Π O’s 24 Hours: Ulysses in Fitzroy

By | 1 December 2009

It is understandable that writers suspicious of literature, and, in Π O's case, even literacy, would be attracted to the epic, originally an oral form. A narrative designed to be spoken and heard will, naturally, have different features to one that is written and read. Practically, an oral (or primary) epic, such as Gilgamesh, Beowulf or the Odyssey, could not be performed or heard as a whole (it would take about 26 hours to recite the Odyssey from cover to cover) and so needs to be divided into portions of a manageable length–cantos and chapters. While an epic poet may know how much he is planning to perform in one sitting, his listeners will not necessarily have this knowledge. Unable to flick to the end to see how many pages are left, a listener has no idea how far the narrative will go; this gives the primary epic a potentially infinite scale. The freedom to keep adding episodes allows the epic performer to digress or expand and create an encyclopaedic narrative–no detail need be excluded.

With room for exhaustive information, the primary epic could be instructive while entertaining. The instruction was usually drawn from historical or mythical examples and relevant to the epic's audience. (The predominance of military strategy in the subject matter of primary epics reflects the concerns of ancient audiences, who were probably involved in their own military conflicts). This explains the characteristics of the traditional epic hero, too; Gilgamesh, Odysseus and Achilles exemplified the ideal citizen in each respective primary epic. Repetitions, in the form of epithets or useful similes, were necessary to aid the performer in maintaining a consistent meter (traditionally dactylic hexameter) and to remind the listeners of any particular character's traits (‘Cunning Odysseus', for example). If the epic were performed as entertainment for a leader, the hero may be modelled on this figure as a form of flattery. If it were performed to the masses, but commissioned by the leader, it could be a form of propaganda, encouraging citizens to be more patriotic or pious.

Notions of originality and plagiarism were irrelevant, considering that the epic performer employed techniques that were not of his own creation but belonging to an oral tradition; all he could own was his performance, and even then this could be due to the invocation of the muse. The invocation of the muse may also have been a method of emphasising poetic license; if a performer were accused of slander or mendacity, the muse could be held responsible.

With Virgil's Aeneid (29–19BC), the epic became literary; techniques essential to the primary epic were now optional and deliberate. Epic scale–an encyclopaedic digressiveness–was self-consciously retained to both instruct and entertain. While the constraint of dactylic hexameter remains as the conventional epic meter, without the burden of being composed spontaneously the written epic has more potential for lyric subtlety. Stock similes are replaced with more elaborate metaphors. The clarity of expression essential to the primary epic, and for which the Odyssey is often praised, is not as important to the written epic. The reader has the luxury of returning to a complicated stanza and pondering its meaning (or, conversely, of skimming over simpler lines), whereas a listener must keep pace with a performer.

By writing 24 Hours as a ‘score' of his own performance, Π O has more control over the way in which his work is read–the silent reader's internal voice is manipulated to sound like the narrator's or characters' voices. This technique lends the written word a degree of immediate spoken force, which draws the reader's attention to language in use. With phonetic broken English, Greek, Italian, Magyar, Turkish and correct English, the reader is forced to listen to and comprehend voices of marginalised characters, immigrants who are forced to learn English in order to ‘fit in'. By annotating these voices as precisely as possible, Π O proves that clear, subtle communication does not necessarily rely on correct spelling, grammar and punctuation; that his reader has an obligation to engage with a text in order to understand its meaning. For example:

A kid
comes into the shop
.......and blows a ‘bubble', at the Boss,
with his ‘chewing-gum'.
N-o mukkarewn!, he sez.
Which lengwich yoo ar...?
The kid doesn't answer!
Evribodi kum hee-a,
waant fayt toodai!, the Boss sez (as the kid
walks into the backroom)

(Π O: 1996. 52).

24 Hours is a lesson in communication and linguistic politics demonstrated through the poem's form; this instructive tendency places 24 Hours within the long history of the epic. There are more straightforward lessons too, in their digressive, encyclopaedic work. The reader is vividly shown the cafés, strip clubs, pool halls, council flats and heavily policed streets of Fitzroy. With all the compelling social realism of an episode of The Wire (2002–2008), but more lingeringly affecting for being a piece of writing that requires conscious engagement, 24 Hours immerses its attentive reader in a gritty world. Although this world is mainly contained in a single suburb, references to where the characters and their families have come from are frequent. And although the temporal scale of the poem technically takes place in one day, flashbacks, flashforwards and general digressions suggest that this particular 24 hours, ‘the / day / the language / stood / still', contains elements of every day Π O has spent in Fitzroy. Throughout the single day of the poem, the suburb changes–junkies and dealers are replaced by yuppies and students.

There are some elements of 24 Hours that might exclude it from being considered an epic poem. For instance, it does not have a heroic protagonist; instead, different characters take turns at adopting heroic traits. A quest does not form the predominant plot of the narrative, in fact, there is no predominant narrative, but rather a series of anecdotes that combine and accumulate to provide a sense of congruity. Like William Carlos Williams' local epic poem, Paterson, set in Williams' home town, the setting in 24 Hours to some extent becomes the surrogate hero; by the poem's conclusion, the reader is most concerned about the wellbeing not of a particular character, but of the suburb in which all the characters reside. Thus, the gradual revelation of Fitzroy's ‘character' replaces a dominant narrative thread to tie together the micro narratives of the 70 chapters.

24 Hours is not divided into cantos and is in free verse rather than dactylic hexameter. Its subject matter and diction is earthy rather than elevated. It is dialogic rather than monologic–many characters are often talking at once. This in itself would rule 24 Hours out of being categorised as an epic under Mikhail Bakhtin's definition of the term. However, for all its dialogue, Π O, as narrator, is never absent or silent. He is always the mediating voice between his characters and his audience. This is obvious in performance, but comes across clearly in the written text, too, via descriptive observations between lines of speech. That Π O writes his own interludes in unaccented, generally correct English, emphasises the distinction between narrator and characters. In a rare, particularly evident example of this, his speech is enclosed in square brackets: ‘Yh'ara-aksh'hem! he sez and, walks out. This pointer is a humorous relief for the reader, who may be wondering whether the first word is phonetic Turkish.

Yet, although 24 Hours does not have a vast temporal or geographical scale, it is certainly physically long and extensively digressive. Although it has no conventional epic hero, it addresses the nature of heroism. Although there is no predominant narrative, the overarching development of its setting gives the poem epiccongruity– joining up its episodes, which are an epic feature in themselves. Although the voice is dialogic, there is a definite narrative influence which suggests Π O's single, mediating narrative voice. Although the form of the poem is not dactylic hexameter, the oral/aural priorities of the free verse–its purpose as a ‘score' for a performed poem–harks back to the very beginning of the epic form.

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