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 Mallarm√© 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.