THE ART OF THE COMPRESSED EPIC

Who
by Alan Dent
(58pp, 8.95, Shoestring Press)

The outward form of this single, 56 page poem is visually scattered free verse, and its diction favours alliteration, of a great density at times, that varies from the soundly employed:

                   I lived between a dark past and a future of light
     in a money-making culture of mealy-mouthed mendacity
                    relishing delicious uncertainty

to the ridiculously overdone:

     Obliviurchinous brown-armed summertime boy
                  schooled in amusement till stiff-collared
           self-conscioused in the plasticine pen
     snappy stinger spinster my instructress
                  blue eyes exciting her untouched itch
          neglected cleft josephine juiced
                  puling pugnaciousness at pulchritude
     pulsing her puckering pudendum
                  cute homoncule moodiness
             doomed undomed womb

As for its inner form, it is that of the compressed epic, whereby what narrative it possesses (and all epic poems have narrative) is built up indirectly by imagery, and directly by layering of comment and 'story'. And the story of this long poem is primarily that of autobiography whereby the poet tells his life both by direct address to the reader, 'I want to tell you something / a few things / the salt of infinity'; plus, from time to time, speaking through the voices of others like father, mother, grandfather, etc., who are important formulants of the poet's self. In its way, the poem is an ongoing attempt to link natura
with naturans. It is a small tapestry of voices that, forever, return to the centre - turn back on the author himself.

Rather in the way that Alice Oswald in her poem Dart
employs multiple voices, real and imagined, to bring the River Dart to life, so Alan Dent's technique is not dissimilar. But the result is different, Oswald achieves an objective view of the river or, rather, an objectified view despite the grand personification of the Dart, and does not - as far as I recall - turn the poem back upon herself, thus achieving embodied negative capability, so to speak. Whereas Dent's 'river' is himself or his own life and this is both dramatised and objectified.  So that whereas the river in Oswald's poem speaks with a multiplicity of voices whose general tone is either mythological (that of naiades or river spirits) or fragmentary speakings / reminiscences of real people dwelling in the riverine catchment area,  that of Dent talks in a voice of personal angst which sometimes approaches boring therapy:

                  I in my dream idealism immolated on the heartless altar
     amateur martyred to pusillanimous professionalism
                ignorant of my ignorance my innocence ignored
                            yearning for my heart's instruction
     mauled by meretricious marketing
                 the fresh sex of my expectation expropriated
     by money-sick McCartneyism and Lennon larceny

                             Cash from the confusion of the heart
      elevated demotic demi-gods of the second-rate
     I dreaming of seriousness saying ...

So while the technique of the two poems
- basically compressed epics - is similar, if not precisely the same, a further divergence in Dent's poem is in its opinionation: the reader does get to know the author's views, which makes the whole poem more solipsistic. But though this is so, Dent is perfectly able to portray 'other' in a most effective manner as in, for a good example, his exemplary picture of his father, the paint salesman, who travels the country looking to make money and hoping to find a better love than he has got at home. Dent interprets him in the hundred or so lines allotted to him as 'the vain father' and 'the blue-eyed father and the slick commercial traveller' who 'filled the emptiness of his life by selling / as vain men fill the emptiness of their lives by selling / selling themselves a dream of themselves'.

There is an interesting epigraph to Who
from Samuel Beckett. It goes 'To find a form that accommodates mess, that is the task of the artist now'. Indeed, that is a central problem which - even back to Milton's preface to Paradise Lost - has lain at the heart of the making of long poems. And for the first few pages of Who it leads (as it often does) to the problematic start-up, or a bit of threshing about before the intellect gets a hold of the spirit, of what is really the aim of saying: in this case the retailing of the essentials of the author's personal life. For a while there is a seeming amount of irrelevancy before what Schopenhauer called 'the idea which the particular aesthetic impulse seeks to reveal' begins to emerge.  But once it does, there is an interesting long poem to be got into by the reader; a poem whose strengths and weaknesses I have suggested. One last comment, too, on the publisher. Shoestring certainly is giving us quite some range of poetry now, books for which we should be grateful.

            William Oxley 2004