The Long Poem Group Newsletter/Edited by Sebastian Barker and William Oxley/No.6 October 1998

Editorial addresses

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

WRITING CASPER HAUSER

David Constantine

I wanted to write a long poem before I knew that I wanted to write a poem about Casper Hauser. Gradually the first wish concentrated on the second. Why want to write a long poem? In a good year I might write eight or nine lyric poems, and of these two or three will soon reveal themselves to have been mistakes or failures and will fall away. I find the long periods of absence and inability hard to bear. I felt I should like to have a poetic subject with me all the time, or at least for a long time. Though writing poetry always troubles me I like that state better than not being able to write.

I knew all about Casper long before I thought I could make him the subject of a poem. There is massive documentation of him in German and I had read most of it. I saw Herzog's film, which I loved, and Handke's play, which I hated, but otherwise kept clear of anyone else's fictional, poetic or dramatic presentation of him. Had I known all along that he would, in the end, haunt me poetically I might have read less about him at the outset. The other day I read a dissertation written by a student at the University of Bonn on my use of historical material in Casper Hauser. She was very thorough. I felt rather alarmed, and in the long poem or poetic drama I am writing now I at once backed off all further historical research, to give my own imagination a bit more room. Schiller warned poets off subjects that are in themselves intrinsically interesting. Interest should be engendered through poetic treatment, he thought: through how not what. Casper Hauser, endlessly fascinating, was in that sense a most unsuitable or risky subject.

I had to settle the form of it before I could begin. I wanted a verse that I could sustain and chose a loose version of terza rima. In every three lines two rhyme or assonate. The lines vary greatly in length. I like the feeling of longer or shorter breath, and the visible expansion and contraction of the lines is, I think, pleasurable for the eye. To give urgency and momentum there is a great deal of enjambment, from line to line and from unit to unit. Overall the form is retrospective. Three characters at the ends of their lives reflect more or less guiltily and unhappily on their dealings with Casper. This form suits me -- I did the same in my novel Davies -- and in working thus retrospectively I made room for much lyrical reflection, which, as I intended, contradicted the prime function of the epic poem, which is to tell a story. In Casper Hauser the story has, to a large extent, already been told. Daumer, Clara and Stanhope repeat their versions and reflect on it. A narrative voice moves among them, relating and commenting (mostly with some irony). I felt happy in this peculiar mixture. Straight storytelling is difficult in verse. You might do it much better in prose. If you find yourself saying in a fancy (`poetic') way what you could just as well or better say in prose, then you are going wrong and it all wants crossing out. That is why I slipped again and again into reflections and lyrical lament. There I felt on surer poetic ground.

In the Eighth Canto I took a great risk, and wrenched the poem into my own day and age and into the life on the streets of cities I am familiar with myself. There was some preparation for this in the narrator's voice and in his choice of similes, which are often anachronistic, i.e. modern. I did not want to write a poem whose interest would be largely antiquarian. And there was always a risk, the more I embedded myself in the fascinating biographical and historical context.

I wrote at the poem for fifteen months, doing some almost every day. During that time I wrote scarcely any other poems. When I finished Caspar he turned away from me as though I had failed him. I felt utterly disconsolate. I might say, to cheer myself up, that failure was not only inevitable but also in a sense appropriate. As in Davies the characters reflect on a person they have comprehended very imperfectly. Failure, like his absence, haunts them for the rest of their lives. Likewise for the rest of mine.

HOW LONG OR SHORT PERMIT TO HEAV'N

            (Paradise Lost XI,554)

Gavin Bantock

The editor of a leading British poetry magazine wrote recently that long poems are `out of fashion nowadays'. Referring specifically to the `true epic' and the `need to memorise long stories for recitation', he says this `has now been completely obviated by the twin inventions of print and video recordings'.

I doubt this. Not all long poems are epics, and because something is out of fashion it does not mean it is irrelevant or lacking in quality. If good long poems are being written today they are no less valid as works of art than short poems are. I wish to remove immediately, however, any sense of rivalry between long and short poems. Who can say how long a short poem is or how short a long poem may be? Also, no true artist is a slave to fashion.

I have been writing poems, both long and short, for some forty years. My first major work, a 7,000-line pseudo-epic on Christ employed what has been rightly called a `rather simplistic' form, namely, sections based on the twenty six letters of the alphabet. Homer was my example: his two epics have twenty four books because there were twenty four letters in the Greek alphabet. Virgil followed this idea, but his Aeneid has only twelve books because he didn't complete it. Milton followed Virgil, perhaps not realising this.

Four later of my poems, Hiroshima, Person, Juggernaut and Ichor were written as what Fred Beake calls `spontaneous composition'. I was more concerned with content than form, but they each have, I found later, an inherent form. When I came to write Eirenikon (a proposition for peace) (Anvil, 1972), needing a more sturdy framework, I constructed the poem as a Euclidean theorem with five sections -- Given, R.T.P., Construction, Proof and Conclusion. These headings, used fairly loosely, give the poem, I believe, strength and cohesion.

For over twenty years I have been trying to write a long poem called SeaManShip. The theme and basic structure were always clear to me: `Sea' represented the natural world, `Man' human intellect, and `Ship' all that is man-made or `artificial'. It was to be a sort of personal manifesto. I just couldn't find a suitable form or poetic style for it -- until April of 1996, when I suddenly had the idea to create it in the form of a computer or software manual, giving it three parts, subdivided into nine -- Start Up, Desktop, Install, Open, Enter, Edit, Save, Print, Shut Down. Again, these headings are used loosely, but they provide the reader with a `sense of whereabouts' -- an essential ingredient, I believe, for any succesful long poem. SeaManShip is the first of my long poems to use stanzas of regular length and also to use rhyme. The rhymes hold together what amounts to a poem that is 90% free verse.

I do not agree with Poe's stricture (mentioned by William Oxley) that `the poetic impulse cannot be sustained beyond a certain duration or number of lines'. It took me over two years to write Christ and over three months to write SeaManShip (2,187 lines). The secret is to know when to switch off and take a rest. When the poem is going well and I have a clear idea how to continue, I always stop writing, just before the peak of a wave, so to speak, so that when I next continue I can begin at a high point. It is thus possible to sustain inspiration over a long period.

In my opinion there are too many poems being written today, and too little good poetry; there is too little linguistic inventiveness, too much flabbiness of imagery and content. Many poems seem to be dependent on the size of the paper they are (to be) printed on, and frequently reveal a lack of training. A good poem should never be limited by trivial considerations such as finance, magazine size, reader attention-span, etc. It is only the vision, the theme, the strength of inspiration, the form and language that count. A long poem may be a better vehicle for linguistic experimentation and evolution than a short poem. But I take no sides: I have written poems as short as one line and as long as 7,000 lines. In fashion or out of fashion, there is room in this world for poems of any length whatever. Live theatre (and its attendant need for memorization), for example, has not been `completely obviated' by the film and television industries. There is no reason to believe that long poems have had their day.

THE LONG POEM, THE SEQUENCE, AND THE CONCEPT POEM-BOOK

John Kinsella

In childhood two of my favourite poems were The Prelude and Paradise Lost -- I suppose it's not surprising that "the long poem" has been an obsession for me. But in terms of process I was more influenced by The Waste Land and the Cantos than any pre-twentieth century verse. I liked the fragmentation, the internalisation and breakdown of the narrative process which remains, nonetheless, like a ghost limb. Enzensberger's book-poem Titanic was another work that had this effect on me, though its "narrative" is in some senses more available, and recent long, linguistically innovative text by poets such as Lyn Hejinian and Susan Howe are of particular interest. But my tastes are diverse and eclectic -- for me, innovation and tradition are necessary to each other.

I'm interested in creating a hybrid poetry that incorporates elements of both. In recent years I've been involved in a number of long collaborative poems, such as D & G with Urs Jaeggi, and collaborative concept-book projects which include The Kangaroo Virus Project, with sound artist and photographer Ron Sims (to be released shortly as both book and cd). My next volume of poetry, The Visitation, is also an interactive thematic novella-poem book, and I've also completed a long sonnet sequence.

In the early nineties I received a couple of grants to enable me to work on developing techniques for the writing of long poems. Eventually these experiments resulted in two very contrasting works, Syzygy and The Silo. Both of these poem "sequences" originated in work being done in the mid to late eighties but it wasn't until 1993 (Syzygy) and 1995 (The Silo) that they appeared in their final forms. Both were opening gambits to more recent projects: the volume The Hunt and the cumulative work-in-progress Graphology. The long poem as "concept book" maybe.

The Hunt, like The Silo, is "pastoral", or as I prefer to call it "anti-pastoral", in tone -- exploring issues arising out of the introduction of European farming practices into what is now known as the wheatbelt area of South-West Australia. The world view is invasion rather than settlement, if you like. At the core of this project is the often unspoken destruction of indigenous cultures. The colonisation of environment, language, and culture. This is not a point that's necessarily approached directly but one that informs every line of the work. It is one of the sub-textual narrative threads that makes these works "single" poems, rather than collections of purely individual pieces. The ordering of poems in both books is the key to a collective reading (I like to think of them as poetry novellas in a sense).

The Silo is shaped around the five movements of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, with each section working through and against the original model. Unlike Beethoven's utopian rural construct, the rural world I portray is above all else human. It has its good and bad points. The dark world of destruction and a malignant Fate that parallel every rural image I convey have often been termed "wheatbelt gothic", which is the title of a poem that appeared in my third full-length collection, Full Fathom Five. This connection isn't arbitrary -- all my work is connected in one way or another. I see my writing as a project, and it could be argued that all my poems are part of one long work or at least drafts towards one substantial piece of work.

The Hunt is not as rigidly constructed as The Silo, though the order of the individual poems is extremely important to the subtextual narrative that binds the work together.

Around 40 separate poems all interact with each other and come together in a distinct poetic narrative. It utilises, like , colloquial speech, which also plays into the tradition of the epic -- or anti-epic, another one of my "targets".

I studied The Iliad and The Odyssey at university after reading them in numerous translations as a child -- Lattimore's Iliad capturing my imagination most vividly. I loved the idea of a poem being handed down by word of mouth, of the need for the "text" to be visualised. Maybe that's why I deploy a variety of techniques that allow a poem, or section of a poem to be more easily memorised. The thing that fascinated me most about Homeric poetry was the idea of interpolation, particularly in The Odyssey. How much was added by whom and when and why. What constitutes the "original" text? This is particularly relevant in a time when "appropriation" is a catch-cry. Eliot works this superbly in The Waste Land. With colloquial voice we are establishing a network of appropriations -- alternative narrative threads are suggested within the primary story. Robert Frost has been a huge influence here and remains my favourite poet, despite our very different political concerns (coming from different "places" is not a problem!). These issues are explored in a variety of ways in both The Silo and The Hunt but are particularly relevant to Graphology.

Like Syzygy, Graphology is about the process of writing itself, as well as the language of observation. Graphology is the title of a booklet of mine but is also the name of a larger project. The eponymous Graphology was in fact part 2 -- the first part being another booklet published in 1996 entitled The Radotni Poems. Since then there have been Annotations, Superstitious Bookes. Graphology 5, etc. published in journals or on the internet. Sheep Dip, the next instalment, is due out in Ireland shortly. If the project is ever "completed" it will appear as one volume. Graphology has been conceived right from the earliest drafts as being the long poem that one writes over a lifetime.

Graphology is literally about how and why we write. It is about the word itself, about the line, the stanza, the typography, font, page itself. It is an interactive space. Parts of the text revert from palatino font into handwriting. We ask ourselves -- is speech closer to thought or is handwriting? But it's also a work that encapsulates many of the concerns of The Hunt and The Silo, in the same way that Syzygy does. It is landscape poetry as well as wordscape or linguistic poetry. It is also a work in which the landscapes of South-West Australia merge, interact, and work against the landscapes of England, particularly the fens (I live in Cambridge now). This is something that links strongly with my belief in what I call "international regionalism" -- a respect for regional integrity but in an environment of global communication. The element that binds these diverse works together, apart from technical devices, is landscape. To map place is integral to mapping language. And that's, for me, what a poet does.

THE LONG POEM AS BIOGRAPHY

William Oxley

Eric Ratcliffe, WELLINGTON A Broad Front, Astrapost, UKP 6.95/$ 12.00

      Distributed by Drake International Services, Market Place, Deddington, Oxford OX15 0SE.

This long poem is an historical account of the campaigns of the first Duke of Wellington, from his exploits in India, to his defeat of Napoleon, and then onto the end of his life, both as a political and public figure of great importance in the 19th century. The character that emerges, and in my view lives, in this poem is that of a great and noble man: one who was, considering his remarkable achievements, most self-effacing. In short, a figure very, very hard to recognise in modern egotistical human terms. It is a long poem, self-evidentally well researched (there are extensive notes and bibliography, as well as a detailed dramatis personae appended).

However, due to special circumstances, I had the privilege of reading the poem anonymously, without any such appurtenances; and I did find it both well-orchestrated and readable. But, in truth, such are only the minimum requirements of any good long work, such as a novel. A poem has to be something in addition, namely, it must attain to a beautiful perfection of utterance, `the best words in the best order'. None among the greatest epic poets achieve this constantly; but Eric Ratcliffe not very often. So what I was admiring was, inter alia, the fact that `Ratcliffe deserves praise for what he has attempted', for having `addressed'... the key problems we have discussed [in the Long Poem Group] and made a long poem out of the attempt' -- if I may quote my co-editor.

But where my co-editor feels `the hero of the poem, Wellington, `never comes alive', I do. And I think this because, as may be inferred from what I said earlier, the kind of man that Wellington was (or is here presented), is not one to whom a late twentieth century readership can easily recognise as being `human', or easily relate to as a consequence: much in the way that the Media has almost no interest in good news, having long since equated the `human' with the `sensational' figure -- ie. one governed by the lower passions alone. For me, the chief weakness of this poem lies in the actual quality of the writing -- it being insufficiently poetic and musical in its expression -- it has too close a relationship with prose; or `chopped up prose' as is the negatively critical term often applied to late twentieth century metrical incompetence.

But that said, and all before, it entitles Wellington to be singled out among the more ambitious poetic works of the last year.

Checklist of Long Poems

(additions sent in by various correspondents to those listed in previous newsletters)

Yesterday in Cehyddion Valley, John Powell Ward, Anglo-Welsh Review, (Summer 1972).
There is a Green Hill, John Powell Ward, Planet 16, 1973.
Song of Anarchy, John Rety, Hearing Eye, 1989.
Nelson: The Golden Orb, John Twells, Ownart Ltd., 1995.
Entries On Light, Mimi Khalvati, Carcanet, 1997.
The Love of Strangers, Michael Schmidt, in Selected Poems 1972-1997, Smith/Doorstop Books, 1997.
Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes, Faber & Faber, 1998.
The Apocalypse of Quintilius, Peter Russell, Salzburg University, 1998.
Wellington, Eric Ratcliffe, Astrapost, 1998.
Harlowski, Gordon Wardman, Blade, 1998.
Fredy Neptune, Les A.Murray, Carcanet, 1998.
Touching The Earth, Grevel Lindop, Temenos Academy Review, 1998.
Elizabeth I, Wendy Bardsley, in Steel Wings, Headland, 1998.
Events Leading to the Conception of Solomon, The Wise Child, Dannie Abse, in Arcadia, One Mile, Hutchinson, 1998.

New Members' Applications

John Rety (London) is confirmed as a new member of the Long Poem Group in compliance with the criteria stated in the firsr newsletter.

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