It’s been months since I last blogged about a poem, save for an article at Cheekteeth and a few tidbits here-and-there right here at Present Everywhere. Been busy.... But, between projects, I happily return with a bit about A.E. Stallings’ “Epic Simile,” which appeared in the January 2012 issue of Poetry magazine. Stallings is one of our foremost contemporary poets and without question one of our stellar formal—er, ah—ists. Recently she won a MacArthur fellowship due to said stellarness.
“Epic Simile” is a 22 line, largely narrative piece whose overt subject is the classical hero--someone akin to Achilles or to Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator comes to mind. The story is straightforward: our hero has been battling it out all day and, out of exhaustion perhaps, he spaces out, momentarily escaping into the outer and inner distances where he observes his death in the image of a deer. Upon the deer’s exit, our hero is suddenly back in scene, returned from that out-of-body, lyrical moment into his story.
From beginning to end, Stallings’ battle imagery is pretty clear. I like it best in the middle of the poem when she writes “of the wind / Brushing through stands of spears like conifers” (10-11). Seems the obvious image would be the other way around—conifers like spears—and I appreciate this reversal right down to its very mix-up of “stands of spears” instead of stands of conifers (I’d be curious to know how that image was originally drafted, if “stands of spears” was the first to come). Similar uses of battle imagery appear lines later when the deer’s “gaze / Beads on him like a sniper’s sites” and at the end in which blood isn’t clouding the hero’s eyes but such is “streaming into your eyes” (17-18, 22). Such use of imagery keeps this poem all of a concise piece—thus, the narrative in its little box—while simultaneously layering it, thereby asking readers to view the hero’s battle in a series of planes: the literal field, that of the deer/dream that Stallings refers to as “A blankness [that] swoons upon him,” and that of the present, of the reader’s present, whenever and wherever she may be (9).
Stallings’ diction is nice, too, for its visuals and acoustics. Consider the first line of “Epic Simile”: “Right shoulder aching with day-long butchery”. How can you go wrong with that? It’s precise and provocative, and I love the visual and aural play of the sh in shoulder with the ch in aching and butchery. I like ending the line with “butchery” for that matter. The image it provokes isn’t pleasant, but I love how the word falls out of my mouth: butchery. Yeah. The abundance of stresses in this line, falling in nature, adds to the punch of that last word. The second line is equally gifted in that it parallels the nature of the first. Now it’s the “Left shoulder numb with dints clanged on the shield”; the syntax mirrors the opening rhythm right down to the spondee at “dints clanged.”
Of particular interest to me are the gestures "Epic Simile" makes to poetry and to form. Sure, there’s that stereotype that poets write poems about poems for other poets to read, but I think that notion fits here, as evidenced immediately by the title. Much of the piece, right down to the warrior’s daydreaming, parallels the writing process and the trials and tribulations one undergoes when working with form and formlessness.
So, the hero battles his enemy; the poet battles the poem. Grrrr! Clash! Clang! Crackle goes the paper wadded and tossed into the trash as the fierce, persistent poet begins anew. It’s all kind of over the top and silly when considered so literally like this. I don’t think any among us really feels like a hero after all, at least not admittedly. And I think it a stretch to make such a direct comparison throughout such that the “hero’s death, / The prize, elusive quarry of his life” is like this POEM the poet is trying to accomplish, some grandiose, epic poem-of-all-poems, she writes toward all her life (13-14). But who knows? There is something to be said about the artist and the restless seeking of some truth or who-knows-what as pursued through the war one wages with his or her art. There is an “elusive quarry” out there, and art is one indicative way by which humans seek it.
“Epic Simile” instigates such meditations as this. For me, it speaks specifically to battles with poetic form, formal poetry, and the conversations poems/poets have with the poetic tradition. It’s hard not to think of epic anything, for example, without thinking of Homer. That first word of Stallings' title sets the alleged magnitude of the poem itself, evokes The Iliad, and nods to tradition pre- and post-Homer all in a single swoop.
Another nod toward tradition is the poem's blank verse. The third line is Stallings' first solid go at iambic pentameter: “The hero is fouled with blood, his own and others’ ”. It’s not perfectly metrical, and it need not be. In fact, I’d argue half the lines or fewer are written particularly strictly in verse, but that’s nevertheless enough for me to consider the poem as such overall, some of it definitely so, the ghost of blank verse ultimately present everywhere. I read blood here, too, as in—“his own and others’ ”—as a subtler nod to the past—and the present, for that matter. Contemporary poets write in the here and now, but every word we employ is steeped in history, poetic or otherwise. If the poet is a traditionalist or an experimentalist—so what? The conversation with history is no less quiet from either perspective.
An old complaint against traditional form is that form is dead, its possibilities expended. This is as old an idea as the epic is and a hindrance, quite frankly, to innovation; to the poet it’s “deadweight all around him,” as Stallings writes of her hero, as she writes of form itself. And it's true: form can kill you—but only the weakest among us. Any poet with a developed form-consciousness will tell you giving yourself over properly to convention—even by polarizing against it—is a liberating experience, not a retarding one. The sluggish, dead-weight of meter and rhyme can open windows to “glimpses [of] the mountains, the distant snow,” and it’s in these moments that the poet enters the zone, that blankness into which Stallings’ hero falls (8). It’s in this moment of release that the hero/poet hears, as though simultaneously aware and unaware: “A blankness swoons upon him, and he hears / Nothing but the white vowels of the wind” (9-10). Ahh, my favorite line of the poem-, what with its lovely Ws…”Nothing but the white vowels of the wind”… its v/f echoing, its th repetition, each one evocative of wind. Perhaps our hero/poet is hearing with his Zen-like third eye.
This moment, then, is the poem’s turn: the hero imaginatively wanders into the mountains, and the poet finally frees herself from the alleged confines of formal writing. In either case, a stepping-out-of-oneself occurs, a relinquishing of consciousness that takes hero, poet, and reader someplace other than the present. This the eureka moment: the poet officially gives herself over to the poem, and the self no longer exists. “What happens is a continual surrender of [the poet] as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality," as Eliot claimed. This may be only for the moment, but it’s nevertheless Nirvana.
In the poem, this moment is short-lived. And with what does this leave our hero? Where does it leave him? Where the poet? In the arms of the reader—you—of course, who presently remains snapped into it, viewing the scene with “sweat or blood streaming into your eyes” (22). The story ends with you, with me, those of us who can only conjecture about the hero’s death and are left to do the same with the poem's. Like the hero who may or may not have come back to reality, whose future lies at the arms of his enemies, the poem lies at the mercy of its readers. As Kunitz observed, once the poem leaves the poet's desk, it’s yours. Something like that.