To discuss the viability of such a group and its wider implications, I arranged a meeting with Sebastian Barker in Hampstead; and the jointly agreed minutes of that meeting are printed below. But the crucial paragraphs are these:
The objects of the Long Poem Group are: to encourage the modern epic and the long poem through critical debate on all aspects of the forms; to help raise the standard of execution through better understanding of the technical difficulties involved; to examine through discussion and written review specific examples of the forms published in recent years.
The group's criteria to approach the subject are that a modern epic or long poem will be a development of the traditional European models from Homer to Milton, but will not exclude subsequent developments, such as Wordsworth's model in The Prelude , which incorporated the subjective viewpoint. However, the group will mostly rule out experimentalist conceptions of the epic or long poem since it believes these are unlikely to contribute to the further development of this tradition in any particularly significant manner. The group believes this is because, far from addressing such central problems as narrative method, the use of imagery, characterization, and a coherent structure, such works no longer advance our understanding of the historic practice. To continue in such moulds, therefore, inevitably obscures and devalues the means by which we build up a belief in the meaning of the communal or individual experience to be communicated.
It was felt that if such a group was to be effective in its exploration of the subject of the long poem there had to be some way of guaranteeing a degree of inter-communication between its members, should they not always be able to come together, and of making it open-ended. The obvious solution to this seemed to be a newsletter. Which newsletter would begin --- as such things inevitably must --- by expressing the views of founding members, as well as printing short notices --- as factual as such things can be --- of their own principal published works in the field. Such to be followed in future issues of the newsletter by similar reviews of long poems of significance as published; as well as printing contributions of value on the subject from any quarter.
Consequent upon that initial meeting, it was agreed that I should edit this first newsletter exclusively. But, thereafter, once the group has had its first full meeting, future newsletters will be jointly edited by Sebastian Barker and myself.
Sebastian Barker's ambitious poem explores the thought, personality and life of Friedrich Nietzsche. It is organised in four sections --- all set in Flat 3, 6 Via Carlo Alberto, Turin on the night of 2nd January 1889 and the following morning --- the eve of Nietzsche's insanity. The four parts are headed `Nietzsche's Study', `Nietzsche in his Bed Dreaming the Dream of Disaster', `Nietzsche in his Bed Dreaming the Dream of Intelligence', and `The Awakening'. The first, second and last parts are the briefest and are in prose.
The whole, to take the hint of his title, is a kind of dream-vision, in which Nietzsche surveys the disaster and triumph of his life. The form allows Barker --- for the most part painlessly --- to give the reader the necessary factual information and then go on beyond mere fact. The narrative starting point of Neitzsche's retrospect is his acquisition of syphilis from a visit to a brothel when twenty. Most of what is central to Nietzsche's thought is seen as inescapably in need of interpretation by reference to that experience. It lies at the heart of the philosopher's need to address --- repeatedly, insistently, poignantly, triumphantly, tragically --- the problem of pain. The word `pain' chimes insistently through the pages of Barker's poem. Nietzsche identifies his Dionysian philosophy as distinguished --- above all --- by a "love which foresees pain and violence/Yet still concurs with life"; there is a terrifying illusionless clarity about his observations on the human condition:
The absolutely irredeemable
Meaninglessness of human suffering.
This we have set above kings, above law.
This is the foundation of our motive.
Torture is the word and torture the thought.
There is no God but pain for this is sure.
Barker's verse idiom has the necessary flexibility for his purposes. He can be colloquial or matter of fact; he can be rhapsodic; he can be aphoristic:
The Christian God serves to justify God,
Off-loading the bestial onto man.
The Greek God serves to justify man,
Off-loading the bestial onto God.
Elsewhere he can create some splendidly vertiginous invective, as in the catalogue of despised moral philosophers:
The conclusion-jumpers, the question-mark
Leap-froggers, the cupboard-lovers, the shrill
PeccadilloČrs, the snazzy cacti,
The web-weaving dust-catchers, the needle-
Threading hoaxers, the fool's gold chatterers,
Warblers, periwinklers, trumpet-blowers,
The whole is a sustainedly persuasive act of poetic ventriloquism. It throws light on much that I, at least, had hitherto found dark. I am no kind of expert on Nietzsche, and Sebastian Barker's poem has given me a greater understanding of him than I ever got from more `orthodox' introductions to the man and his work. Those who know much more about Nietzsche than I do have also spoken warmly about the poem's wealth of insight. For that, for the frequent power of the writing, and for its demonstration of the possibilities of a distinctive kind of poetry it deserves to be widely read.
Leaving aside the easily over-looked likelihood that the title of William Oxley's collection, despite its plain descriptiveness, will probably be the most remembered title since Wendy Cope's Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, this is the first such volume of poetry for twenty-six years. The first since Auden's of the same title, in fact. And though an even bulkier volume than that maestro's collection, it certainly bears comparison in its range of metrical skills.
If, at times, the idiom is somewhat `higher' than Auden aspired to, nevertheless there is just as great a range of concern and subtlety of thought. At times, too, there is a metaphysical penetration of subject matter, and a pure sweet lyricism (see the sequence Mirrors of the Sea, for example) which the more cerebral Auden only occasionally offers. It is true that Oxley has a less immediately distinctive --- some might say idiosyncratic --- voice than that of his great predecessor. But Oxley employs a greater variety of voices as, for example, in Polydorus Redivivus,or in the extended character sketching of The Playboy.
Oxley belongs more directly in that Elizabethan tradition where the one-voice-syndrome was less --- de rigeur. While Oxley is every bit as adventurous as Auden in his employment of the diverse metrical resources of the English tradition, it must be said that his handling of those resources is somewhat looser and more cavalier. Even so, the occasional lack of `polish' is largely explicable as the consequence of the younger poet's ambitiousness and his willingness to face up to what Glyn Pursglove's introduction describes as Oxley's "intelligent perception of the problem that the modern poet cannot sidestep if he wants to offer his readers something like a world view or cosmic vision".
The poet's refusal to sidestep the challenge has produced a volume breathtaking in its range of concern, from the worldly anguish of The Dark Structures (1967) to the mystical heights of A Rose on the Tree of Time (1980); from the mythico-satirical Notebook of Hephaestus (1980) to the pure celebration of nature and the sea in The Mansands Trilogy (1987) and his loving requiem for the age of modernism in Swansong for a Golden Age (1988). Oxley's Collected Longer Poems deserves the warmest of welcomes. It takes its place among the more important collections of poetry to be published in recent years. Not just for the range of subject and for the scope of the individual poems it contains; it also recommends itself by the beauty of many particular passages:
In this world's long night of hiding
Only what is felt is what's abiding
...the world, golden and blue and green
Like a lovely marble in the interstellar void,
Is a dark-stroked dream of truth which we inspire.
Such fine lines are not readily to be found in today's poetry, least of all as part of poems of real intellectual substance.
I have made up a list of noteworthy long poems or poem-sequences published in Great Britain beginning with Basil Bunting's Briggflats. I have restricted most poets to one work, choosing their best. Very few poets have more than one work worth considering. Sequences are difficult to classify but I hope I have done my best. Readers please feel free to comment and offer additions. E&OE.
Briggflatts, Basil Bunting (also in Collected Poems 1968), Fulcrum, 1966.
Funeral Music, Geoffrey Hill (in King Log), Andre Deutsch, 1968
Circe, Stuart Montgomery, Fulcrum, 1969
The Tribune's Visitation, David Jones, Fulcrum 1969 (also in The Sleeping Lord, Faber, 1974)
Six Glasgow Poems, Tom Leonard, Midnight Press, 1970 (also in Intimate Voices 1966-1983, Galloping Dog, 1984)
Crow, Ted Hughes, Faber, 1970
Six Epistles to Eva Hesse, Donald Davie, London Magazine Editions, 1970
Mercian Hymns, Geoffrey Hill, Andre Deutsch, 1971
Amana Grass, Jon Silkin, Chatto and Windus, 1971
The Rough Field, John Montague, Dolman Press, 1973
On a Deserted Shore, Kathleen Raine, Dolmen Press, 1973 (also in Collected Poems, George Allen & Unwin, 1981)
Artorius, John Heath-Stubbs, Enitharmon, 1974
The Twelve Parts of Derbyshire, Edward Boaden Thomas, Hub, 1975
Brand the Builder, Tom Scott, Ember Press, 1975 (also in Collected Shorter Poems, Agenda/Chapman, 1993)
The Elegies of Quintilius, Peter Russell, Anvil, 1975
Cycles, Bill Griffiths, Pirate Press, 1976
One Another, Peter Dale, Agenda/Carcanet, 1978
The School of Eloquence, Tony Harrison, Rex Collings, 1978 (also in Continuous, 1982)
The Most Difficult Position, John Fuller (in Lies and Secrets), Secker & Warburg, 1979
War Music, Christopher Logue, Cape, 1981
Fox Running, Ken Smith (in The Poet Reclining) Bloodaxe, 1982
A Legacy, Anne Stevenson, Taxvs 1983 (also in The Fiction-Makers, OUP, 1985)
The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy, Geoffrey Hill, Agenda/Andre Deutsch, 1983
A Map of Time, William Oxley, University of Salzburg, 1984
Station Island, Seamus Heaney, (in Station Island) Faber, 1984
Ranter, Barry Macsweeney, Slow Dancer, 1985
The Infant and the Pearl, Douglas Oliver, 1985 (in Kind, Agneau 2, 1987)
Elegies, Douglas Dunn, Faber, 1985
Writing Home, Hugo Williams, OUP, 1985
V, Tony Harrison, Bloodaxe, 1985
A Furnace, Roy Fisher, OUP, 1985
The Golden Gate, Vikram Seth, Faber, 1986
Love's Fire, Andrew Harvey, Cape, 1988
The Cuillin, Sorley MacLean (in Collected Poems) Carcanet, 1989
Omeros, Derek Walcott, Farrar Straus 1989 / Faber, 1990
Madoc, Paul Muldoon, Faber, 1990
The Dream of Intelligence, Sebastian Barker, Littlewood Arc, 1992
History: The Home Movie, Craig Raine, Faber, 1994
Caspar Hauser, David Constantine, Bloodaxe, 1994
What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession
of brief ones --- that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It
is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it
intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements
are, through a psychical necessity, brief. For this reason, at least
one half of the Paradise Lost is essentially prose --- a succession
of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding
depressions --- the whole being deprived, through the extremes of
its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or
unity of effect.
...Edgar Allan Poe, `The Philosophy of Composition' from Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1901
Both the writer and the reader of long poems need gall; the
outrageous, the intellectual --- and they need it again and again. The
prospect of ignominous failure must haunt them continuously.
Proposal: the founding of The Long Poem Group.
Objectives of Group:
(a) To encourage the modern epic and the long poem through critical debate on all aspects of the forms.
(b) To help raise the standard of execution through better understanding of the technical difficulties involved.
(c) To examine through discussion and written review specific examples of the forms published in recent years.
(d) To meet a minimum of three times a year, at 22a Lawford Road, Kentish Town, London NW5 2LN, for debate and discussion. It was agreed Members would be expected to contribute to the catering costs of these meetings in kind or money.
(e) To publish a newsletter reflecting the transactions of the group, as and when suitable material is available, through the offices of Acumen Publications, Brixham, South Devon; the publication to be edited by William Oxley and Sebastian Barker, except for the first issue which will be the sole responsibility of William Oxley.
Statement of Group's Criteria to approach the subject: a modern epic or long poem will be a development of the traditional models from Homer to Milton, but will not exclude subsequent developments, such as Wordsworth's model in The Prelude, which incorporated the subjective viewpoint. However, the group will mostly rule out experimentalist conceptions of the epic or long poem since it believes these are unlikely to contribute to the further development of this tradition in any particularly significant manner. The group believes this is because, far from addressing such central problems as narrative method, the use of imagery, or characterization, and a coherent structure, such works no longer advance our understanding of the historic practice. To continue in such moulds, therefore, inevitably obscures and devalues the means by which we build up a belief in the meaning of the communal or individual experience to be communicated.
Founding Members: the above-named. The names of Glyn Pursglove, Hilary Davies, Patricia Oxley and Peter Carter were also mentioned either as possible contributory members or observers.
Eligibility for Membership of Group: publication in book form of a modern epic or long poem or proof of durable intererst in the subject.
Future Members: membership is open to anyone who satisfies the rule for eligibility and agrees with the group's criteria to approach the subject.
Membership Fee: none.
(a) Statement of group's objective, eligibility, criteria, etc.
(b) First issue, to be edited by William Oxley, to contain reviews of Barker's The Dream of Intelligence and Oxley's Collected Longer Poems; reviewers as yet to be named, but Glyn Pursglove to be approached to review The Dream of Intelligence. Other reviews of long poem volumes in future issues.
(c) Articles on the genesis and the technical making of a modern epic or a long poem.
(d) Transactions of the group, including texts of talks given by guest speakers.
(e) Results of questionnaires put to makers of long poems.
(f) Letters received.
(g) Short passages from works-in-progress
(h) Other relevent data.
(Minutes prepared by Sebastian Barker.)
This newsletter is produced by Acumen Publications, 6 The Mount, Higher Furzeham, Brixham, Devon, UK TQ5 8QY.