Over a year ago, William Oxley made an approach to me to work with him to found The Long Poem Group. He explained it was in part re-reading a long poem I had written, The Dream of Intelligence (Littlewood Arc 1992), which had made him make this request. Naturally, I was curious. But do not imagine I am about to be self-indulgent. Nothing could be further from my intention or the critical purpose of the founding of the Group.
One of the things which struck him about the poem was, as he saw it, its coherence. Making a long poem cohere, however, turns out to be impossible, difficult, or easy, depending on the poem and the poet. So there appears to be no ipso facto virtue in coherence. But, as with a short poem, any poem which does not cohere may be correctly described as to that extent unfinished or abandoned.
In this light, Ezra Pound's despondent, famous admission that he was unable to make the Cantos cohere arouses our interest. `il miglior fabbro?' Unable to make his masterpiece cohere? Why? Why, too, did David Jones, another modernist of genius, run into a similar difficulty in The Anathemata? John Holloway described this great work as `a diffused agitation of particulars, a quasi-free association, a recession and thickness, a trans-finite array of non-plannedness.' He read the work `as a test case of the limits of the modernist method'; and he found in it `no deeper architectonic' than `mere accretion'. Jones himself made no attempt at overall coherence: `I have made a heap of all I could find,' he told us in the preface, quoting Nennius. In a review of it, John Berryman spoke of `the Himalayan difficulties confronting an ambitious modern poet attempting a long poem.' One of these is surely coherence.
Be that as it may, there are plenty of examples of coherent long poems in our age, Eliot's Four Quartets, for all its loose ends, being only one of the most illustrious. Practical inquiry by interested parties does not therefore hinge on incoherence versus coherence. Poetry of merit exists on both sides of this divide. But if poetry of merit does, in fact, exist on both sides, as seems indisputable from the examples already given, and if coherence is in fact aesthetically more desirable than incoherence, as also seems indisputable, then the question of how to make a long poem cohere becomes a matter of central critical importance.
When, after a period of seven years' composition (1935-1942), Eliot finally managed, in the face of the Blitz, to complete Four Quartets, he made what Lyndall Gordon in Eliot's New Life (OUP 1988) called his `Nijinsky leap': `Poised over the turning rim of the wheel [of time], he now made for the hub, the still point [of timelessness].' In making this leap (an inescapable act of courage if the poem were to cohere as a whole), it appears he felt obliged to make a conscious, irrevocable, public commitment to mystical Christianity, albeit tempered and made steadfast by the Presocratic philosophy of Heraclitus. In Eliot's case, it is this core of indubitably sincere belief which helps to hold the disparate parts of the poem together. The successful reception of the poem gives us a transparency of a good part of western consciousness at the time, that is to say in the jaws of totalitarian terror. Further horrors were to come to Eliot's mind: the death camps, the atomic bomb. What kind of Nijinsky leap, we might wonder, must be attempted, following Eliot's example, to reconcile human pain and divine love now? In the notes to her long poem The Angel of History (Bloodaxe 1994), reviewed in this issue, Carolyn Forché said, `The first-person, free-verse, lyric-imaginative poem of my earlier years has given way to a work which has desired its own bodying forth: polyphonic, broken, haunted, and in ruins, with no possibility of restoration.' This provides us with a useful benchmark, which suggests that incoherence is a form of aesthetic arrangement potentially acceptable in the wake of such horrors. The poem is bodied forth (i.e. arranged) as ruins (i.e. as something incoherent with no possibility of coherence). The poetry of Peter Reading, for example, cries out to be placed in this class. But if even Eliot's religio-philosophic efforts in the Blitz cannot be said to square the circle of good and evil once and for all, this is not to imply that the course he took was the wrong one. On the contrary, slippage towards incoherence as arrangement, by those who have not experienced such horrors, seems by comparison unimaginative.
The witness of Czeslaw Milosz is a further indication that a philosophy of coherent order is not only more called for in the face of evil but a more mature spiritual response. This is unlikely to be realised to any significant extent in our age, however, without deeper characterizations of the evils in man than are traditionally found outside tragedy. Within it, is there scope enough in our poetry to test the notion that there is nothing so horrific tragedy cannot bring order and coherence to our understanding of it? To seek no answer to this question is to forego Greek understanding of tragedy; or, for example, the understanding which comes with the confluence of the Greek dionysian and Christian liturgical dramatic traditions in the Shakespearean mainstream. A silly long poem will cohere without effort in its silliness. A comic long poem will cohere with more difficulty in its sense of humour. A serious long poem will cohere with even more difficulty, because of the mixture of its sense of seriousness with its sense of humour. And lastly, a tragedy worthy of our age will cohere with only the greatest of difficulties --- in the psychology of the tragic poet.
A motto for anyone attempting any but a silly long poem might be: Don't open the furnace door if you don't know how to close it.
Sally Evans' book grew on me. At first I recoiled from its verse form.˙Its rhyming octosyllabics looked too difficult to sustain without sounding like a witches' spell on the one hand, and neo-medieval pastiche on the other.
But I was soon drawn in by the poem's energy, and the poet's exuberance. The genre is quickly established --- mock-epic, and the traditional epiclesis made to Guinevere, a highly dubious muse. This ambiguity soon extends to the characterisation. The hero, Arthur Angel, and his companion, Pearl Price, are introduced in the basement cafe of an Oxford college. Their mode is quickly established as allegory rather than naturalism. The idealism of youth is to be put to the test. The hero and heroine form a Platonic bond they trust will lead them through the pity and fear of their tragic dream --- television:
I sing the hero, and the fight,
with spirit as the magic wand.
With such shallow figures as her main personae, and an essentially episodic and divergent approach to her theme, the main interest of the book soon becomes the poet, her comments and ideas, and her multifarious imagination. These, and the interesting wood-cuts that illustrate the text, keep the impetus going. A dramatic use of enjambment and caesura preserves momentum as the hero seeks to maintain, and eventually re-asserts, values of truth and beauty, as he pursues his career as a T.V. presenter through the chaos of modern culture and the debris of the last millenium.
The danger is, of course, that the idealism underlying the work, with its attempt to affirm meaning and integrity in a world that shows little interest in such qualities, should also succumb to the poet's wit and cynicism, but I do not feel that this happens, even though the thought that the entertainment industry might itself surrender to the power of innocence might strike some as a little too hopeful. Perhaps that's how it's supposed to sound. I enjoyed reading this idiosyncratic poem, and look forward to its sequel.
As long poems go, this one is not so very long --- some 800 lines. Carolyn Forché describes her poem as `ruins' --- but these ruins have been subjected to a process of sorting and discrimination. So there is a movement towards organisation and form, despite the poet's assertion that the work exists without the possibility of restoration.
The Angel of History's lines are spoken by many voices --- some are acknowledged (male) translators of the world, Wittgenstein, Boehme, Canetti, Benjamin, Heidegger, and some are bewildered experiencers of their times (female) incapable often of doing more than asking questions: `What comes back?', `What has eaten these walls?', `And the fields? Aren't the fields changed by what happened?'. Fragments of the fifty years since World War II are arranged in the form of what seems to have been snatched hurriedly by desperate people in circumstances which are never brought fully into focus but haunt the poem at its margins. These `bits of speaking' are `bodied forth' in identities which are never secure --- I, he, she, you, the child, appear and disappear throughout the five parts of the poem, sometimes bearing names, sometimes coalescing into relationships with one another, but always, and unpredictably, to be removed.
Removal and absence are the keys to reading this demanding poem. The poet is American, removed from her own family history, which figures in the poem in a return to Czechoslovakia, and removed both by generation and geography from the European history at the centre of the poem's horrified gaze. We are frequently in the virtual reality of the `as if' --- `As if someone not alive were watching'. The poet's eye looks to landscape to bear testimony in the absence of the people who might have done so, as if fields could speak:
This is what we have taken the ordinary world to mean: bootprints in clay the persistence of tracked field. What was here before imperfectly erased and memory a reliquary in a wall of silence.
The fields are trampled and bloodied by history, the villages that tended them `erased'. In the absence of so much, we turn to memory as to a religion. The recurrent fields in the poem give way to lonely, alienated urban scenes, the night-vaulted corridors of the Hotel-Dieu in Paris, a ruined city, streets of kiosks, a block of worker housing flats --- left behind is `the village of the first person', an identity that was once intact and from which we could speak.
In this sense, Forché's poem is a version of pastoral, a post-modern version (certainly post-Wasteland --- there are repeated references to April and to lilacs); the organising intelligence of The Angel of History finds itself, confined and bereft, in `The city of what could be said'. The child, who appears throughout the poem as not yet fully part of the world Forché depicts, is part of this pastoral vision --- the child as swain. The image of the ruin itself suggests its previously the ruin itself suggests its previously whole and innocent-of-history self. But where is this pre-historic monument upon which the poem somehow rests?
Forché's poem is a beautiful lament --- that we must live in history, that we live in `the worst of centuries'. Benjamin's Angel of History views the catastrophe of history in its entirety, as he is borne helplessly into the future towards which his back is turned. In admiring the relics that Forché sets for us in the wall of silence, it is as well to remember that there is a distinction to be drawn between worship and remembrance. Benjamin's essay (`Theses on the Philosophy of History') concludes by observing that the training and instruction the Jews received in remembrance enabled them to turn to a future in which `every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.'
If we introduce temporal, geographical, national and critical criteria, the list becomes a case of what's in and what's out, or, what's worse, who's in and who's out, which is out of keeping with the spirit of the founding of the Group. If, on the other hand, we take on board all-comers and remove any starting date, all critical criteria are removed and the exercise becomes historical, world-wide, in short, bibliographical, which is also out of keeping with the spirit of the founding of the Group.
This is not to suggest that the group is disdainful of criticism or bibliography, but the reverse. The distinction between a long poem and a long sequence of poems, for example, is a matter John Heath-Stubbs has agreed to touch on at a future meeting. The critical points which emerge from such meetings will be used to construct any putative critical bibliography. The drawing of distinctions in geographical space and historical time is also clearly fundamental to any definitive checklist. What is the point of delimitation in space and time, for example, if we want an overall (i.e. global) view? But what is the point of no delimitation in space and time, if we want a local (i.e. national or regional) view? Such questions will shape the personality of the list.
The following are added to the list published in the first Newsletter. Further suggestions are welcome.
City, Roy Fisher, Migrant Press, 1961.
The Ship, Tom Scott, OUP, 1963.
Christ, Gavin Bantock, Donald Parsons, 1965.
Ichor, Gavin Bantock, Poetry Review, ?.
At the Shrine of the Unkent Sodger, Tom Scott, Akros, 1968.
Person, Gavin Bantock, Anvil, 1969.
Coombe Hill, Brian Louis Pearce, Ore, 1969.
Paysages Legendaires, Peter Russell, Enitharmon, 1971.
Funland, Dannie Abse, Portland Univ. Lib., Swansea Univ, 1971.
Requiem for the Sixties, Brian Louis Pearce, privately ptd., 1971
Glasgow Sonnets, Edwin Morgan, Castlelaw Press, 1972.
In Memory of David Archer, George Barker, Faber, 1973.
The Hermaphrodite Album, Redgrove and Shuttle, Fuller D'Arch Smith, 1973.
The Sleeping Lord, David Jones, Faber, 1974.
The People, Jon Silkin, Carcanet, 1974. (from The Principle of Water).
Stations, Seamus Heaney, Ulsterman Publications, 1975.
The Corridor, C.H. Sisson, Mandeville Press, 1975.
Commius, Eric Ratcliffe, Quarto Press, 1976.
The Tree, Tom Scott, Borderline Press, 1977.
Fools' Paradise, Grevel Lindop, Carcanet, 1977.
Boneplace, Brian Louis Pearce, Outposts, 1977.
In the Stopping Train, Donald Davie, Carcanet, 1977.
A Reply to Intercepted Mail, Anna Adams, Peterloo, 1979.
The Feast of Euridice, Elaine Feinstein, Faber, 1980.
Affirmations, Jasper Rootham, Lomond Press, 1982.
Cromwell, Brendan Kennelly, Beaver Row, 1982.
Crackenrigg, William Martin, Taxus, 1983.
Footsteps on a Downcast Path, Jon Silkin, Mammon Press, 1984.
Woods beyond a Cornfield, Stanley Cook, Littlewood, 1986.
The European Letters, B.M. Hill, Stride-Taxus, 1987.
Shadows from the Greater Hill, Tessa Ransford, Ramsay Head Press, 1987.
Bright River Yonder, John Hartley Williams, Bloodaxe, 1987.
Tourists, Grevel Lindop, Carcanet, 1987.
Hinny Beata, William Martin, Taxus, 1987.
The Great Return, Jay Ramsay, (bks. 1-5), Diamond Press, 1988.
The Echoes Return Slow, R.S. Thomas, Macmillan, 1988.
The Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness, Selima Hill, Bloodaxe, 1989.
Jack O'Lent, Brian Louis Pearce, Stride, 1989.
Boxing the Cleveland, Anthony Howell, Anvil, 1990. (in Howell's Law)
Kings, Christopher Logue, Faber, 1991.
Seven Valleys, poem in seven parts, Tessa Ransford, Ramsay Head Press, 1991.
Mandelstam Variations, David Morley, Littlewood, 1991.
The Adoption Papers, Jackie Kay, Bloodaxe, 1991.
A Prismatic Toy, Grevel Lindop, Carcanet, 1991.
The Book of Judas, Brendan Kennelly, Bloodaxe, 1991.
Elegy For My Wife, John Ward, Envoi, 1991.
Hall of Mirrors, Danielle Hope, Rockingham Press, 1992.(in Fairground of Madness)
The Playboy, William Oxley, Salzburg Univ. Press, 1992.
A Dream of Mind, C.K. Williams, Bloodaxe, 1992.
Snowcase, Annemarie Austin, Bloodaxe, 1992.
The Flashlight Sonata, Robert Shepherd, Stride, 1993.
Conversational Elegies for a Tyneside Kid, B.M. Hill, Salzburg Univ. Press, 1993. (in Dolphins and Outlaws)
Marra Familia, William Martin, Bloodaxe, 1993.
Yarrow, Paul Muldoon, Faber, 1994. (in Annals of Chile)
Western Swing, Andrew Greig, Bloodaxe, 1994.
Acknowledged Land, Linda France, Bloodaxe, 1994. (in The Gentleness of the Very Tall)
The Ice-Pilot Speaks, Pauline Stainer, Bloodaxe, 1994.
The Angel of History, Carolyn Forché, Bloodaxe, 1994.
Huntingdonshire Eclogues, John Greening, Rockingham Press, 1995. (in Fotheringhay and Other Poems)
Poetry My Arse, Brendan Kennelly, Bloodaxe, 1995.
Staying Alive, Denise Levertov, Bloodaxe,1995.
Watersmeet, Jon Silkin, Bay Press, 1995.
The Schooner `Flight', Derek Walcott.
I by no means believe that the `long poem' is a thing
of the past; but at least there must be more in it for the length
than our grandparents seemed to demand.
...T.S. Eliot, The Use Of Poetry And The Use Of Criticism
... the Poundian requirement of an epic: it is `a
poem including history.'
...Neil Corcoran, The Song of Deeds
So far Classical allusions and Biblical ones and (in
my case) Catholic liturgical ones still more or less work --- but
only more or less because the whole bloody past is more or less down
the drain, as far as I can make out.
...David Jones --- Letters to Vernon Watkins
Perhaps they [the people of Europe] will rediscover
that epic genius [of the Greeks] when they learn how to accept the
fact that nothing is sheltered from fate, how never to admire might,
or hate the enemy, or to despise sufferers.
...Simone Weil --- Intimations Of Christianity Among The Ancient Greeks
The epic voice goes epileptic ... In attempting a poetry
of ideas MacDiarmid can sound like a lunatic lexicographer.
Seamus Heaney --- (Martin Mooney, as above)
MacDiarmid came to value quantity at least as much as
quality. He was forever advocating the intrinsic merits of the long
poem, sure that length was poetic proof of artistic integrity.
...Alan Bold --- MacDiarmid: A Critical Biography
Purpose of Meeting: To consider arrangements for Long Poem Group meetings; how to include all Members in person or by proxy. To consider the response to the first Newsletter.
Future Meetings of Group:
(a) To encourage participation by all Members, it was suggested that an agenda of points for discussion should be drawn up at least two weeks before any proposed meeting and sent to all Members. Anyone unable to attend would have the right to respond in writing and relevant parts of their letters would be read out at Meetings.
(b) The main conclusions reached, or areas of contention discussed, would be published in the following Newsletter for wider circulation.
(c) Sebastian Barker suggested a guest speaker at some Meetings would aid discussion and put forward John Heath-Stubbs as the first guest. He would be asked to speak on matters of structure including the distinction between a long poem and a long sequence of poems. Questions would also be asked, if he were willing, on the making of his long poem Artorius.
Points Arising from first Newsletter:
(a) It was evident that the Checklist of long poems had attracted the most attention. Many people had written in adding to the list. It was agreed each addition would be catalogued subject to the provisos stated.
(b) The `architectonics' of the long poem were discussed in the context of the Checklist and were felt to be of critical importance in coming to terms with the growth of the list.
(c) Members were invited to propose questions for discussion at future Meetings. Some suggestions were: `What is the driving force which compels a poet to write a long poem?'; `Does a long poem now stand a better chance of finding universality in the life of a person rather than in the life of a people?'; Communicability? Who needs it? How far has this attitude taken the long poem from coherence with society?'
New Members at Meeting: Hilary Davies, Patricia Oxley. Requests for Membership were received from: John Heath-Stubbs (London), Michael Wright (Camberley), Peter Carter (Ledbury), Tom Scott (Edinburgh), Warren Hughes (Mold), John Gurney (Bexhill), Glyn Pursglove (Swansea), Colin Rowbotham (London), David Latané (Richmond, USA), John Greening (Huntingdon), Sally Evans (Edinburgh), Anna Adams (Chiswick & Horton-in-Ribblesdale), Grevel Lindop (Manchester), and Charles Hadfield (Newton Abbot).. Requests considered under Eligibility for Membership. All confirmed as members..
Future Members: It was emphasised that the Group was open-ended and non-exclusive and subject only to the Eligibility criteria..
To be edited by Sebastian Barker. To contain minutes of the Second Preliminary Meeting.
For readers of the TLS's worry in its review of the first Newsletter, it is reported that the self-catering at the Meeting was successfully carried out. Food was provided by Hilary Davies in the form of left-overs from her 40th birthday party at The Society of Authors.
(Minutes by Patricia Oxley)
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