An Anatomy of the Long Poem

Written by

Rachel Zucker
Contributor Page

Year

2010

Jack Spicer wrote, "generations of different poets in different countries [are] patiently telling the same story, writing the same poem." I agree. Consider, for example, "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota," by James Wright, and "A Man Meets a Woman on the Street," by Randall Jarrell. In Wright's poem, the speaker, while lying in a hammock, sees a butterfly on the trunk of a tree. He notices cowbells in the distance and horse droppings in an adjacent field. A chicken hawk flies over, evening approaches, and the speaker says, mysteriously, "I have wasted my life."

In Jarrell's poem, the speaker walks behind a beautiful blond-haired woman. He describes the woman and then thinks about Konrad Lorenz, Richard Strauss, Marcel Proust, Greta Garbo, his early morning walk, the difference between birds and human beings, the nature of human relationships. The speaker catches up to the woman, who turns out to be his wife. He touches her, kisses her, walks through the sunlit park with her, and realizes his worldview is more bird-like than human-like, that really he began the day "with the bird's wish: ‘May this day / be the same day, the day of my life.'"

When one looks at these poems closely, closely enough to see the brush strokes, textures, and colors, the two poems have almost nothing in common. But from a distance, the poems look almost identical: description, bits of narrative, epiphany.

The middle distance interests me. Both speakers are in motion (one in a hammock, the other walking) and apprehending something else in motion (the fluttering butterfly, the woman who is walking). In both poems, the speaker begins in a state of heightened attentiveness and is primarily concerned with discerning subtle differences of color (a bronze butterfly on a black trunk like a "leaf in green shadow" or the woman whose "hair's coarse gold / Is spun from the sunlight that it rides upon"). They are trying to distinguish the particular from the general. Both poets look closely, then pull back. Wright describes the sounds of cowbells moving away in a ravine he cannot see. Jarrell wanders off to the land of memory. Then something brings them back. The evening comes on and envelops Wright; Jarrell touches his wife and stops pretending she's just any woman. In coming into contact with the physical world and his immediate present, each is shocked into an awakening or epiphany of self-knowledge.

I confess: I like Jarrell's poem more than Wright's. Maybe it's as simple as liking the hopeful epiphany rather than the despairing one. Perhaps I'm compelled to ascribe the decidedly male voice of the speaker to my husband and am too romanced by the "after all these years my wife is so beautiful to me and I have everything I ever wanted" narrative and am too terrified by the "I've wasted my life" sentiment. In my defense, however, both poems gave me an Emily Dickinson neck-hair shiver when I first read them, and I came to prefer the Jarrell poem long before I had the good sense or life experience to love a man who loves his wife and feels satisfied.

I think the main reason I prefer Jarrell's poem is its length. Some might find this a fallacious argument, but I submit that the structure/shape/movement of these poems is nearly identical and that the greatest difference between them lies in the fact that Wright's poem is thirteen lines whereas Jarrell's poem is ninety-seven lines. It is in the "extraneous" parts of Jarrell's poem, his digressions and diversions, that I come to know and like Jarrell's speaker, begin to know his mind, feel involved, included, invested (even though I'm not privy to all the references and allusions he makes), so that when Jarrell writes, "Because, after all, it is my wife" and "We first helped each other, hurt each other, years ago," my breath catches and my eyes well up.

If two poems are similar but one is longer, is the longer one always better? Of course not. If a poem is poorly written, it will be unpleasant and disappointing, and the longer it goes on, the more the unfortunate reader will suffer. On the other hand, I don't believe in an Occam's razor poetics, don't find shortness itself to be a virtue.

There are many short poems I admire and, of course, too many wonderful mid-length poems to name that I adore. But I have a special love for a good long poem.

I'm talking about "Hymn to Life," "A Few Days," and "The Morning of the Poem," all by James Schuyler. I'm talking about The Descent of Alette, by Alice Notley; way, by Leslie Scalapino; Midwinter Day, by Bernadette Mayer; Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson; My Life, by Lyn Hejinian; "Howl," by Allen Ginsberg; "Song of Myself," by Walt Whitman; Model Homes, by Wayne Koestenbaum; David Antin's talk poems; "Not a Prayer," by Heather McHugh; "A Poem Under the Influence," by David Trinidad; Paterson, by William Carlos Williams; Iovis, by Anne Waldman; Tender Buttons, by Gertrude Stein; The Angel of History, by Carolyn Forché; The California Poem and The Book of Jon, by Eleni Sikelianos; Plot, by Claudia Rankine; Deepstep Come Shining, by C. D. Wright; "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," by John Ashbery; Jane, by Maggie Nelson. These are just a few of my favorites.

What strange bedfellows I've put in the previous paragraph! Some of these long poems are epic (Waldman) and some anti-epic (Schuyler). Some are lyric sequences (Forché), some are hybrid texts (Waldman, Rankine, Williams), and some are book-length single poems with or without sections (Notley, Carson, Mayer, Sikelianos). Some are written in form (Koestenbaum) or look like prose (Stein) or read like a novel (Nelson). The form seems almost compelled to subvert (often by assimilating) genre categories. Still, long poems have more in common than just length, and the fact of their length alone is meaningful.

Long poems are extreme. They're too bold, too ordinary, too self-centered, too expansive, too grand, too banal, too weird, too much. They revel in going too far; they eschew caution and practicality and categorization and even, perhaps, poetry itself, which as a form tends to value the economy of language. These poems are anti-tweets though they often contain twitter-like language.

Long poems grapple with narrative. As human beings, we're hardwired to construct stories from the world around us, especially out of anything made of language. It is a special quality of short lyric poems that they are (almost) able to communicate the way painting, dance, or music does – they mean something and make the reader feel something without necessarily being about something or being about something explainable in words. Not all short poems try to avoid narrative, but all poems (short and long) try to be more than just a narrative.

Long poems are especially susceptible to the pull of narrative. I wrote to Alice Notley, a master of the long form. Notley explained, "A short poem is composed of the dynamics between each word. In the poetry of an author like Chaucer there is story, which formally is something like a whale under the surface of the ocean. However, in an author like Homer the form is the story but the form is the line – the length and meter of that line." Narrative is always an important presence in the long poem, either as a "whale under the surface of the ocean" or in the form itself.

If a long poem is going to subvert narrative, it has to be radical. Even then, techniques used in short poems to avoid story-making — relying on images, condensing language, undermining the normal rules of syntax and grammar — often result in a long poem that sounds like an extended story told by a disturbed voice. Long poems can seem spoken (think of "Howl" or David Antin's work) or read like a diary (Midwinter Day) or act like a portrait in words of a person, place, or idea (think of Paterson,The Angel of History, Deepstep Come Shining), but there's always a voice speaking or a human presence. There's always a story.

Long poems grapple with narrative but aren't prose. Long poems can't sustain an intense "dynamic between words," as Notley says, but still find ways to avoid "falling into paragraph," as D. A. Powell, a poet who does not write long poems but loves to read and teach them, says. Powell: " A long poem that arches from beginning to end with a central consciousness, a directly traceable story, a singular (not necessarily single) purpose, is truly more novel than poem. But it's a novel that relies upon the devices and music of poetry as its motif." The language still has weight and aims to surprise and delight and adhere to itself and to be, on some level, unsummarizable, irreducible, more than just communication. The line, even when stretched to the limit, is still a line, still a critical measure.

Long poems take time to read. Reading long poems requires a different kind of attention – a longer time commitment but also, realistically, less attention to detail. My mind wanders when reading a long poem, and in this way my reading is more experiential and the experience is almost collaborative, reciprocal. My daydreams and the sensory data of the world around me become ephemerally woven into the long poem as I read so that I feel myself more fully present in the poem even as my mind wanders. My life interrupts the poem, which I can't read in one sustained burst of concentration, and the poem interrupts my life as I find I've spent my whole afternoon traveling its landscape.

Long poems are confessional. There is always a human being speaking. There is always the passage of time. There is change, and the reader bears witness to the life or mind of the poet. On the most basic level, all long poems are confessional even if all they confess is how the poet has spent a great deal of his time.

Long poems are all love poems. "The kind of respect it means to linger, to spend time with someone, time on something. To stay," writes McHugh in her short long poem, "Not a Prayer."

Long poems create intimacy. Marriage or a long-term relationship isn't a long one-night stand in which one person never goes home. A long poem isn't just a short poem that the poet forgot to end. Both require and inspire a different mindset, a different pacing, a different way of being, a different kind and level of intimacy with another person and with the self. When reading a good short or mid-length poem, I feel a shock of recognition – like catching a stranger's eye on the subway – but this fleeting, intense connection underscores the separation between the poem and me, the otherness of the poet and his world from me and mine. Because of the breaks and points of entry, and simply because of how long I "exist" with and within the poem, I am committed to and invested in a long poem in a way that I can never be with a short poem.

Long poems look at the "big picture," develop ideas and are "about" something; long poems are about nothing but themselves. D. A. Powell: long poems make "a much bolder claim on the temporal field of poetry, sacrificing individual moments for the sake of broader ideas." There is an inevitable "storyness," an "aboutness" in long poems. Motifs accrue; themes that sound like or are "broader ideas" develop.

Long poems are muralistic or kaleidoscopic rather than overarching; they resist "aboutness." Long poems can sometimes do a better job of salvaging and preserving individual moments than short poems can. In the short poem, individual moments are often used in the service of an idea or to illustrate an argument.

Long poems, on the other hand, tend to resist rhetoric, and I find that what the long poem is most often "about" is itself: the process of extended curiosity, noticing, thinking, and being aware. Individual moments in a long poem are so numerous that they seem to be emblematic only of the writer's consciousness, of the authorial presence, or of the poem-making process. "Life, it seems, explains nothing about itself. In the / Garden now daffodils stand full unfolded and / to see them is enough," writes Schuyler.

Long poems discover themselves. David Trinidad, who writes long and short poems: "I also remember thinking, in the middle of ‘A Poem Under the Influence,' that it was like a mural (versus a shorter poem, which is more like a single canvas), so long and wide I couldn't see what was around the corner, or where it would end." Just as the essay is a form in which a writer discovers what she believes, the long poem is a form in which the poet discovers herself and the shape of the poem in the writing.

Long poems allow the poet to change her mind. This is part of the delight of the long poem. "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" writes Whitman.

Long poems change the mind. In an interview with Jennifer Dick (on Doublechange), Notley said, "What I'm doing is creating – trying to create – a different consciousness … And I think this happens for some other people. It actually makes your head different."

Long poems are ambitious. And egotistical. And obnoxious. How can the poet believe others are willing to listen to her go on and on? Who is she to tell the tale of the tribe? Who is she to speak so loudly, for so long, so unceasingly?

Long poems humble the poet. Eleni Sikelianos: "The more I did, the bigger the field appeared, and I knew there was no way I could ‘cover' (or manipulate) everything in it. So I had to settle on scratching at this one little spot as diligently (or at least for as long) as I could" (interview in Jacket magazine, 2007). The poet writing the long poem is an ant moving crumbs from the majestic picnic, always aware of her own shortcomings and inadequacies. The poet writing a long poem is an artist at work, not a priest offering the "the word" to an illiterate flock. "And then / You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through / the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books, / You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself" writes Whitman.

Long poems are about process and highlight process. Jackson Pollock's paintings are a record of his body's movements and his physical presence in relation to the canvas. The long poem is a record of the poet's mind over time. Not surprisingly, time and progress are often explicit, central themes in the long poem as is the writing process itself. There is a self-consciousness (sometimes an embarrassment) about the project of writing ("I hate fussing with nature and would like the world to be / all weeds …" writes Schuyler) but also a compulsion to continue. The long poem is fueled by an unflagging curiosity about the world; "why not leave the world alone?" writes Schuyler in "Hymn to Life," "Then there would be no books, which is not to be borne."

The poet keeps writing, keeps writing. It is an odd thing to do, a strange way to spend time, but there is the world with its innumerable glories, and what else can a poet do but write?

The attention to process makes the long poem a highly artificial, self-consciously made thing. On the other hand, this embrace of artifice makes the poem feel more honest than poems that aim to impart a feeling while hiding their poem-ness. Long poems are buildings – sometimes glaringly out of place with the landscape, sometimes meant to blend in almost seamlessly – but never holodecks.

Long poems are sad and full of joy. Death, time, and the changing of the seasons are often the subjects, explicit or implicit, of the long poem. Despite or because of these themes, the long poem is always, on some level, borne of a deep, extended engagement that is also a kind of joy. Most short stories and many short poems are rather bleak (sometimes satisfyingly bleak); they feel finished, locked, shut, closed. But the long poem, with its attempts to include everything, is, by its nature, expansive, exuberant, engaged, and overflowing.

Long poems are imperfect. Poets perfect short poems by cutting away everything that doesn't absolutely need to be there. The poem is whittled down or polished the way a diamond cutter carefully facets a stone to allow for the most brilliant capture and dispersion of light. Novellas, short stories, and some novels strive for this kind of just-rightness, the feeling that every single word is necessary, exact. But the long poem has a different mindset.

The long poem embraces and rejects and re-embraces imperfection. Sometimes it does so because it's trying to describe REAL LIFE, and life is imperfect, messy, filled with loose ends. Sometimes the long poem is imperfect because it is a human voice speaking or a human mind thinking, and speech and thought are convoluted, hypocritical, contradictory, and fragmented. Sometimes the long poem is imperfect because striving for perfection is a questionable and problematic pursuit.

The Greek word telos and the Hebrew words tam or tamim are often translated into English as "perfect" or "perfection" but in the original don't mean flawless. They mean mature, complete, finished. The long poem will never be flawless; it doesn't even want to be. The long poem does reach for telos and for tam, for completeness, maturity, and the full expression of a process. But it fails in these as well. Despite its love of inclusion, the long poem will always be incomplete. The long poem begins in medias res, mid-affairs, and any ending, no matter how right and true it may feel, is a moment of grief for all the long poem has left out, for the extinguished voice.

Long poems have integrity. Carolyn Forché: "Surely all art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end." But how then do we write about life, being, as we are, always in the middle (not sure how close to the end)? The long poem takes on this task, knowing it will fail, embracing failure and imperfection and contradiction and doubt. In this sense, the long poem has integrity – it has the ability to achieve its own goals and is honest about its making.

Long poems are worth your time. I think Jack Spicer is right: we are all writing the same poem, telling the same story. I also believe that as soon as we say the same thing in a different way – in a different form, with a different tone – that we are always saying something else. Long poems are similar to shorter poems, to novels, to rants, and to diaries but offer something all their own and tell stories that cannot be told in other forms. See what it's like to be in the presence of boundless curiosity, to witness, as Claudia Rankine wrote, a mind's "cratered understanding of / our soul's intimacy within the / opportunity that is life."