Art about Art: an introduction to Metapoetry in Antiquity
Quite a few popular TV shows, such as the irreverent sci-fi series Rick and Morty or the quirky sit-com Community, are, in part, appreciated due to the fact that their humour is often meta. What does it mean for something to be meta? And can classical literature be viewed through a meta-lens?
In the year 2012, a comedy was released by the name of 21 Jump Street, directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. There was no reason whatsoever to expect anything more than an enjoyable movie starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. All the more so considering the fact that it was a remake of a mediocre TV show from the eighties in which two young police-officers (played by Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise) go undercover in a High school. And yet, when the film was released, Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly awarded it a score of 9.1 out of 10, praising its ‘intelligent giddiness’. On the review-aggregator metacritic, the film holds a user score of 80 out of 100, with many calling it witty or clever. What about this movie supposedly makes it so smart? The answer may lie in its self-awareness.
In a scene that exemplifies this self-awareness, a grumpy old police officer (played by Nick Offerman) gives the two protagonists their new assignment as undercover agents at the local High school, stating the following:
“We’re reviving a cancelled undercover police programme from the eighties, revamping it for modern times. You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas. So all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”
If the viewer doesn’t know this movie is a remake of an eighties TV show, they won’t bat an eye. For the informed audience, however, these words are a clear allusion to the fact that this film is a remake. Not only that, it is also a snarky reference to Hollywood’s preference for remakes as opposed to original movies.
Another thoroughly self-aware scene comes near the end of the movie. The characters played by Hill and Tatum are being held at gunpoint when the main antagonist orders his henchmen to execute them. However, the henchmen in question then rip off their costumes to reveal the faces of none other than original starring actors, Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuis. They had been infiltrating the drug-smuggling gang as undercover agents. Upon this revelation, Jonah Hill exclaims to Depp: “You’re, like, an amazing actor!”, before explaining that he and his partner are part of the Jump Street-programme. Depp then answers: “That’s funny, we were Jump-Street too!”. This scene works on two levels: the characters played by Depp and DeLuis were part of the Jump Street-programme, but it’s also an acknowledgement of the fact that, as actors, they starred in the tv-show of the same name. In this scene, both the original characters and actors hand over the proverbial baton to their successors.
This practice, where an artistic product subtly makes statements about its own nature as an artistic product, is often referred to as ‘meta’. Though it may seem quite modern, this type of wink to the audience is not a novel concept. In fact, it is older than Christ.
There are many meta-moments in literature from Antiquity. An illustrative example of this can be found in the tradition of epic poetry. When I say ‘epic’, I mean the ancient literary genre of long, narrative poems about heroic deeds in a meter known as the dactylic hexameter. Arguably the most famous of these poems are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. However, I would like to highlight a recurring scene in three Latin epics, namely Ennius’ Annals (2nd century BC), Virgil’s Aeneid (1st century BC) and Statius’ Thebaid (1st century AD). In all three of these epic poems, there is a moment where several soldiers cut firewood for a funeral pyre. These scenes play out in great detail and are quite similar in all three cases. However, every author makes subtle deviations from the example of his predecessor. Consider the following lines:
Ennius (Ann. VI.190):
“… pinus proceras pervortunt”
“… they fell high pine trees”
Virgil (Aen. XI.136):
“… evertunt actas ad sidera pinus”
“… they fell pine trees that reach the stars”
“… sternitur silva (quae) extulerat super astra caput”
“… a forest is felled that extended its crest above the stars”
The most eye-catching feature of these lines is clearly the fact that the trees continue to get higher and higher. This could easily be chalked up to a simple, literary game about size. However, a deeper layer becomes apparent when one considers the double meaning of the Latin word for forest, silva; it can also mean ‘literary material’. It is therefore a particularly suitable word for an author to use when he wants to make statements to the audience about his own work in comparison to his predecessors. With this in mind, these lines become more meaningful: if the forest being felled stands for the literary material of a predecessor, the present author cuts down that forest and uses it to construct something new, namely his own epic poem. As time goes on, the epic tradition that precedes an author becomes longer and longer. If the forest, continually increasing in size, is meant to signify the epic tradition, the authors appear to be alluding to the fact that the tradition, upon which they draw to write their own poem, continually grows. The later an author writes, the more literary material he can use to construct a new poem.
When poetry makes statements about its own nature as a poem or the tradition to which it belongs, it is referred to as ‘metapoetry’. Often, these subtle statements exist besides the primary narrative meaning of the text, easily missed by an uninitiated audience. However, when you know where to look and how to look, a whole new ‘metaworld’ may open up.
References and further reading:
Metapoetry in Antiquity and beyond:
Conte, Gian Biagio. 1986. The Rhetoric of Imitation: Genre and Poetic Memory in Virgil and other Latin Poets. New York: Cornell University Press.
Deremetz, Alain. 1995. Le Miroir des Muses: Poétiques de la Reflexivité à Rome. Villeneuve ‘Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion.
Hinds, Stephen. 1998. Allusion and Intertext: dynamics of appropriation in Roman poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Galand-Hallyn, Perrine. 1994. Le Reflet des Fleurs: Description et métalangage poétique d’Homère à la Renaissance. Geneva: Librairie Droz S.A.
Heerink, Mark. 2015. Echoing Hylas: a Study in Hellenistic and Roman Metapoetics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Hunink, Vincent. 2006. Quintus Ennius: Annalen. ’s Hertogenbosch: Voltaire B.V.
Klotz, Alfred, and Klinnert, Thomas. 2001. Publius Papinius Statius: Thebais. Berlijn: Walter de Gruyter GmbH.
Schrijvers, Piet. 2011. Aeneas, Vergilius. Groningen: Historische Uitgeverij.
Leeman, Anton Daniël. 1982 “Bomen vellen – Vergilius als schakel in de antieke epische traditie” Lampas 1/2, no. 15: 5-15.
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