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Reading List: Old-School Narrative Poems

We prefer our extended stories in prose now. That’s just the way it is. It’s not just American poetic culture that’s made this decision. It seems to be a common feature across civilizations. It’s not like you can skip over to some other contemporary language and find tens of thousands avidly reading some poet’s latest full-length narrative poem. They read novels, and for the most part not “verse novels.” (Often enough they are reading novels by American genre writers in translation, from what I’ve seen.) Among full-length narrative poems, there are some gems out there that inevitably get overlooked, given that poetry is the way poetry is now. Here are some I’ve found over the years. Most of the ones from foreign languages are available in sound prose translations, so you can deceive your cerebral cortex into thinking you’re reading a novel.



1. Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, c. 13th century.

This is the greatest medieval European poem after Dante’s, in my opinion. What makes this better reading: With Dante, I am almost always aware I am reading someone from a bygone era. With Wolfram, there is a vertiginous telescoping of time and distance. He seems, at times, like a 21st century poet dropped accidentally into the medieval world. In the very first verse paragraph of Parzival, his Grail story, he talks about how his meanings are rabbit-like, how you have to be quick to keep up with his metaphors and nonlinear thought patterns. It’s like an apologia for modern poetic practice, centuries in advance. Images still stand out in my mind from this work. There is a hybrid half-black, half-white hero, Feirfeiz, who emerges from his mother’s womb with a kind of patchwork skin, a strange vitiligo. This poem was partly the inspiration for Wagner’s Parsifal. Wolfram’s poem has aged far better than Wagner’s libretto. Not even the Germans seem to give this poem its due. That’s why I put it at the top of this list.



2. Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, 16th century.

This one is high literature and high adventure at once. I revere Dante; I love Ariosto. Hollywood has nothing on this poet’s cliffhangers and jump-cuts. Knights jousting, cities besieged, the great hero Orlando (Roland) going insane when he finds out his fair Angelica loves another—and a trip to the moon, which turns out to be a great storehouse for everything that’s ever been lost—what there’s not to love? It’s really long, but it doesn’t drag. Ariosto can tell a story like few other poets can. Guido Waldman has done a prose translation with annoying slashes inside the paragraphs to mark stanza breaks in the original. You will come to ignore them after you get into the story. There is also a Penguin Classics rhymed translation into the original’s ottava rima, which is the same stanza form Lord Byron used for Don Juan. There was a whole tradition of chivalric romanciers—Matteo Boiardo, Ludovico Ariosto, Torquato Tasso—that writers like Goethe and Byron were intimately familiar with. (Goethe wrote a play about Ariosto’s younger, staider contemporary, Tasso, the author of Gerusalemme Liberata [Jerusalem Delivered]). That early 19th-century generation was the last one to love these writers, however. Now all people know is Cervantes’s send-up of this kind of stuff—forgetting that Cervantes had Quixote’s friends spare a few books of chivalry from the fire. The one that Cervantes mentioned, specifically, as being of surpassing merit? Ariosto’s.


3. Prince Ilango Adigal, The Silappatikaram, ?2nd century A.D.

This Tamil poem is one of the most beautiful I have ever read. My memory of it is entirely in the form of solid colors, which I am not able to explain—why for this poem in particular I should remember no words or scenes, only certain deep reds and pinks and the dark blue toward the end. Along with the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa’s plays and poems, this work will give you the best sense of the ancient Indian aesthetic—the literary analog of curvaceous Indian temple statuary. The other key poem for this purpose: Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava, translated as The Birth of Kumara in the Clay Sanskrit Library edition. Incidentally, in the mid 1990’s, when I was working through the various Greek and Latin books of the Loeb Classical Library, I remember wishing on a star that someday “they” would do something similar for Sanskrit. (Apparently, actually learning Sanskrit didn’t cross my mind back then.) Anyway, “they,” it turns out, would be the Sanskritists John and Jennifer Clay. Thank you!


4.  Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Triumph of Life, 19th century.

Notice how blank verse took off in English after Shakespeare. The dominant form of the dominant poet tends to replicate itself in successor generations. Greek narrative poets wrote a lot of dactylic hexameter. French poets took centuries to break the rule of the Alexandrine. Yet the Italians, with the exception of Petrarch in his Trionfi, never quite ran with terza rima. That’s because, for all of Italian’s rhyme-riches, not only is terza rima difficult to write well, it’s also difficult to write poorly. This is not the case with unrhymed iambic pentameter or the Shakespearean sonnet. After you get in practice, you can turn that stuff out. It will be bad work. But mediocre poets can derive a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment from writing in it. Not so terza rima. Good or bad, it’s hard. Even harder, in English. Robert Pinsky’s translation-using-prior-translations (metatranslation?) of the Inferno achieved something like terza rima, but only after a preface defending “consonantal rhyme,” which he insisted was more contempo or something, but was really just a lowering of the hoop. Contrast this with Shelley, who, in The Triumph of Life, worked an astonishing echo of Dante and Petrarch. This may be the finest terza rima poem ever written in our language. There are snatches in this poem that exceed anything Shelley achieved before. Shelley would have been the quintessential Poet Who Died Too Young, if only Keats hadn’t died younger. (Shelley overproduced, too, another reason we don’t mourn what he never lived to write, as we do when faced with the slender Collected of Keats.) Here, in his last and alas, unfinished poem, Shelley stands on the shoulders of giants. With this one, I remember the words, and the lacunae, and above all Shelley, in this last work become “a cold glare, intenser than the noon / But icy cold, obscured with light….”