dante’s famous voyage through the realms of the dead.

Mark Twain once said that a classic is something everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read. No doubt we could trace a long list of books fitting under this category, from the Iliad and Don Quijote to War and Peace and Ulysses. Almost everyone is guilty of having read a classic, and certain erudite individuals can boast quite a few more – usually this makes these people insufferable to be around, which may be the reason why Henry Miller (who never succeeded in writing a classic) said that every man with a bellyful of the classics is an enemy to the human race. Classics are, traditionally, very long, very complex, or both at the same time. They are not easy to read, and unless someone gives you a good reason to pick one up, you probably won’t.

In this hypothetical list of books which are simultaneously attractive and repulsive to such uncommon degrees, the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri deserves a special mention. If fame is half the reason why people read classics, then it needs no further encouragement. Jorge Luis Borges called it ‘the best book in literature’ and TS Eliot used its author as the standard for comparisons with Shakespeare. At the same time, the notion of a seven-hundred-year old tale which appears like a catalogue on what God does and does not want us to do is not the kind of thing which you would imagine to fly off the bookshelves. From Mark Twain’s point of view, Dante’s book is a classic among classics.

It is a shame that all the fame around this ancient volume should also have generated a great deal of false expectations. For, in certain ways, the Divine Comedy hardly belongs in the ranks of its fellow classics. For starters, it is easily one of the shorter books. All three canticles put together make for about 450 pages, against the 800 of the Iliad and Odyssey or the 600 of the Aeneid. If you read the Inferno alone, which is self-contained, it stands at just over 30,000 words – a third of the length of an average novel. It is also remarkably easy to read. It has none of the archaic grandiloquence of Beowulf or Gilgamesh, and none of the intricate linguistic constructions which characterise the modern classics by Joyce or Proust. The narrative is synthetic and adventurous, and the language, while sophisticated, is always functional to the telling of the story.

Even so, the Divine Comedy’s reputation as a classic would not be half as ironic if it weren’t that the poem’s own opening is a metaphor for our relationship with the classics. In the first Canto of the poem, Dante is walking through a forest and meets the spirit of Virgil, the author of the Aeneid – what the middle ages considered to be the classic among classics. Virgil is described as a ‘well-spring / From which such copious floods of eloquence / Have issued’, a line which probably could have been cast on Joyce’s grave with no risk of protestations, and Dante hopes to relate to him yet – ‘avail me the long study and great love / That have impelled me to explore thy volume,’ he says, echoing the plight of any English Literature student who sets out to write an essay on Moby Dick, Don Juan or Paradise Lost.

Obviously, the relationship between Dante and Virgil has a much broader meaning as well – it stands for the relationship between the past and the present, with the Latin master bearing a torch from other times and guiding the (then) modern spirit of Dante. But this also encapsulates the metaphoric register which really gives the poem its own modernity (or, in Eliot’s term, its ‘universality’), and which truly makes it worth reading even seven-hundred years after its writing. Consider, for example, the description of the souls in the fifth Canto, those damned for the sin of lust.

And as the wings of starlings bear them on
In the cold season in large band and full,
So doth that blast the spirits maledict;
It hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them;
No hope doth comfort them for evermore,
Not of repose, but even of lesser pain.
And as the cranes go chanting forth their lays,
Making in air a long line of themselves,
So saw I coming, uttering lamentations,
Shadows borne onward by the aforesaid stress.

The idea that the Divine Comedy should be a collection of cautionary Christian vignettes simply does not hold, for the sin is always a metaphor for the punishment – and the other way round. The above passage doesn’t represent what happens to you after life if you live in lust, but what happens in life – and the souls exemplify this as they are tossed around by the winds of their desires, ‘hither, thither, downward, upward,’ and abandoned in the storm of their appetites, as ‘no hope doth comfort them, not [even] of repose.’ As Dante proceeds deeper into hell, the other torments conform to this vision – the greedy are drowned in the mud of their own squalor, the liars are burning in the double flame of their lies, the murderous are plunged in blood, and so on.

Dante’s Inferno is not the hell of the damned, but the hell of the living – our own hell. As the canvas of the Commedia expands into a monumental metaphor for human history, the journey becomes our own journey through our everyday world, testifying to the suffering of those who live in vice, without apparent punishment, but punished by their own vice. By the time one reaches the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, which are famously less entertaining than the Inferno but equally complex, the modernity of the poem has become self-evident. It is not the castigation that follows evil, but the horror of evil itself, that makes the Inferno such a memorably poignant representation. Similarly the humanity of the other two canticles goes well beyond the sophisticated symbolic parables that they present. If the Divine Comedy is a classic, then the idea itself of the genre must be founded on a paradox – and not just because the poem is easy to read and relatively short. As we opened with a citation on the subject, so shall we close. In the words of Edith Wharton, then: A classic is not a classic because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.

Post-script: A question which comes up frequently is – which translation should I choose? An edition in verse is a must, but the preference between rhyming translations or ones in free/blank verse must remain subjective. By all means take a look at more than one translation – they can be very different from each other! The first Canto is no more than two or three pages long, so reading it a few times to compare different versions is not much of a chore. Some translations retain the rhyme. If those impress you and seem more musical, then stick with one of them. If you find the free-flowing narrative effect that results from less constrictive verse to be most stimulating, then forsake the rhymes and go for that.

Andrea T Judge grew up in Rome and has studied literature in the UK and the Caribbean. He has worked as freelance critic of movies and games, as translator in Germany, and as sports journalist in France (where he made money by dressing up as a cartoon in Disneyland). He has also kept up a blog of rants and cultural criticism at The Rant Machine. He is currently employed on cruise ships in the Caribbean.

What are lyric and epic poetry and why does it matter?

Part 1 of a trilogy of articles in which Andrea T Judge discusses the history and evolution of these major poetic forms and what they mean to us today.

When, almost one hundred years ago, John Drinkwater was asked to write his book The Lyric as an introduction to this literary concept, he discussed “the commonly accepted opinion that a lyric is an expression of personal emotion” and reached the conclusion that “lyric and poetry are synonymous terms”. No doubt both statements can be traced back to a history of criticism. John Stuart Mill, writing in 1833, claimed that ‘Lyric poetry is more eminently and peculiarly poetry than any other’, and Edgar Allan Poe, in his ‘Poetic Principle’, already draws connections between the pure ‘Poetic Sentiment’ and the lyric. Such a use of the term ‘lyric’, bordering on tautology, eventually led Northrop Frye to claim in his Anatomy of Criticism that “we use [the terms ‘epic’ and ‘lyric’] chiefly as jargon or trade slang for long and short (or shorter) poems respectively”.

The juxtaposition of lyric and personal expression finds instead its roots in Hegel, who wrote just before Mills, and who was the first to oppose ‘the objective character of the Epos’ to ‘the subjective principle of the Lyric’. This view was later picked up by such thinkers as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, and even Frye, in a paraphrase of Mill, concedes that “the lyric poet normally pretends to be talking to himself or to someone else” and that “the lyric is the poet presenting the image in relation to himself”. The lyric, in the words of Hegel, was about ‘insulation’ and ‘self-expression’.

Though lyric poetry is one of the most ancient forms of written expression in the world, its theoretical history is actually quite young. It is also, as we have seen, rather confusing, because most critics before the 19th Century simply saw the term ‘lyric’ as synonymous for ‘poetry’, as Drinkwater still did. The only paradigm on which most thinkers seem to agree is that of the lyric as poetry of address, but this is itself problematic. An endless array of examples can be found for poets who speak ‘to’ someone, of course, but an equally endless list of exceptions can also be provided, in classical and modern poetry alike. Some of the texts which are usually categorised as ‘lyrics’ of the ancient world barely look like poetry at all, and rather seem like personal notes which the author has left in some diary or journal. Here’s a full poem by Alcaeus:

“Now we must get drunk and drink whether we want to or not, because Myrsilus is dead.”

Obviously the fragmentary remains of the classical tradition suggest that some of these works may simply be incomplete poems, but even within this selfsame tradition there are at least four recognised genres of lyric poetry (monodic, elegiac, iambic, choral), none of which can simply be reduced to a simple ‘poetry of address’ genre. Modern poetry has even more cases of verse that does not speak to a specific ‘you’.

Even so, two currents of vocative poetry can readily be identified in the history of the lyric. The first in chronological order is the ‘classical’ or ‘ancient’ model: poetry addressed to the gods, such as Sappho’s globally famous prayer to Aphrodite, or the Book of Psalms in the Bible. The second is the ‘modern’ model, which is poetry addressed to a loved one, particularly popular in courtly poetry of the middle ages and the Renaissance. Probably the most important and influential figure in popularising this shift was Petrarch, whose monumental ‘Song Book’ was a collection entirely dedicated to an idealised and unattainable woman he calls Laura. While his address to Laura was normally indirect (Petrarch speaks to or about an allegorical figure called ‘Love’ as an intermediary, like Sappho did with Aphrodite), it still signals a first step in the shift of focus from the divine to the earthly, from the transcendent to the immanent, from the immortal to the daily. It must be stressed that this shift was very gradual – Petrarch’s original verse idealised Laura almost to the status of a goddess. But it became the model for over three centuries of poetry all over Europe (including Shakespeare’s own sonnets) and it virtually institutionalised the lyric, to the point that the notion of writing ‘to a girl/woman one loves’ is still popularly conceived as one of the most natural and sincere reasons behind the writing of a poem (slightly less so the idea of writing ‘to a boy/man’; the register of the Song Book was androcentric and so was its heritage).

Now, lyric poetry is usually set in opposition to epic poetry (again, the dialectic was best explored by Hegel). But literary criticism of epic poetry is far, far more ancient than that of the lyric tradition, going as far back as Aristotle. This suggests that the dichotomy between the lyric and the epic is more a construction of the moderns than a self-evident distinction within the genre(s) of poetry. Aristotle defines the epic as ‘that poetic imitation which is narrative in form and employs a single metre,’ and this is a very simple definition. So it is somewhat of a mystery where the later tenets of the genre emerged from. Judging by Homer’s proselytes, from Virgil to Milton and Byron, an epic is a poem of twelve or twenty-four books, starting in the middle of the action (in medias res) and often involving flashbacks. But these standards are violated by just about every other member of the genre out there, from primary epics like Gilgamesh and Beowulf to later ones such as the Divine Comedy or Jerusalem Delivered. The problem is that there are virtually no common canons to speak of a ‘genre’ whatsoever, not even metrical properties. Much like ‘lyric’ has often been used to signify ‘poetry,’ so the term ‘epic’ has evolved from Aristotle’s choice of words (“a poem on a great scale”) to become a mere synonym of ‘grand,’ to the point that any story of great magnitude or import is usually referred to as epic (or even an epic), from War and Peace and Lord of the Rings to Star Wars and Titanic.

Hegel’s groundbreaking innovation was to treat both lyric and epic as literary qualities, rather than as genres. For this reason he sets them up in a dialectic relation where the lyric speaks about the individual and the epic about society – a profoundly influential perspective which became the basis for most theory on the subject. Even so, Hegel was writing at a time when the medium of the novel was still very young (and not much respected). Now that it has become dominant, the novel seems a conspicuous absence from this grand literary scheme. Aristotle’s specification that the epic “is narrative in form” reveals that the original distinction between poetic types was not so much between subjective and objective, or between long and short verse, but between poems which told a story and poems which did not. In other words, a term was required to distinguish between narrative and non-narrative poems. In the age before the novel, verse was the only written form for recounting stories short of turning to pure historians like Herodotus. ‘Epic’ retrospectively became the all-encompassing term to describe poems which directly told stories; ‘lyric’ described most of those which did not, with the rest comprising philosophy or scientific texts which were written in verse. When the novel emerged, proving so flexible and enjoyable a way of weaving a tale, it quickly absorbed the roles of narration which until then had been the prerogative of the epic. On this account, numerous novels have been said to be epics in their own right, while modern poetic epics are seldom written and even less read anymore. Non-narrative poetry, by contrast, remained insulated and its roles were never appropriated by other forms. As a consequence, the broad term ‘lyric,’ which never came to be applied to anything else, became no more than another word for poetry. The closest thing to a ‘misappropriation’ of the role of poetry has been performed Twentieth Century music, in which songs are usually non-narrative and the spoken words of which we now refer to as ‘lyrics’.

This is not to suggest that, on account of the confusion and debate over the definitions, studies of the lyric and the epic should be considered infertile. However, the revolutionary impact of new forms and mediums over the last two centuries means that old readings of these two categories in terms of genre are no longer tenable, if they ever have been. The canons are simply not stable. The epic and lyric are not labels that we can stick upon poems, nor signposts to bind them together. There is, perhaps, no longer any genre of poem which can be fixed in a category by means of its history – even metre, one of the most ancient poetic marks of belonging, has faded in prominence as a banner for recognition. The only thing left to study is the structure of the poem. It is not genre but structure that reveals the epic or lyric quality of verse, and it is therefore to this topic that our next essays shall turn their attention.

Andrea T Judge grew up in Rome and has studied literature extensively through courses in the UK and the Caribbean. He writes football journalism for the website Football Italiano and kept up a blog of rants and cultural criticism at The Rant Machine. He has recently set off adventuring.