The Long Poem Group Newsletter/Edited by Sebastian Barker and William Oxley/No.5 October 1997

Editorial addresses

Sebastian Barker, 70 Wargrave Road, London N15 6UB.
William Oxley, 6 The Mount, Furzeham, Brixham, Devon TQ5 8QY.


Brendan Kennelly

It struck me once that certain words on their own are potential epics. For me, the word "Cromwell" is such a phenomenon. When, as a boy, I said that word, or heard it spoken, a confusing, nightmarish vision of history (his story) banged around in my head. I heard the curse of Cromwell. I saw burning castles. I heard dying screams ("three thousand killed in a day, wasn't that somethin', boy!"), I saw Cromwell's trees along lonely by-roads ("great man to hang anyone that got in his way -- and it bloody worked!), and I was swallowing a way of teaching "history", whatever that is. This way of teaching was impassioned, prejudiced, ruthlessly methodical, tragically sincere, and brutal -- if you didn't pick it up as it was intended to be picked up from the mouths of men who'd had "history" stuffed into their heads and hearts by teachers hair-raisingly like themselves. Certain styles of teaching are intent not on opening minds but on closing them.

Cromwell. I took the word and for years I concentrated on teasing out those many different aspects of the man and his "history" that I was capable of grasping, exploring and revealing. But I couldn't write a long poem as I understood long poems. I couldn't go from A to B to C and so on. What I could do was look at a complex figure in a complex situation from a number of different angles; and I could do this in a stubborn, surprising, tenacious way. I could do it in an obsessive way. So, to me, the first characteristic of a long poem is a deliberately willed obsessiveness. It is this willed obsessiveness that allows credible and authentic contradictions to exist within a long poem; it also permits that drama of voices, which in my case is a way into reality, to establish itself, to work itself out, to make itself heard. When a voice is heard, there is some hope within the poem that a shred of justice is being achieved.

This pursuit of a shred of justice follows from willed obsession and a sustained drama of voices. These three together open up the imagination, challenging one's cultural, religious and political prejudices, and stamp on the long poem a kind of willing, defiant vulnerability that is often leaped on by articulate moralists and people with solid convictions. This defiant vulnerability is inevitable if one tries to write a long poem about a "damned" figure like Cromwell in Irish culture, or Judas. I spent eight years writing The Book of Judas in the same obsessive, multi-voiced, open-minded, dramatic and defiantly vulnerable way. As I wrote it, I found that it was also writing me, in that it challenged me to define "betrayal" in all its complexity and I couldn't do this without scrutinising my own capacity for the horrific attitude and action for which Judas was, is, and will be damned. To some extent, the long poem helps me to understand the nature of justice while refraining the impulse to judge. It also compels me, gradually and strangely, to sympathise deeply, even at moments to identify with, the scapegoat, the outcast, the available victim.

I now believe that every word is an unexplored epic. Words are always ready to open up, to share their secrets. The same cannot always be said of our minds and hearts. The long poem is an experiment in intellectual and emotional openness in an extended, intensified and fearless way.


Jon Silkin

Is the long poem a less solipsistic form, or a dead one? Unless the work is a sequence of lyric-type parts held together by the narrative, like Maud, where its flower is the failure of a relationship, the long poem needs internal structure and spiritual architecture. Yet what kind of long poem is Song of Myself? The Waste Land, different though it is structurally and generically, probably in its lack of reliance on narrative, belongs in the same territory. Whitman uses a germ, a cluster, a nexus of idea-feelings with which to structure variety, where Eliot constructs, or intuits a conclusion. I say this notwithstanding Pound's not always useful interventions. This may indicate that American poets have broached what we in the British Isles, for whatever reasons, may still be in the process of re-structuring. The magnificent exception to this is Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger. Had the war allowed him to survive, Isaac Rosenberg's poetic drama, tentatively called The Unicorn, might have achieved a very different but composed achievement.

The Long Poem Group has gone over much of this, so I can only repeat that narrative as a controlling impulsion seems to dilate the poetic component of a work. Yet the strategy of poetry as its own structural and sustaining justification is unlikely to hold either. If narrative is an unsatisfactory controlling presence, so probably is myth. The poem composed to subserve myth is myth with poetry acting as its exegesis.

Architecture, structure, cannot of itself provide energy, but it may enable it, and the idea of house/home, house housing home, is close to the theoretical picture I am constructing. We have re-located some of our concerns, and although God is constant, human lives have changed their focus. Wordsworth's `The Ruined Cottage' and `Michael', two of the most potent "longer" poems at the beginning of our modern period, shifted the basis of our consideration from governing princes to working people, who were vulnerable not through some pitiable flaw in their character which brought them down, but because they were -- quite simply -- human. Johnson recognizes exactly this point in his Life of Collins; "But man is not born for happiness," he tells us, using the unexalted and at times exigent life of an ordinary man on which to base his conclusion.

If I seem to jump about, it is only because many of Johnson's subjects are, like Johnson himself, city dwellers. So how is an urban "long poem" to be done? Does one plan it as one might draft an idea for a house? Do I elicit a poem's ley-lines in some diagram? Is the poem a structure of energies, nucleated by evaluative ethics? Should one be present as an ingredient working in the poem's structure? Can one plan the values in a poem, or are they deeply and inescapably implicit? How much consciousness need I, must I, bring to this structure larger than others? Are the notes for the poem the poem's very self, as some have wished Constable's sketches to have been the last rather than the preliminary acts? Is the process of making a part of our present long poem's implicit subject-matter? I put it this way because once the picture has settled it will change again. Lastly, where do we find our readers and who might they be?

I am asking questions to which I know few answers. But maybe it's like this. Trees die and under pressure accumulate to coal. People die, and their responding feelings and ideas, from the period and place where they lived, yield communally accumulated value. To find where these ideas are working and viable we need to discover where we are held in tension in relation to these ideas and experiences of others, seemingly outside the compass of poetry, yet within its possible ambit.

If we can turn narrative, which in certain respects is integral to the long poem, inside-out, we might re-direct its energy. Instead of energy subserving a story, the story itself might take on the life in houses and shops, as it is watched over by both terrorist and mother-child-father. I have found that when a picture of some person, or event, remains in the mind, and insists on being thought of, it often shows itself to be housing a great deal of material (unlike the image). Such material links one's own life to that of the communal life, existing from the past and in the present.

As a rider to so much of this speculation I want to say what it feels like to work on a long poem; I imagine I am not alone in what I am about to say. Firstly, because we cannot follow the structure of the epic or the narrative poem, we have few guiding principles, and fewer examples. Lacking these, we should not create false comfort-zones where, in honesty, we are in territory which often feels, and is, uninhabited and absurd. We must communicate, yet without knowing the zone, its geography, the language to use, or find, in an empty space. A sceptical act of faith seems the most likely mode for proceeding. So what is that?

To trust oneself is all you can do. All you perceive is how others live, and the risk you take in making something banal or, at the other extreme, unintelligible. So be it. All you have, on the one hand, is your experience in relation to others' experience; and on the other, fear that you may find and use a language within you and in response to the other-than-you, which is inadequate to these things that are like simulcra. I suppose this is why I proposed that the writing of the long poem involves patience and the smallest amount of ego. It's like the act of a translator but where no original exists.

If all this sounds like willing martyrdom, I would ask a question that probably haunts most poets who write long poems: why do it, when it is said that even short compositions are read once and forgotten, or passed over in silence? Adrian Mitchell wrote "Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people." Many embryonic essays exist here, but one might be to do not so much with "most people" but what affects many of us.

Many people in Britain have apparently let slip their connection with the Church in a country that has an established religion. Yet the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which opens up for inspection and questioning the divinity but not the ethical or moral power of Jesus; and which reconsiders the authority of the Catholic Church and how it acquired it, has had substantial sales and has remained in print since first published in 1982. The role of the Church, or lack of it, in many peoples' lives, does not suggest that the values with which this book concerns itself affect the few. I would argue that any work which essentializes values that have been tested, and still exert a potent and beneficial influence, establishes a claim for consideration. I make somesuch argument for the use and value of the long poem. The poem's compass may be relatively small, even restricted, but its concerns and ambit need not be so: the long poem stands a chance of saying much that actuates values which concern many.


Douglas Oliver

As baldly as possible, I'll write about how various long poems I've written acquired their form.

Before starting In The Cave of Suicession (1974), I imagined the creative act to be like a gathering of materials in darkness followed by sudden illumination. For other reasons, I wanted the poem to counteract the emotional field of a suicide in a cave. In all-night sessions in a Derbyshire cave, I treated the darkness as a burlesque oracle, and built a poem out of what actually happened. At the centre-point of the cave, I left a candle burning on a sort of altar-slab, before retreating backwards the way I came.

A real bee flew into the cave and -- not knowing why -- I started incorporating bee imagery into the poem. A mother's voice called outside: "Debbie!" -- I found `Deborah' to be Hebrew for bee prophetess. Not till later, also, later did I learn about the classical connection of bees with oracles. Later, also, I was told that the cave, chosen at random, was nicknamed `Suicide Cave'. Many other such coincidences were discovered for me by Peter Riley. The form of the poem came from Swedenborg's books: question (from poet); answer (from cave). I still find the whole poetic process uncanny.

I completed The Diagram Poems (1979), some years after working in a Paris news agency, where I studied the Tupamaro urban guerillas in Uruguay. The book's theme is the untrustworthiness of what we take to be factual information. First, I mapped into diagrams how the Tupamaros moved as, in separate operations, they took over a Uruguayan town. The maps were transformed into cartoons and the cartoons into poems. By printing maps, cartoons, and poems together, the tragedy was made to live again, but in the uneasy relationship between fantasy and reality.

My anti-Thatcher poem, The Infant and the Pearl (1979-83), attacks monetarism's harsh social effects while lamenting socialism's inability to control financial liquidity or to create economic energy. (These are, of course, the problems Mr Blair now wrestles with.)

Form and title went together. `Infant' here means a Down's Syndrome child as symbol for all the socially disadvantaged. John Hall had been reminded by my first novel of the medieval Pearl poem because of the role a child plays in it (my latementally-handicapped son, Tom). That struck a chord because just before my daughter Kate was born on a snowy January night in Cambridge, our front door was flung open and an immense midwife announced: "I'm Pearl." `Margaret' of Margaret Thatcher is Greek for pearl.

The 14th century Pearl has a more complex metrics than, perhaps, any other English poem. Its 101 12-line stanzas (100 for perfection, one for unity), are each rhymed as closely as an Italian sonnet. Their first lines contain a key word, their last line is a refrain, and these change at five-stanza intervals. The four-stress lines all alliterate up to four times. THe form and title linked my life experience to a prosody capable of accomodating many different tones.

One other example: my Penniless Politics (1990-92) was written on New York's Lower East Side, where we lived near Tompkins Square Park, an area rapidly gentrifying. The park itself had become a tent city, lived in by the homeless. Few locals could bear to see the homeless ousted, yet there was a policing and sanitary problem. Developers and the newly arrived yuppies wanted a clean neighbourhood for their money. Some genuine pro-homeless leftist activism and a lot of `anarchist' hooliganism made the area nationally notorious for riots. I became fascinated with the gap between New Yorkers' terrific private idealism and their political cynicism.

I began a satirical poem which assembled disadvantaged characters into what I called Penniless Politics. Their party, Spirit, gains power in a brief mirage, before the dream dissolves. I took Tasso's ottava rima, klutzed its smooth lines to yield a squawking New York effect, and altered the rhyme scheme to give a street rap effect. To add more New York energy, I incorporated newspaper articles, modelled on New York Post style, which blurt into the text and also explain tricky parts of the plot. For variety intermitted incantations showcase street language.

As it was unforgivable cheek for a white Scotsman-emigré to write about ethnic minority issues, I deliberately performed excerpts from the poem before multi-ethnic audiences so that they would have a chance to catcall. About this time, Bob Holman and Miguel Algerin restarted the famous Nuyorrican Poet's Café on Lower East Side. The big feature was a poetry slam, a competition judged like Olympic skating. I got in at about slam evening number 3 and saw that the café was a perfect mixed audience. In their tolerance, they even let me, the Brit, win one round -- the series was eventually won by the brilliant Paul Beatty.

I have other various long sequences, but these remarks have one main point: the form and metric of a long poem should have a deep prosodic motivation. I usually give the prosody further roots in my personal experience. After all, my life seems to me sometimes the same, long poem.


John Greening

There has always been a tension in English poetry between the lyric and the drama. Think of Shakespeare, whose pearl-like sonnets gleam the more impressively for being strung in dramatic sequence, and whose plays sweep on between glorious lyrical patches. One cannot enjoy the fullness of Shakespearean poetry without a context. Even a set piece like "All the world's a stage" needs Jaques to open the speech's exits and entrances to a timeless forest of myth. This balance between the breath and the life which that breath sustains is essential to the Long Poem; and the Long Poem is the living, breathing maturity of literature. It is hard to think of many canonical poets whose greatest work is not -- or was not intended to be -- a Long Poem. Even Emily Dickinson wrote in book-length "fascicles". Yet we regularly acclaim poems of "under 40-lines only", as if we could dispose of the Monarch and proclaim the Republic of the Short (convenient, undemanding) Poem. But the Monarch has not been in hiding. He is, however, a master of disguise.

Despite John Heath-Stubbs' doubts, the Long Poem can and frequently does work as a novel -- in Anne Stevenson's Correspondences or Andrew Motion's Independence, for example -- and more frequently still as autobiography: from History the Sonnet Sequence to History the Home Movie. Narrative has always supplied pit-props for poetry's tunnelling of the soul. Titles as diverse as Robert Penn Warren's Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, John Masefield's The Daffodil Fields, and W.S.Graham's The Nightfishing show how richly our century has mined. Then we have the Long Poem as Journal (Autumn Journal or Notebook or Moortown) or as Chronicle (John Montague's The Rough Field, Tony Harrison's V); as Grand Puzzle (the Cantos or Madoc) or as Grand Romp (Brendan Kennelly's Cromwell, Frank Kuppner's A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty; as Music (Four Quartets, Briggflats) or as Architecture (Heath-Stubbs' Artorius, James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover); as Meditation (Ronald Duncan's Man, C.K.Williams' A Dream of Mind) or as Discourse (Auden's Letter to Lord Byron or Sebastian Barker's The Dream of Intelligence). Not to mention the long night's Dreaming to be experienced in the work of John Ashbery.

Garrulousness is the danger. But the advantages are considerable: (a) the length allows the hypnotic pulse of metre really to take hold; (b) it lets the personality of the poet persuade us (as Chaucer does -- all long poems are a pilgrimage!) that we want to spend so much time in their company; and (c) it can be liberating for the poet -- so Geoffrey Hill composes The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy at unaccustomed speed, and discovers a less hermetic -- and, for me, more moving -- style.

But in the end, the problem is finding readers. Those who opt for the fattest airport novel will still not touch a Long Poem unless, perhaps, like Seth's The Golden Gate or Raine's History, the book is marketed solely as fiction, with little or no mention of the verse. Having put the book in their hands, though, will they realise there is an art to reading it? That one must break a taboo and try at least some of it to oneself aloud? That there is a physical as well as a dream pleasure to be found, which has nothing to do with prose? That one must be half-carried by the current, but always keep the conscious mind paddling?

We have lost the conviction that poetry is the best way to express the most profound ideas. It is too undemocratic. It puts on that superior voice and says: you have to get on the right side of me. So it is hardly surprising that the Long Poem has become something of a fable to most readers these days. If they met one, they wouldn't know where to put themselves.

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