The Long Poem Group Newsletter/Edited by Sebastian Barker and William Oxley/No.3 November 1996

Report of First Full Meeting of The Long Poem Group

held at Lawford Road, London, NW5 on Saturday July 6th, 1996.

Present:Sebastian Barker, Fred Beake, Hilary Davies, Sally Evans, Leah Fritz, John Greening, John Gurney, John Heath-Stubbs, Grevel Lindop, Patricia Oxley, William Oxley (Chairman) and Michael Wright.

After welcoming members, Sebastian Barker opened the proceedings by noting how, at a certain point in his career, he was unable to carry on writing exclusively short poems or sequences of short poems. `The real issues in my mind were not addressed by these formats,' he said, adding, `English poetry has to concern itself with more than, "little linguistic and logical constructs", as John Heath-Stubbs puts it in Artorius.' He explained that the group had not come into existence `simply to provide an information exchange.' The aim was `to exchange practical knowledge, as well as any theoretical wisdom to be had.' He reminded the group of the supreme challenge of the long poem or the epic: `the wave on wave of poetic experience possible in a long poem has no counterpart in a short poem or sequence of short poems. It is the unbroken thread, vibrating at length, which makes this the case.' But for this to happen succesfully the poet must be certain `the thread is fastened securely at both ends.'

John Heath-Stubbs continued the proceedings with a wide-ranging talk on the making of his epic poem Artorius. He outlined how, in his youthful reading, he had first thought of writing an epic based on Arthurian sources, especially those presenting Arthur as a figure of the quasi-historical period of late Romano-Britain. He built on an idea from Robert Graves: `If we had learnt about Arthur from an historian such as Procopius, we should have a very different picture of Arthur from that given us by Medieval Romances.' It was also, he said, `a commonplace at that time [the 1930s] to say the conditions of our world were in some ways similar to those of the last days of the Roman Empire. So I read widely on the history of the period and on the mythological background of the Arthurian legend.' He pointed out that those who have written about Arthur in modern times can be divided into two camps: `the Gaufridians, who derive from Geoffrey of Monmouth; and the Malorians who take their cue from Malory and Tennyson.' His ambition, however, was at first set back by the fact that Charles Williams published an Arthurian poem. `I felt he had done what I wanted to do.' But the later publication of Gavin Bantock's Christ had rekindled his ambition. It was this poem's `rather simplistic nature' which appealed to him. Each book of the poem `represented one letter of the ordinary English alphabet.' He decided to work out his own structure on more complex lines. `This was basically a cyclical structure with reference to several sets of symbols.'

His rationale was as follows: `If you look at Paradise Lost it contains comedy, history, tragedy, then lyrical and pastoral --- they're all there.' Because of this, he decided to base the poem on the nine muses, as his first set of symbols: in each book the particular muse would preside over a different kind of poetry appropriate to her. To this base he added other sets of symbols from Spenser involving numerology and the signs of the zodiac. These made the poem as a whole into an astrological cycle. Further sets of symbols were built into this cycle: the seven planetary gods and the twelve labours of Hercules. John Heath-Stubbs laughed at the evident complexity of this: `The point is that by getting such a system of symbols going, the poem almost wrote itself.'

The Chairman then introduced the specific technical questions which had been circulated in advance. In response to these, Grevel Lindop made some suggestive remarks: `It is possible that questions on how the long poem continues to survive may be looking at things from the wrong end. I would suggest that the long poem's survival doesn't require explanation in itself because the long poem is the norm for poetry. What requires explanation is how, in our time and place, we've come to think of short poems as the norm. Historically short poems are unusual. In ancient or oral cultures the world view and principal stories --- histories and myths and the main spiritual and cosmological knowledge --- are normally conveyed in long poems. What really settles the length of a poem is the relationship between the attention span of the audience and the inventiveness of the poet. The short poem largely emerged as a distinctive form only after the invention of writing and the use of inscriptions. Short poems become increasingly common in societies where people want strong and memorable inscriptions for things like grave monuments, drinking cups and rings.' So it was that funerals, religious rites, celebrations of love, for example, helped to determine the short span of the written lyric. `Another obvious contribution to the emergence of the short poem was made by song. Once you have written song books, lyrics tend to detach themselves from the music, and print encourages the process further. Of course, when poems start competing for space in periodicals, you get the familiar three to four inch box at the bottom of a column. Cost and traditions of publishing now keep the poems we see publicly as mostly short.'

In the light of this analysis, John Heath-Stubbs wondered why the Chinese and Japanese never wrote long poems. William Oxley asked, `But isn't the renga a substitute for the long poem?' Fred Beake's response was more indirect: `In China...there is a tendency, say in Tu Fu, to take a comparatively small space in terms of page and duration and construct an "enormous" or "long" poem in terms of the matter of the poem.' Hilary Davies added to this notion that the density of allusion which ran through Chinese calligraphy was all-too-often lost on the western mind.

William Oxley then raised E.A.Poe's point, about the length of the poetic impulse and that it cannot be sustained beyond a certain time duration or number of lines: a long poem is therefore a contradiction in terms. Hilary Davies found this very much a 19th c. idea, adding that Poe was a man of his time. John Heath-Stubbs thought that Poe was in reality refuted by Benedetto Croce. Croce tried to apply Poe's point to Dante. What he found was that the very complexity of the Divina Commedia was so much more than the sum of its parts.

John Greening was concerned about the middle-length poem. He mentioned "Ode to the West Wind" as `the kind of length of which many great English poems are composed.' Hilary Davies questioned whether "long" had to be synonymous with "epic", with the clear implication that it did not. Patricia Oxley pointed out that an epic has rules which must be followed and that these rules helped to distinguish "long" from "epic". John Gurney saw the ballad as `a sort of half-way house.' John Heath-Stubbs recalled the 19th c. theory that you stuck a lot of ballads together and you got Homer. He commented: `I think that is quite wrong. But it was under the influence of such theories that Lönnrot compiled "The Kalavala".' John Gurney spoke on Milton's `Apollonian approach to composition.' How did Milton `approach his epic stylistically?' He explained that Milton `knew there were three basic styles on top of the narrative: the low style of rational exegesis, the middle-style for aesthetic elaboration and the high style, which was given to a sort of rhetorical persuasiveness.' He added to this that themes are modulated as the poem progresses.

John Greening brought up the appropriateness of blank verse in the long poem. Sebastian Barker said he had found blank verse, as this is commonly understood, to be inappropriate. In his own case, he had used what he called `decasyllabic blank verse'. William Oxley asked if this line were designed `to reclaim for poetry what has been lost to the novel?' Sebastian Barker agreed: his line had, indeed, been designed to reclaim `a lot of what has been lost to prose.' John Gurney said that what he liked about the decasyllabic line was that it could be made close to conversation but was yet `something better than prose'. He spoke of `this lovely flexible thing of ten syllables.'

Sally Evans complained that she had `felt a lack of a base from which to write a long poem.' However, study of Pope and Dante, Homer and Virgil aroused her interest in `the hard, rhythmic form,' which she used in her long poem Millenial. William Oxley asked her about structure `beyond the verse form.' She revealed she had divided the poem into nine sections for the same reasons as John Heath-Stubbs: to invoke the nine muses.

Fred Beake introduced what he called `two distinctions'. The first was the long poem that is `very carefully crafted'. The second was the long poem as `spontaneous composition'. He thought the second happened `more than we tend to think nowadays'. He pointed out that the two central acts of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound were written in two months --- without the detailed structural considerations mentioned by John Heath-Stubbs. He was also keen to stress that `the twentieth century has sometimes preserved the long poem by compressing it.' --- and gave as examples Eliot, Pound and H.D., and Williams' Paterson. He was concerned, too, with how a long poem works `when you actually read it aloud.' If publishers were to acquire an active interest in long poems, `you've got to create situations in which the long poem is actually performed and listened to.' He said that his experience of the long poem in performance was that it worked better than the short poem `because people have to listen to it.' This was because `in half an hour you listen better than you do in two minutes.'

William Oxley brought the discussion back to Grevel Lindop's argument that the original poem, `the ur-poem, as it were', was long and it was oral. Michael Wright said that for him what essentially constituted a good long poem was that it subscribed in all respects to the principle of unity. There had to be unity of purpose or intention. Unity of theme. Unity of technique. Ideally, this unity should be present in the mind of the poet at the conceptual stage, before anything was written. Such unity would be a guiding force through all the stages of the poem's composition.' Leah Fritz added, `What we're aiming for, what the ambition is, is to write something that is beautiful.' This applied to long or short poems. She spoke of the `partcular magic of the perfect poem.'

That Visionary Poetic Tradition/Hilary Davies

Vale Royal, Aidan Andrew Dun, Goldmark, L20.00

This poem of 92 pages and 31 of notes, beautifully produced by Goldmark, Uppingham and printed in Verona, with additional full reading by the poet on two compact disks, relieves, startles, exhilarates. Relieves, firstly, because its existence proves the persistence of that visionary poetic tradition which has given British literature some of its finest and most enduring works, a tradition derided by many of the post-war generation, not particularly to their credit. Startles, because the form and content which Aidan Andrew Dun has chosen to make the vessel of this vision is sui generis, that unique mixture of the known and the freshly interpreted which is the hallmark of an original work. Exhilarates, because his command of language shows a proper understanding of the poetic and succeeds in creating a strange and evocative imaginative landscape. Something completely new has arrived in British poetry.

It is important here to stress British, for the intellectual provenance of the poem, though eclectic, is recognizable. Dun's central object, and central metaphor, is the course of the river Fleet in London, (the `Vale Royal' of the title), the most famous of the `lost' tributaries of the Thames. Lost, because of its degradation from river, to stream, to ditch, to sewer, the usual fate of watercourses that have had great cities established along their banks. Part of Dun's vision is to peel away the historical and archaeological layers that have buried not only the Fleet, but all the former cities of London --- when he walks the streets, he `notice(s) treasures where it was thought there were none' and `burn(s) the lamp of memory to retrace,/ To penetrate and know the darkness of time'. So the enclosed storm drain of the late 20th century becomes `the flashing downward race of the Fleet', the river of time, the succour of London, the witness of empire, Alph, Lethe, Styx. The landscape that Dun inhabits is not that of `the boredom of modern contours'. Instead, the places and placenames carry for him the full weight of their metamorphosis through time, and none more so than the church of Old St. Pancras, now marooned on a piece of high land behind King's Cross. This little Norman church is transformed into `the Cathedral of the translucent foundations', where something of the memory of the tribe reposes.

It is also important structurally in the poem, for it becomes the background against which the first of the poem's two main protagonists is introduced. Dun has chosen to use the seven year old William Blake (in Cycle One) and the ill-fated Thomas Chatterton (in the much longer and more developed Cycle Two) as the human vehicles for his vision, whilst the antiquarian, Druidic fanatic and freemason, William Stukeley, has to bear the weight of Dun's metaphysic of evil. In so doing, he states very clearly his spiritual and literary allegiances: Biblical, Gothic, Romano-British, Arthurian. But it would be a mistake to imagine therefore that there is anything derivative about the way he uses such subject matter; the whole is perfectly absorbed and mediated through Dun's language, which is lurid, accessible and yet brilliant with colour in the way Blake's prophetic books are, `On headlands of red gold the castles of the Levant/ Shine like clasps on the edge of a dark garment,/ or blaze with their superstructures over the shoreline/ Like shields which hang by pavilions in semi-darkness.' The vividness of Chatterton's mental imagination becomes the means whereby Dun can explore an inherited but ignored European past, and the `visions' which he has serve to remind us that we ignore that past at our peril. Chatterton's death has the vertiginous feel of Piranesi's `Prisons', `There are massive buildings in partial ruin./ Solid flanks of black masonry merge with the sky,/ or lie across the junction where they have fallen'; the reader descends through this particular nightmare into the very circles of a Dantesque Hell, `The poisoned flower of a military necropolis,/ with perfumes of sulphur and child-flesh drifting/ from seven smokestacks rising on the roof like fins'. And with these smoke stacks we are suddenly back amongst the real satanic mills of London, or worse, being constantly transported in and out of history and myth, back and forth between an inner and an outer reality. This poem was 22 years in the making: let's hope its author won't have to wait as long for his readership to understand what he has achieved.

Vale Royal, Goldmark, Orange Street, Uppingham, Rutland, UK LE15 9SQ.

Quotes and Questions

(Readers are invited to send in quotes or questions relevant to the long poem and its making)


`A long poem is a test of Invention which I take to be the Polar Star of Poetry, as Fancy is the Sail, and Imagination the Rudder.'
...John Keats

`Now making a work is not thinking thoughts but accomplishing an actual journey.'
...David Jones, Preface to `The Anathamata.'

`Thinking of Milton and Pope points to a further feature of the long poem: its didacticism.

The didactic element can be analysed still further. The long poem is the proper place for ethics, and for ethical systemization. Over time the "textual space" once taken by ethics has tended to be filled instead by psychology or politics --- although in a poet like MacDiarmid the boundaries between these concepts are blurred.

This didactic tradition, this "textual space", leads the long poem towards engagement --- whether ethically or politically, celebratory or satiric. The long poem is fundamentally engaged with the actuality of public life in ways that lyric rarely is.'
...from `the long poem': a colloquy compiled by Martin Mooney.

`One of the problems about writing a long poem for the twentieth-century poet is, I think, that it mustn't be a novel in verse, because novelists can obviously do that better.'
...John Heath-Stubbs, from `Poets Talking', Carcanet, 1994

`We must find a new form of verse which shall be as satisfactory a vehicle for us as blank verse was for the Elizabethans.'
...T.S.Eliot, `A Dialogue on Dramatic Verse', 1928.

`The invention of narrative verse, such as will carry on a long story, is one of the great distinctions that mark the appearance of the true epic...Besides the fairly well established types of Beowulf and Roland...there are other early kinds of literature with much [of] the character of epic, narrative literature with much of the epic spirit in it, the presentation of life in an heroic age, yet without the complete poetic form, without the narrative verse...'
...W.P.Kerr, `The Dark Ages'.

`Eliot, like Whitman, also emulates the repetition of the Bible and the alternation of the prosaic and poetic that he thought essential to the long poem.'
...Lyndall Gordon, `Eliot's New Life', OUP, 1988.

`Long poems are out of fashion nowadays, and as a poetry editor I can see why...the days of the true epic are over forever: its raison d'être was associated with the need to memorise long stories for recitation, and that has now been completely obviated by the twin inventions of print and video recording.'
...Mike Shields: Orbis Magazine


In the nineteenth-century `narrative' too often drove out the `discursive', and in the twentieth century the situation has, by and large, been the reverse. Consequently, one of the central problems relating to the modern long poem is how can these two important aspects be brought back into harmony, for without the multiple threads of discourse and the singular thread of narrative there can be no tapestry?
...William Oxley

New Member's Applications

Further applications for membership are under active consideration and any new members will be listed in a future issue; Ian M.Emberson (Lancashire) is confirmed as complying with the criteria stated in the first newsletter.

Checklist of Long Poems

(additions sent in by various correspondents to those listed in the first and second newsletters.)

Gaudette, Ted Hughes, Faber, 1977.
The Matter of Britain, Hugh Morland, Cudworth Press, 1990.
Plant Care, (from `In White Ink'), Mimi Khalvati, Carcanet, 1991.
Turner, David Dabydeen, Cape, 1994.
Millenial, Sally Evans, Diehard, 1994.
Towards The West, Fred Beake, Salzburg University Press, 1995.
Fool's Paradise, Rupert M.Loydell, Foolproof Books, 1995.
Vale Royal, Aidan Andrew Dun, Goldmark, 1995.
Interiors, (from `Mirrorwork'), Mimi Khalvati, Carcanet, 1995.
Piroutte of Earth, Ian M.Emberson, Salzburg University Press, 1995.
War, John Gurney, Salzburg University Press, 1996.
The Millenium of the Magician, Eric Ratcliffe, Astrapost, 1996.

This newletter is produced by Acumen Publications, 6 The Mount, Higher Furzeham, Brixham, South Devon, UK TQ5 8QY.