My reasons for writing an epic poem

            I consider it a simple statistical fact that epic poetry today is dead. There are some people like myself who still write it,—some even publish it—but our audiences are so small as to be virtually nonexistent.  People today are simply not attracted to long poetry as a form of storytelling.  Our entertainment-driven populace would rather read a novel or watch a movie.  Reading or listening to poetry no longer takes place as a recreational activity except in the case of pop music.  Good lyrics can still entice an audience as long as they are set to catchy music.  Epic poetry specifically, however, cannot realistically be adapted to popular music.  This is because an epic poem is by definition a very, very long poem, and most music enthusiasts are simply not interested in listening to anything that runs more than a few minutes from front to end. There is perhaps, one single exception to this rule: the opera, but most people nowadays are no longer interested in listening to operas. Some among the cultured classes still do, but to the rest of us, epic poetry is completely dead.

            So why did I write an epic poem? It was not my child-hood dream. I originally wanted to be a novelist.  This is probably the main reason I graduated from college with an English degree.  I have always loved to tell stories and I naturally assumed that one day I would write a brilliant novel that lots of people would enjoy reading.  The problem, unfortunately, is that my actual ability to communicate in prose did not match up to my presumed ability (you can probably tell that just from reading this post).  It seemed from my own point of view that I had many wonderful ideas, but I seemed incapable of putting them down well in writing.  I spent many years trying, but I was always dissatisfied with the results. I’ve always thought that my stories contained a certain spark of imagination, but I could never get them to flow smoothly, nor could I manage to correct most of my many stylistic flaws. In many places I wrote too quickly. When I tried to compensate for this the result was long boring paragraphs that added nothing to the story.  In the end I had to give up on this effort as being totally useless.

            But long before admitting defeat I discovered that I was a poet.  I am not just any kind of poet; I am a rhyming poet.  I do not have much of a mind for the intellectual side of poetry, but I like to write narrative poetry with that has a strong, consistent rhyming scheme worked into a repetitive structure.  I first discovered this as a child when I wrote a rhyming poem for Christmas at the age of ten.  Later on as I progressed through college I continued to write more poetry in order to recover from my many letdowns as a novelist. Finally, in my junior year of college I wrote my first epic poem.  That same semester I happened to write an eight-page term paper on a long poem by John Dryden entitled “Absalom and Achitophel.”  Just for fun, I decided to transpose the entire paper into poetry as soon as I was finished with it. I used the same style of poetry that Dryden himself used: the heroic couplet.  When the assignment was due I handed in both copies to my professor.  I was quite excited later when he congratulated me and told me that I was “a master of the couplet.”  This made me very proud. I imagined that if I had lived in 17th or 18th century England I could have maybe risen to the rank of poet laureate.  Unfortunately, I was living instead in 21st century United States of America.

            After college I made a few more abortive attempts at writing a novel before beginning my second epic poem.  This poem was about 80 pages long in Microsoft word. It took me ten months to write.  Bearing the title The SkyPath Crusade, it was a humorous narrative about British knights from the 12th century flying through outer space in wooden sailing ships. It was my first attempt at writing a “popular” epic for a larger audience (my first epic was written for a limited group of friends).  It had roughly the same structure as The Cremation of Sam McGee, perhaps the most popular narrative poem in American culture.  I eagerly borrowed the use of internal rhyming to add special “zip” to many of my puns the same way that Robert Service did. Unfortunately, I was not yet good enough (or patient enough) to use the internal rhyming 100% of the time, but I still used it very frequently.  Here is the opening stanza:

            Oh those were the days when boys were men,
                        One thousand years ago.
            When the grass was green, and the cows were clean,
                        And the mountains filled with snow.
            When able knights rode to and fro
                        Across Earth’s dusty face;    
            But the very best who passed a test
                        Went straight to oute rspace!

 

Compare this to the opening from The Cremation of Sam McGee::

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
        By the men who moil for gold;
    The Arctic trails have their secret tales
        That would make your blood run cold;
    The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
        But the queerest they ever did see
    Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
        I cremated Sam McGee.

            After I finishing The SkyPath Crusade, I stopped writing poetry for awhile.  Later in 2008, however, my interest was piqued by the possibility of writing a third epic poem about a serious subject. I decided, in the end, to write it about the September 11th terror attacks.  I chose, once more, to use the same style as Robert Service, except this time I planned to use 100% internal rhyme (except for the opening half-stanza).

            The decision to write this poem was based on several factors. The first one was that I wanted to prove it was possible.  I had an argument once with a fellow blogger who claimed that writing contemporary, narrative-style epic poem was virtually impossible because advances in scientific and cultural thinking had made moral clarity nonexistent.  The issues that contemporary culture grapples with are far too incoherent to be illustrated well in the traditional manner. I have no doubt that this individual was drawing his lessons from the past hundred years of modernism and postmodernism.

            Secondly, my decision was based in part on historical circumstances.  If I was going to write a narrative poem that was to be truly “contemporary” it would be preferable to write about something in the recent past.  The one historical event that stood out for me as an American more than any other was the September 11th attacks. By focusing on these attacks, and their consequences, I could prove my fellow blogger wrong. I could show him that the 21st century mind is still capable of cultivating a clear, coherent response to an important crisis.  In face of a catastrophe fuzzy ideas still give way to a distinct recognition of right and wrong.

            Finally, I wrote this epic poem because it was the right thing to do.  I am an evangelical Christian, and as such, I literally believe that I am commanded by God to preach the “good news” to the entire world. Why not do so through an epic poem?  The familiar themes of heroism and death which characterize most of our memories about September 11th are a fertile ground for germinating the seeds of the gospel. Christ’s love and sacrifice was typified by the response of some of the firefighters who gave their lives for others on that horrific day. Likewise, the theme of unexpected death that struck home so poignantly that day gives us a clear illustration of why it is important to think about whether or not there is a heaven or hell. The next person to die could be you.

            There is a lot more I could say. This poem has been a labor of love over the past two years that has grown into much more than I originally imagined*. I have spent countless hours struggling over difficult rhymes and trying to find alternative ways of saying the same things when solutions did not readily present themselves.  I have watched movies about September 11th and read the official government report. I have spent time in prayer asking God to give me wisdom as I addressed many difficult but important issues about the horror that took place that day.

            I hope you enjoy my poem. It was written for you.

*I originally thought that large portions of the poem would take place in heaven, much like paradise lost.  Eventually, however, I decided to make it more “down to Earth.”

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