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).

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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