Canonical Part 1: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Self-education is a slow, erratic process, especially for those of us with fairly short attention spans. It’s only now with forty bearing down on me at a rate of one day per day that I have decided to address the considerable gap in my literary education and start reading some of those old books that I was so contemptuous of twenty years ago when I decided that I was going to be a poet. I didn’t see any need for those old farts with their fancy language at the time, so instead of reading them I set about reinventing poetry (read: “the wheel”) for myself.

It was fun and pretty productive and I think I wrote some good poems, but over the last four or five years – especially now that I often find myself teaching other people about poetry – I’ve found myself wanting to be able to supplement my gut instincts with an understanding of the history of the form.

Anna put me onto this book called The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by Susan Wise Bauer, which is a do-it-yourself guide to close reading and classical education that includes a recommended reading list – or canon, if you prefer – for a range of forms including history, memoir, fiction and poetry. It’s an easy book to read full of simple, straightforward advice on how to develop the habit of deeper reading, which is ideal for someone like me who may read a lot, but who was never taught basic critical reading skills (in my case because I studied mainly science at high school and university).

So, having read thru the how-to part of the book, I plan to work my way chronologically through Bauer’s list of the big guns in the history of poetry. The list focuses on Western literature, and by virtue of being an American author, it also skews towards US poetry, especially when it comes to the Modernists and beyond, so I will be supplementing the list here and there.

Bauer jumps straight from Gilgamesh to Homer, but I’ve stuck a few non-Westerners in there, like the Vedas and the Mahabarata/Ramayana, and Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia (if I can get my hands on a copy) to balance things out. I’ll also be turning to Aussies like Christopher Brennan, Mary Gilmore, Les Murray and Dorothy Hewett when I get to the 19th and 20th centuries, but that’ll be a while coming.

With that contextualisation out of the way, I come to the point of today’s post, which is to say: one down, 4000 years of poetry to go. I’ve finished reading and thinking about The Epic of Gilgamesh, having spent some gloriously intimate time with Stephen Mitchell’s superb English-language version. As I cross each of these books off the list I’ll be posting links here to my reviews of them on goodreads – here’s my review of Gilgamesh for your consideration (spoiler: I freakin’ loved it).

Oh this is a sad story about a man who learns his lesson too late, a man responsible for his own despair, a man whose arrogance is the source of his own pain. It’s also a freakin’ blockbuster of a tale. If they ever pitch the story of Gilgamesh to Hollywood, that’s how they should pitch: the intellectual blockbuster.

I heart the Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s four thousand years old but it feels as fresh as if it was written today. Part of that, of course, is due to Stephen Mitchell’s excellent plain-language interpretation (translation isn’t the right word – Mitchell compiled this version from others’ translations and then kind of smoothed it over to fill in gaps with bits of other ancinet mesopotamian poems and his own best guesses to create a solid, cohernt narrative), but part of it is also the universal themes it deals with: friendship, pride, sex and the fear of death.

The thing that makes Gilgamesh’s story so poignant is how clear it is that the bad things that happen to him are a direct result of his own actions, and that in each instance he had the chance to do the right thing, but didn’t. In his arrogance he kills the divine guardian of the sacred cedar forest, refusing its pleas for mercy, and talks major trash to the goddess of love and war after she hits on him, then slaughters the bull of heaven when she sics it on him in heavenly sanctioned retribution. Naturally this level of arrogance doesn’t go unpunished by the gods of the Mesopotamian pantheon.

And don’t get me started on Enkidu. Poor, doomed Enkidu, the god-created weapon against Gilgamesh who, rather than defeating him or tempering his arrogance, lost the fight and then was swept up in Gilgamesh’s acts of hubris only to be cursed to die because of it. Only after his best friend’s death does grief-stricken Gilgamesh start to mend his ways. Which begs the question was this the plan of the gods all alnog? To give Gilgamesh a friend and then take him away? Not to stop him by opposing him but instead by teaching him humility by showing him the fragility of life? Either way Enkidu gets a bad deal – punished for his weakness of character in being unable to resist Gilgamesh’s charisma or set up to die from the get-go as the tool by whose destruction the lesson is taught.

But lest you think this is just some emo treatise on the futility of existence, allow me to assure you that if you’re one of those people who reads the epics for the widescreen jollies, you got them here in abundance. Knock-down drag-out battles, sacred forests, quests for the secret of immortality,kings, warriors, priestesses, gods and goddesses directly meddling in man’s affairs, people made of stone, giant bulls from Heaven, poisonous seas, the Flood (yes, THAT Flood), sex and violence – it’s all here, baby.

I could go on and on about this amazing book and what a romp it is and how much it has to say about being human, but I won’t. I’ll just point out that there’s a reason this story continues to be talked about four thousand years after it was written.

As an aside, there’s a brilliant comic review of a talk that Mitchell gave around the time of the book’s release over on Stripped Books, about how he put his version of the epic together, that you really should take the time to look at, even if you ignore my neophyte review.

Next up on the list is the Vedas. My copy of the Penguin Classics Rig Veda arrived at our PO Box on Tuesday and I’ve already started dipping into it. I won’t say when to expect my thoughts on this book – I dallied with Gilgamesh for over a month and then took another month to consolidate my thoughts enough to get a review done. But, you know, I’ll post something about it when I’m done.

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Poet. Author. Beard. Husband. Dad. Four chickens. Dog. Cat. I can sometimes fix my lawnmower.

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