The Long Poem Group Newsletter/Edited by Sebastian Barker and William Oxley/No.7 November 1998

Editorial addresses

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


Sebastian Barker

What is interesting about your career as a whole, over the last twenty-five years or so, is the increasing amount of time and energy you have given to the long poem. `Incantata' and `Yarrow', from The Annals of Chile, seem to me your greatest achievement to date, whether we are considering long or short poems. But the fact is, both are long poems. You yourself place `Incantata' at the end of your New Selected Poems 1968-1994 (1996), indicating, characteristically perhaps, a sense of its special value. Yet you include in this New Selected only brief extracts from `Madoc: A Mystery' and `Yarrow'. This indicates, it seems to me, no more than the difficulty of extracting from truly long poems. It does not suggest, any measure of your lesser estimation of their comparative value next to your short poems. For me, your powers really let rip in `Yarrow', even more so than in `Incantata', and that is saying something.

In your poem `February', from New Weather (included in New Selected Poems), you say:

What was he watching and waiting for,
Walking Scallop every day?
For one intending to leave at the end of the year,
Who would break the laws of time and stay.

Breaking the laws of time is surely at the heart of this matter of squaring the circle. Jocoseriousness is one of your chief instruments in this vocational task. But with `Incantata', which is an elegy on the death of your artist friend Mary Farl Powers, and `Yarrow', which could be construed as a confrontation with death itself, room for joking is not exactly removed from our attention, more removed to one side of it. My opening question then, is that the long poem appears to occupy a vital place, if not the vital place, in your work as a poet, jocoserious or otherwise. How do you feel about this?

As you say, it does look as if these longer structures have played a greater and greater role. Even as I say that, though, I'm reminded that the longer poem has had a central place in the English tradition from Chaucer through Spencer and Milton and Wordsworth and the rest. Somehow, we've come to think of the long poem as a sport of nature, an aberration, rather than the norm. This is true even as we come to the end of a century in which what one might call the `middle distance' long poem has been significant. I suspect that it's because of the relative `difficulty' of many of these poems -- `The Waste Land', `Hugh Selwyn Mauberley', `Paterson', `The Bridge', `Briggflats', to name a few that there's a popular resistance to the form. And I confess that I myself tend to favor shorter poems by Eliot, Pound, Williams, Crane. Both as a reader and a writer I'm drawn primarily to the lyric, or it is drawn to me. But there's something about the scope of these larger structures that's irresistible, an impulse towards the short story or the novel, even, that I can't get away from. And, it's not, of course, that these are a poor man's version of the short story or the novel. I'm interested in what can still be managed in the long, or longer, poem that can't be done in any other form. I certainly don't agree with whoever it was -- Edgar Allan Poe, I believe -- who said that a `long poem' was a contradiction in terms.

In your poem `Our Lady of Ardboe' (from Mules and included in New Selected Poems), you say, `...I like to think ... the fairy thorn no less true than the Cross.' You clearly wish to lose none of the magic powers of the Celtic tradition; nor -- and this brings me to my second question -- the non magical powers of the Catholic tradition. To what extent do you think that the compatibility, as well as the incompatibility, of these two traditions -- and others, of course -- are a useful step forward in the exploration of the possibilities of the long poem?

What you say about "magic" and the Catholic tradition makes me think that there's room for both the charm or prayer or pious ejaculation, or whatever the lyric might be, and the orchestrated dramatic structure of the Catholic Mass, with its loose narrative, its Cinemascope and Technicolour, that corresponds to the long poem.

You might not unreasonably be described as an etymological junkie. As your work progresses, there is an increasing excitement about the powers of linguistic analysis. By the end of `Yarrow', for instance, you are tearing open words like a dog raw meat. There is some vital essence there giving you nourishment: this is clearly instinctive behaviour. But do you think that too much etymological digression in the course of a poem. long or short, might not distract at times from your exceptional powers of narrative elegance?

I'm sure you're right that once or twice I've lingered a little too long over the etymological marrow in the bone. I think of a poem like "Cows" where the speaker makes much of the etymology of the word "boreen". What I was hoping might come across is that I'm very conscious of this being a longeur, of it being downright boring, but I'm not sure if I've signaled that sufficiently, if I've given a reader enough evidence for the ironised tone. In general, though, I believe that one has a responsibility to understand as much as one possibly can about the language one is using, to be as aware as possible of the resonance of every word. That way, there's some chance that one will be able to determine the effect of these words in this order on the reader. In most cases, that should not be foregrounded or highlighted. When it is foregrounded, as with the talking horse, I think one has to ask oneself if one usually pays much attention to what a talking horse has to say. I myself don't.

In an early poem, `Behold the Lamb', (from New Weather, but not included in New Selected Poems), you say to the [dead] lamb, `better dead than sheep.' Whether addressing the Lamb of God or a dead lamb, the poem clearly implies that it is better to be dead than alive. But in the poem `Hedgehog', (also from New Weather, and included in New Selected Poems), you take a much more commendable approach. The hedgehog is both wholly alive and totally inscrutable. In your hedgehog there is a god under `this crown of thorns.' You say, `We forget that never again / Will a god trust in the world.' This is pretty emphatic. The god with a crown of thorns [Christ?], will never again trust in the world. Is that sound theology? I think not. But never mind. There are, in fact, no leanings toward any kind of deus ex machina in subsequent work. You keep yourself scrupulously free of any sort of metaphysical import. You even mock Seamus Heaney wonderfully wittily in `The Prince of the Quotidian', calling him `Doctor Heaney', `the great physician of the earth', who is `waxing metaphysical' and has `taken to "walking on air"'. But the boot is on the other foot, isn't it? at the end of `Incantata' and `Yarrow', where you have to square the circle of poetry without any trickery. It is obvious to the judicious reader that because of this the next stage in your career will be interesting. How do you see your next development as a poet, given that `never again / Will a god trust in the world', and that, as you say at the end of `Yarrow', there is `no ... relief, no ... respite.'? Might the scope of the long poem in any way help in arriving at an answer?

A word about that phrase `walking on air'. It was used of me by Seamus Heaney, that I had achieved `the poetic equivalent of walking on air', I no more mean to `mock' Seamus Heaney than he meant to `mock' me. I expect his phrase, which was delivered in the course of a lecture, did get a laugh. Mine is meant to get a laugh also. A word, too, about `trickery'. All poetry has to do with trickery to a greater or lesser extent, and `truth' and `trickery' are not necessarily opposed though they seem to be in the minds of some lazy commentators. `The truest poetry is the most feigning.' That's my motto. I must say I'm amused by what I suspect is the subtext of this question. It is, of course, that it's only with `Incantata' that I've ever represented, perhaps even been capable of, `feeling'. It's an idea that I've seen proposed by, for example, Helen Vendler. I have to say that when Helen Vendler goes on to complain of me that I display too much feeling in that same poem, I can only conclude that we're dealing here not with a dispassionate reader but a woman with a mission.

One feature of your poetry which I have not seen high-lighted is its many references to drugs. This is not over-evident at the beginning, but by the time of Why Brownlee Left (1980, when you were 29), we have a long poem which is, correct me if I am wrong, about cocaine smuggling. Alcohol, too, has a place throughout. Does your own explanation of the long poem have anything to do with the heaven and hell aspects of such drugs, so well known to the literature?

I think the drug imagery is a metaphor for some kind of transcendence, some nullification of pain, or a combination of the two. I'm not sure if that entirely accounts for the prevalence and proliferation of drugs, but it's the best I can come up with. There are one or two mentions in the new book, Hay, like the `most valiant dust' in `Long-bones'. And you're right of course that alcohol is much mentioned. It's the major self-medication of the nation from which I hail, though I think that's changing now.

In your libretto Shining Brow (1993), you write:

The artist must take a harder
and higher road,
through the dark night
of the soul towards a necessary light.

You also write:

In the prairie of my heart, a little
bird cries out against oblivion.

It is clear that at the age of 46, you are on this harder and higher road. You will, I hope, cry out against oblivion. The voluminous learning which you bring to poetry, and the effortless, throw-away ease with which you wear it, suggest that you won't want for suitable models as you travel this road. What models, if drwan from the history of the long poem, would you care to suggest as useful indicators of the way forward and why?

I hate to have to admit this to the membership of The Long Poem Group, but I've been doing my best over the last four or five years not to write long poems at all. I've wanted to go back and plug in again to the national grid of the lyric in English. The trouble is that, despite my best intentions, I have written three or four longer pieces that show up in Hay. One is a series of ninety haiku, little snapshots of day to day events. I suppose that these combine both the momentary intensity of the haiku and, again, some larger arc and architecture. That's based on an `exploded' terza rima, so it's as if I can't help but find myself a medium for some process of larger structuring. It's as if I set out to pitch a tent and end up building a garage, if not a cathedral. Then there's a poem called `The Bangle (Slight Return)' which is a sequence of thirty sonnets. Again, a smaller unit is used to build a larger. One further complicating factor, though, is that this poem uses the same rhyme-words, in the same order, as `Incantata' and `Yarrow'. This particular `constraint' -- I use the word in the OuLiPoian sense -- is extraordinarily releasing for me. You ask about ways forward. It seems to me that the long poem, like the conventional lyric, must ideally `write itself'. That includes its finding its own form in the world. One of the great mysteries for me is that one can actually combine structure and serendipity to great effect, simultaneously knowing and not knowing what one's doing.

What do you think are the most fertile areas of the traditions, see them how we may, to strike the international note, to key into the global village?

I love the idea of being able to move around, to feel a sense of belonging to several places at once. In my own case, I think this is a function of having been very fixed in one place and dancing on one spot. When I look out of a window, be it in Princeton or in Vermont, it's as if I'm testing the view from the room in which I spent my childhood, a view that's seared onto my retina. That may not be quite right, though, because I think I'm able to accept what I see within the terms it sets up. And I seem to be able to move from place to place and from poem to poem in ways that those who find themselves concerned with the color of one's passport consider to be problematic. I like the idea of holding several passports. It's the equivalent of having none.

We are constantly reminded that you are one of a `galaxy' of Irish poets. If this means anything significant to me, it is that right from the start you had a strong sense of an audience. This has undoubtedly helped the growth and the strength of the Muldoon voice. To what extent do you think that settling in the United States in general and the use of the long poem in particular continues this growth and this strength?

I'd be honored to be considered part of the Irish group though dismayed, as always, by the hurtful aspects of being `in' or `out'. We had a crowd of my daughter's friends over to the house the other day and one of them was in tears because she wasn't included in some game. I suppose that, on balance, I reach out to the person who's not included. This wider question of the responsibilities of the poet is one that's endlessly troubling, in one intellection, or, in another, endlessly tiresome. I think I'm growing impatient with the post-Arnoldian view of poetry as a `stay', as a `consolation', which was just the ticket for the end of the nineteenth century. I prefer to think of it as a destabilizing, disconsoling enterprise. That seems more appropriate for how we live now.

It is obvious that the structure of any good long poem is of the essence. Your early long poems draw on racy literature, even comics, cowboy books, and the like -- not to mention the poetic craft -- to keep punchy, mysterious narratives up-and-running. But `Madoc: A Mystery' is another thing altogether, much more ambitious and interesting. It seems to me that the choice of the basic theme -- Coleridge and Southey in North America where they thought of going but didn't, in fact, go -- was in some sense flawed, in terms of underlying structure. THough the poem is a fantasy, a huge joke, suspension of disbelief sinks in from time to time precisely because we know the fantasy is a bit too far from the truth. It could be argued that by making the poem quite literally fabulous (the talking horse as etymological expert, etc.), you get round this difficulty. But I would argue that in conceiving a long poem, it is a good idea to have a basically sound theme, such as you have in `Incantata' and `Yarrow'. Do you agree?

I do agree that, as Pound put it, `Poetry should be at least as well written as prose.' That includes a regard for `sense'. It's true that `Madoc' is wacky to the nth degree, but it does make sense and its narrative is no more difficult to comprehend than any of a range of modernistic texts that are read by A-level students. As several readers commented at the time, it's `like nothing else'. That's exactly how it should be. I don't think it's more or less sound than `Incantata'. It's just different. That said, it's obvious that `Incantata' is somewhat more conventional than `Madoc', though I see that readers think it, too, is `like nothing else'. Again, that's exactly how it should be. Each poem should, to a greater or lesser extent, be avant garde.

My last question concerns what I think is your most interesting long poem to date, `Yarrow'. In `Yarrow' something unusual is happening -- the death's head is on the prowl throughout contemporary culture, high or low. A titanic struggle develops between the yarrow flower as a symbol of life and the elusive death's head as the fact of death. The tension between these two things is sufficient to propel the poem from beginning to end, creating a superb and durable structure. The repetition of certain phrases, `Again and again', `That must have been the year', `Even as', `All I remember', speeds along the structure and maintains an astonishing degree of readability. You have devised a form into which you can toss anything. And you do. And it holds together. So to what extent do you think that a good long poem is made from the opposition of clearly focused realities -- and the resolution of their opposition in the art of making?

I'm glad you like the grab-all form of `Yarrow'. It's like a huge waste disposal unit cum trash compactor. Just as with a conventionalish lyric poem, I'd no idea where it would end up. As you know, it's a series of `exploded' sestinas, not that one thinks any more about that than one thinks about a car having an engine -- one just expects it to go. So I relied on the envoi to send the poem off with whatever it came up with. It was the logical extension of the obsessive content of the poem choosing this obsessive form. As for `resolution', it's a little bit like `consolation'. It's as if we're doubly doomed, both in wishing for it and never achieving it. That's not to say that a reader won't recognise, and assent to, moments of revelation, though the major revelation is that there are no major revelations, an acceptance of which I find wonderfully `consoling' and `resolving'.


William Oxley

Having reached this seventh issue, the time has surely come to confront that most insistent question, `What is a long poem?'; and to summarize the results of this coming together of a number of people who have either written long poems or otherwise have an interest in them. But first, something about the group experience, before attempting definition.

Members of the group, as a group, have only met twice, the results having been chronicled in issues 3/4. The wider forum, composed of group members and other interested parties, has provided helpful input by mail, for which the editors have been most grateful. Whatever the general view of the venture, it is surely not immodest to claim that the Long Poem Group and its newsletter has given voice to an area which has not been much, if at all, discussed in the long history of poetic practice -- despite the existence of many long poems.

So what is a long poem? It is any poem whose basic rhythmic tendency is towards expansion rather than contraction. It is extensive rather than intensive, no matter how one describes its other attributes. A good analogue might be the difference between a short story and a novel: a lyric or sonnet, being comparable to the short story; a sequence, a ballad, an epic poem being comparable to the novel. As to `how long' a long poem is, the only proper answer is `as long as it needs to be'. Rhythm -- which is feeling-driven and shapes and drives a poem, leading to the articulation of its vision -- will, in the succesful poem, peter out at the instant its vision is completely realised. Even with `the compressed epic', like The Waste Land where concentration of rhythmic energy militates against expansion of vision, it is merely hidden by reduction of those enlarging techniques of narrative and statement. But for those averse to any attempts at definition, long poems remain a relative experience distinguished only by the time taken to engage with them.

Sebastian Barker

From my point of view, two long poems of outstanding interest have appeared during the lifetime of this Newsletter. The first was Vale Royal by Aidan Andrew Dun (Goldmark, 1995); the second was `When The Animals Came' by Hilary Davies (in In A Valley Of This Restless Mind, Enitharmon, 1997). My reasons why are to be found in the following reflections on the article by the late Jon Silkin in Newsletter No. 5.

Silkin called his contribution `Essential Values'. In it, he said, `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.' He had been considering `the authority of the Christian Church' and `the use and value of the long poem'. In his typically subtle way, he seemed to me to be implying that a key epic or long poem might be written in our time out of the essential values of the Tempora Christiana.

Vale Royal makes a succesful bid for this, to any not obsessed by the minutiae of junk culture. `When The Animals Came' adds the extraordinary complexity of visionary culture thirty thousand years before the birth of Christ. Once the perspectives of these two poems have been taken in, a renewed angle of incidence is allowed on contemporary culture to guide us in our evaluations of it, good or bad.

This does not, of course, mean that we are constrained in terms of subject matter, or how we treat that. It gives us, simply, a reinvigorated background light behind us. It is astonishing that this is neither turned off nor scientifically unattestable.

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