Epic Lyric Poem

Danny Snelson
Epic Lyric Poem:
167121 Songs, 257.8 MB File

48 pp.
$1.92 / Free
Troll Thread, 2015

It may come as a shock to the reader of poems to realise that when the world thinks of ‘lyric,’ it thinks of a piece of a song, not a short, personal poem. Maybe this is the achievement of Danny Snelson’s Epic Lyric Poem, to jolt poets out of their complacency. Maybe it is even its purpose.

I will quote the author’s statement in full, because this is the sort of poem that needs an author’s statement:

“Epic Lyric Poem” draws from an SQL database torrent distributed to create pop lyric websites, presumably to make ad money, primarily created by fans. A Python script was used to draw out every line with the string “lyric” in the database. Each of these lines was then standardized to 55 characters—the average length of a line in a pop song. The poem is 55 stanzas long, printing twenty lines per stanza. It follows the conventions of epic poetry (invocation of the muses, armaments for battle, lists, etc), with a special dedication to Alexander Pope. The publication includes an epigraph and the full SQL database from which it was drawn.

The lyrics quoted (sampled?) are mostly from rap and hip-hop artists, probably because these artists tend to foreground their own performance powers by talking about their lyrics. We go from 2Pac in 1.1 (‘My murderous lyrics equipped with the spirits before me’) to Outkast in 55.20 (‘I said my shit and ran the lyrics now my verse is over.’). A lot of the lines that caught my eye turned out to be by Canibus. This origin leaves a trace: ‘bitch’ or ‘bitches’ appear seven times, ‘bust’ or ‘bustin’ nine times; ‘love’ and variants, on the other hand, appear only five times. That Tin Pan Alley staple, the ‘moon,’ doesn’t peep over the horizon at all.

Which probably suits an epic, keeping the dewy-eyed stuff out! Snelson is right, in a very strict sense, in saying that Epic Lyric Poem ‘follows the conventions of epic poetry.’ An uninspiring twelve-line epigraph addressed to Lyric attempts to set out the terms of the project: ‘Say what strange Motive, Goddess! cou’d compel / A well-read User t’assault gentle Doggerel?’ (Answer: ‘in soft Prosody’ the poem ‘queries what this Age is.’) Snelson smuggles in an alexandrine here, which must be an allusion to Pope’s famous joke from An Essay on Criticism. Battle is represented after a fashion, too, as promised. This stanza here may be the climax of the poem, and it will also give you a sense of its texture:

Psycho WIPE!! What lyrical DID!! Stop the fuckin WIPE!!
The lyrical did - did The lyrical did - did The lyrical
did - did The lyrical did - did The lyrical did - did -
What lyrical - did The lyrical - did (e. cruz, f. abesa
mis, additional lyrics: rodney hidalgo)(r. hidalgo, ran
dal, e. cruz, additional lyrics: i. persigan and j.p.(r
. hidalgo, additional lyrics: eric cruz, j.p. riturban)
(e. clarin, additional lyrics: j.p. riturban and richmo
nd andal) No lyrics available No lyrics available No ly
Watered down lyrics on your dirty tracks turned to sand
Lyrics hug beat wit the tightest suspension (watch out)
Rhymes be action-packed, wrote these lyrics to a strobe
“when it comes to blood and rap - it’’s lyrical combat”
“when it comes to blood and rap - it’’s lyrical combat”
“when it comes to blood and rap - it’’s lyrical combat”
“when it comes to blood and rap - it’’s lyrical combat”
“when it comes to blood and rap - it’’s lyrical combat”
But i never dummy lyrics, and they kick it to my people
My lyrics are the ink the link’’s reflection is eternal
“i’’m the authentic poet to get lyrical” [kane][defari]


There is violence here—indicated rather than described, obviously—but in this context it resembles neither the struggles of the city streets catalogued by rappers nor the grim but rococo carnage of a modern epic like Christopher Logue’s War Music, a long poem based on the Iliad. The ‘blood’ and ‘combat’ are carefully circumscribed. They do not come from the poet’s experience nor from the literary imagination. They are placed there, like cut flowers, not like flowers in a field (experience) or in a garden (imagination). And who’s to say that that’s not the best way?

The cumulative effect of more than 1,100 instances of the word ‘lyric’ is attenuated by the unpredictable placement of that word within the lines. Both anaphora (repetition at the beginnings of lines) and epistrophe (repetition at the ends of lines) are common enough rhetorical moves, and each allows a poet to establish a rhythmical pattern. Placing a word in an unspecified place within a line again and again, by contrast, doesn’t even have a name. Possibly it’s conduplicatio or ploce. The word ‘lyric’ is repeated insistently, but the sound of its repetition is not a drum-beat. I felt less like the listener and more like the drum-head.

[Super Cut Lyric.]

The thing is, when you call a work Epic Lyric Poem, your readers will want to use the language of classical rhetoric to make the poem explicable in epic or lyric or at least poetical terms. I certainly did, didn’t I? But just as ‘lyric’ is better understood as some words in a song rather than a little personal poem, ‘epic’ here really means ‘something very big’ rather than a long heroic poem. The poem is epic; it is not an epic.

Epic Lyric Poem is like a mashup of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Head Citations (‘This irreverent and amusing collection consists of over 800 “misheard” song lyrics, as compiled by poet Kenneth Goldsmith, “the Napster of the malapropism [who] downloads the poetic genius of the masses as they croon to themselves in their showers”’) and something Flarfier, and with a latent emotional content, like Robert Fitterman’s This Window Makes Me Feel. In ‘Towards a Conceptual Lyric,’ Marjorie Perloff writes that, in our time, ‘the poet’s role has become, in the literal sense, that of a word processor, finding how best to absorb, recharge, and redistribute the language that is already there.’ This is an ethos that Snelson has already internalised and made his own in his previous work, but it does not limit him or anyone else to the production of lyrics.

I did a double-take when I came across this very apt line about halfway through the poem: ‘I stake my claim in the expanded lyrics of all humanity’ (25.20). This didn’t sound much like a real song lyric to me. (I could imagine Nigel Blackwell singing it, but I know he didn’t.) So I looked in the SQL database. It turns out that it isn’t a lyric; that’s why it didn’t sound like one. It’s a composite line of one each of the many instances of ‘stake my claim,’ ‘expanded lyrics,’ and ‘all humanity.’ I leave it up to you to decide if this is playing by the rules. What I will say is that this is an example of carefully curating voices rather than just letting them talk, and I like it.

I’d say, ‘Read the poem,’ but I don’t mean that. I mean think about it.

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