The Yale Journal of Criticism 13.1 (2000) 23-47
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In AnOther's Pocket: The Address of the "Pocket Epic" in Postmodern Black British Poetry
As visions of a "global culture" assume the place that modernist visions of a "universal" culture vacated during the advent of postmodernism, a new sort of epic imagination has sprung back into being in the realm of poetry that I wish to discuss in this essay: the avant-garde which, whether called "Language poetry" in America or "experimental poetry" in the U.K., engages with poststructuralist ideas concerning language and the crisis of the lyric subject. 1 In one sense, everything about such work is "epic," and every such poem a "pocket epic." The located or peculiar "self" disavowed by contemporary theory vanishes into a discursive (dis)continuum that is perceived to control a region, or a nation, or a nation with "universal" aspirations, depending on the range of reference that the (ghost)writer commands. The space of such writing enlarges as its dislocated, disowned linguistic materials make their Barthesian slip back into history, implicating us all--"mon semblable, mon frère." The contemporary avant-garde epic might be said to be epic in photo-negative, epic that historicizes the dehistoricization, if you will, of western cultural discourse, replicating in photo-negative as it does other universalizing tales told by similar transcendental egos like Ezra Pound's in the Cantos or other remakers of epic who take classical works up in medias res. The crisis of the self, as black cultural studies has suggested, is a Euro-American crisis based on European identificatory models; even the deconstruction or erasure of the face constructed on such models requires the running of one's hands over it, "one" remaining, always, and even in inverted form, the "figure" inherited from national/cultural models of selfhood. What is the "place" or "face" of the epic or pocket-epic black writer in the U.K. who, unlike Derek Walcott, refuses to graft her/his features comfortably onto the epic imagination of the Greeks or its postmodern equivalents?
My question depends on the suspicion that, like their precursors, postmodern epic ventures most potently map terrains of unchallenged national imaginaries as they have developed within western cultural paradigms. These are falsely originary imaginaries, especially strong in this time when nations hardly seem to exist, given the foregrounding of local or "multi-" cultures in response to critiques of nationhood, all oddly in synch with media campaigns to imagine the "global village," an atomized, defused model of the common market. The seeming dissolving of boundaries is particularly strong in the world-dominant U.S., where the insularity that comes with ascendancy has combined with pluralizing discourses to make "America" seem larger than life, an ideal and impossible proper noun, one we move toward [End Page 23] and never reach. 2 Versions of the same in the U.K. differ, not least because the British moment of spanning the globe, either by colonial or corporate mandate, is over; it has become a province of Europe, at best, and its devolving intracultural spaces don't tend to hyphenate themselves in the same way that more mobile, other-cultural communities do in the States, giving our discursive landscape the illusion/ambition of being a microcosm of all the world. Its mid-century modernist works were by provincial poets like Basil Bunting and David Jones; yet even these, and particularly the latter, often attempted to make a palimpsest of place by recovering forgotten histories only in order to read them longitudinally across (largely) European space and time. One could argue that slightly later avant-garde rewriters of epic--such as Roy Fisher with "City," his demythologization of The Waste Land--remain in the shadow of the modernists' trajectory, their cities continually evocative of everycity, "Unreal," though now in an increasingly Baudrillardian sense. Figuring the part into the parcel of "global" culture--or writing the pocket epic--is in a sense becoming easier, as long as Europe-cum-America...