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Should Modern Writers Consider Epic Poetry Structure?

For many years now, stories such as the Iliad or the Odyssey have been considered to be staples of the distant past, but recently, authors are bringing the epic poetry genre to the modern times. Most people read poetry like the aforementioned ones, see the date they were written, and decide that there is little merit to a subgenre that has been relegated to the past for so long. Some authors, though, are returning to some of the first roots of long form writing and transferring it to modern day. These authors, led by Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe, are bringing new interest pertaining to old epics to light, and many authors are beginning to experiment.

Due to this, retellings of Ancient Greek and Roman tales have become very popular in the last few years, but many authors who partake in this storytelling not only transform the story but also the writing form itself. They take the poetry form and turn it to prose. A few authors, though, are doing the opposite—writing new stories, but in the style of an epic poem.

Authors in this new subgenre are embracing the new in the form of the old, calling it either “epic modern poetry” or “spoken word poetry.” Both authors and musicians, led by Kae Tempest and the band Florence and the Machine, are experimenting with how poetry, modern epics especially, can renew interest in the old. Tempest’s Brand New Ancients is especially innovative, setting modern stories of familial tension and conflict against ancient myths, and romanticizing the mundane to create a view of a modern life as something extraordinary. In addition to writing the novel-length epic, Tempest worked with audio formatting, narrating their own work in a mix of speaking and song, demonstrating the potential range modern epics have in combining the written and spoken word.

Many modern epics are written in the style described above—a modern story set to the themes of parallels of ancient stories. One such example is The Half-God of Rainfall by Inua Ellams. A story of a modern god in Africa, Ellam’s epic embraces modern themes of feminism and the contemporary issues of Africa, weaving them with old gods and fantastical figures. This seems to be the crux of modern epic poetry, to add an element of the fantastic to the mundane and the drabness of the modern. Current issues presented in new (or in this case, old) formats can generate a renewed interest for the people that have looked away.

Another form this new subgenre is taking is in the form of translation. A perfect example of this is Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley. The self-proclaimed “modern feminist” retelling uses a mix of modern language and slang combined with the original verse format to create something quite new and original. The female retelling focuses on differing aspects from the more popular, traditional translation by Seamus Heaney. Beowulf: A New Translation breaks down differing aspects, creating an entirely new story while embracing elements of the old. Other examples include the first female translated edition of the Odyssey, by Emily Wilson.

The renewal of classics as modern tales can allow for an entirely new population of readers to become involved with modern issues. Readers of classics can interact with current affairs in a way they understand and can analyze, and modern readers can learn more about classics and the way the old world of epic poetry can still be relevant to current issues. The subgenre opens countless avenues for readers to interact with genres and problems and themes they couldn’t access before. In addition, modern epics are reviving interest in the old forms of storytelling and ensuring they do not become lost to time. New translations and analysis of themes are renewing tales such as the Odyssey or Beowulf, allowing different demographics to interact with them. Modern epics are likely only going to grow in popularity, and authors can learn a great deal from the old, when it collides with the contemporary.

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