The Weekend in Miltonia: Jamaica Kincaid, Paradise Lost, Tyranny, Injustice, and Marathon Readings

You are not you, but—in your mind’s eye, something bigger than you is going on.
                    – Jamaica Kincaid on invoking myths in everyday life.*

Great (and surprising) Milton references keep rolling… last week, I wrote about how Vice President Biden referred to “When I consider how my light is spent” in a speech honoring military families. This week, Salon reports that Caribbean novelist Jamaica Kincaid surprised an audience at PEN’S World Voices Festival of International Literature by reading from Paradise Lost instead of from her newest novel, See Now Then.

Kincaid explained the choice by explaining she wanted to do something “unusual,” and by relating that when she was seven (!!) Paradise Lost “formed very much [her] feelings about tyranny and about injustice – simplified, because the poem is very complicated.”

Seven? I was planning on starting my children off with Il Penseroso and L’ Allegro. Now I need to reconsider when the great epic (not great “myth,” Salon!) is appropriate.

Kincaid says she is really “pissed” about the perception that she is always pissed off, and that people say she is angry “only because” she is a black and a woman. Does Kincaid’s use of Milton suggest that old (dead) white men have been equally incensed at injustice and tyranny? Of course Milton paid the price for speaking truth to power as well, scorned as a “divorcer” and reviled as a regicide not only during the Civil War and Interregnum years, but for decades after his death. Not bad company to be in, really.

On those marathon readings of the poem: I was busy using the blackest grain to launch high-powered rockets this weekend, so I didn’t attend the intriguing Upstart Creatures marathon Paradise Lost production and meal(s) in NYC. If anyone did… please let me know about it! In fact, I’m curious about the recent interest in marathon readings of Paradise Lost. I’ve read it in a sitting before, on advice from a former professor and great Miltonist, and found it a far different experience from reading it in chunks. But the marathon reading makes it multivocal and public, and I wonder about that dynamic with such a meditative and syntactically winding poem.

* Alyssa Loh. Jamaica Kincaid: People say I’m angry because I’m black and I’m a woman. Salon.

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