by Andrea Bates
If you have an ear for language, and if you pay attention, then you often notice when a certain word or phrase becomes the hot new cliché. I’ve noticed a few lately: at the end of the day; really? (said with a sarcastic lilt); and, of course, it is what it is. I’ve managed to avoid those three in my daily parlance, but there is one word that I confess has crept in and which I secretly love using as an adjective: epic! (it deserves an exclamation point).
Any time the public can be made more aware of even the merest whiff of the poetic, I’m all for it. I doubt the creators of television car insurance commercials or sexual performance-enhancing drugs had the Odyssey or Beowulf in mind when they decided to use epic to describe their low rates or the efficacy of their little blue pills. The word has become the go-to adjective of choice for so many – and is, as Urban Dictionary states, “The most freaking overused word in the English language. It has in fact been used so much that there is really no reasonable definition …”
…Which is kind of cool, when you think about it. If there is no longer any “reasonable definition,” then the rules for writing 21st century epics can be re-envisioned—if we even consider writing an epic at all – and perhaps we should. As modern life continues its relentless compression of expression into bread crumb bits, trails of 140 character croutons, don’t we ever long for the entire luscious loaf? Why not, as the epic Walt Whitman proclaims, “loaf and invite [the] soul” into a merging of cosmos and quotidian, the Herculean with the confessional, as defined by Frank Bidart: “the earnest, serious recital of the events of one’s life crucial in the making of the soul.”
Isn’t each person’s life an epic – a narrative in couplets, stanzas, sections with clear demarcations between the action and the pause, the growing and the learning – all that living interspersed with periods of dying – the falling away of what no longer serves our purposeful, soul-full evolution. Why not let the hero/ine be extraordinary in his/her ordinariness; let the hero/ine be us with “every atom of [our] blood, formed from this soil, this air” (Whitman). Instead of invoking one of Zeus’s nine daughters, let’s invoke the Muse of our choice – perhaps the piquant bitterness of 72% cacao or the changing sky of Paris. Let the setting be the view from our bedroom window, or our bedroom itself. Let the deeds of valor be won on the battlefield of acknowledging consciously—and with gratitude—every lovely, simple thing: tomatoes from the garden; a comforting friendship of twenty years; a glass of cold water on a hot day; the visitor at the door we’ve been waiting for; the poem that comes to us in the deep night, waking us from sleep, the one that demands we turn on the light, pick up the pen, and write.
Although the word epic has been embraced perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, I don’t see it as a bad thing. I think of it as a mantra of gratitude for those moments when the poetic infuses the every day, when we stand in awe at the simplest of things and acknowledge, with an exclamation point, how epically happy they make us.