Monday, March 4, 2013

The Long Poem

In conjunction with the Spring 2013 long-poem issue of the BPJ, we invited the six contributors to the issue to write short reflections on their poems and, if they liked, on the long poem in contemporary poetry.  Not surprisingly, these turned out to be as engaging and varied as the poems themselves.  We invite you to contribute your thoughts as well.

Margaree Little:  All Day Long

In a 2007 interview with blackbird, Ellen Bryant Voigt describes working on a poem that had “two elements in it [she] couldn’t reconcile.” “At an earlier time in my writing life,” Voigt says, “I would have divided that into two poems.” But in 1978, she tells the interviewer:

I was lucky enough to have a Guggenheim fellowship…I used the money for childcare and to finish off this…empty room over the garage…Because I had this grant, because I had this room, I had all day long.  And so I thought, I should just really see if I can get these two things in the same poem.

The poem was “Talking the Fire Out,” a sequence in six parts that appears in her 1983 book The Forces of Plenty. Voigt is careful to distinguish between the sequence as a form and other kinds of long poems, including poems in sections (“A poem in sections,” she says, “. . . is ongoing; it’s a single unit”).  Yet several aspects of Voigt’s remarks stand out to me as relevant to the writing of any long poem, and maybe to the writing of any kind of poem at all: she had, because of the money and the room, “all day long”; she had elements that resisted reconciliation.

I came to write “Thanksgiving,” which is part of a longer, book-length sequence, because I had a version (there must be many versions) of “all day long”—the ability to work part time, the structure of an MFA Program, freedom from family obligations.  And I had a variety of disparate images and narrative threads—of Arizona and of Maine, of childhood, of different kinds of relationships— that I thought might be more connected than they initially seemed, maybe by what seemed to me their shared quality of incompleteness.

The primary challenge for me in working on “Thanksgiving” was a problem of structure, or, as Voigt defines it in The Flexible Lyric, the order in which information is released to the reader.  I tried to use the narrative thread of the walk through the desert as a frame, hoping that this could provide a kind of grounding point from which the speaker could remember and imagine the other threads that are woven into the poem.     

Since I was trying, in part, to convey the ways the past can inflect and permeate the present, I wanted to find a structure that could make room for experience that is not exactly linear.  I am interested in how a long poem or a sequence can be used to suggest the ways in which we don’t always experience things one at a time, the ways different kinds of intimacy can bleed into each other, the ways memory happens even while you’re living the rest of your life. The long poem form isn’t the only way to account for this simultaneity, what Marianne Boruch has called “all-at-onceness,” but I think it might be one way. 

A. E. Stallings: Recitative

Poe famously observed that the phrase “long poem” is “a flat contradiction in terms.” Of course, if you go back into his essay, “The Poetic Principle,” it turns out he is talking about poems longer than a half hour. (Interesting that he thinks of poems in terms of performance length, not number of lines.) By that reckoning, my poem in the spring issue of the BPJ is only long-ish; although there was a time in the not too-distant past when I considered any poem of mine over twenty lines as “long.”

You can spin Poe’s argument in a slightly different way, though. What he means is that there is no such thing as a long lyric, and there I think I am with him. As my friend Turner Cassity used to say, the thing about long poems is you need recitatives as well as arias. Lyrics are arias, but a whole opera of nothing but would lack any emotional momentum.

While up till now I have written short lyrics (a tautology?) almost exclusively, I have always been fascinated with long poems and how they work. My graduate thesis was on Virgil’s Georgics (“the best poem by the best poet,” according to Dryden). That coincided with a fascination with the Aeneid, and via Virgil, I developed an interest in Lucretius, whose 7,000 line epic-didactic poem, De Rerum Natura, I translated in its entirety, publishing it with Penguin Classics under the name The Nature of Things. Long didactic poems are, in fact, my particular fascination. (I’m currently translating Hesiod’s Works and Days.)  I’d love to write one eventually.

I began to realize as I was translating Lucretius that the examples from the physical world the poet used to illustrate the atomic theory functioned the way epic similes do: they provided little lyric interludes, poems within poems, that suddenly opened windows from dry philosophy onto stormy seas, or colorful theaters, or starry reflections in rain puddles, or picnics in the countryside with friends. I compare this to epic similes because, likewise, epic similes provide interludes of, say, peaceful snow-scapes in the midst of bloody battles. A long poem partly means having a structure, a narrative, an argument, to hang these lyric moments from.

Herodotus says of his History that, “Digressions are part of my plan.” Digressions can be seen as part of the plan, and the pleasure, of a long poem.   

I have also always had a fascination with descents into the Underworld, from Homer to Dante and beyond, and narratives of this sort have found their way into my earliest work. But it was actually as I was perusing Ariosto and his marvelous section on the search for Orlando’s lost wits on the moon in the Valley of Lost Things, that I realized I could combine a number of different interests in one poem—Ariosto also suggested the ottava rima, though Byron is in the background too—the continual and frustrating search for lost objects that seems a big portion of motherhood, drifting into other, more metaphorical, “lost” things, and a descent into a didactic underworld with a guide, invoking one trope after another, although in this case the underworld was an overworld, or an otherworld.

Practically speaking, though, the decision to embark on a longer poem, and the ability to complete it, may have been encouraged by the renting of an office, the first “room of my own” I have had in twenty years, and the exhilarating and alien sensation of having entire hours of uninterrupted (being asked, say, to locate a missing Polly Pocket shoe) time in which to work.

Susan Tichy: A Shared Discourse

The modern long poem: a structure that includes both voice and pause, eye and ear, black ink but also the white spaces under and around it, what Mallarmé called “the surrounding silence.” Movement among movements. Transitions that require a long leap, or just an in-taken breath. A contest between amplitude and concision.

As a reader I am grateful for a wealth of variation, but my own work in long forms has been nearly synonymous with collage.

I mean collage in two senses. First, composition by quotation, creating a poem from its linguistic environment, and thereby demonstrating what its environment is. This origin in a shared discourse, from which the poem’s material identity never entirely separates, alters the claims of imagination away from metaphors of birth and creation, toward acts of perception and collection, which are, at least potentially, available to everyone. I first took this lesson from Marianne Moore, one of Modernism’s great democratizers. I am also fond of Gaston Bachelard’s famous bird’s nest, as metaphor for creativity: though the nest is particular to the species that builds it, its parts are gathered rather than birthed, they had other uses before the poem, and will one day return to the surrounding flux. Or, you might say, they arrive trailing other auras, other contexts, acting, as camouflage does, to confuse the categories AND and OR.

And second, collage as a method of juxtaposition, regardless of quotation or its absence, because (as James Longenbach has phrased it) this allows images to become a way of thinking, of creating abstraction, by allowing ideas to form metonymically in a reader’s mind. The reader’s freedom is part of the politics; it keeps the act of representation open—of special importance to me because so much of my writing is concerned with public events and political discourse, already over-determined and over-represented long before I put pen to paper.

My last two books—Bone Pagoda and Gallowglass—investigate representation/re-representation in relations among lyric, narrative, and documentary impulses. For a reader, I sought a doubled experience: one conventionally lyrical and one distractingly paratactic, a linguistic and historical environment from which the solo voice emerges and to which it returns. This simultaneity would not be achievable in short forms, at least not by me.

“That the Earth Is Not Only Supported by Their Strength but Fed by Their Ruin” has a different architecture, a persevering syntax arranging quotations along itself like beads on a steel string. As a visual/verbal form, mesostic is both arbitrary and organic, capable of infinite variation so long as its structure continues to be generated by or inscribed within the unfolding language. Though I’ve sucked Ruskin quotes into other poems, this form has seemed closest to an embodiment of what I cleave to in his thought. It requires careful seeing. And there is something melancholic, something of pity, in the fluctuations of lines left and right, long and short, all pinned to the unyielding axis of his name.

Dawn Potter: A Storytelling Urgency

“Mr. Kowalski” was ignited by, of all things, Wikipedia, after I stumbled across an entry for Henryk Kowalski, who had once been my violin teacher and who died when I was seventeen. I had not to this point written much about my upbringing as a serious and competitive child violinist, a regimen that controlled and defined me in ways that I usually avoid articulating. Moreover, for the past year or so, I had been writing almost nothing autobiographical but was immersing myself in a series of historical persona poems that required considerable research and self-separation. In the midst of this tidy project “Mr. Kowalski” attacked without warning, tossing everything else in my working life to the wolves. I wrote the first draft in four delusional days. It was like having the flu.

Writing a long poem makes me feel  supremely vulnerable: I’m the drunk in the aisle seat who can’t keep my mouth shut; I’m the obnoxious great-aunt with yet another blathery anecdote. These poems seems to leap from my split skull, a private headache suddenly transformed into an adversary—bossy, opinionated, bristling with weapons. Although all of my long poems have been stylistically different from one another, all have shared, in their composition, a storytelling urgency, as if some insatiable listener is prodding me, “And then what happened? And then what? And then what?”

In the case of “Mr. Kowalski,” the Wikipedia article apparently flipped a switch in my imagination, and all of a sudden a thousand disparate themes seemed to meld into a single tale. I do remember, as I was writing, that I suddenly said to myself, “So that’s how Henry James does it!” This feverish braggadocio is embarrassing to repeat in the cool light of not writing the poem, especially when I consider how much revision the piece eventually required. Yet recalling my Jamesian hallucination reminds me of how often I’ve contemplated the language, image, and storytelling links between narrative poets such as Coleridge, Chaucer, and Milton and twentieth-century novelists such as Bowen, Green, and Woolf. In poetry I’ve always been drawn to the old. But I find myself influenced just as much by these modern novelists, a conundrum that puzzles and intrigues me. I wonder if other writers of long poems also glimpse a similar hybridized parentage. Perhaps part of the impetus behind certain contemporary long poems might be the need to wrestle with prose’s ubiquitous presence in our everyday lives while also reclaiming poetry’s ancient role as a teller of stories.

Philip Metres: Serial Narrative

As long as I’ve been reading poetry, I’ve been intrigued with poetry that sprawls, poetry that spills over the lyric urn and the taut design of a single page, into the wilderness. Was it with the rise of the novel, that the sense arose that narrative had fled to richer pastures,  hence no more Iliads, Odysseys, Divine Comedies, Paradises Lost?  Or was it with the institutionalization of verse that the lyric in isolation was established as the measurable unit of the poem, hence fewer Preludes, Waste Lands, Cantos, Books of the Dead

Two thoughts, then, to open a space for the “long poem.” First, might narrative not be still a viable matrix through which to birth poetry? This will not appeal to hip experimentalists, for whom narrative is something like last year’s model. Yet the narrative impulse keeps returning to poetry, an instinctive migration. Doubtless, new technologies of fiction and film produce narrative in enormously compelling ways, but I and other poets aren’t willing to cede one of the great primal powers of language just because other modes do it well. Poetry has often played a critical role as a medium of the subaltern. One thinks of Sappho’s forbidden love, Whitman’s Song (“through me many long dumb voices . . .”), Rukeyser’s voices of miners, Neruda’s Canto General, Walcott’s Omeros, Darwish’s epic laments for Palestine, Rich’s Atlas of the Difficult World, Nowak’s documentary and social poetics, among many others. There are still stories that need telling in poetry, which will always tell them in its own way.

The second thought: the modern mechanism of seriality, visible in all the arts (musical, visual, linguistic), has created a mechanism for adapting the voice of the single instrument to a wider orchestral interpretation. In the serial poem, not story per se but repetitions, motifs, and various formal devices become the way to sustain the dreamsound of the poem. 

Of course, it appears that every poet (myself included) now has a “project”—not poems, but a project. We’ve moved from “poet as shaman” to “poet as project manager,” as befits the professionalization of poetry. There are gains and losses to every social development, I suppose. The important thing remains the language. The point is to find the means to fall into the seethe of language, to create language events worthy of falling into, ears over heels.    

“A Concordance of Leaves” began as a notebook written during my sister’s wedding in a small village in Palestine. Last summer, a full seven years after the fact, I suddenly found myself able to write about that mythic and surreal and eye-opening and lovely couple of weeks. Once I found a form (ten-line poems in couplets, employing slashes as a kind of unit of sub-measure), the words began to slide like iron filings toward the magnetic attraction. The poem draws in and upon fact and a little fiction, YouTube video and citation, but it’s finally an epithalamium, a wish for blessed union. I’m grateful that Diode Editions will be releasing the full-length version as a chapbook in March.

Bruce Bond: Friending the Absence

I am not on Facebook myself, reluctant as I am to steal time from other things, but I am not immune to the hunt for old friends on the internet, to see what has become of the faces, if the ones I knew are in there somewhere, buried as mine is in the one I wear.

I love the web, and yes, I recognize it articulates something quite ancient, biological even—that is, an ambivalence about boundaries, the longing to be connected and yet free to move about, to see and be seen though not necessarily at the same time.  But beyond the internet’s voyeuristic and exhibitionist allure, it also figures as an endless repository for culture, for history conceived as ravenous for the marginal and diverse.  It is a world library so unfathomable, its occupies a space in us akin to an ocean—what we surf—or a noosphere, a god, a totality that remains invisible as such, a kind of heaven before which we argue some case or other, into which we upload our spirits.  No doubt this thing, this monster, this nervous system with a billion eyes, conjures archetypes of fathers and mothers, holy or otherwise, who spy the tiny dots of our lives and somehow connect them.  So yes, the web empowers us—through it we enjoy Mercury’s sense of alacrity and access—but so too it makes us small.  It is the new face of the sublime, made as it is of numberless faces, so that what we search-engines know of infinity is an infinite desire to know. 

I wrote this poem upon hearing about a friend who took a certain pride in racking up a high friendship rating on Facebook while not caring much about a good number of the so-called friends.  Thus my allusion to Dickinson’s poem where “The soul selects her own society,” or later, where the soul closes “the valves of her attention/ Like stone.”  I love the word “valves” as an evocation of both eyelids and heart-valves, how it makes corporeal a hard truth about devotion as a selective activity in the social sphere.  While the web has no doubt had its effect on the human brain, we are kidding ourselves if we think our hearts, let alone our brains, have developed new, unprecedented multitasking powers.  What is our limit in terms of emails or Facebook comments that we can reasonably give our full attention?  What can we manage that warrants a friend’s reply?  Obviously there is something delusional and narcissistic in cultivating the appearance of a vast social sphere that does not claim something equally vast from us.  If the measure of our love has something to do with what we are willing to sacrifice, then friendship implies some measure of difficulty that the voyeuristic dynamic, the “screening” of the world, cannot model. 


  1. A subject dear to my heart-- in wrapping up the MFA many years after beginning it and dealing with a thesis anchored by several long poems, I am struck by how they depend on momentum/impulsion--the urgency Dawn Potter writes of here: "Writing a long poem makes me feel supremely vulnerable: I’m the drunk in the aisle seat who can’t keep my mouth shut; I’m the obnoxious great-aunt with yet another blathery anecdote. These poems seems to leap from my split skull, a private headache suddenly transformed into an adversary—bossy, opinionated, bristling with weapons. Although all of my long poems have been stylistically different from one another, all have shared, in their composition, a storytelling urgency, as if some insatiable listener is prodding me, “And then what happened? And then what? And then what?”

    I think of the long poem's structure as the lattice in the garden, where we must train the flowers to crawl their way up, opening detailed blooms as they travel. Another way to put it; each stanza must be as rich and strong as the next-- no weak links. I have a long poem I once submitted to this journal,Braggadocio in Calabria, written after I became aware that a branch of the Cosa Nostra was entrenched in the region of Italy I had romanticized, having been there in my early twenties; I wanted to convey the desecration of the very place inspiring the Odyssey, how Homer's heart would break, to have the heartbreak take place within the poem. I used the vehicle of speaker traveling with him. In fact, my most successful long poems seem to be about a journey of one kind or another. Certainly story is paramount and yet,in my view, and because we are indeed writing poetry rather than prose, the language should still be exquisite, powerful, with rythm, cadence very present. A daunting task, to write a good long poem that in turn casts a long shadow. A fascinating discussion! x

  2. Thanks for writing, Jen. I'm struck by the overlaps among the way we write about what are all very different poems: what Margaree says about working to reconcile elements that can't reconciled especially struck me--a kind of grit or dissonance that keeps driving us on, perhaps?

  3. Yes, the grit and the dissonance that is never more grueling or compelling than in our own personal lives. Isn't that why narrative is still so alive and well in poetry today even when our critical principles are so set against it? Isn't that why, like Odysseus, we still spend 10 full years getting home just to spend an even longer time getting from there to goodness-knows-where with our oar so far from the sea it's eventually mistaken for a winnowing fan?

    Isn't that why Robert Frost is still so compelling, or Edna St Vincent Millay, or even poets as dissimilar as Louise Glück and Jean Valentine? With the former we're always voyeurs, in a sense, so drawn to the courage of such a beautiful and sensitive women who would grapple so relentlessly in every single poem she writes with her own agonizing imbalances -- or with the latter who never gives us any clues about herself at all but we just know we're really onto something, and of course fall a little in love with her too?

    Whereas as much as we love and admire John Ashbery and Rae Armantrout we just aren't buddies -- and we wouldn't look forward to a long "grit and dissonance" poem by either because the thrill of being nowhere would be lost in the struggle to stay focussed. I mean, would it make any sense to shoulder on once we'd lost the thread 3 times on page 1, or succumbed to the smoke and mirrors?

    The poets I most enjoy reading are the ones that help me most with my own contradictions -- indeed it's almost as if such a poet's whole oeuvre is a single long poem.

    Which is one of the reasons I always enjoy reading Dawn Potter who writes poems between chores in the Maine woods and with her breath always a bit visible. At least that's how I see her, and I'm so glad such poets are there to provide more, not entertainment but grist.

    Christopher Woodman

    1. Beautifully put-- I loved your phrase "the thrill of being nowhere"-- ! j

    2. Thanks to you too, Jen -- I was trying to say that in a way that didn't show my prejudices, and as that phrase came up, "the thrill of being nowhere," I understood better why I do love John Ashbery even though I don't regard him as a "buddy" in the way I regard Louise Glück as a buddy, or Dawn Potter -- and of course I don't know any of them personally, even Dawn Potter.

      I think the word "buddy" is a mining term -- in the coal-black darkness you need to have somebody who is responsible for you even as you are responsible for them. Or perhaps from the trenches, or on the beat.

      The poets I'd die for are the poets I feel are dying for me.


  4. Hi, Christopher! My breath is certainly still visible during chores, for another month at least.

    Quoting Alicia here: "the thing about long poems is you need recitatives as well as arias. Lyrics are arias, but a whole opera of nothing but would lack any emotional momentum." I love this comparison, which makes so much sense to me as way of thinking about how to construct poetic narrative. Maybe this is also case in the novels of writers such as Woolf, Bowen,and Green. I'll have to think more about this idea. . . .

  5. I have often told students that the problem with the sestina (of which I have written about one and a half) has very little to do with the repetends. It is the length. 39 lines is a longish poem. Too long for the pure lyric, it needs something else to keep it moving, and that engine is often narrative. I have also noticed that the few sestinas I genuinely admire (as Seamus Heaney's Two Lorries, or Hecht's "Book of Yolek") tend to vibrate with a juxtaposition--of two times or places or subjects or all of the above. Which fits in very much with the idea of attempts to reconcile the unreconcileable. The problems of the sestina, I realize more and more, are Long Poem problems, even if the form itself is just right on the threshhold. A bit of a digression, but I thought I'd throw it in for what it is worth!

  6. This is a terrific discussion, and I am honored to be included, though my particular contribution to this issue was not terribly long. That said, it does deploy strategies similar to those I use in my longer works, strategies already discussed by these other terrific writers on the blog: most notably collage and narrative. Like Alicia, I too have used the opera analogy of arias and recitatives when talking about longer works. My friend and colleague Pete Fairchild is a great example of someone who, like Alicia, excels at lyric forms and wrote a good number of shorter poems, many in a popular hybrid genre you might call a narrative lyric, before writing highly successful longer poems. What these writers understand is that poems, especially as we conceive them since the printed page, refresh us by virtue of the quality of attention shaped, intensified, and nourished by the line. As such, they make us slow down. The relish and awareness born of the line summon us to see more, expect more, with each line as a thing that matters somehow, that is at least curious if not beautiful, that deserves and makes meaningful its beginning, middle, and end.

    Thus it is pretty common to associate the lyric impulse with vertical time, the narrative (largely understood to include the unfolding of ideas) with horizontal--and poems thrive via the animating tension between the two. In a way that the line makes conspicuous, a poet's medium is time--like a stand-up comedian or a musician. The tendency in a lot of long narrative poems is that we fall through the foregrounding of language and its lyric potential into the world of characters and narrative action, into concerns more obviously associated with prose. I guess it is a matter of taste, but I feel trapped in poems that feel merely narrative in the obvious way. I think the lyric possibility of language expresses another instinct, the desire to stop and dwell, to look deeply, to feel some of the more confining literal elements of narrative order loosening their grip, allowing for a deepened appreciation of their significance. The pressure of necessity that makes a line a line feels wedded at least in part to this lyric potential in language. The lyric instinct craves an escape from the tyranny of linear time.

    Thus the aria and recitative notion of Alicia's--so hugely important--allows for each impulse to feel the other, to make welcome the difference, and to express our twin instincts toward a narrative ordering of experience (fundamental to the way we make meaning and shape identity) and a kind of generosity via meaningful rebellion and reflection. Yes, it's trendy to rail against narrative. Equally trendy maybe in other quarters to become dogmatic about narrative as somehow more emotionally grounded or humane than its opposite. Or perhaps that debate is getting a little old by now. When I look at great long poems, I see an enormous variety in terms of the amount of narrative that they include. I find it particularly liberating and challenging to begin with a meditative impulse that is then refreshed, surprised, and made immediate by narrative, and then the meditative move that follows can feel equally necessary and refreshing. However one begins, one way to conceive a poem is to never stray too far from either impulse, to resist dogma and complacency, to see narrative as revelatory, mediation as grounded. As the long distance runner knows, it helps to breathe.

  7. I am also glad to be included in this discussion. I'm wondering about the comment about Glück and Valentine and Ashbery, and trying to think about it in light of the poems in this issue. One thing that struck me about these poems was how each, in a very different way, provided some kind of structure so that as a reader I felt I could more fully experience the variation from that structure.

    I wonder if in talking about long poems we are partly talking about how to mediate the relationship between pattern and variation, both of which must be necessary for some kind of sustained engagement. These comments stand out to me as related, maybe:

    "A long poem partly means having a structure, a narrative, an argument, to hang these lyric moments from" (A.E. Stallings);

    "A contest between amplitude and concision" (Tichy);

    "A mechanism for adapting the voice of the single instrument to a wider orchestral interpretation" (Metres).

  8. I just wanted to add that I found this BPJ issue (which my daughter Adele refers to as "Butter Peanut Jelly" magazine) compulsively readable, much more than a typical issue of poems; the credit goes to the authors, certainly, but also to the way in which good long poems satisfy the need to be held longer in their fluid suspension.

  9. As usual I'm impatient -- and as usual like a fool I'll keep trying.

    Which is one of the most positive aspects of the melancholic temperament, isn’t it, that as dead and buried as most poets feel we still manage to lift up our heads and sprout on occasion? It’s as if we put together some sort of support system for ourselves in our writing, almost as if we create our own seasons and, by so doing, shift our deepest winter toward a spring full of flowers, even if they're sad ones like violets. And by so doing we can still write even if winter is bound to follow, even if we're sure we can never get through it this time ever again.

    Structures in our work can do that for us, I think this BPJ issue shows -- painstaking research that leads to a Mr Kowalski, for example, so many painful ambiguities to keep up with, or a demanding metrical form that, like dub-step or crochet, is almost impossible to master so we have to keep on doing it again and again to be sure we’re there. Or coming to terms with an interminable, soul-destroying social conflict by placing a marriage in the midst of it and then celebrating that marriage over and over again in spite of the impossibility of security for our children.

    The poets I like best are all survivors -- I've already mentioned a few. And what is so important for me about them is that whenever I get the chance to read another one of their poems they're still on the same page, so to speak, and by still being there they help me not only to know where I am but move me along a bit further. As if all that they write is just one single long poem still going, and I survive by keep on reading that poem on and on.

    Which is how Philip Metres introduces his long poem "on the occasion of [his] sister’s wedding in Toura, Palestine."

    as if I could not sing
    except when you sing
    —Pablo Neruda

  10. "Digressions are part of my plan" seems to be one of the secrets of narrative--how to hold off the inevitable end? Poetry certainly thrives on digressiveness, if we consider all verses and voltas and leaps kinds of digression. The long poem, perhaps, is the canonization of digression. And Chris's comment--that we love poems for our ability to return to their solidity and mystery--suggests that our lived digressions away from the page makes us hungry to return to it. A writer's wish: to create such a home in language worth returning to.

  11. The "canonization of digression"--oh, Philip, I love that phrase.

  12. Thanks! The muse of digression awoke me too late this night, too early this morning--

  13. Philip,
    With all due respect, your comment on what I said is hard for me to follow, but then perhaps it was inspired by your muse of digression -- i.e. what you said about what I said was what I might have said had I been saying something else. On the other hand, I like your idea that a writer's wish is to create poems that are like homes worth returning to, and by extension that writers we like welcome us into their homes too, as if we were part of their families.

    I could go a long way on that one, because I so rarely feel at home in the poetry I find in front of me today. Of course family values vary enormously from culture to culture, and it's our family values as poets which determine what our U.S. poetry-homes are like, and how we live in them -- I think most of you would hate to live in the homes my neighbors live in in Thailand, for example. Because where I live people dislike rooms of their own, basically, feeling it's frightening as well as unhealthy to be alone, ever. That's one of the major obstacles that teachers face in trying to cultivate a taste for reading in South East Asia, for example, as your head in a book looks as if you're turning your back on others, and that’s the worst thing you can do in this culture. We in the West, on the other hand, have gone so far in the opposite direction that we assume a room of one's own is a fundamental human right, and that parents who don't provide it are stunting the growth of their children!

    And we end up with poetry with the door shut, so to speak, as if difficulty were a virtue, accessibility ‘undeveloped.’

    So, Philip, if I like a poem that I write I return to it over and over again as if it were my home, reading it out loud to myself over and over again for days. And for that reason I'm never satisfied with a poem unless every word that it speaks does its very best to be honest and clear even when the topic is way over my head, or the water so deep I'm drowning – even if I hate what it says, or hate myself for saying it, or can’t believe I could be so crude, so dense, or, not infrequently, so superior!

    I love poets that I feel are trying their best to do that for me too, that the door is as open as they can possibly make it even if the interior is an abattoir (thank you, Patrick Whitfield!).

    I feel really cheated when I feel I have to squeeze in to enter a poem what is more when I have the sense that the door has been deliberately locked.


  14. Christopher, I like your extension of the "home" conceit, particularly regarding the entry and the door. Poems as Baba Yaga's hut; on the outside they seem small, but inside...

  15. "Patrick Whitfill," I meant. Please forgive me.

    And Baba Yaga's hut, of course, Philip.

    Some of the largest rooms I've ever entered have been inhabited by illiterates as cramped and smelly as Crazy Jane, or by refined and superliterate big-people who choose to inhabit super-small spaces, like upstairs-bedrooms in Amherst.

    (Is each Fascicle a Long Poem?)


  16. Seems what Frost is honoring with his image of the poem as a piece of ice on a hot stove is precisely the path of the unpredictable--one way to think of digression, not as a departure from some feeling of necessity, but as the more satisfying fulfillment of some spontaneously unfolding. So I get what Philip is saying by digression which might also be seen as moving the poem toward something less obviously and more meaningfully central. The danger of much narrative can be that it stifles what is possible in surprising us with its priorities, its appetite for the unfamiliar as no less essential challenging us in some magnanimous way, making us larger, more surprising to ourselves. Yes, the poem as a home, a new habitation, no mere exclusionary device. But also the poem as a place where something might happen mercifully that we do not completely understand, where we nonetheless feel the pull of the necessary. Those are the poems I come back to, the ones that I feel strongly enough about that I could dream of them that evening, the ones that make me feel like a traveler again.

  17. I think what Frost is saying when he says a poem is like a piece of ice on a hot stove (a range, in other words) is that even in its very first version it has a vitality all of its own. The poem may not yet be fully realized, it may be bare, truncated, a bit boring, mute even, but every time we go back to it it still sizzles away on the hot plate like a demon, zapping in this direction and that with an energy all of its own that mocks our efforts to wrestle it down and fix it – like a butterfly not on a pin.

    An unpublished poem takes us by the throat, so to speak, demands to be seen and heard and mastered even if its movements are awkward and directionless. And if we hang in there it will truly amaze us. What it can do! How it can change our lives!

    Just as a poet has to live with what gets published, however dated or inadequate -- he grows with what doesn't. I think that’s what Frost meant.


  18. Did I stop this thread? And what a cruel irony if I did, I write with such an open hand and with so much hope.

    For is there any Forum like this? Of course there are busier places, but who wants all that grunting, the top-shot workshop aerobics, the frantic pace, the rivalry? And look at the freshness and diversity of what we’re offered here each month, and the quality of the responses not to speak of the caliber of the participants.

    But why so little? Why just the trial balloons that pop up from time to time and then blink out? Who’s afraid, and of what?


    To be honest, I don’t find the present topic as engaging as usual, or the poems as encouraging. None of them grab me totally, and, with the exception of “Mr Kowalski,” I haven’t read any of them more than once (I’ve read “Mr Kowalski” three times at least, and that in spite of the awful sense of loss and worshipful longing it’s steeped in. I mean taking refuge in all that manure?)

    That’s a joke, sort of – in fact I love it. As a child I also loved walking in cowpats barefoot, and still garden with my bare hands. Kii wua is the best where I live, buffalo dung, fairly fresh -- lotuses like it best mixed with the sewage sludge I dig up from the bottom of our irrigation canal. I also write long poems, and they don’t sound like any of these except “Mr Kowalski,” a bit. In relation to the rest none of us are familiar, not on speaking terms, perhaps from the other side of the tracks even, or the altar.

    But isn’t that what forums are there for, to get through this sort of neighborhood stuff?


  19. I apologize for being absent for so long. My son was in the hospital for 5 days with an acute infection. He is on the mend now, but we were walking a line I never want to walk again. I will work to reimmerse myself in this conversation and, I hope, have something cogent to contribute. In the meantime, thank you, Christopher, for caring about "Mr. Kowalski." One of the shocks about the long poem is finding a reader who reads it all the way to the end. That comment might sound flippant, but it's not meant to at all. Simply, it demands attention and patience and sometimes even forgiveness, and those qualities, for all of us, can be hard to muster.

  20. An apology for dropping the ball, and thanks for Christopher for putting it back into play. Nothing so dramatic as Dawn's absence (am so glad your son is on the mend! Yikes!)--but my husband has been in Cyprus covering the crisis, and I've been, well, sort of immersed in the real world the poem wakes up into.

    I agree about the gratitude one has for finding a reader (or editor or journal!) who will read a long poem to the end. I'm kind of curious--if I may ask my fellow long-poets--what their experience has been with long poems in readings. Do you ever read them at readings? Excerpt them? What is the audience's reaction?

  21. "...sort of immersed in the real world the poem wakes up into. "

    Thanks for that, Alicia, and blessings on the boy for seeing us all through to what really matters, and his mother for being there -- which no one should ever take for granted -- and for whoever looked after the animals while she was away, and the editors who make it possible for us all to say such things to each other even when we're so many miles away, and so confused about almost everything else, including about each other and the language we use to say what we mean.


  22. Chris' instigations made me think about the fact nearly everything I read I read only once; that doesn't mean that the work didn't mean anything to me, just that I moved on. It is a rare piece that has me going back to it, and sometimes it's not because I loved it, but because it perplexed, annoyed, or worked on me.

    As for the question of whether/how one reads long poems in readings--I was initially averse to reading more than a couple pieces of *abu ghraib arias* (and "A Concordance of Leaves*, which is new enough not to have been read more than once), but then I decided to make it its own event, its own performance. And because that poem is polyvocal, I've invited others to read it with me. It's been an absolute blast. You have to trust that the audience will stay with you, you have to trust the poem is good enough--and each of these trusts is hard to come by! But Alicia, go for it. Your poem would be a great centerpiece to a reading.

  23. Hello all. Sorry to have been silent--I had three essays to write by mid-March, all while dealing with a water-damaged flat that took six weeks to get fixed... I am now infused with new-found gratitude for ordinary surroundings.

    For me, the only thing unusual about the poem included in this collection is its form. Long poems and sequences are my norm--I can only write a one-page poem by trying to. Some of my best friends are minimalists (really), but my mind works best in large fields of association. My ear longs for a long echo, and I enjoy looping backwards and forwards, spiraling onward through duration.

    The only problem that arises at readings is time: if I'm sharing a program with others, sometimes I have to choose just a single long poem to read, and that's hard.

    As a listener, I often enjoy long poems the most, whether read whole or by sampling from a book-length work. Among the most memorable readings I've had the joy of attending were total-immersion experiences like Susan Howe reading "Melville's Marginalia" (passionately, in case you're wondering), Harryette Mullen reading from _Muse & Drudge_, Myung Mi Kim reading from _Commons_, Julie Carr reading from _100 Notes on Violence_, and my colleague Sally Keith reading the long poems in her new book, _The Fact of the Matter_ (whose titles I can't quote b/c I loaned out the book). I love sinking into the poet's voice and language, into the narrative(s) or the play of metonymies and jump-cuts, the formal echoes and returns in long suspension, and then the resolution. It actually annoys me to have my attention jerked in and out of a series of short poems, unless they are close kin to one another (and the poet doesn't prattle too much between them). I prefer to read short poems on the page, where/when I can linger with each one for as long as I like.

    Many of the readings I mentioned above took place in front of largely student audiences, and never were they restless or impatient. So though it's a matter of taste, and patience, it's nothing that requires initiation--only attention. When Harryette finished, an undergrad immediately raised his hand and blurted out, in a tone of wonder and joy: "How do you DO that?"

    Don't underestimate your audience, Alicia. Give them joy in large measure.

  24. A few considerations in response to Dawn, Alicia, Philip and Susan, and anybody else still in the loop:

    Poetry is very old, probably older than just about anything, and extremely important to human development. When it started getting written down, which was not very long ago, it’s purpose was inevitably compromised because it didn’t have to be memorized anymore, what is more appreciated by anybody in order to exist. Since then, if the midden, the cave, the library shelf, or the filing cabinet survives, the poetry in it survives too – but that survival doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with its value to anybody else but the department, family, or local antiquarian. Indeed all poetry that’s written down is just marks until it’s read -- on a clay tablet, block of wood, piece of skin or grass, or even on a piece of paper. And once that poetry starts getting printed, a phenomenon which started just a few 100 years ago, don’t forget, what then? What percentage of the poetry that’s printed in America today is read, do you think, and I mean read by those who have been to school and know how to read -- which would have excluded almost everybody in the hey day of China, Bengal or Florence.

    Has there ever been a culture that has produced so much poetry that was read by so few of its readers, even by those specialists for whom it was specifically intended?

    Or produced poets who would go to the trouble of writing long poems without knowing why, as you all more or less admit? Or poets who would worry that potential readers with their long poems in front of them might not actually read them, or that the audience at a reading of long poems might not be interested enough to listen, even if they were students who were presumably taking courses at the same college in poetry, or were interested in becoming poets themselves, or maybe even teachers of poetry?

    And I’m not being “flippant,” as Dawn says. I’m a poet too, I write poems almost all of which nobody reads, including my long ones. I know the deadening silence out there very well that dismisses whatever my poetry is specifically steeped in whether length or just plain longing. Yet I persist.

    What’s in it for me, then? And what’s in it for you?

    Be honest – if it’s because you’re in a profession that requires you to produce a certain amount of poetry in order to finish your course or keep your job, admit that before you go on to the deeper levels of the question. If you’ve dealt with that you might consider, why am I writing this “long poem” – which is what we’re talking about right now? To what end, specifically?

    You’re all fine poets otherwise you wouldn’t have made it into the BPJ. And as I get to know your long poems on this Forum better I’m coming to appreciate them more and more, and now I can even say I’ve read three of them all the way through two times or more.

    Just as I came around to G.C.Waldrep’s “On the Wilder Shores of Love,” which I’ve now read goodness knows how many times, much to my amazement (and I mean amazement!).


  25. Thanks, Christopher, for your comment which cuts to the core of something very fundamental and, as usual, has an honest spirit to it. Moreover you are a rare and generous reader to spend such time with other people's work.

    The question as to why write a long poem seems to carry us to the larger questions of audience and why we write at all. No doubt we all long for readers to take us in, to spend time with the concerns that consume us when we write. We want to be useful. The long poem challenges us in our day to day existence as professionals. Given that, I often marvel at the Chartres cathedral with its layers of unsigned craftsmanship to took shape over generations. Clearly these artists were putting something into the culture, so there was the gratification of that energy going somewhere, but the motive had little to do with the glorification of individual persona. We tend to be conditioned in our age to take authorial career and persona seriously, though the work of the poem itself returns us to a different set of priorities. The fact remains, the anonymous artists at Chartres did indeed feel useful. So your question about the unpublishable nature of the long poem addresses a widespread and larger contemporary melancholy related to two issues: under-recognition and futility.

    Why write? For me, in spite of all my shadowy greed and pride and whatever, I write for a process I love--what it has to teach me, how it might transform me--and for the joy of making, of bringing something new into the world in a way that reshapes that world and why it matters. A long poem involves the spell of a deep abiding commitment. Publication or non-publication does not indicate much in terms of the fundamental value of such a commitment for me. Reputation and publication create reception cultures of appreciation and backlash, but one has only so much time before time is up, and there is another poem calling out in its own terms, long or short, because existence calls out in the same way.

    I imagine you have left your room, having written a long poem, and then seen the world quite differently after that, such that the process has given you this tremendous gift and that gift could touch a thousand details of one day and the next. If that poem goes out into the culture and touches a thousand lives, well, doubtless, that feels great. But there is only so much we can control or expect to control. Always the question for me in a poem is, what is the author's gift to the reader. A long poem is potentially a great gift. Is it a gift line by line? Possibly. I imagine we all leave gifts out in hopes someone will take them. I want all writers to have this experience of someone taking up their gift. But it is only a gift if we expect nothing in return. I suppose you guys all know this of course, but Christopher's question is a good one in that it highlights the larger question of how persona-driven concerns shape and potentially inhibit our process.

  26. "A long poem is potentially a great gift." Those are words to hold on to, Bruce. As a non-academic who lives in a very rural, very conservative, very inimicable-to-art town, I do not read poems to my neighbors. Yet I write poems for them. Why do I assume that they would not accept those poems as "potentially a great gift"? Poetry as conversation interests me extremely, yet shyness is also part of conversation, as is silence. Perhaps a long poem, with its sighs and digressions, is also a way of working out that shyness and silence. The question of a listening audience, however, still worries me. I pick and choose who might be willing to receive the imposition of a poem. That may be a disservice to the poem and probably also to the audience. Are others of you self-conscious about such things?

  27. "Yet I write poems for them," as opposed to writing poems for her colleagues or her handlers or her reputation or career or more colleagues -- or posterity even. That’s what Dawn says.

    I myself am still trapped in the assumption that my gift has got to be unwrapped if it is to be ticked off as "received.” Yet I live in a world where nobody understands what I'm doing upstairs in my office alone from 6am in the morning until early afternoon, while it's cool in the tropics, in other words, and even my Thai wife, who left school at 11 yet is 10 times more intelligent than I am, assumes that I'm playing computer games up there when what I'm really doing is the intolerable wrestle with words -- putting my life on the line in words, in other words, including for her. Like Dawn does between chores in Maine despite her neighbors ugly self-absorption in what they’re so sure they know is right.

    Occasionally I’m asked for a poem around our multi-ethnic, multi-lingual table here in Chiang Mai, but I only accede maybe once in 5 times, and still I regret it most of the time. "The imposition of a poem," as Dawn says, indeed -- most of the time, if I’m good, if I’m true, I manage to remain self-consciously even if regretfully, conflictedly silent.

    And then I send the poem off instead to some editor in America I really respect and I’m told it’s too steeped in loss and worshipful longing, as if that were some sort of warped, old-fashioned, down-east fundamentalism too.

    I say show me any poet that doesn’t start from loss and worshipful longing and I’ll show you Billy Collins. And I love Billy Collins, a truly great and original voice in our age, indeed the exception that proves the rule. Like Norman Rockwell, a very great painter too who will emerge from the 20th century right up there with Pablo Picasso. Or Edward Hopper, or Sam Watterson.

    At the opposite extreme to what that “worshipful longing” censor assumes about me also find John Ashbery -- whose poetry has no axes to grind or guilt to redeem. Divine neurasthenia in perfect, contemporary, my-o classic form. Great too, but not Robert Frost or ------------. (Don’t get me started!)

    Thanks, Dawn – you take it to precisely where it ought to be at.


  28. So here's a story about rural living and a long poem, and neighbors.

    I have a cabin in Colorado, in a very small town, and back when my husband and I first built it, in the 80s, we lived there full time, sans phone, electricity, plumbing, etc. The county had around 1300 residents, spread out over 740 square miles, and one town worthy of the name. So we all pretty much knew each other, at least by sight, though not everyone was willing to speak to everyone else. Valley natives were especially unsure they wanted to speak to incomers like us.

    Our sheriffs are elected, and one year we had a particularly amusing election season. So I wrote a long poem in the voice of the incumbent, our aging, old-fashioned, untrained, and not very competent sheriff. It was sympathetic to old valley ways vs. incomer ways, but also included some close paraphrases of some of the sheriff's unintentionally funny election ads and letters to the local paper. I published the poem out yonder in the poetry world, far from neighbors...but then it wound up in an anthology of Colorado poems...which wound up in a lot of school libraries. I had just heard that our school had it and some people had noticed the poem, and just had time to start worrying, when I heard something worse.

    Some crazy poet person from "down below" (that is, not from the mountains) showed up in town looking for me...and wanting to meet the sheriff, as well. He didn't find me, b/c I lived way out of town with no phone, etc., but someone directed him to the sheriff's house. The sheriff wasn't home--lucky for me (his other job was delivering milk)--but his wife was home. So the crazy poet person stood on the back steps of their house and read the whole poem to her.

    At least that's how I heard the story, which passed through several mouths before it reached my ear.

    For a while I skulked around town like a ten-most-wanted, but one day I ran into him while he was stocking the milk cooler in the grocery store. He nodded and said hello. And I did the same. And we continued to nod and say hello right up to his death, a couple of years ago. Neither he nor his wife ever mentioned the poem to me, or to my husband.

    So, whaddaya think? Did he like the poem? Did he like the idea of starring in a poem that was right there in the school library? Or was he afraid if he wasn't nice to me I'd write a mean poem about him? I'm still taking votes, because nobody knows.

    1. I think the fact that he didn't ride you out of town on a rail, or even scowl at you, proves he was secretly placated. But by what? By his 15 minutes of fame, perhaps, or by his ability to forgive you, or to forgive himself maybe even, which would really be something?

      In any case, a most wonderful long-poem story, and so full of hope. The proof of the pudding of what Dawn said.

      (Do you think anyone will draw the sheriff’s attention to this thread? Just in case they do I want to put in the record how much I admire him.)

    2. I should have said drawn his wife's attention to this thread, who almost certainly helped him with whatever adjustment he had to make.

      How we all need such help when our reputations are at stake, particularly as leaders in a community faced with strangers who just don't fit in.

  29. Thanks everyone for sharing your insights, questions, and stories—there are so many compelling threads running through the comments. I've found the discussion about "elements that resist reconciliation" and how they may serve as "a kind of grit or dissonance that keeps driving us on" to be particularly illuminating. It seems like the appeal of the long poem is also one of its challenges--more space both permits and demands a more complicated engagement with language and experience, and one of the pleasures of this BPJ issue is the variety of formal approaches to sustaining longer works. For instance, I found the sense of free association yet inevitability in the lineated sections and their interplay with the prose portions of "Thanksgiving" to be quite moving, and I’m glad that Margaree retained both elements instead of splitting them off into different poems.

    I'd love to hear even more about how all the poets came to make their formal choices, and whether the process of discovering these forms differed materially from when writing shorter poems. I also noticed that both Marjaree and Alicia mentioned the importance of having physical and temporal space to embark on writing long poems, and I wondered what other kinds of conditions (physical, intellectual, emotional, etc.) encourage or hinder the process.

    1. Ah, apologies for misspelling Margaree in my second paragraph.

  30. Hyejung, for me it was accidental discovery that 10 lines in couplets (for whatever reason) provided enough pressure to cut off/restrain the narrative impulse--

  31. Way back at the beginning of this discussion (March 11th), Margaree Little responded to something I said about three poets that she calls Glück, Valentine and Ashbery. I personally have difficulty calling those three poets by just their last names, as I do any poet that I love for that matter, and certainly one that’s still living. “Ashbery” is the easiest to shorten because, great poet that he is, he’s so little present as a person in his poetry. One doesn’t read Ashbery to find out how John Ashbery is coping with loss, for example, or the riddles of worship, but rather for the delight in how he can so decorously and with such total wit yet detachment say whatever he happens to be diddling with under his breath in his most recent masterpiece about nothing.

    The gist of what Margaree Little says lies in the list of quotes she includes (and notice who gets to keep her whole name – more anon!):

    "A long poem partly means having a structure, a narrative, an argument, to hang these lyric moments from" (A.E. Stallings);

    "A contest between amplitude and concision" (Tichy);

    "A mechanism for adapting the voice of the single instrument to a wider orchestral interpretation" (Metres).

    These are all wonderful quotes, but none of them say anything about what “Lost and Found,” or “ That the Earth Is Not Only Supported by Their Strength but Fed by Their Ruin,” or “On the occasion of my sister’s wedding in Toura, Palestine” are actually about. Because these poems are about many things, not just about being written. And they're not just about being well-written either, not just about their skillful structures or critical principles – indeed, they’re not about "long poems" as such at all! Yet in this whole discussion there has been no mention of anything else they might be about, or gift they might have given to a reader who has taken the time to read them through more than once and wants to know what they have for him or her, and I mean personally.


    Just one little step in the direction I’d love to see some of this discussion go. It’s about “Lost and Found,” which I’ve come to know quite well and which is not only delighting me as much as any John Ashbery diddle but, in addition to its own particularly slick and funny finesse, is deepening my life! And what a wonder that it should have been by “Alicia Stallings,” of all people – I’ve known the poet A.E.Stallings for years but I never realized she was a woman (do you remember that moment in “Orlando?” -- “Shel, you’re a woman!” I think it goes?)

    The ottava rima is such a delight, and I can’t imagine how Alicia Stallings manages to keep it going for so long with never a forced moment or lurch. Above all I’m mesmerized by the final couplets, and as I begin to get to know the whole poem I see how in a sense each couplet is a “found” in the sense of a stable place where you can keep your footing however much you may have lost along the way. Like almost everybody who loves music I can listen to practically anything baroque just for the continuo, which is golden like the footsteps of the cherubs in those gleaming white churches in Salzburg built at a time when human beings still had so much hope!

    But there’s so much more to “Lost and Found” than just the sophisticated glitter (I studied Boiardo, Ariosto and Tasso at Cambridge with C.S.Lewis, and I can assure you he would have been thrilled by your poem, Alicia!). Go to the end of the 1st stanza – that’s far enough to see what I mean:

    I crawled all morning on my hands and knees
    Searching for what was lost—beneath a chair,
    Behind the out-of-tune piano. Please,
    I prayed to Entropy, let it be there—
    Some vital Lego brick or puzzle piece
    (A child bereft is hiccoughing despair),
    A ball, a doll’s leg popped out of its socket,
    Or treasures fallen through a holey pocket.

    “Lost and found” indeed -- even a pocket with a hole in it as big as my own becomes holy in this poem. And the whole poem is a landslide of such outrageously miraculous events!


  32. It's lovely to hear how much joy Alicia's poem has given you, Christopher. But as far as your concern that "in this whole discussion there has been no mention of anything else [the poems] might be about, or gift they might have given to a reader who has taken the time to read them through more than once and wants to know what they have for him or her, and I mean personally"--I think perhaps part of the trouble here is that you are talking to the poets. For instance, speaking for myself, what a poem "might be about" doesn't have much to do with how I read or write poems. It's a critic's question, and the idea of probing it in my own work makes me queasy. I don't mean to say that I ignore connections, metaphors, analogies: obviously I worked to create those links. But I worked with them as artisan tools, not as analytical signs. Does this make any sense? I'm not sure how clear I'm being here. Another issue relating back to your concern (and once again I'm speaking only for myself) is diffidence. For me, publishing a poem can feel like peeling back my own skin to expose the rawness beneath. That sensation pushes me to be excruciatingly gentle when approaching the work of the other poets who are published alongside me. Is that a logical or even useful reaction? Probably not, but being a poet doesn't have much to do with logic, at least in my own case.

    I will say that it is endlessly miraculous to have a reader such as yourself who cares so deeply for the conversation of poetry, even if I'm not holding up my own end as well as you would like. So thank you.

    On another topic entirely: Susan, I love, love, love the story of the sheriff. It's entirely possible he didn't even hear the sound of his own words in that poem. But then again, he might have been overwhelmed with secret joy at recognizing them. And then there's the dispassionate (?), amused (?), vindictive (?) possibilities behind his wife's exterior reactions. This would make a very interesting short story.

  33. Dear Dawn,
    You’re unique in your integrity, and I believe every word you say. Yet I’m right too, and I’m going to take the risk of alienating you all on this Forum once and for all by writing a bit more – we’ve only got 2 days left!


    “Beauty is truth” writes the most passionately independent of all word-smiths. But John Keats wasn’t “being didactic,” we would never make that accusation against such a great artist– he was just copying out a message spoken by an urn and passing it on, and urns, as everybody knows, are notoriously difficult to read.

    The fact that Keats also wrote wonderfully articulate letters exploring just about everything he said in his poetry using other words isn’t part of this discourse – it isn’t part of what we Americans talk about when we talk about p. because we’re never didactic. In fact we hate preachers – we hate moralists because we’re artists, not red-necks!

    And here’s another one:

    "True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
    As those move easiest who have learned to dance."

    And is this true? Do we believe it, or do we just quote it because it trips so nicely off the tongue?

    So do you like the Chinese-opera voice, high, squeaky, and off-the-wall culture-specific? I’ve come to, a lot, I’ve lived here for so long – and I also love the extraordinary vocal high-art of Thai country-music which is derived from the former though it hurts my American friends’ ears. I also happen to love Bill Monroe’s strained tenor which has had as big an impact on aspects of American vocal music as Chinese-opera has had on Thai country-music – or that awful non-voice stripped so self-consciously of all artistry that goes by the name of Bob Dylan, or is it Zimmerman? “True ease in singing comes from art, not chance.” You bet, and I sing like Bob too.

    In poetry it’s the same. As human beings we can’t write anything without our C.V. included. But what’s wrong with that?

    Try a comparison of what W.H.Auden, the Oxford artist, is saying in “Musée des Beaux Arts” with what William Carlos Williams, the small-town doctor from Patterson, New Jersey, is saying in “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus?” Who’s more didactic in these two poems, or less? Or artificial, or conscious – or frank?

    The majority of American poets today hate to be called “didactic” above all, indeed make a point of delivering their word-messages entirely stripped of personal engagement or any whiff of advocacy. But that position is in itself as much an advocacy as anything in Alexander Pope or Edgar Guest – it’s a cultural position when we hide ourselves in our art, when we pretend to be invisible -- whereas in reality we’re hoisting up as flashy a personal manifesto as anything Ezra Pound ever came up with!

    So when A.E.Stallings gets to the couplet at the end of the first stanza in “Lost and Found,” she arrives at the rhyme SOCKET, as in wrenched out of the shoulder like Grendel’s, and POCKET as in where we store our own personal stuff or “treasure.” Great – that’s already a triumph. But to get the utmost out of this curiously tragi-comic concurrence in the dollhouse, would we dare to spell “holy” “holey?” You bet we would, and as a result this old man at the opposite ends of the earth, so utterly obsessed with loss and worshipful longing, can celebrate by writing about it. And that’s what A.E.Stallings did, and I feel sure she did it quite deliberately and may even be pleased I noticed.

    The intolerable wrestle with words is intolerable also because it means wrestling with oneself, not just one's artistry -- "peeling back my own skin" Dawn calls it.


  34. I'm very grateful, Chrisopher, for the close reading (and indeed reading!) of Lost and Found, for your generous praise, and I'm glad you found pleasure in the rhymes, and even the odd pun. I enjoyed working with ottava rima, which I had never done before to any length before. It seemed the obvious choice for an Ariosto-inspired poem. I like what you say about the mini-closures of the couplets, and that makes sense to me.

    On a purely technical note, what was challenging for me was thinking of rhymes in terms of threes rather than pairs, but that is often where some of the more interesting rhymes/ideas came in (or interesting for me), making that extra little push to come up with a third. They did also seem to roll along, once I got started. I could see how they were a good vehicle for a long poem, as other poets have discovered and demonstrated long before me. You can argue that it's sort of the first half of a sonnet, and that you never get to the second half. Well, those are some formal thoughts of a fashion, partly in answer too to Hyejung's question.

    For me, there was something rather liberating about the long poem in that it seemed so unlikely it would find a publisher, I felt even freer to just please and amuse myself--I didn't worry that I shifted tone, sometimes rather wildly, or that it was set on the moon, or that it included tooth fairies. Who knew that anyone else would ever see it?

    The hardest part was the closure of the whole poem. I think this is one of the traditional cruxes of the long poem. Even epics often seem to fade out rather than end. I'm more used to clicking a lyrical box shut, or blowing it open. But this was sort of a different matter.

    And for a poet who usually writes pretty short lyrics, there was something exilirating in working on something that was waiting for you every day, in not having to start ab nihilo every morning. I suppose this must be one of the pleasures of writing fiction, too.

    I was also rather interested in the ratio of women writers to men in the issue--I'm not sure I would have expected that, for some reason. But I find it greatly encouraging.

    I have also been encouraged by this lively discussion and have been learning a great deal from the other long-poem poets. I hope I have another long poem in me--I'm now nostalgic for working on this one!

  35. Alicia-- When I first began writing long poems I had the same feeling: that they would not be published or would only see light of day as part of a book manuscript. It's true that is is harder to place long poems--fewer venues--but I've managed to publish them pretty regularly. Online journals are great, for these poems, because the editors have less reason to count and hoard their pages.

    And I completely agree with this statement: "...something exilirating in working on something that was waiting for you every day, in not having to start ab nihilo every morning. I suppose this must be one of the pleasures of writing fiction, too."

    This is definitely one of the attractions, for me. Who knows? Perhaps once I retire and feel less busy I'll return to shorter poems as a norm. For now, it helps to carry a world with me through busy days, looking forward to sitting down with it again at the end of the week, rather than sitting down with the need to start fresh.

  36. Thanks for those last two comments, Alicia and Susan – for both your exceptionally fine poems and how gracefully you talk about them.

    I also want to thank Dawn Potter for trying to respond to my difficulties a few days ago, and the fact that I didn’t reply immediately is a measure of her success. Because of course she’s right – you are all the last people one should expect to lay your souls bare here because indeed, as the authors, you’ve already done that. And the wider you’ve opened the door the less likely you are to want to open it more.

    Had Elizabeth Bishop written a long poem for this BPJ issue and come along to join us, she would almost certainly have spoken as calmly and formally about her work as you six have been doing about yours. But still I might have come in to point out how the burst-pipe rhymes and rough-house line-breaks in the last stanza of “One Art” cry out about something far more painful than Elizabeth Bishop is likely to want to talk about – and I do understand that “diffidence,” as Dawn calls it. But it’s also what makes Elizabeth Bishop so great.

    Because that huge tattered fish in “The Fish” is NOT an old-man-and-the-sea tussle with Nature either, or that moose a noble expression of the Other –- indeed, there’s so much in common between Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop in these poems!

    Like the platitude that deciding to be poets “has made all the difference” in our lives – oh yes, we chose the right path through the woods alright, and boy, were we ever smart in that decision even if our best and most assured pentameter crashes in despair in the last word of the last line of our most famous poem about it. And it seems to me that if you don’t acknowledge the train-wrecking that’s going on in poetry too you get stuck with the quintessentially American goodness of M.Scott Peck’s “The Road not Taken” – and you feel a bit sick to your stomach when the new biography comes out and you have to deal with the wise-man’s terrible flawed side, as if he hadn’t been writing about that too all along in his poetry.

    Or Ted Hughes. Can we accept it when he writes about the relationship between what he calls those “furious spaces of fire” and writing poetry at the end of “Thrushes?” Or are we going to blame him for someone else’s death through insensitivity when in fact he’d always tried to tell us everything as honestly as he could about life, death, fear, cruelty and creativity for years?

    And here we are at Easter Sunday, and the last day of the month and, I suspect, of this thread, and I still haven’t done what I promised to do -- which was to write about the darkest of these wonderful poems, and my favorite, “Mr Kowalski.”

    But there are certain things that shouldn’t be discussed, like faeces –or to be precise, the relationship between faeces and creativity, or faeces, cruelty and creativity. That’s what the poem is about, but I couldn’t discuss it very well because I would be constantly under the shadow of the poem’s superiority both in it’s ability to terrify me and it’s ability to say far more than it ought to be saying – from the tongue of the greedy goat with four stomachs to Mr Kowalski’s fine steely fingers tightening round the throat of the executioner’s as well as the young violinist’s neck.

    Read “Mr Kowalski” all the way through a couple of times – you won’t need any help from an old kibitzer like me, that’s for sure. On the other hand, perhaps you’ll understand why a poet's response to the accusation that he or she writes too much about loss and worshipful longing could ever be silence.

    “That sensation [of rawness] pushes me to be excruciatingly gentle when approaching the work of the other poets who are published alongside me,” Dawn says – “Is that a logical or even useful reaction? Probably not, but being a poet doesn't have much to do with logic.”

    Thanks, and above all to the editors who have made this discussion possible.


  37. Thanks to all of you for this wonderful conversation (and these long poems, 3 times, well, the long way home). I've followed it almost daily like one belonging to an audience; I didn't want to intrude (I may have been wrong not to, but I think not).
    It takes guts, a passion and sincerity to come forward like this.
    Let me just bring these lines to this forum now too, they're Alicia's, and they are beautiful. They stand out and they stand on their own, somewhere in the middle of Lost and Found:

    I think, and laugh, and then I want to weep:
    The hours drained as women rearrange
    The furniture in search of small, lost change.

    For me, they hold a sadness straight from the tragi-comical dimension. They could just as well be the son speaking.