Saturday, 16 February 2013

Margaret Atwood, Zombies and Poetry

So my blog has a new look. What do you think? I'm so much more happy with this layout than the old one! I also stayed up until 2am configuring it. Which isn't even that late for me, but it felt late. 

In other news: one of my major life goals can be checked off the list. I saw Margaret Atwood, acclaimed Canadian literary legend, speak last night. And then she signed my book. I almost died. I was shaking like a leaf and I'm sure she has no idea what I said to her (I'm barely aware of it myself) but it was such a lovely experience that I will undoubtedly remember for the rest of my life.

Her lecture was about zombies, which was so much more powerful and deep than you can imagine. She went into great detail about literary genealogy, the origins of zombies and their metaphors, other literary monsters and much much more. 

As far as monsters go, zombies are terrifying in that they are a walking hoard, not a singular being. Vampire and werewolves have a long history of legends and folklore. They can reproduce and create new vampire and zombies, but it is limited. Frankenstein and the Grendel, two ferocious (if not misunderstood) literary monsters are not nearly so frightening to us, simply because they are alone. 

But a hoard of unthinking and unfeeling zombies, which can infect thousands without any effort? Well that is terrifying. Are they a metaphor for the nature of mass protests? For the 99%? For the poor? The homeless? Or are they all of these things?

She told us about T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, a poem written in 1922, which is one of first mentions of the walking dead in literature. Here is the stanza, from the section, The Burial of the Dead:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not though death had undone so many,
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one i know, and stopped him, crying "Stetson!
You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to no men,
Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
You! hypocrite lecteur! —mon semblable,—mon frère!"

Of course, T.S. Eliot was not writing about the actual reanimated corpses we have come to call zombies. Eliot disdains any man who accept monotony. In his post World War I world, T.S. Eliot saw culture to be degraded and dead. It's a beautiful poem, and many consider it to be tied with James Joyce's Ulysses as one of the greatest works in modernist literature. 

I wish I could transcribe the entirety of her lecture, because she is a genius and alas, I am not, but I wanted to share this small bit of the poem because it is powerful and full of imagery. In this small stanza we see references to Dante, Charles Dickens and Baudelaire. The reference to Mylae referes not to WWI, as one would assume, but to the first Punic War, fought in 260 BC (history nerd swooning over here!). 

Poetry is a powerful medium. Margaret Atwood reminded me of this. I may not read a LOT of poetry, but I have some favourites (Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman being in the top two!) and I need to read a lot more. Inspiration in my writing very often comes from reading a wide variety of literature. 

To sum up the lecture, Margaret seamlessly tied everything together with one idea: hope. Human beings cannot exist without hope, and it is hope that will get us through troubling times (in our own lives and globally) in the end. 

I'll end this post with the same words Margaret Atwood used to close her lecture (they gave me chills):

"Maybe that's the true thing about zombies. They are us without the hope. I wish you hope." 

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