One year on from the first full meeting of the group, some members were invited to showcase its work in public debate. William Oxley: "It is curious I should find myself here, in the hometown of John Masefield, to talk about the long poem and to introduce some members of the group. Curious and co-incidental because, though I have written a number of long poems over the years, the only one which aspires to narrative form was written as a direct consequence of reading Masefield's The Widow in the Bye Street in the early Eighties. It was something in the immediacy, pace and character-sketching that especially moved me in that poem of Masefield's, and led me to the composition of The Playboy. One reviewer described my poem as `a verse novelette' and, as such, touched on one of the problems which often get discussed in the group, namely `the wish to reclaim for the long poem what has been lost to the novel'. It has been suggested that, since Milton's Paradise Lost, the novel has tended to take over the narrative mode, with the result that the long poem has become either a fragmented affair, as in The Waste Land of Eliot or The Anathemata of David Jones; or, as with Wordsworth's Prelude, it has become more an epic of the mind than a panoramic tale of the tribe or the community. In Victorian times, and down to writers like Masefield, one still got narrative poems of some length. They tended, however, to be either reduced affairs of a single story, with little counter-plotting or strong characterisation and without philosophical or other digressive discourse. Or, as with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, they were first person pseudo-novels in rhyme or blank verse. The discipline and genre of the long poem grew confused. In America the form became submerged altogether, in strict terms, in work which appeared a cross between the sequence and the long poem -- most famously in Leaves of Grass. But though this confusion of forms within the genre may have diminished potential readership, it has done nothing to abate the wish or will of poets to attempt to write a long poem. Increasingly, despite the fact that critical `received opinion' holds that only the short poem is viable now, poets have gone on producing long poems, whether in Edwardian times like Masefield, or after. Since the Second World War alone upward of a hundred long poems have been published in these islands -- as the Long Poem Group has discovered."
A short reading by Oxley from his own poem The Mundane Shell showed the difficulty of selecting passages from a long poem for public readings. A longer extract from Masefield's poem Biography, revealed his ability not simply to work in the narrative mode, but to operate in the more strictly contemporary, self-expressive vein.
Two members of the Long Poem Group, Fred Beake and Sally Evans, read extracts from their published long poems.
Beake is a classical-modernist. He has translated from classical authors (Tibullus and Homer); at the same time, he admires the works of W.C.Williams. He is to have a translation of Aristophanes' play The Peace, published by Univ. of Pennsylvania and is writing a book on H.D. He is a keen Arthurian scholar. His principal long poem, Towards The West, from which he read several sections, was much informed by works such as The Quest for the Holy Grail and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Sally Evans is a familiar poet on the Scottish scene, and it was the publication of her long poem Millennial that brought her into contact with the Long Poem Group. Richard Livermore wrote of her, "She is clearly a seasoned poet who, in terms of the imagination, has gone into the world to collect her work". This was noticeably true with her reading from Millennial in which there was a sense that the poet had determined to bring the world of modern Britain into her discourse. In Millennial everyday life in Britain today, and the media interpretation of that life, are interwoven. It can be said that the justification of the length of the work lies precisely in its attempt to make current life anew in the old way.
In the course of her reading, she made various observations, including this comment on what she had been aiming to achieve in her work. "I intended to split the substance of a long poem into three elements: the Muse, the Hero and the female Poet. I used these three elements like characters in a play. With the Muse I refer to the traditions of literature; the Muse also involves pursuit. The Hero stands for action and must be someone special. I tried to update him by making him a TV presenter, but in fact the Hero is the weakest part in Millennial. The Poet gains confidence at the end of the journey. And `Who finds a land may also make/a language' is a passage referring to Sowerby, the London botanist who collected and painted British flora, about the time of Pope, whose age was, perhaps, the central flowering of English `complete two hundred years ago/our grey-leaved language'. The poem winds down with conventions connected with ending a poem, as in the Hero congratulating the Poet, `a nimble mountain goat or sprite/carries your flowers up the slope'; in the lament for a death, and a celebration of the passage of time."
The introduction and the readings by Oxley, Beake and Evans made an ambience for audience participation. The event was sold-out and there followed a lively question-and-answer session.
The first question came from Lynn Parker, who challenged Fred Beake to say whether "he thought a long poem needed some sort of planned structure?" When Beake said it did, Parker came back with the observation that the extract he had just read "showed no such structure" as far as she could see. Beake countered this with the suggestion that she should "read the whole poem" and, he assured her, she would then "find it definitely structured".
The same questionner brought up Eliot's The Waste Land and wondered whether the structure of the traditional epic was "still at all relevant". To this Sally Evans replied, "We have not excluded the `Bloodaxe type' long poem from our remit", instancing the review of Caroline Forché's deconstructionist long poem, The Angel of History, in the second issue of the Group's Newsletter.
Probably the most pertinent comment of the ensuing debate, however, came from the Rockingham Press publisher David Perman, who flatly contradicted the much-touted notion that the epic or long poem had declined because many of its functions had been `taken over by the novel'. Perman suggested: "It is wrong to compare the long poem with the novel -- what we should be comparing it with is drama. There are fundamental differences in conception, as well as in form, between poetry and drama, on the one hand, and the novel. The novel had its origin in letter-writing and therefore tends to be discursive, verbose and essentially unselective. The typical modern novel has long passages of technical detail -- about the Internet, for example, how to make a terrorist bomb, or the workings of the New York bond market -- interspersed with banal dialogue and explicit sex. The effect is to produce an alternative fantasy world that the reader can dip into casually -- just like television. Drama and the long poem, on the other hand, cannot be engaged in a casual manner. They require a more positive, in many cases a positive commitment. The fact that they share the narrative technique with the novel is an irrelevance, for their treatment of narrative is one of selection and interpretation, not `telling it as it is'. The implication of all this is that the long poem has to be performed -- perhaps to the accompaniment of music. And knowing the reservations some people have about `performance poetry' that may be a difficult pill for the Long Poem Group to swallow."
The long poem as the traditional art form of an oral culture (cf. Grevel Lindop in LPGN 3), composed for performance in eras before writing was used, became incorporated, we might say, in theatrical performance via religious ritual. Drama itself is a secular development of sacred ritual. The set speeches of Greek, Roman and Elizabethan drama might not unreasonably be thought of as long poems placed in the mouths of characters or choruses, as distinct from a single extended performance by a single poet. This means, in effect, that by dividing up the single artifact of a long poem among several voices, it is possible to act out the long poem's theme. Instead of one person -- Homer reciting the whole of, say, The Iliad -- one person acts Agamemnon, another Achilles, a third Odysseus, and so on. The clear effect of this is to heighten and dramatize the enactment of the poem. More especially, it creates greater character interaction and characterization than any poet's sole recitation could give. The metamorphosising of the long poem into theatrical drama, implicit in Perman's theory, not only extends the aural scope of the poetry but implies that, to a certain extent, drama eventually supplants the long poem. Perman's point that it is drama, rather than the novel, which has tended to take over the function of the long poem, is an insight of considerable interest. And one that leads to the further supposition that, since the decline of verse drama in modern theatre, long poems have tended to come back into their own because of the artistic need among poets for more synoptic compositions than the lyric offers.
David Woolley, literature director of Ty Llyn Arts Centre in Swansea, raised two not unrelated questions concerning the long poem today. The first was the effect that cinematic techniques had had upon the development of the long poem, in foregrounding the visual image at the expense of traditional verbal codings, especially syntax and sound, which have tended to be disrupted. Secondly, Woolley built on earlier remarks made by Sally Evans and Patricia Oxley concerning the lack of a shared background of common mythology and reference (especially Biblical or classical) among the contemporary audience for poetry. He asserted that "young people today have little or no knowledge of the traditional myths that usually underpin the long poem of the kind being discussed here". But though his point about "lack of a shared background" was generally admitted, some felt that young people did participate in mythology, albeit in a transmuted form. Patricia Oxley wondered whether "using the Greek and Latin approach, or even simply `having fun with Virgilian style', has any relevance today?" Sally Evans answered this. "There are still quests,there are still journeys, battles etc.," and suggested interestingly that "Tolkien successfully updated epic in The Lord of the Rings, a work I consider highly poetic, and I suspect that he deliberately chose the novel, believing he could not get a large audience otherwise".
With regard to Woolley's point about the impact of cinematic techniques of discontinuity, flashback, image-foregrounding, etc. upon the traditional form of the long poem, it was pointed out that this was not a very contemporary effect, but could be traced back at least as far as Prufrock if not further. It was not simply a novelty of post-modernism, however much the longer post-modern poems (Fisher's A Furnace, for example) may have experimented with such cinema-derived techniques.
Ken Dodsworth of the John Masefield Society (which sponsored In Epic Vein rounded off the debate by saying how he "often bought slim volumes of poetry" but found that he could never read much of them because "somehow, words on the page never come alive for me. The moment, though, I hear the poet, or someone else read them aloud, they become much more meaningful". This served to remind us, however unlikely this may sound at the moment, that the long poem, too, is a work shaped ultimately for public performance.
The session was still in lively debate when the hour and a half allotted came to an end. What was beyond dispute was the value of the public debating of issues which concern, quite clearly, more than just members of the Long Poem Group. These issues seem crucial to a better understanding of the long poem and what we can learn about it.
Agamemnon in Hades, Peter Russell, St Albert's Press, 1965.
Juggernaut, Gavin Bantock, Anvil Press, 1968.
The Secret Sea, Hugo Manning, Trigram Press, 1968.
Eirenikon, Gavin Bantock, Anvil Press, 1972.
Madame Lola, Hugo Manning, Enitharmon, 1974.
Modigliani, Hugo Manning, Enitharmon, 1976.
Dylan Thomas, Hugo Manning, Enitharmon, 1977.
The Vision and Death of Aubrey Beardsley, Derek Stanford, Redcliffe Press, 1985.
Midsummer Morning Jog-Log, Michael Horovitz, Five Seasons Press, 1986.
LIttle Girl Asleep, Rodney Pybus, (from Cicadas In Their Summer), Carcanet, 1988.
Matey Boy, Kevin Fegan, Iron Press, 1991.
The Bending of the Bow, Neil Curry (illus. Jim Dine), Enitharmon, 1993.
Strange Furlongs, Eric Ratcliffe, Astrapost, 1996.
Mosaic of the Air, Michael Wright, Salzburg University Press, 1997.
Tantris, Peter McCarey, Lines Review, 1997.
This booklet gives us the final text of a very fine and original poem, but unusually also offers the intermediate texts in the poem's composition with a commentary. It is not easy, but is well worth wrestling with.
THe final version of the poem has five movements, only one of which is longer than a page. The poem, nevertheless, has every right to be called `long' because of the sheer quantity of material.
Watersmeet is very meditative and follows the pattern of the inner mind.
Is fertlity our only garb? (Some dress in Chryslers)The first half of the line is perfectly reasonable, the second much wilder, much more open to interpretation. For myself, I see a gold car with a human absorbed into it, with the implication, surely, that Man is being separated from the natural world by the mechanical. However, I would not like to say that this is the only `right' interpretation. Nevertheless, the dichotomy between reasonableness and powerful open-ended images is central to the poem's method.
There is a dichotomy, too, in the way the poem arises out of simple every-day fact, the meeting of the North and South branches of the River Tyne at Watersmeet, and the fact that the poet met this poem in a dream several thousand miles from Watersmeet, in Japan. This causes, perhaps, the intense feeling for a landscape that it is not possible to view, and accounts for the intrusions of the Japanese landscape, especially in section two.
Yet the landscape argument seems secondary to the continuous argument about fertility. The traveller in section one bears a troubled burden of fruit, and the railway tracks:
endure the pitiful life of objects omitted from the futureEven in the much happier final section there is the very strange (and fine):
Water sinks through ... scooping a cave where a defeated huntsman barks like his red fox.Certainly, in section two, we have a fairly direct reference to a marriage gone wrong, and at the end of the poem we seem to have a love affair that has made the wearing down of the water of age gentler for the time being. Nevertheless, the sense of the poem seems more impersonal. I have the impression that the poet is coming to terms with the problems of Mutabilite, and seeing Time as a healer.
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