Long Poem Symposium Papers

After-Thoughts on the Long Poem

Sharon Thesen

Sharon Thesen is a B.C.–based poet, critic, editor, and Professor Emerita of Creative Writing at UBC’s Okanagan campus. Her eleven poetry books include Oyama Pink Shale, The Good Bacteria, and A Pair of Scissors; and she has edited two editions of The New Long Poem Anthology. She has lived in the Okanagan since 2003; prior to that, she taught at Capilano College (now University) and was an editor of The Capilano Review. At UBC’s Okanagan campus, where she taught from 2005 to 2014 and co-edited, with Nancy Holmes, Lake: A Journal of Arts and Environment, she specialized in long-form, expanded, and hybrid poetics.

My favourite punctuation mark is the comma, since it means there is more, this life, this language, this thought, continues and is joined to other lives, other words, other thinking. For the same reasons and more my favourite form of poetry is the long poem.

Once referred to as the “genre that is not a genre” by Smaro Kamboureli, the long poem’s dazzling hybridity resists enclosure by genre limits and definitions. I have argued elsewhere and consistently that the only defining feature of a long poem is its length in comparison to a self-contained “shorter” poem. Long poems are referred to as long poems, but short or medium sized poems are seldom defined to by their length or duration. It seems that in English poetry a poem feels most like being about sonnet length. Even so, a book-length collection of poems like these carries within it the ghost of a long poem in the way the individual poems interact, echo, assume, or otherwise refer to one another. It is as if they are fragments chipped off from a greater whole that remains inferred or implied. This greater whole is the mystery of any one poet’s imagination, and in this way, all poets are writing the long poems of their lives without necessarily writing long poems as such. The late Robert Kroetsch stopped writing long poems after publishing Completed Field Notes—to my mind one of the canonical postmodern Canadian long poems, along with bp Nichol’s The Martyrology—and returned to writing shorter, compressed lyric poems toward the end of his life. To write long poems—to write “in the open”—involves perhaps more a stance toward reality than any particular talent.

Having now invoked negative capability in relation to definitions of the long poem—this genre-that-is-not-one, as someone said—we can move to the field occupied more and more by expanded forms and wonder why they have become so popular, especially among women writers. Rachel Blau duPlessis notes that in poetry that reflects a “female aesthetic”, she observes an anti-authoritarian ethics occurring at the level of structure—that is, an aesthetic or impulse that “coincides with the thrilling ambition to write a great, encyclopedic, holistic work, the ambition to get everything in, inclusively, reflexively, monumentally.” This follows from her observation that modernism’s key genre is the encyclopedic collage long poem (Pound, Eliot, Williams, Olson, etc.) which shares with the “female aesthetic” its critique of dominant culture. I would argue that the ambition to write holistically is not limited to a “female aesthetic” but rather is a development out of modernism generally, and evident in the work of both male and female poets. Insofar as lyric modes were traditionally “feminine” and epic modes “masculine,” the long poem is a form that can combine epic size with intimacy of voice (Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic brilliantly notes the potential irony in this welding). But I am wary of definitions, categorizations, limits, and prescriptions. Every long poem is an exception, is exceptional; and I think its recent popularity among women writers is a welcome indication of the impact of a multi-faceted subjectivity upon poetic form.

I agree with du Plessis that long poems coincide with a certain kind of ambition, whether conceptual or expressive. Long poems are often stories, explorations, or accounts of one sort or another; and in this way long poems participate in the prose tradition of writing; indeed, many long poems are written in prose stanzas or prose sentences—I’m thinking of writers like Daphne Marlatt, Roo Borson, Sarah de Leeuw. Long poems can be poems about stories. They can fictionalize the “I” of the poem, as in persona poems; and use unreliable narrators, such as Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid. While not being narrative poems as such, in the epic sense, most long poems do engage narrative as a mode or energy that propulses them forward, as in filmic montage. There is something filmic, performative, and theatrical about the long poem, which also collects the long poem into the traditions of ritualistic verse drama, itself deconstructed in Poet’s Theatre texts popular among the American language poets. In Canada, Patrick Friesen’s work comes to mind; in England, Alice Oswald’s. Indeed, her book length poem Dart is I think one of the most astonishing and satisfying book-length poems—a poem about a river and those who live with it, beside it, on it, in it. She researched for years, interviewing and recording the voices of the riverside dwellers—fishermen, trappers, farmers, kids, vagrants, and others.
The long poem’s capaciousness and adaptability extends to its use of genres such as biography and investigative journalism deploying historical documents. The American poet Ed Sanders, who writes what he calls “investigative poetry,” has written verse biographies of Allen Ginsberg and Anton Chekhov, as well as verse biographies of the year 1968 and of the history of America. These are fascinating because of Sanders’ typically engaged, lyric, subjective, opinionated voice. In a similar way, Nourbese’s Zong “documents” the massacre, in 1781, of 150 African slaves who were thrown overboard as surplus cargo during transport to England. Inarticulacies and silences render the unspeakable unspeakable; as does Sakiklar’s Children of Air India with its imposition of redactions, its incompletenesses, its rumours. This is like detective work, forensic work upon cultural memory.

I have a strong sense of being in the presence of a long poem when the poem is opening up to new possibilities within itself or the line of its thought. When it keeps making discoveries. When it opens or expands like a fan does, to reveal a pattern or a picture hitherto unseen, revealed by the process of opening. Or, there is a picture, an image, or a situation that one approaches from many angles, or tells its story in a new way, allowing for questions, interruptions, arguments, retracings, not so much to “resist closure” as to find further openings. Gary Thomas Morse’s Discovery Passages is I think a great example of this mode of long poem composition. The title itself describes the poem’s process—and alludes to an erased ancestral geography.
In my own mind, I divide long poems into two basic kinds. One, the exploration of a subject, theme, or a topic, usually for book-length duration. These are often documentary, narrative, intertextual, ekphrastic, or even interdisciplinary poems. Kate Braid’s To This Cedar Fountain, Cornelia Hoogland’s Woods Wolf Girl, my Confabulations are examples from this panel. And I’m sure everyone here can think of many more examples. Such writing is working out an intersubjectivity and an openness to the artistic experience of others. The second or other kind is the serial poem. A serial poem is paratactic, it is, in Duplessis’ phrase, an argument of leaps, although to my mind the “leaps” are more like depth charges. But in any case, ongoing process, and often a modesty of mind and idea (what Olson saw as a necessary sense of fallibility) attend the serial long poem. Serial long poems’s foregrounding of language and process are evident in Nichol’s The Martyrology, McKinnon’s The Centre, Stanley’s Vancouver: A Poem, and in American poet Alice Notley’s anti-monumental seriality in long poems such as Disobedience.

In both editions of The New Long Poem Anthology, I included self-contained and excerpted sequential, related, or serial poems as examples of long poem composition. The understood length that takes a sequence of poems into the feeling of a long poem is reflected in length-limits for long poem submissions to journals as being around twelve to twenty pages. This is basically chapbook length. The suppleness of long-poem composition is a function or method of its mode of attention to language. It also reflects a relaxing of definitions or expectations of scope: think of Phyllis Webb’s 1965 “Naked Poems,” which remains a classic of Canadian long poem composition while retaining a minimalist objectivism and chapbook length.

It seems to me that more and more poetry books are themed or topical. Is the collection of shorter lyric poems under threat in today’s publishing climate? In these difficult times do publishers want self-contained manuscripts they can market as topics or issues already of interest to a readership? The collection of individual or separate poems is the most difficult of books to carry off as the weaker poems, if extracted and quoted from, can look pretty lame—despite the fact that they nestle in quite nicely to the flow of the book as a whole, the way no conversation is brilliant in every sentence but has a sort of melody or rhythm. Long poems are much more forgiving toward their constituent passages, gathering them up in a larger cadence. Has the bias against, or prejudice toward, the “lyric poem” in our era (as evidenced by the ongoing expressive-conceptual argument) actually resulted in a new home for the lyric voice in long poems, within a traditionally epic scope, in which the arguments fade away because of the long poem’s capacity to freely reconcile formerly antagonistic modes? In this sense, someone could argue for expanded forms as a contemporary poetic movement in itself. Perhaps long poems are in some ways the longed-for departure from the isms and schisms that distract so many poets today.