I am much occupied with the question of the long poem and major poetry. It has always been my goal not just to be a poet but to be an important poet, to be a poet that matters. I’ve never seen the point of doing anything if one is only to be competent at best. Inevitably then, the question arises: Must one write a long poem in order to be an important poet, let alone to be a major poet? It seems these days that everyone is writing a long poem of some kind of another: a sense of project, of continuity, of writing by the book rather than by the poem, is de rigeur in certain circles. As Jasper Bernes, a former student, a friend, and a wonderful poet, whose kind words on his blog about me as a teacher are much appreciated, has written, “We are in a historical moment…where the collection or miscellany of poems/writings has had its star dimmed by the long poem, the serial poem and [the] proceduralist or mixed-genre book.” This moment seems interestingly parallel to that of the mid- and late-nineteenth century, when it was incumbent upon every poet who aspired to major status to write a book-length poem, preferably an epic of one kind or another.
On the one hand, I have always longed toward the longer work, lusted after the architectonic sweep of “the major poem.” While my attention span has lengthened (when I was a teenager I had trouble extending a poetic thought beyond a single line), I am still a sprinter rather than a long-distance runner; my arcs exhaust themselves, especially given my detailed attention to word set next to word. I envy those who can go the distance, who can stay in the race for page after page. On the other hand, I’m suspicious of the American obsession with size. Bigger is not always better, as in personal tragedies or even daily irritations, and concision is a virtue in any kind of discourse. Often in reading a long poem I think, “were all these words really necessary?” I’m all too aware of the pages going by, each more slowly than the last, until I’m mired in the middle of a muddy track with no final goal post in sight. As Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, no one ever wished it longer.
Perhaps one can say of the cult of the long poem what Adorno wrote of the nineteenth century cult of the majesty of nature: “Such a cult is a reflex of the bourgeois delusion of grandeur, of the social preoccupation with quantities and record bests and also of bourgeois hero worship” (Aesthetic Theory 103).
Since the early nineteenth century, that is to say since Beethoven, the culture hero of classical music, the symphony has been regarded as the pinnacle of the composer’s art. To be able to sustain a musical idea over the arc of a symphony has been the test of a great composer. For the arch-symphonist Mahler, greatness meant monumentality. But a symphony is not defined merely by length, but by its integral structure; it excludes the extraneous in a way that tone poems, for example, do not. By this criterion, few modern and contemporary long poems would qualify.
However respected they may be, those who chose not to write symphonies, like Debussy, or who worked only on the small scale, like Satie, whose claims to unseriousness should perhaps not be taken seriously, or Webern, whose seriousness is not in doubt even among his detractors, are often regarded as somehow lesser, diminutive not just in the length of their productions. (Webern did write a piece he called a symphony: it lasts less than ten minutes.)
Debussy did, however, write an opera. From the seventeen hundreds, before Beethoven, through at least the nineteen thirties, opera has exerted a magnetic pull on composers, and composing an opera can also stake one’s claim to majority. This has especially been the case in the wake of Wagner, whose reinvention of opera almost displaced the symphony from its place at the pinnacle of the classical music hierarchy. Interestingly, while a single opera can suffice to accredit a composer as major (just as a single long poem, “when that long poem is good enough, when it has within itself the proper unity and variety” [Eliot, On Poets and Poetry 44], can credential one as a major poet: whatever their merits as poems, how many actually read Milton’s Paradise Regained or Samson Agonistes?), one needs to have written more than one symphony for one’s symphonizing to count toward major status. One needs not just to have composed a symphony, but to be a symphonist.
Why is a lyric poet so often considered “mere” when compared to a writer of the long poem? There is an element of the will to power in the will to write a long poem, a macho aspect (for both male and female poets) that’s both alluring and repellent. Writing a long poem, a book-length poem, proves that one can tough it out over the long haul; to be a writer of brief lyrics is a little wimpy. Some might consider the long poem to be patriarchal, authoritarian, an assertion of phallic power and domination. Thinking of the long poem as the attempt to take hold of a major theme, to make a major statement and stake one’s claim on greatness, I’m reminded of Adorno’s admonition: “It is silly to think that art can augment its dignity by dealing with some august event or other. More often than not this augustness is the upshot of an authoritarian ideology, specifically of respect for power and magnitude” (Aesthetic Theory 214-215). Viewed more positively, the will to write a long poem shows ambition and scope; the capacity to carry out that ambition shows determination and strength. In Milton’s words, “Fame is the spur.” (Thanks to Henry Gould for reminding me of this quote.) But James Longenbach points that, if done out of obedience to the necessities of the poem (some poems ask to be sonnets, some ask to be epics), rather than to the demands of the poet’s ego, writing a long poem can be conceived of as an act of humility.
As Jasper puts it, more neutrally (and, probably, more fairly) than I have done, “writing a wonderful poem turns out to be, in the end, not all that hard…. Producing an object that lies between two flaps, though, whether a collection or a ‘book,’ seems somehow, in my experience, more difficult.” I am much less sanguine about the abundance, let alone the over-abundance, of good poems, let alone “wonderful poems,” but I take Jasper’s point that on a certain level the short lyric can be seen as less demanding, of the writer and the reader, than the long poem. There remains the question of whether those demands justify themselves in the rewards that the poem yields, for either party. In fairness, Jasper also acknowledges this question, without attempting to answer it: “the drawback to the popularity of the book over the collection is that that book’s concept, idea, base may be used as an apology for…tedium without recourse to any of the arguments for the value of tedium.”
Because I am not that kind of writer, or have not yet been that kind of writer (I can hardly predict the writer that I will be), the question troubles me. Is it a failing in me that I haven’t written a long poem, that I proceed from poem to poem, that I don’t have a project? Is the lack of such a project equivalent to the lack of a poetics? (I leave aside, for now, the question of what it would mean to “have” or “not have” a “poetics,” or whether it’s even possible not to have one of some sort or another, articulated or not.) And what about the possibility that the project replaces the poem, that, as so often happens, the idea overtakes the object, the text is read as intention rather than as aesthetic experience. Jasper’s ruminations conclude with this admonition: “let’s not confuse the book with poetry, and let’s not forget about the possibilities that the individual, and even [the] short, poem (or piece) offers—however much the weak minded have asked us to believe that such a notion is inherently bourgeois.” (Perhaps because I’ve never been bourgeois or even close, it’s never been clear to me what’s so bad about it.)
In his essay “What Is Minor Poetry?” T.S. Eliot allows that a poet may be accounted major even if he or she has not written a long poem. His example is George Herbert, but another obvious example (to us if not to Eliot) would be Emily Dickinson. He also points out that we would consider John Donne a major poet even if he had never written his epistles and satires (indeed, those are probably the least-read of Donne’s works), and would likewise so consider William Blake had he never written his prophetic books. On the other hand, while Eliot writes that “The difference between major and minor poets has nothing to with whether they wrote long poems, or only short poems,” he goes on to say that “the very greatest poets, who are few in number [he names only Shakespeare and Milton], have all had something to say which could only be said in a long poem” (On Poets and Poetry, 47).
Following on Eliot, Henry Gould points that the long poem is not only a formal but also an intellectual construct. The long poem is one outcome (not the only possible one) of what James Longenbach calls “the big hunger,” the will to grapple with the largest possible questions. Mahler believed that the symphony should contain and/or construct an entire world. Many long poems seek to encompass or create a world, perhaps even the world.
While most poets considered major have written at least one long poem, to write a long poem, a book-length poem even, does not in itself suffice to make a poet major. Otherwise Edwin Arnold, author of The Light of Asia (a poem Eliot mentions with childhood fondness), would be a major poet. All that’s required to write a long poem is stamina and a good dose of chutzpah. To write a good long poem, on the other hand, a poem worth the reader’s investment of time, attention, and energy, is quite another matter. In Eliot’s words, “It might seem at first simpler to refer to the minor writers of epics as secondary, or still more harshly as failed great poets. They have failed, certainly, in the sense that no one reads their long poems now: they are secondary, in the sense that we judge long poems according to very high standards. We don’t feel that a long poem is worth the trouble unless it is, in its kind, as good as The Faerie Queene, or Paradise Lost, or The Prelude, or Don Juan, or Hyperion, and the other long poems which are in the first rank” (op. cit., 41). To write a very long poem which is worth reading is undoubtedly a major accomplishment, even if it does not necessarily make one a major poet but, again, to be a major poet doesn’t mean that one must write a long poem worth reading.
As Eliot indicates, though, it is not necessarily the case that a long poem is what makes a major poet major, or even important. (I’m writing as much of reputation as of intrinsic quality: my focus is on what confers “majority” upon a poet.) While In Memoriam is undoubtedly a major work, it’s not to The Idylls of the King that we turn when we turn to Tennyson. Browning’s The Ring and the Book was always, I think, more admired than read, and now it is not even that. “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” “Owl’s Clover,” and “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (all of them long, none of them quite book-length) are all fine poems, though “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is a bit discursively expository, and there are sing-songy aspects to “The Man with the Blue Guitar”: “He held the world upon his nose/And this-a-way he gave a fling.//His robes and symbols, ai-yi-yi—/And that-a-way he twirled the thing.” But it is not primarily for them that we, that I, at least, treasure Wallace Stevens. Ezra Pound’s debatable standing as an important poet rests much more on his short lyrics (and by no means even most of those) than on The Cantos, let alone on “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” or Homage to Sextus Propertius. (His importance as a literary figure, an editor, theorist, and propagandist, is beyond question.) It’s not because of Paterson that we read William Carlos Williams; indeed, that poem is hardly read in its entirety at all. Though H.D.’s Trilogy is full of lovelinesses, and attracted a great deal of attention at the time, largely due to its wartime themes, it’s not now the basis of her reputation. (Considering the presence of lines like “Evil was active in the land,/Good was impoverished and sad://Ill promised adventure,/Good was smug and fat,” perhaps that's for the best.) Nor is her Helen in Egypt, though I'm quite fond of it. But of the American Modernists and their immediate successors, few did not at least attempt a long poem, if not an epic of some kind: only Louise Bogan (wedded to “the stripped, still lyric” as she was), e.e. cummings, Robert Frost, and Marianne Moore come to mind.
Critic Joseph Conte writes that “The long poem has been the measure and the lifework of many significant 20th-century American poets. Yet the term long poem is a notoriously vague descriptor applied (by poets and critics alike) to poems of vastly different lengths and forms. One can discriminate, however, between those long poems in the 20th century that maintain the organizational structure of the epic and those that adopt the random and incomplete process of seriality. Epic poems by 20th-century poets adapt or renovate forms whose theoretical and structural underpinnings were set in earlier periods. The series, or serial poem, is remarkable for being the long form that is entirely new in 20th-century poetics” (“Long and Serial Poetry,” in The Facts on File Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry, edited by Burt Kimmelman, 283).
In his essay on Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Eliot writes that “Tennyson’s long poems are not long poems in quite the same sense as those of his contemporaries. They are very different in kind from Sordello or The Ring and the Book….Maud and In Memoriam are each a series of poems…. In Memoriam is unique: it is a long poem made by putting together lyrics” (“‘In Memoriam’,” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode 241, 243). If we conceive of the string of lyric poems comprising Tennyson’s In Memoriam as a series (M.L. Rosenthal and Sally Gall consider the poem too discursive, too meditative, and too thematically consistent to qualify under their definition of a poetic sequence), or if we think further back to the sonnet sequences of the English Renaissance, from Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella to Spenser’s Amoretti, and not excluding Shakespeare’s sonnets, I’m not sure how new the series or serial poem really can be said to be. Like Conte’s postmodern serial poem, these also accede to flux and mutability; indeed, many take it as their topic. But Conte’s schema, though too centered around the specific concerns and claims of his book Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry, is still useful.
Conte also points out, in attempting to account for the turn toward different models of the long poem than the epic, that “The [failure] of several modernist epic poems to cohere or achieve their goals, including The Cantos and Paterson, and the distaste for the hierarchical structures and belief systems that frame them [I question this easy elision of forms and their significances] has led many postmodern poets to serial composition” (op. cit., 285). Conte also notes the discontent with and restlessness within the confines of the short poem that Jasper Bernes discusses: “Poems written in many loosely associated parts also signify the impatience of poets with the short personal lyric” (ibid.).
In somewhat different and strikingly broader terms, for M.L. Rosenthal and Sally Gall, the genre they call the modern poetic sequence is “the modern poetic form within which all the tendencies of more than a century of experiment define themselves and find their aesthetic purpose….The sequence has been [our major poets’] great vehicle for discovering the full possibilities of dynamic interplay among poems and fragments conceived under the same ultimate psychological pressure or creative impulse” (The Modern Poetic Sequence: The Genius of Modern Poetry vii). Rather than being organized narratively or thematically, the modern poetic sequence is based on what they call lyrical structure: “The modern poetic sequence, then, is a grouping of mainly lyric poems and passages, rarely uniform in pattern, which tend to interact as an organic whole. It usually includes narrative and dramatic elements, and ratiocinative ones as well, but its structure is finally lyrical. Intimate, fragmented, self-analytical, open, emotionally volatile, the sequence meets the needs of modern sensibility even when the poet aspires to tragic or epic scope” (op. cit. 9). Rosenthal and Gall cite Whitman’s Song of Myself as the first modern poetic sequence, but also look back to Tennyson’s Maud, though in their view that poem does not quite shake off the constraints of plot: it occupies “the very meeting point of long poem and sequence” (op. cit. 19).
If Conte’s categorization seems too arbitrarily restrictive, Rosenthal and Gall’s seems overly capacious. Though they make a (not very clearly defined) distinction between the long poem and the poetic sequence, every extended poem of the last hundred years or so, or set of poems that is not strictly and solely narrative, even every book of poems that can in some way be seen as linked or unified, qualifies as a modern poetic sequence, whether so presented or not (though their rather hefty book includes no mention of Oppen or Zukofsky, nor of masterpieces of black modernism like Langston Hughes’s Montage of a Dream Deferred or Melvin B. Tolson’s Harlem Gallery). They sweep so much into their category—including Dickinson’s fascicles, Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, Yeats’s Words for Music Perhaps, Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, The Waste Land, The Cantos, Paterson, Stevens’s “The Auroras of Autumn,” Muriel Rukeyser’s Elegies, Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, David Jones’s The Anathemata, Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, Lowell’s Life Studies and Day by Day, Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs, Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Sylvia Plath’s last poems, Ted Hughes’s Crow, Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, and many individual poems that are only a few pages long—that it loses all descriptive value. It’s hard to see what all these very different works share besides taking up more than a few pages.
It seems to me that there are three ways to proceed into and through a longer poem. Though in a different context altogether, the critic and poet James Longenbach has summed them up well: “We know how to move forward depending on the syntax we employ, and if the word ‘because’ puts one foot purposefully in front of the other, if the word ‘and’ permits us to wander, the word ‘or’ forces us to stagger” (The Resistance to Poetry, 83). I would say that “because” corresponds to narrative, something following from something in a line, however curved or crooked: in E.M. Forster’s example, the king died and the queen died of grief. The word “or” corresponds to digression, casting out and circling back: the king died in his sleep, or a tornado struck city hall, or the day of his death was a cold dark day, or somewhere someone had lamb stew for lunch, or I can’t remember what I meant to say, but I’m sure it had something to do with the king: wasn’t lamb his favorite meat? “And” would correspond to segmentation, the poem in sections, the serial poem, this and then this and then this: the king died one Saturday at noon, and the queen died on Monday at three, and the bells rang all weekend and then rang all week, and the day of the king’s funeral was rainy and in the fifties, and several of the courtiers caught cold and were bedridden, and the day of the queen’s funeral was not that same day, and the castle was painted green except in those spots painted blue. Unless they were yellow. Both digression and seriality or segmentation are variations of what Longenbach has called disjunction.
And so there are three modes by which to move and be moved through the long poem. There is narrative, raveling the thread of story (the word ravel means both to wind and to unwind), finding our way out of the labyrinth or feeling our way deeper within, hoping that there’s an Ariadne at the end of the thread, or at least an interesting minotaur. (As Bugs Bunny says in his hairdresser persona, “In my line of work you meet lots of interesting people, but the most interesting ones are always the monsters.”) Narrative is the oldest mode of the long poem, threading from The Epic of Gilgamesh and unspooling in various forms through The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, The Faerie Queene (these last two are as much philosophical allegories as stories in verse), Paradise Lost, and so on and on and on. Wordsworth’s The Prelude may be considered as a psychological narrative, with plentiful digressions, the story of the creation of a consciousness. (Indeed, Wordsworth can be thought of as having invented subjectivity as a subject for English language poetry.) Though it seems that almost every Anglophone poet in the nineteenth century attempted a book-length narrative of some sort or another, the long narrative has been considerably less popular since the advent of the Modernists. One might fit James Merrill’s Ouija board epic, The Changing Light at Sandover, which digresses within a strongly narrative frame, here. Vikram Seth’s 1986 The Golden Gate, momentarily popular as a novelty item, is a three hundred page verse novel about San Francisco Bay Area yuppies. I’m reminded that what was remarkable about the dancing bear wasn’t its skill or grace, but that it danced at all.
While finding one’s way in and/or out of the labyrinth can sometimes be exhilarating—the thrill of meeting the minotaur a revelation (if one survives), Ariadne’s kiss a rapture—in my reading experience too often the narrative poem just leaves one with a handful of used string, not good for much of anything and of no interest in itself. Here I am, at the heart of the labyrinth or at its door, and what do I do now? Perhaps we’ve simply been through too many labyrinths by now: the thrill of winding up that spool of string is gone.
Digression is another way to proceed, dropping one thought to pick up another, beginning and then beginning again, but always on some trail or another, leading to another trail and so forth. Flow Chart by John Ashbery, our supreme poet of progression by digression, is the perfect, and perfectly lengthy, contemporary example. Digression ultimately derives from Freudian free association and Joycean stream of consciousness. The assumption is that there is some significance (in both senses of the word) to the elements that come to the mind and the order and manner in which they do so. Otherwise, it’s just rambling and blathering, like that of a senile grandparent. The pleasure of digression is wandering and stumbling upon, as in the Surrealist calculated drift through unfamiliar urban neighborhoods or the Situationist dérive, noticing how certain areas, streets, or buildings resonate with states of mind and desires. I wonder as I wander.
The pleasures of getting lost are balanced against those of finding one’s way home. When it fails, digression can feel pointless and aimless (activity is not action), an extended getting nowhere: true randomness is always boring, as is the willed wackiness so common in contemporary poetry. To misquote Longenbach quoting the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, if it is a joy to be lost, it is a disaster not to be found. As Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory, “‘Origin and destination are the same’: if there is any truth in this statement at all, then it must be in the field of art” (98).
Even if you retrace your steps and take a different branching of the road, you’re never taking the same trip twice. Beginnings are always the most exciting part of a journey, the parts most full of promise and surprise. Stay with them too long and the promises are either broken or prove stultifying (is that what I wanted?), the surprises stale (oh, that again). But to travel by veering, to move forward sideways, to wander and see what you stumble across (best to walk slowly, you might miss something on the way, or miss your footing at least)—that’s always an adventure.
Another way, the most popular in our age of distraction and the short attention span, is to break the journey into stages, to take several journeys at once: the serial poem or poetic sequence, the poem in sections, some of which follow, some of which are simultaneous in time or place or both, some in different voices, some different perspectives on the same object, looking at it in the round. Many of the longer poems I admire are made up of accretions, constellations, series or sequences of smaller units, rather like life, in which we never see the whole picture, are told the entire story. (What omniscient narrator could tell us that, even if we were around after our own deaths to hear it?) Ideally, their collocation forms a gestalt, a result greater than the sum of its parts. When such a poem is unsuccessful, the elements just pile up like dirty dishes or bills one doesn’t want to open, or just one of those endless lines of traffic lights that each turns red just as you get to it: one damned thing after another—again, like life at its most tedious. Conte writes that “the series is an ongoing process of accumulation,” but seriality can feel like mere listing, the mere accumulation of things that multiply but don’t add up, this and then this and then this ad nauseam.
For Conte there is something new under the poetic sun, and it is the serial poem. Though I question Conte’s claims for its uniqueness or special suitability to our times, almost all of what are considered the major long poems of the Modernist period and beyond are serial or at least segmental in form and method. Though Conte accounts The Cantos as epic and not serial, on ideological rather than aesthetic grounds, and with Mussolini trotted out for sensationalist effect, the poem is clearly serial in form. Perhaps works like The Cantos and H.D.’s Trilogy and Helen in Egypt, among others, might call for a new category of the serial epic. Conte cites such diverse examples of the serial poem as Williams’s Spring and All, which mixes verse with rather skewed prose essays on poetry and the imagination, George Oppen’s Discrete Series (not, in my view, a book-length sequence, though published as his first volume: it takes up only ten pages in the second volume of the Library of America’s American Poetry: The Twentieth Century), and open-ended series such as Nathaniel Mackey’s “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “mu,” Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts, and Robert Duncan’s “Passages” (I would add “The Structure of Rime”), which are not bound within the confines of any single book. Many more examples of the modern and contemporary serial or segmented poem could be adduced, though I will not do so here. Suffice it to say they are sufficient to the day.
And so I return to the questions with which I began. Is it necessary for a poet to write a long poem to be a major, an important poet? And why is there such a strong perceived connection between length and importance?
My sometime ambitions and my habits and tastes are somewhat at odds with one another. I ask myself, “Why do you want to write a long poem when you don’t in general want to read long poems? Is it sheer envy of the boys (and girls) with bigger toys?” Neither as a writer nor as a reader am I an exponent of the long poem. In general I find the experience of reading a long poem burdensome; it wearies me. My commitment is to the numinous lyric. I am an adherent of Keats’s directive that the poet load every rift with ore, but it’s impossible for the extended lode of the long poem, at least of a through-composed long poem, to be all gold. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe denies the possibility of the long poem, which he holds to be at best a series of short poems strung together. (This is an accurate description of at least one species of the genus “serial poem.” Hart Crane said that The Bridge was not an epic, but a "long lyric poem, with interrelated sections.") T.S. Eliot questions this view in his essay “From Poet to Valéry,” in which he points out that the parts of a long poem
“can form a whole which is more than the sum of its parts; a whole such that the pleasure we derive from the reading of any part is enhanced by our grasp of the whole. It follows also that in a long poem some parts may be deliberately planned to be less ‘poetic’ than others: these passages may show no luster when extracted, but may be intended to solicit, by contrast, the significance of other parts, and to unite them into a whole more significant than any of the parts. A long poem may gain by the widest possible variations of intensity. But Poe wanted a poem to be of the first intensity throughout” (To Criticize the Critic and Other Essays, 34).
To return to the musical comparison, the “less poetic” parts of a long poem may be compared to operatic recitative, less immediately thrilling than the big showpiece arias, but necessary to place and set off those arias. An opera that was all arias would grow exhausting. Strauss’s Salome and, even more, Elektra come close, but both are very short by operatic standards. And yet, a poem hits one less viscerally than music; one is more able to modulate and moderate its impact. Hearing a good live performance of “In Questia Reggia” from Puccini’s Turandot, one’s body vibrates with the force of the voice.
Thus rightly rebuked, I might view my stance as a limitation turned into principle: this is how Eliot views Poe’s position. On the other hand, in the same essay Eliot writes that “the poet’s theories should arise out of his practice rather than his practice out of his theories” (op. cit., 42). So perhaps I am not so far astray after all.
Wallace Stevens captures some of this ambivalence in a letter to Harriet Monroe, though he ultimately comes down in favor of the long poem (and affirms the requirement of variety that Eliot invokes), not for the sense of major accomplishment some take it to represent (he explicitly dismisses that), but for the unexpected or otherwise unavailable possibilities and potentialities it offers: “I have no desire to write a great deal. I know that people judge one by volume. However, having elected to regard poetry as a form of retreat, the judgment of people is neither here nor there. The desire to write a long poem or two is not obsequiousness to the judgment of people. On the contrary, I find that this prolonged attention to a single subject has the same result that prolonged attention to a senora has according to the authorities. All manner of favors drop from it. Only it requires a skill in the varying of the serenade that occasionally makes one feel like a Guatemalan when one particularly wants to feel like an Italian” (Letters of Wallace Stevens 230).
Raising once again the question of how one defines a long poem (how long is long?), The Waste Land, an epic with all the boring bits left out, and the only “long poem” I count among my favorites, is about the longest poem that I can hold in my head more or less at once. And is it “really” a book-length poem? Eliot had to pad it out with notes, fascinating though they are, to fill a printed volumes. Certainly in scope and range it must be accounted major: whatever Eliot’s demurrals, it seeks to respond to the condition of an era.
The long poem is a relative concept, both in terms of sheer size and in terms of type. Is X “long,” being only, say, twenty pages? Is Y a single poem, made up as it is of many distinct units? As one commenter who identifies himself only as Jonathan points out, often the difference between a collection of poems and a long poem is a matter of presentation: a set of lyrics can be strung together into a serial poem no more ambitious or capacious than the standard poetic miscellany. In positive terms, this is the long poem as an accretion of parts also readable in themselves as short lyrics or brief lyric sequences (many serial poems are broken down into sets of smaller serial units).
Despite its moments of luminous intensity, I’d trade The Cantos for Cathay, though there are several individual Cantos I’d keep if I could, among them I, II, IV, XVII, and CXX, with its beautiful confession of failure. This brings up another aspect of the serial poem, its tendency to fissure into discrete lyrics with all the force and presence of free-standing poems. The serial poem is endlessly excerptable. The poems embedded in Williams’s Spring and All, are better known individually than as parts of a rather incoherent whole, and lose nothing when read separately. Zukofsky’s A 11 can satisfy almost endlessly (“River that must turn full after I stop dying/Song, my song, raise grief to music/Light as my love’s thought”). The serial poem frequently raises the question, “Why are these parts linked together? What larger whole do they comprise? Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?”
It’s not for The Age of Anxiety that I read Auden, though I’m quite fond of The Sea and the Mirror, a series of lyrics (“My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely”) and one prose meditation (Caliban’s, of course) strung together to build an arc, one heavily dependent upon Shakespeare’s Tempest. It’s only for some of The Dream Songs, a serial poem if ever there was one, though not, I believe, discussed by Conte, that I read Berryman; “The Ball Poem” is probably my favorite work of his. But I am taken by “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.” At sixteen pages in his Collected Poems, including notes, does it count as “a long poem”?. And then there are the many poets I love, from Sir Thomas Wyatt and Thomas Campion to Paul Celan and Osip Mandelstam, who never wrote a long poem at all, never even tried. I’ve never wished a Lorine Niedecker poem longer, and not for lack of love.
Thus I conclude with equivocations instead of stands, questions and conundrums rather than answers, preferences and predilections in place of positions.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Short Thoughts on the Long Poem
Posted by Reginald Shepherd at 12:42 PM
Labels: Edgar Allan Poe, Hart Crane, James Longenbach, Jasper Bernes, Joseph Conte, long poem, M.L. Rosenthal, Sally Gall, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens
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I think Susan Howe might quarrel with your description of the "macho" nature of the long poem! There is, I think, an alternative description of the long poem that revolves around its contextualization, its ambiguity -- all of those tentative "author-out-of-control" drives that are traditionally linked with the feminine.
Indeed, while the current view of poetry -- seeing short lyrics as interruptive events, drops in the ocean, journal entries, snapshots, etc. etc. -- can make the long poem indeed seem like a "vast undertaking", I think there is also an alternative view that you find throughout English-language lit where the macho impetus is channeled through the hyper-worked "gem".
At least you can aspire to the "long blog post." Your post has as many words as some "long poems" do.
Which goes to show a long poem is a relative concept, as Conte argues. Often the difference between long and short is a difference of "packaging," in that you could take titles off a series of short poems, put some numbers on them, and voilà, a long poem, divided into numbered sections, is born. Not any more ambitious than the collection of short lyric poems.
I like all the wide-ranging references in this piece. Elegant writing for blogworld.
As an inveterate long-poem addict, I would hesitate to give so much weight to the motive of ambition or machismo, though ambition plays a part, of course ("Fame is the spur", wrote long-poemist Milton).
The application of Longenbach's syntax distinctions ('because/and/or') is neat, & maybe helps explain some stylistic differences. But I think the logic of subject-matter or theme is a more important factor in shaping long poems.
In other words, I think the long poem is a consequence of a "big idea". Virgil & Milton, in particular, make their defining "arguments" explicit. Just as scientists and philosophers seek elegant explanatory generalizations, the long-poem writer desires, more than anything else, TO TELL US SOMETHING. The long-poem writer has something to say which is so important (to her or him) that it "totalizes" reality : draws all kinds of particulars into its orbit. It's as much a habit of mind as of ambition : a desire to unite the Many and the One. &, as you are at pains to point out, there are risks involved : it's called the "harder they fall" syndrome.
Let me offer some scattered thoughts athwart this discussion: taking the Duncan/Spicer/Blaser take on the serial poem, it’s about the poetic impulse overflowing any particular poem, not allowing the individual, integral poem to cut-off the poetic flow. It’s a negotiation through the tension between a principle of poetry not embodied in any poem & individual poems. & what’s nice, it’s not a critical practice, which is where poetry as a principle most often appears. It is poetry that attempts to enact certain ideas rather than talk about them. Such enactment is quite rare.
I sympathize w/the practice & the idea behind the practice a great deal, but it’s not as if the principle of poetry is more important than individual poems. This is not a chicken-or-egg story. The poems come first, and ideas of a principle of poetry come after, attempting to make sense of, understand the full import of the poems.
Given the various descriptions offered in the post & the comments, it seems that the long poem tends to point away from itself, away from the poem’s poem-ness, toward ideas. So maybe an emphasis on the long poem is actually an evasion of poetry. Perhaps only a writer of great short poems could be a great poet.
Reginald, I've posted a brief essay, which is not exactly a response to yours, but most definitely was "spurred" by it :
"I am an adherent of Keats’s directive that the poet load every rift with ore, but it’s impossible for the extended lode of the long poem, at least of a through-composed long poem, to be all gold." Christian Wiman had similar things to say about Glyn Maxwell's "The Sugar Mile":
Wiman clearly does not believe that "a long poem may gain by the widest possible variations of intensity."
Wondering if you're familiar w/ ML Rosenthal and Sally Gall's "The Modern Poetic Sequence"? In it, they discuss the modern long serial poem ("the lyric sequence" as they call it) in both the general and particular (they include analyses of "Song of Myself", "The Wasteland", "The Cantos", as well as several other long modern poems) and argue that it constitutes to major formal poetic mode of the modern era.
Dear Rocco, Thanks very much for pointing me toward this book, of which I'd heard but which I've not read. I've ordered a copy online, and I'm confident that it will be useful to revisions of this piece. This is a topic over which I will be mulling for some time.
And thank you, Henry, for pointing me toward your essay on the long poem, which I found quite interesting. Your thoughts on the long poem being defined as much by content as by form have been quite useful.
I always seem to write longer poems by accident when I am telling a story and it takes on a life of its own and I stumble along with the verse lines trying to keep up with the vision like trying to steer a wagon pulled by galloping horses in a storm. Since I am a busy man with children and graduate school classes in geographic information science, I find the serial approach works since I forget what I was writing the day before. So I try to keep each story-poem encased in its own mood, style and action. Then I post them all under a collective name, Angeliad of Surazeus. Lucky for me I know database methods so I keep them all in a database which makes for easier presentation on a web site.
I have found that I create short poems over and over. I do not know if they should be categorized as drops in the ocean, snapshots or whatever else but if they are I would hope they would be drops with BIG SPLASHES or Snapshots that are in an Art Gallery. I sometimes feel with long poetry you can get lost. I found this blog by trying to find out what is preferred long or short poetry. I am currently in the process of working on my first book and I find myself pondering on the idea of whether people will embrace the shorter version of me or if they would rather stretch me out or BIGGIE SIZE ME!! At any rate I have looked at poets like Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks and they too had shorter versions of themselves extended out and were considered good poets. SO DOES SIZE REALLY MATTER???
oh, wonderful essay.
"The Ball Poem" is my favorite Berryman as well, tied with "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet." I have the book of that title, which contains both.
What about Anne Carson's work--obviously Autobiography of Red, but also her longer poems in Glass, Irony and God, or the poetic sequences in Plainwater?
Yes I always believed that there is a story behind every poem. Even those of the But I am fond of reading of easy poems as they get into head quite easily and you don’t have to use your brains.
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