Long Poem Symposium Papers

The Long Poem and the Shape of the Working Mind

Cornelia Hoogland

Cornelia Hoogland lives on Hornby Island, B.C. “Boy Aged Seven in the Snowy Basement” published in the Spring 2015 issue of  The Malahat Review is drawn from her unpublished  book-length long poem “Angle of Incidence.”  Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011) was nominated for the Relit National Poetry Award, and Sea Level (Baseline, 2013) was shortlisted for the 2012 CBC literary awards.

The joke around discussion of the long poem is how long do we have? Beyond its tradition as extended verse narrative, how do we define the long poem? How long is long? What is the shape of long? What has technology’s influence (the computer screen’s bottomless page) meant for the long poem?

Since the Romantics, revealing the richness of the human imagination, as well as the complexity of the mind-at-work, have been two of the principal tasks of poetry. While I claim them for the long poem, the tasks are also true for shorter lyric poems, as is much of what I am about to say. Unique perhaps to the long poem are the opportunities of sustained tension, as well as extended loops of meaning in its goal of showing an imagination at work. For my purposes, the long poem can be described as many pathways into a work, using different points of entry and multiple layers of meaning, as well as supportive connective tissue—all within a particular context.
Two years ago, when my granddaughter Avery was nearly 6-years-old, she walked down the mostly traffic-free Depape Road to Sandpiper beach with 3 other little girls. The group walked closely together, arms linked, until they dropped arms and moved the width of the road apart. Look, we’re not touching, shouted one little girl, to which Avery replied, but we are touching. We’re all standing on the ground; we’re connected through the ground.

In my use of the long poem form, the roots of the first poem comingle with those of the last. The dependency is absolute. Another defining feature of the long poem is its sense of scale. Last night at the Writers’ Trust annual Margaret Laurence lecture, Guy Gavriel Kay referenced Dante’s Divine Comedy as a work that ascended from hell to heaven, and involved the entire cosmos. Contemporary terms might speak to the expanding and collapsing universe, but the point is that, like the Divine Comedy, the impulse of the long poem is often to go big, wide, deep and high. Said otherwise, how far can a poet push her imagination, all the while staying connected to her own particular Beatrice?

I have three points to make this afternoon, but before I do I want to say how surprising it’s been to stumble upon the long poem form, especially in my most recently completed manuscript, Angle of Incidence. One day when we were discussing poetry at Zocalo Café in Courtenay, B.C., Matt Rader pulled his finger across the titles of the poems of the group of poems I’d brought, as if to erase them. He said that it seemed to him that I was writing one long poem; that I should plow ahead without the restrictions that discrete poems imposed, and see where it led. In a broad sense we’re all engaged in writing the one poem of our selves in the world.

1. Subject and medium
Writers of the long poem might be inspired by Coleridge’s idea of the relationship among his range of subjects and his medium. He wrote:

I should not think of devoting less than twenty years to an epic poem. Ten years to collect the materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would thoroughly understand Mechanics; Hydrostatics; Optics, and Astronomy; Botany; Mettallurgy; Fossilism; Chemistry; Geology; Anatomy; Medicine; the mind of man; then the minds of men, in all Travels, Voyages, and Histories. So I would spend ten years; the next five in the composition of the poem, and the five last in the correction of it.1

His description carries on to include nightly-whispering voice…starry and unwithering, perhaps necessary to marry all his disparate fields of study.
On a more contemporary note, Louise Glück’s Faithful And Virtuous Night (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2014, 322), is a work in which method is closely linked to imagery. Glück writes: I was constantly/face to face with blankness, that/stepchild of the sublime,/which it turns out,/has been my subject and my medium. In earlier works such as The Seven Ages, Glück’s focus is, in part, a complex of images dealing with anorexia. In Virtuous Night, her focus is entropy, or disorganization into nothingness. Her poetic lens moves through time and space, and through reversals of time and space. She writes: It was like the night, and my memories —they were like stars/in that they were fixed, though of course/if one could see as do the astronomers/one would see they are unending fires, like the fires of hell. I set my glass on the iron railing (34). Here she moves among contemporary as well as historical images of the universe, and conflates her personal memories to astronomical heights, then shrinks the personal to the minutiae of putting down a glass. But I think Glück is most interested in the thought experiment. On the same page she writes I was, I felt, mysteriously lifted above the world/so that action was at last impossible/which made thought not only possible but limitless./It had no end. (34). The thought experiment, or the shape of the mind inventing, is to me Glück’s most consistent trope.

In my book-length long poem Angle of Incidence (currently seeking a publisher), I discovered in imagery a method for exploring my serious concerns—particularly the immense and unknowable nature of death —which seems to me to parallel the immensity we float within. I characterize the vast unknown as a tiny rip in the world’s seam where it escapes into darkness; as noise pollution deep in the ocean; and in a long view of the history of the area in which the poem is located. For my topic I required the large associations and metaphors that accompany human passage into death.

2. Shape of mind as it wrestles with problems or images
In a panel discussion on writing the long poem or series, Benjamin Grossberg said: “The poetic approach—the texture of mind—is the wind funnel, and whatever’s around just gets swept up into it. It’s what we see in the poem: cow, fence panel, dust—that lets us define its shape. But the shape itself is the shape of the mind inventing, the swirling mind-force that gathers objects and holds them aloft above us.”3 I posit an isomorphism between mind and the long poem that allows for a faithful rendering of the way a mind works, which can be described in terms such as back and forth, association, revision and erasure. In this sense, no matter how serious its subject, the long poem is, finally, a playful project.

Glück plays in a number of ways: by asking questions; turning presented meaning on its head; and by toying with her images. For example, her narrator stares at the ceiling above her bed and says: It reminded me/of what I couldn’t see, the sky obviously, but more painfully/my parents sitting on the white clouds in their white travel outfits. (9) Both Glück’s elevation and democratization of images and ideas (i.e. the idea of death as commercial travel), contrasted with her desire to dismiss (which, for the writer, is contradictory to the art form), creates the tension of what readers are invited to experience as her mind at work. When she creates a plot, she subverts the expectation, or privileges an idiosyncratic detail. For instance, her narrator reports that telling a story and turning the pages of book makes her dizzy, which she then connects to the zodiac (11). On the periphery of the book’s concerns is the narrator’s repeated phrase that she’s waiting for the car that will take her home—but it’s never explained.

She uses phrases that suggest a narrator who works hard to be exact in her explanations; to reconsider and back-track; and to offer alternate points of view. Her phrases include: it reminded me, picture if you will, it is so difficult to begin, you have no idea how shocking it is, impressions came and went, it had occurred to me, you could say, or, perhaps, it strikes me now, as I have said. In perfect pitch, she assumes her readers’ unfailing interest in her project, which yields little that is tangible or knowable. Still, the reader becomes engaged with the mindful effort required to provide such scanty offerings and accepts that while something is possibly true, it remains cloaked in give-and-take and doubt.

Another literary device that Glück uses—one that I have only recently come to appreciate in the long poem, is the paragraph.4 You may all be regular users of the paragraph in poetry; if so, bear with me as I exclaim over its usefulness, particularly, I think, in the long poem. Apparently “even Paradise Lost is a number of short poems separated by prose passages.”5

One of the more general features of poetry is that the poet controls how information and images come to the reader through time. Paragraphs challenge the idea of time that is regulated through the space of the poem’s lines and line breaks. Paragraphs don’t have particular space around them; they suggest a more relaxed posture and disarm the reader. They have a sense of just reading.

Allowing the paragraph into Angle of Incidence permitted me to describe things or events of an expository nature, or simply to speak plainly. Inspiration is often narrative, and the paragraph can be a natural way to tell a story, or express information. I feel almost foolish saying such obvious things that have nevertheless made a difference in understanding what the long poem can contain.

3. Contingencies
Long poems work with contingency; they keep the poem active by presenting problems or a context to work through and within. A series by definition allows for contingencies: a poet writes the same poem again and again with slight variation or wholesale revision. The same idea gets filtered through various metaphors.
In Angle of Incidence, I considered the more usual organizing strategies of long poems such as repetition, writing in couplets, and so forth. But because I was purposefully writing the same idea from multiple angles, I consciously sought out the different ways I could arrange those angles or points of view. For instance, how did segments sound when told in reverse order? Unlike discrete lyrics, throwing in a new image could have ramifications for the entire book. Where were the tensions, which factors could co-exist, which created interesting contradictions? How best, and how fully, could I explore subthemes? There was also the question of courage. I wanted to take greater risks, but in doing so, I risked disturbing my reader. Death is brutal. Had I shown that? Had I entered the unknown? How did I become darkness; what was the darkness that I claimed? I needed windows of improvisation that could allow for exploration.

Conclusion: pulling apart and pushing on
I would like to support the idea that the book as a series of stanzas is different from the book of poems written on a theme or subject, often as dramatic monologues. On this panel we’ve all written examples of the later. Kate’s A Well-Mannered Storm: The Glenn Gould Poems, Sharon’sConfabulations: poems for Malcolm Lowry, and my Woods Wolf Girl and Cuba Journal. But Glück’s Virtuous Night discussed above contradicts this neat division as it is written as discrete lyrics rather than as one long, single-titled, poem. And yet her books, seen as extended or long poems, have been most instructive to me on this topic. In part, it’s Glück’s conversational tone, as well as her contingencies and continuities that invite me to witness her vast and compelling imagination. Alongside wildness of mind, one of the features that I’d like to claim for the long poem is respect for a reader’s need to create coherence. As Sharon Thesen identified about the long poem, pulling apart, I think, is more its methodology, or rather, method.6 In a recent interview for the Coastal Spectator, Patrick Lane told me that “a short history of crazy bone” works in fragments… fragmentary comments by Crazy for example. I see separate poems within this long poem as flashes of thinking. Not completed, worked-out thoughts, but momentary humming-bird flashes.

At the least, the desire for fidelity to the mind as it works through a problem, and a reader’s need to create coherences and movement over the whole, exists on a continuum. The required negotiation between poles could be part of a larger, public discussion I would welcome. Let me end with the challenge for writers of the long poem to find the form that best allows them to extend their imaginations to the fullest.

1. Cottle, J. (1848). Reminiscences of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey

2. All references to Glück are from Faithful And Virtuous Night (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2014).

3. Benjamin Grossberg, Invention in the Lyric Series, panel presentation to the 2014 AWP in Seattle, Washington. His latest book-length series of poems is Space Traveller (University of Tampa, 2014).

4. I am grateful to Patricia Young who alerted me to the paragraph’s potential usefulness.

5. George Bowering quoting Edgar Allen Poe in Sharon Thesen (ed.) The New Long Poem Anthology. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1991, p. 351

6. Email correspondence, May, 2015.