Write it now: should all writers start with epic poetry?

J R R Tolkien – one of my favourite authors of all time – once explained that all great fantasy needed to begin with epic poetry.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.
Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

Large parts of his mythos began as epic poems; and in this he was influenced by Beowulf, which he knew well – he later published his own translation from the original Anglo Saxon. And of course he was also well aware of Milton’s Paradise Lost, among other works.

Narrative poetry was a mainstay of the story-telling genre. But that faded in the face of the novel, which came to prominence in the late eighteenth century. By the early twentieth century, certainly, epic poetry as a means of story-telling to the masses was essentially dead.

Even Tolkien didn’t publish in that form at first – he certainly wrote early parts of his Middle Earth mythos that way, such as the Lay of Luthien, but the elements he ended up publishing were standard prose. Later he wrote, but never finished, an epic account of King Arthur – published, as it happens, earlier this year.

I think he was right about epic poetry. Here’s why.

Epic poetry – like all poetry – embodies the essence of the emotional journey along which all writers must take their readers. (All? ALL).  Poetic mechanisms – metaphor, simile, alliteration, the rhythm which must emerge even in blank verse – lifting the writing away from the literal and into the conceptual. We focus not on the plod of words, but on the underlying concepts they convey.

Prose also does this. But poetry has a particular angle. It is good at transferring the emotion you feel as writer into the written word and from there into the mind of the reader.

From Tolkien’s perspective, poetry was also able to effectively convey the emotions of ‘epic’ – the soaring scale, the larger-than-life characters, the raw power of a story founded in the vaulting leaps of his imagination, a world that existed in his mind. But one he wanted to explore, express and share in all the colour, depth and power he could see himself.

In a practical sense, epic poetry is also a good exercise for writers; it demands a very different writing style and thought process from the usual one. And that’s important too. It is too easy to get into the habit of a particular style; to stay sharp, writers need to jog themselves into a different mode every so often.  And epic poetry, it seems to me, is a very good way of doing it.

What’s your take on this one?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing prompts, more humour, fun stuff – and more. Watch this space.


9 thoughts on “Write it now: should all writers start with epic poetry?

  1. I consider “Beowulf” a foundation of sorts, it reaches from the past and touches so much of our stories today. There’s a bit of the character Beowulf in Superman, Thor, and other caped heroes that have become a dominant part of popular culture. What we consider courageous stems from, in large part, Beowulf and his adventures. Likewise, Grendel speaks to all we consider evil.

    For these reasons, and more, I consider Beowulf a vital piece of literature and history. Thanks, Matthew

    By the way, JRR also did a wonderful job translation “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” – not an epic, but equally important and enjoyable.

    1. Yes, I’d forgotten that one. I guess we forget generally that Tolkien was actually a well respected and very capable scholar of Anglo Saxon literature – Middle Earth was merely his hobby!

  2. I love this as an antidote to NaNoWriMo. I was wanting to take a break from my novel at the end of the month, and this seems like a nice distraction. I love epic poetry because it demands a long term aesthetic consistency that’s challenging and fun to think about.

    1. Thanks. Actually, I wonder about “NaNo” as poetry? 🙂 I jest, slightly – but narrative poetry is definitely a different medium and one that’s worth exploring when time permits.

  3. I’m not even exactly sure what epic poetry is, except that it sounds like it should be long, serious and scale heights of emotion. I do recall that in my last year of secondary school we studied Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock which I thought was fantastic. In fact, thinking about it, I actually like to read book length poetry or prose type novels, Margarita Engle the Cuban author, writes young adult novels in verse which are wonderful and I love Paul Durcan’s book length Christmas Day. Not sure if these are epic, possibly far too contemporary, but they are certainly not the same as that sort form of poetry which contains usually one thread of something rather than an entire story and can fit on one page.

    1. Yes, that’s exactly what Beowulf-style epic poetry is, as far as I can tell – the literary genre equivalent of opera, or European heavy metal – big concepts, a ‘wall of conceptual sound’, conveyed through often bombastic phrasing, and huge stories. There is no room for ‘small’ in such tales. Contrasting somewhat, I suspect, with more contemporary and smaller scale poetic novels you mention (though I haven’t read them…)

  4. Great sentiments. I’m currently mid-way through writing what might be called a modern version of an epic poem (in to the second draft) and I do worry that there may not be an audience for this form of writing anymore – with attention spans ever shorter and the desire for an immediate resolution ever greater. I’m considering turning it in to a more traditional novel. Could go either way!

      1. Yup, that’s where my head is at. This second draft is effectively turning in to more of a prose novel. But the next draft is likely to be back to the poem version. I do hope to actually finish this at some point!

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