Asian Epics

StormKing, Cornwall, NY, 2020

The Tale of Kiêu by Nguyẽ̂n Du  

Epic PoemPoets and PoetryPolitical Eighteenth Century

Written in the classic Vietnamese narrative form called Truyện Nôm, or a story in the southern script, The Tale of Kiêu illuminates the life of Thúy Kiều, a young woman who sacrifices her independence and her body in order to free her father and brother from the debts they owe the government. The price Kiêu pays for selling herself into marriage is immense and, in the end, it is her ability to feel worthy of love that becomes her greatest sacrifice. Timeless themes of personal identity and political obligation are laced through the narrative. In his introduction to the bilingual edition of The Tale of Kiêu, Alexander Woodside defines Du’s work as much more than just a literary artifact: “Western readers who are curious about Vietnam and the Vietnamese may well gain more real wisdom from cultivating a discriminating appreciation  of this one poem than they will from reading the entire library of scholarly and journalist writings upon modern Vietnam.”  

The Shahnameh by Abu al-Qasem Ferdowsi 

Epic PoemPoets and Poetry Mythical Eleventh Century

Composed over a span of thirty years (977-1010), The Shahnameh chronicles the foundation of the Iranian empire through the ages. Though commonly known as “The Persian Book of Kings,” Shah means more than just male royalty–according to scholar Hamid Dabashi,  Ferdowsi also intends it to mean best, or significant— so the epic is filled with formidable men, women, and creatures who battle, enchant, arouse and beguile their way through the narrative. Vivid, thrilling, devastating, and fantastical, The Shahnameh reads like a more elegant version of Game of Thrones rendered in couplets. 

The Tales of the Heike 

Epic ProseMilitary NarrativeTwelfth Century

Like the Grecian epics, The Tales of the Heike cannot be traced back to one individual author. This epic, usually told in prose-form, comes from the oral and written tradition of medieval Japanese gunki-mono, or warrior tales. The narrative is set in 1185, at the very end of the Genepi War, a conflict between the Tiara and Minamoto clans that would help usher Japanese society into a feudal system. Though told from the perspective of several different samurai, and peppered with military exploits, The Tales are also layered with Buddhist themes, especially, as Haruo Shiraine and Burton Watson illustrate in their 2006 translation, the Law of Impermanence, which becomes strikingly significant in the context of war.

Narratives in Verse

Baltic Sea From Helsingør, pastel on paper

Omeros by Dereck Walcott

Poets and PoetryEpic20th Century

Nobel Prize winner Dereck Walcott’s epic masterpiece, Omeros, is Homeric in scope but entirely Walcott in both its message and poetic technique. The poet tackles the tragedy of colonialism, the subjugation of land and people, specifically, his native island of St. Lucia (“the Helen of the West Indies”) with luminous, natural imagery and a loose yet impactful terza rima scheme. 

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth

Poets and Poetry20th Century

Written as an exercise to detach from the tedious demands of an economics doctoral program, The Golden Gate explores the complexities of monogamy, marriage, and friendship in 1980s San Francisco. What makes this work so singularly impressive is that Seth is able to utilize the sonnet as a vehicle for conveying an expansive yet nuanced narrative of modern love and loss.  

Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson

Poets and Poetry21st CenturyBiography

Poet and essayist Maggie Nelson tells the story of her aunt Jane’s short life and murder through a series of poetic, dreamscapes that draw from her aunt’s journal, family memories, and her own exquisite imagination.  The result is a haunting biography in verse that both celebrates and eulogizes a young woman whose promising life was mercilessly cut short.

Poet Protagonists


Possession by A.S. Byatt

Byatt’s Possession is so gorgeous and finely-wrought, it glimmers like a polished disc of jet. The novel toggles between two narratives, one set in modern times, the other in the Victorian era. Dual romances play out across the centuries as the male and female protagonists in each time period (the Victorians are poets, the modern characters are literary scholars who specialize in those same Victorian poets) explore poetry, sexuality, the occult, and each other. Byatt’s prose is poetic in nature, packed with symbolism, allusion, and metaphor. 

Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar 

Oh, Hopscotch! If you like mazes, “choose your own adventures”, skipping chapters, skidding back and forth between pages, and brilliant, wandering bohemians, Cortázar’s masterful puzzle of a novel is for you. The main character, Horatio Oliveria, is a poet and writer who falls into innumerable kerfuffles and hardships as he wanders both Paris and Buenos Aires with his artistic cohort. 

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño 

The “Visceral Realists” are a boisterous band of poets who embark on a quest to locate the “original Visceral Realist,” Cesárea Tinajero. The novel sprawls out across the globe, as the narrative voice shifts between a variety of characters who lament elitist poetry of privilege and amplify the power of the real– the raw, transcendent language of the people. 

Non-Traditional Biographies

Mary Conlon and James McCusker

These Fevered Days by Martha Ackerman

When I first heard about Martha Ackerman’s new Dickinson biography, These Fevered Days, I was immediately intrigued by her specific view of how the poet’s life was shaped. Unlike other recent biographies of Dickinson that cover her entire life in relatively broad strokes, Ackerman focuses her lens on what she believes are the ten key moments that defined Dickinson as a poet. She makes convincing arguments for each of these ten life events and finds evidence in the poems to support her ideas.  I will not outline each of the ten moments here, but I will say that even if you have read all of the Dickinson biographies you could get your hands on, I feel confident that you will come away from These Fevered Days with a deeper understanding of Emily’s craft and her world. Ackerman writes in a style that is equal measure academic and poetic, which, as a scholar of English Literature, I admire, and wish was more commonly found in biographies.

David Bowie, A Life  by Dylan Jones

Dylan Jones (no relation to David) crafted his biography of David Bowie from the almost two hundred interviews he conducted with colleagues, friends, lovers, and artists who were intimately associated with the Thin White Duke. This oral history takes us from the childhood Bowie spent in the London suburb of Bromely all the way through to the final years of his life. The accounts shared by those interviewed are funny, tawdry, heartbreaking, and, at times, artistically inspiring. I found the sections on the making of Young Americans and Station to Station particularly fascinating regarding Bowie’s studio work ethic and collaborative spirit. In short, David Bowie, A Life paints a vivid portrait of a singular artist who lit up the world with some of rock and roll’s most breathtaking and transformative moments. 

Please Kill Me, Twentieth Anniversary Edition by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

How does one corral a movement as unwieldy and nonconformist as punk into a definitive narrative? Well, one (or two, in this case) conducts a variety of candid interviews with nearly all the major players of the era and compiles them into an oral history so vibrant and raw, you can almost smell the smoke, sweat, and leather drifting off the pages. McNeil and McCain don’t hesitate to include all the gory details as interviewees describe Iggy Pop’s frequent mid-gig vomiting, Lou Reed’s colossal ego, and how Patti Smith convinced Bebe Buell to pose for Playboy. The narrative winds its way through the dregs of lower Manhattan to the clubs of Manchester and London to the basements of Ann Arbor, charting the course of punk’s wave as the ’70s seeped into the ’80s. The twentieth-anniversary edition contains a clever afterword by McNeil and McCain that outlines their definition of oral history. Please Kill Me, is at once an irresistibly filthy gossip rag and an important cultural document that makes for an exhilarating read.