As a would-be writer of epic poems myself, and a once-avid cyclist to boot, I took an interest in what purported to be an “epic poem” about the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center when the book appeared on the Librarything Early Reviewer Program list of books available for review. After all, a modern “epic poem” in hardback? The last time such a thing appeared was long ago, at least on my radar screen. So I signed up for Bikeman — among other books — and suddenly, I found myself in possession of a copy.
(So, yes, disclosure, I got this book for free.)
The Foreword by Dan Rather — yeah, the newsman Dan Rather — and the Introduction by one JohnV. Fleming, a poetry professor emeritus at Princeton, are both quite positive about Flynn’s work. Rather argues that poetry and journalism are not so far apart as one might think, whilst Fleming, after sniping at the “excessively academic and hierophantic tendencies” of contemporary poetry, argues that Flynn’s poems belong to the tradition of Anglo-Scottish border ballads, though he also tries to link up Flynn with Ovid, with the “disaster ballads” of Hardy and William McGonagal. One cannot help but wonder whether Fleming references McGonagal specifically for some reason he cannot directly express in his Introduction itslef. (McGonagal is, after all, considered by many to be the worst poet of English langauge, though perhaps that should be qualified by noting he’s the worst poet ever widely published in English. I suspect I have met worse in my day. Flynn, at least, is nowhere quite so bad as McGonagal.)
Well, call me excessively academic and hierophantic, accuse me of literary druidism, but Flynn’s book is no Iliad, and unlike Fleming, I will personally take translations of Dante and Beowulf — though preferably not Heaney’s but insteadthe forthcoming translation by Dr. Sung-Il Lee, which I mentioned here and Dr. Hodges (aka Gypsy Scholar) discussed here — over Bikeman.
Which is not a great insult to Flynn, I hope: there are a few contemporary poets whose work I would hold on a pedestal as high as Dante’s or Homer’s, but most of them have spent a lifetime writing and rewriting poems, and most of them are probably poetical geniuses. After all, for those who say of my stories, “Meh, I’d rather read the classics,” all I can do is shrug, and try to write something that excites people as much as the classics of SF. I don’t expect to do it in my first novel or short story collection.
So saying that Flynn is no Homer isn’t really intended as a cheap shot; I’m criticizing Fleming’s overblown praise more than anything. But I should take the poem on its own terms to critique it, and on those terms, I find there are two basic problems for me.
The first is the theme. Epics are… well, they’re supposed to be epic. Would we call The Iliad an epic if it only detailed one episode — the bit where Helen is found to be missing, or one of the battles? We would not call it an epic, just as we would not call Beowulf an epic if all it did was introduce the buildup to the story? If the tale left off with Hrothgar waking to find thirty thanes dead by Grendel’s hand a Heorot, before Beowulf ever even showed up? No, we wouldn’t call that an epic.
Epics are very difficult to write. They are novels in the form of verse. Being about an important, nation-changing event is not enough: they must actually balance several narratives, must tell of a great series of events, and they must do it at some length. This might seem a demanding set of criteria, and they aren’t universal — some would probably disagree with one or more of them — but really, if we abandon them all, then any old book of poems could be termed an epic. Seamus Heaney’s slim poetry collections of years past could each be called Epics in the Awakening of an Irish poet, and Canadian poet Dionne Brand’s Land to Light On — a book which I love, by the way — could be called An Epic of A Black Woman’s Life in the Canadian North. Dozens of books of poems every year have more verbiage, and tell of major events just as movingly, if not moreso.
In fact, Dionne Brand’s more recent Inventory deals with many elements of the aftermath of 9/11 — the anger, the fear, the complex refraction of both through the lens of race, and more — in a way that Flynn’s work doesn’t approach. To read it is emotionally engrossing, painful, and Brand manages to engage many different aspects of the conundrums we North Americans face when we look out at the world: our sympathies, our fears, and many competing angers and sorrows. Yet it also shines with hope, with optimism, with a barely indulged-in utopia vision of absolutely epic scope. When you reach the end of Brand’s book, if you are a reader of poetry, you are exhausted, and realize you shall have to read it again because of how much in there you probably missed. It has a depth, a complexity, and a fractal richness that, I’m sorry, but Bikeman simply doesn’t have.
So that it seems to me that an epic of 9/11 requires more than Flynn has written here. This is Chapter 1. There are at least eleven, and perhaps twenty-three, books left to write in this “epic.” They must stretch to the wilds of Afghanistan, to the streets of Tikrit, to the lines of citizens in the world’s airports being asked to remove their shoes. If Flynn wants to have “epic” beside his name, he must put in the work.
(Though, to be fair, he may not have applied the tag. It may well be that someone at Andrews McMeel, his publisher, decided it would help sell the book. One thing I’ve learned from talking to pro writers is how much gets out of one’s hands when a book is sold. Covers, blurbs, summaries, cover art… one never knows where this or that comes from.)
Maybe, indeed, reflecting on Brand’s perspective, it strikes me that such a poem — an epic poem of 9/11 — is impossible without a myriad of voices. Maybe it would take a dozen serious poets’ work to build up such a text. Maybe epic poems are just not tenable in our (postmodern) world because we haven’t yet figured out a powerful, simple way of collaborating in verse.
But I’ll leave aside that question, because this newly collaborative vision of poetry in the future is one we needn’t delve too far into, and I have an essay on the subject anyway, which I may try rework at some point. Instead, I’d like to turn to the second issue about this book that bothered me.
The second issue is the sense of grandiosity assigned to 9/11 here. I know that, as Dan Rather points out in his Foreword, that day was not just a collection of distant images (however shocking) and news reports. I know that people walked around in New York in a state of shock. But at the same time, 9/11 is not uniquely historical to the world. I am not dismissing its importance to recent American history, but rather clarifying that part of that importance is due to a degree of ignorance about just how much of the world has been dealing with terrorism for decades on end, and for whom this event, though remarkable on its scale, is not really a fulcrum point in world history. 9/11 was, rather, a continuation of a worldwide trend.
It is, rather, the American reaction to 9/11 that is the critical, historical-turning-point event in world history. Terrorist attacks of the past resulted in arrests, and in countermeasures (no trash bins on the streets of London is an example Brits mentioned constantly in the wake of 9/11). But however painful and shocking to New Yorkers, and indeed to Americans in general, much of the rest of the world’s sympathies were simple and straightforward: I suspect most non-Americans did not feel as if history had shifted fundamentally on that day.
This problematizes the idea that 9/11 is worthy of an “epic poem” treatment at the present moment. This might sound silly, because, after all, to many Americans, 9/11 is the signal moment of the twenty-first century. Indeed, barring any new, comparable events on a larger scale — heaven forbid! — it is likely that historians will consider 9/11 the beginning of the twenty-first century, but not because of the shock that permeated American society. They will consider it thus because they will look back on it as the moment when the America military and industry figured out what to do in the wake of the collapse of the Cold War.
(And they will see it as the spark that set alight the engines of The New Business Model, a kind of inverse New Deal that spurred the flow of money into the hands of big businesses and elites, and turned the collapsing and occupation of Islamic nations, one by one, into a national business model.)
So as a foreigner, as a non-American, while I feel sympathy with Flynn for the horror he observed and conveyed, and for the many people whose painful experiences and, in many cases, terrible fates he described, I think that focusing on that one day is misleading. It is incomplete. I would be fine with it if Flynn disagreed with my take on things — The New Business Model I mention above — but he doesn’t seem to present his own take on it, either. Were he to set out to argue that all that has followed — in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in airports all over the earth — is justified, I might disagree with him, but that would not preclude recognizing true poetry in it. (Ezra Pound’s politics revolt me but I revere him no less as a poet because of them.)
The problem is that he doesn’t go further beyond what he experienced that day. This book of poems is therefore much more of “a day in the life” that happens to take place on a remarkable day, and describe a painful yet remarklable set of experiences. But it is not an epic.
But again, I would be remiss only to discuss this issue of whether or not the poem is “epic.” It behooves me to turn to the text itself as ask, “Is this work successful?”
Taken on its own terms, yes, to a degree. It is a book of poems about an event that is important to many Americans. To succeed, it needs to convey some meaning and power to American readers. Insofar as that is all that’s necessary for the poem to succeed on its own terms, it’s a succeess.
But there’s something else going on, and that is this: the book is marketed to people who don’t read, or care deeply about, poetry. This is a book to be sold in shopping mall bookstores, not poetry bookstores. It is to be displayed in the way Jewel’s book of poems was — in similar hardback form — back when I was living in Canada. Though I don’t imagine Flynn’s readers and Jewel’s to overlap much, the same principle is at hand. This is a book of poems for people who are not into poetry. The blurbs on the back cover say as much: Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, Harry Smith (of CBS News), and Meredith Vieira (Cohost of NBC’s Today), plus the New York City Dire Department Commissioner of 9/11, a Vanity Fair reviewer, and one of the cofounders of the Tribeca Film Festival.
Not one poet. Not one scholar of poetry. Not one person linked to the world of poetry. Four newsmedia personalities, a Fire Department Commissioner, a writer for Vanity Fair (which I don’t know very well but don’t imagine reviews poetry often) and a film festival cofounder.
This book is not for people who are in the habit of reading poetry seriously, or deeply. It is not intended for that audience. This is a book of poems for people who explicitly don’t read poetry, and so all of my reservations about the quality of Flynn’s Free Verse — which reminds me very much of the kinds of poems I saw in creative writing workshops back in undergrad, passionate but not all that attentive to language, to the sound and song of words, to the internal structure of the line, to meter and prosody — don’t really mean any more than my objections to the fact that giant owls are physically impossible (at least, flying giant owls are impossible) would matter to Tolkien fans.This book is for people who don’t know or care about meter, who have a tin ear, or at least an untrained ear, and will be satisfied by the odd neat turn of phrase, or the odd sequence of lines that exploit alliteration.
Of course, there was a time when one would be insulting the public to assume that they know nothing of poetry. Anyone who’s delved into Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (and presumably cares for poetry) knows we’re living in an age where poetry is in decline, but that it was not always so. But let’s face facts: poetry is like symphony music, except less accessible: at least symphony music can be taken up and popularized abroad, but the best of poetry in English is limited to those who both speak English very well, and care to read books that challenge them to the limits of their sensual imaginations. There’s a difference between being “excessively academic and hierophantic” (as I’ll admit Pound in all his gory glory was) and being challenging, difficult, and thereby much more deeply rewarding. For all the fun it is to read Dorothy Parker, the gags wear tiresome after a time and one turns back to more serious fare eventually.
Yet I know I am in the minority here. Most people have not spend hours with books of poems open in front of them, reading them aloud and listening to the sounds. Most people did not take it upon themselves to self-teach the skills needed to puzzle out scansion and foot and meter. Most people don’t read poetry regularly, and it is precisely those people for whom this book is intended. (And why it was not published by a major poetry publishing house, but rather by the publishers of Calvin & Hobbes and Garfield books.)
(The pattern is, indeed, familiar. I haven’t read any interviews with Flynn, mind you, but the disparagement of contemporary poetry in the Introduction, however sympathetic I am to it, reminds me of how so many mainstream authors who slap together explicitly genre novels — Margaret Atwood’s SFnal writings, for example — and then disparage the genres from which they have borrowed, comes to mind. SF and poetry are, of course, by now part of our universal cultural heritage, so accusations of theft are silly, but the pattern on the part of publishers who publish for mainstream audiences works in genres that would generally not pass muster among the people who love those genres and read them extensively or exclusively, it’s a growing pattern, and a disconcerting one.)
But that is not really Flynn’s fault, and I have to credit the guy with the intelligence to find a publisher for this book. It may be one of the few books of poetry in the twenty-first century to make a tidy profit. Yet as a lover of poems myself, the best I can hope is that this book might act as a gateway, for a few unsuspecting readers, to the bigger world of poetry. That is why I wish Flynn luck with this book. It may make a splash in America in the short term, it may end up on school reading lists and library bookshelves in the middle term, but in the long term, what I hope most strongly for this book is that it seduces a few people to look beyond its pages into the much wider and more fascinating world of poetry outside of which Bikeman travels.