Nick Flynn’s “The Day Lou Reed Died” was first published in the November 25, 2013 issue of The New Yorker and is available here for subscribers.
Nick Flynn’s “The Day Lou Reed Died” is about his father’s death, and it is terrific. This poem is unavailable except with a subscription to The New Yorker, but to me this poem is why we subscribe.
Most of us have not had the life the poet has had — losing one parent to grandiosity, alcohol, and homelessness, and then later losing the other to suicide.
Any of us who have had even a brush with any of these things knows that these are hard waters to survive. A writer born of this kind of hopelessness could be undisciplined.
The writing could swamp the reader, be self-centered or dishonest, lack proportion or distance, embrace trite or overblown language, lack craft or art or both, take forever to get to the point, or offer false hope. You know the kind of writing I mean — the kind of untutored stuff we write, not in tranquility, but in the middle of the night trying to wrestle the unmanageable to the ground.
Nick Flynn is none of that.
Here’s the thing. When an impossible parent dies, the grief is, in a way, unspeakable. This parent is someone most people would have avoided in life. The poem mirrors that, respects that, in its title: the father is not mentioned, and is not mentioned until half way through.
Apparently, Flynn’s father really did die on the same day that Lou Reed died. Reed’s music, with its blunt anger and lyric sadness provides proper ceremony: wake, funeral, hymn, and priest. Another Johnny Cash, I see.
This poem brings me to a depth of sorrow that takes me by surprise. But the poem has led me to it, and I can stay with it. One thing that makes the poem work, I think, is that the reader is given time. The two line stanzas give the reader air and time to breathe. The organization prevents us from realizing until the second half that the poem is actually about Flynn’s father’s death. A tribute to a dead rock-star morphs into a question about how art lasts or doesn’t, then morphs again into the question of “knowing” an artist, then shifts abruptly to the uncanny fact that Flynn’s father died “on the same day” as Lou Reed. A bit past the halfway point of the poem, Flynn says:
They died on the same day, O
what a perfect day
These two lines that are perfection to the eye and ear. The jumbled sentiment — that a day of death was “perfect” — hints of the relief such a death brings such a son and the comfort that son finds in the life of Lou Reed.
And then, the shift: two phenomenal passages of eight lines each end the poem, each one an almost insupportable image, each one intensifying the other, each image slowly expanding through its assigned space of eight lines. The last sixteen lines of this poem are so good that I cannot bring myself to quote or describe them here before you have read the poem.
What we encounter in the poem’s first half is like a service or a funeral; what we encounter in the second half is the wake, when we stay up all night, waiting for the convincing chill that descends in 4 in the morning.
If you know the story of Flynn and his father, you should be moved by the way he only mentions his father’s failed life obliquely in the line “as if I were the one sleeping outside.” The line re-enacts the way such a parent’s life can push a son’s self aside, and at the same time the line allows for empathy, and therefore, acceptance, and maybe, forgiveness, if only for the moment.
And then you remember that the title never said this was the day the father died. The title says, “The Day Lou Reed Died.” There is so much about an impossible parent that is unspeakable. Unforgiveable. You can’t even speak the loss in a title. But circling back to the title’s Lou Reed after the end, you realize that this was also the day when the slight possibility that the father would ever realize any of his promise dies for good.
Flynn works against grandiosity in every line, so it feels wrong to say the poem has grandeur, except that it’s true. The poem builds to its last eight lines. The grandeur works because of the craft and art, and because you believe in the poet’s honesty.
It is the best of accessible poetry: it’s plain-spoken and astonishing at the same time. It works by virtue of its clarity, as well as its pace, ambition, associations, images, shifts, honesty, the complexity of its spirituality, and more. The complexity makes it tick. For all that it is homely and commonplace in its language and occasion, its honesty, physicality, psychology and restraint puts it in the territory of Frost’s “Home Burial.”
And, I would say, the way he uses Lou Reed works for me. The quoted lyrics are italicized, identified. The artist is clearly identified — no tricks, no coyness. We have enough information about Reed that the poem is comprehensible without any footnote. In addition, the “sampled” lyrics serve several functions in the poem. The rock music is not merely setting or mood. Reed is the priest at this funeral and someone who could embrace the untouchable. He’s the father’s alternate life. He’s the old man’s idealized friend and the poet’s idealized father. Reed’s is also an angry voice, and supplies the anger the poem requires if it is to stand. Reed is what the old man might have been, what comfort the son can accept. Reed, an alternate father, is comfort sought by the poet and the means of elegiac recognition for the dead father.
That the recognition is fantastic, grand, and dreamlike is fitting to the father’s dreamlike life, that the son’s grief is real is fitting to the life he’s lived as well.
It’s a poem fitted for unspeakable grief.
I thank Nick Flynn for it.