The Long Poem Group Newsletter/Edited by Sebastian Barker and William Oxley/No.8 December 1999

Editorial addresses

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

LINE AND LENGTH

William Oxley

During the last fifty years arguably the most intelligible new movement in poetry to appear in the United States has been that variously described as 'the new formalism' or 'the new expansive poetry'. Those poets associated with this movement whose names may be known by some critics this side of the Atlantic have been Dana Gioia, Brad Leithauser, Timothy Steele, Rita Dove, R.S.Gwynn, Thomas M.Disch and Marilyn Hacker. Along with the development of this movement has been the remarkable rise of Story Line Press, the moving spirits behind which have been David Mason, Mark Jarman, and Robert McDowell. What has been so extraordinary - especially from the point of view of this newsletter - is the press's singular and, as it were, single-handed commitment to the long poem. While it is quite true that other presses in the English-speaking fraternity, such as Bloodaxe, Carcanet and the University of Salzburg Press, have shown a willingness to publish book length poems, none have been part of a distinct movement. Nor has any backed up their publishing of the long poem with so wide-ranging a critical discussion (in separate publications) of the problems associated with writing long poems in alternative modes than those like Pound and Williams which are developments of 'deep image' techniques.

Given the twin preoccupations of Story Line Press with the long poem and the question of form in poetry in our time, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest Story Line Press is becoming one of the most interesting and important presses to arise either side of the Atlantic since Eliot developed Faber & Faber. A claim which is not made solely on account of Story Line's prejudice in favour of the long poem, but even more because of the range of thoughtful poets attracted to its standard who are willing to commit their thoughts to print. Thoughts of a hard-edged critical nature ranging from the polemical to the persuasively rational and nearly always free from jargon. For these reasons it is not inappropriate to the preoccupations of this publication, to provide some samples of these critics' thinking.

So let us begin where in a sense, the Long Poem Group began, with such a question as this from Dana Gioia, 'Why then could a poet like Milton, an unquestioned master of the short, concentrated poem, also manage brilliant longer poems whereas our contemporaries cannot?' Realising, of course, that a good critic is duty-bound to do more than simply raise questions (something members of the Long Poem Group have tried to remind themselves of consistently), he goes on to say, 'The answer is complex and encompasses several acknowledged factors, such as the increasing identification of all poetry with the lyric mode, the subsequent rejection of narrative and didactism as available poetic forms, and the neglect of precisely those metrical resources in English which have traditionally provided long poems with an underlying structure.' And he adds, 'Indeed, the long modern poem is virtually doomed to failure by its own ground rules. Any extended work needs a strong overall form to guide both the poet in creating it and the reader in understanding it. By rejecting the traditional epic structures of narrative (as in Virgil) and didactic exposition (as in Lucretius), the modern author has been thrown almost entirely on his own resources. He must not only try to synthesize the complexity of his culture into one long poem, he must also create the form of his discourse as he goes along. It is as if a physicist were asked to make a major new discovery in physics but prevented from using any of the established methodologies in arriving at it'. So much for Dana Gioia in his essay 'The Dilemma of the Long Poem'. which was first published in The Kenyon Review and republished by Story Line.

In the same magazine Frederick Feirstein wrote an essay called 'The Other Long Poem'. Why the title? What 'other long poem'? He begins 'Over the last two decades the only kind of long poem taken seriously by poetry's readership was the sequence: a series of lyrics thematically rather than dramatically organised and depending for its impact on the intensity of the individual moment and accumulative effect of its images.' Then, so that we'll know what 'the other long poem' is, he goes on, 'At the same time the narrative and dramatic poem, with developed plot and character, was disregarded, much in the way that Aristotelian drama was shoved aside for Theater of the Absurd with its loosely circular structure and its concentration on atmospheric intensity. This limiting of the form of the long poem was one of the many effects of modernism hardening into dogma.'

Both Gioia and Feirstein agree that the central dilemma of the long poem in our time is inseparable from the question of form in poetry. As Feirstein puts it, 'Anyone who's tried it knows that it's virtually impossible to develop a book-length narrative without meter - and call it poetry and not prose fiction.' Why is this? Well, he states, 'The conflict of opposites between the metrical line and the prose rhythm of natural speech sustains and poetically mirrors the tension in the dramatic structure itself. It establishes in sound a series of expectations out of which suspense, surprise, reversal and so on, can come. In effect it does poetically what the content does dramatically.'

But why can't free verse also achieve this structured mirroring? Because, says Feirstein, 'free verse forces the poet to rely on rhetorical devices that tend to create melodrama or to focus the reader on the poet's "voice" instead of on the action - and so distances him perhaps altogether from involvement in the intended drama'. It is worth drawing the attention of members of the Long Poem Group to the way this American critic tends to compare the problems of the long poem with that of the drama, more than with that of the novel, noting that the same point was made by one speaker during the debate of the Group at the Ledbury Poetry Festival published in our fourth newsletter. Though it should be added that rather more of these American new formalist critics tend to associate the epic and long poem with developments in the novel.

On the much debated question of the apparent increase in the making of long poems over the past quarter of a century, another of these Story Line critics (first published in Verse magazine in 1985) suggests that the 'very successes' of the lyric poem have 'exhausted many of its possibilities in the act of exploiting them'. And 'sooner or later, new poets would wish to escape from the shadow of their immediate predecessors - just as the modernists had done with theirs - by trying themes and forms that had fewer recent associations. One result had been a widespread but mostly unheralded revival of the book-length poem in America during the latter decade or so.' And one must add, on the evidence of these many critics' writings (and where they are poets also, in terms of their practice) a desire to escape from 'the free verse shadow' of their predecessors.

The volume New Expansive Poetry, from which these observations on the long poem and form are culled, contains many fine chapters, none more profounder than 'The Neural Lyre' by Frederick Turner and Ernst Pöppel. At once polemical and erudite, scientific and speculative, it seeks to establish, no prove, a neurological basis for formal verse, suggesting 'systems of verse based on breath-units such as "projective verse" and many other free-verse systems ... have no objective validity or physiological foundation' for 'the master-rhythm of human meter is not pulmonary but neural'. Its arguments and reasonings are very detailed, and cannot be reproduced here: but like all the essays in the volume it is spiced with observations that are very telling. It seems appropriate to conclude this reviewing-editorial with a few more of these aperçus which seem especially germane to the longer poem.

'Variation does not mean departure from the rules (Romantic and Modernist theories of art sometimes make this mistake). Variation does not occur despite the rules but because of them. Freedom never means a freedom from rules, but the freedom of rules.' (Turner and Pöppel).

'Unless we are to consider the long poem as a series of shorter poems, we must have some kind of plot or, as in John Ashbery's best longer poems, at the very least a sequence of actions and observations so acute that our interest is sustained and our sensibilities kept involved.' (Dick Allen).

'Most of the noble failures of the long poem in our century - and there have been many, Pound's Cantos and Williams' Paterson among others - result from the poet's trying to write the long poem as if it were an extended imagistic lyric: with a minimum of explicit narrative and dramatic elements. Long poems which are pitched at a high intensity, containing all the elements we have to value in the lyric, particularly the "academic" lyric - ambiguity, layered meanings, a multiple of sophisticated rhythmic effects, concentration on the central image, primary attention to "how" a poem means - fail just as Poe said they would, and can only be treated adequately as a collection of parts.' (Dick Allen).

Lastly, and importantly, Thomas M.Disch reminds us that 'Theory should proceed from example', adding that 'Story Line Press has been an active promoter of narrative verse.' It would be nice to think that all the active thought which the Long Poem Group and its newsletter has given, and is still giving, to the question of the long poem in our time, will someday bear the same sort of fruit that Story Line's venture clearly is doing.

New Expansive Poetry is edited by R.S.Gwynn and published by Story Line Press, Three Oaks Farm, P.O.Box 1240, Ashland, OR 97520-0055, U.S.A.; 259 pp; 17.95 dollars.

THE MATTER OF EUROPE

Sebastian Barker

Since the adventure called The Long Poem Group began in 1995, this editor has been concerned to become more aware in theory and in practice of how to write a long poem successfully in our present circumstance. Chief of worries has been the search for suitable content inseparable from suitable form. My fellow editor William Oxley's contribution to this Newsletter concentrates on form, refracted through an American prism called "the new formalism", so I will concentrate on content.

Ideally I want the content of a long poem now to address the central dilemmas in a thinking person. This is an easy purpose to state, but a difficult one to achieve. There is no self-evident place to begin and therefore no clear destination ahead. Raging in the dark won't do on this level. Nor will hoping for the best. Being arbitrary misses the point. Autobiography spliced into a selective view of history remains egocentric. And throwing broken mirrors into the air to reflect the world falls short on coherence.

As I observed the valiant attempts of my fellow practitioners to solve the problem, I bacame increasingly conscious of one sort of subject matter that seemed inherently more satisfactory than any other. So when I asked myself the question why this was, it became necessary to research the question in earnest.

Listening to recordings of David Jones, I first began to examine the extrinsic rather than the intrinsic merits of his work. The Matter of Britain rolled around in my head for a couple of years. Then I hit on the understanding that the Matter of Britain was too set about and spun out of the mythological for my satisfaction. What I was obliged to coin the Matter of Europe seemed more to the point. There is no need to deny here the astonishing sense of reality in a European setting Jones brings to his work, but all of it put together left me with the impression that his example showed the way forward to our end rather than reached it. I take it for granted that the peoples enclosed by the concept of the Matter of Europe range over the Americas, Australasia, and other land masses, which have cultural roots of one kind or another in the European story.

The key idea in Jones's works threw in my ear what I termed in Newsletter No. 7 the Tempora Christiana, having been led to this conclusion also but separately by Jon Silkin in a remark he made in Newsletter No. 5. Silkin's piece was called "Essential Values". These were exactly what I was looking for in the search to solve our problem. Clearly, to be essential values, what is essential for me must also be essential for you.

There is no point pretending these values can be positively identified in this editorial. But nor need we imagine that the search for them is hopeless. What I would like to report here is the degree of amazement I have acquired, since I began looking, that so much of the Matter of Europe is extant and freely to hand; but buried under centuries of neglect and misunderstanding.

As Jones so rightly surmised, a sacerdotal centre cannot be usurped and sidelined in any work which copes with the demands before us now. The principal reason why this is so will become obvious, I hope. Any such sacred economy must be difficult to obtain, because we cannot set the principle of good in a poem without a corresponding principle of evil balancing both the structure and the narrative. Evil does not need to boot out good; but neither must good lord it over evil unjustly. It is that sense of justice which makes our starting-place and our destination so difficult to discern. Looked at through our eyes leaving the 20th century behind, the epics of the past do not always touch this difficulty so very impressively.

Simone Weil wrote eloquently of the sacred economy in The Iliad: she makes a good case. But it is undermined by her own internal logic. She wishes to praise Homer for his sacred economy in a world nevertheless at war, but she does so by reference to her chief values. These can be deduced from the title given (by others) to the book in which her essay on The Iliad appears in English: Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks. Virgil does not surpass Homer in these considerations. While Milton's grasp of evil has Blake cheering for the devil. This is all the more ironic when we see Blake himself lifting the host of hell under Satan in Book One of Paradise Lost into his own chaotic system. Wordsworth disappears into philosophic pantheism. Coleridge never got going on his epic, though he saw the problem.

The last effort of note relevant here is Four Quartets. It is horrible to say, but where Simone Weil leans on her Christianity to justify Homer, Eliot leans on Heraclitus to justify his Christianity. Close exegesis of Four Quartets reveals Christian mysticism propped up by the Greek's flying buttresses. Christian common sense was in fact called for by the poem, but what with all the borrowings from Julian of Norwich and John of the Cross this proved inaccessible to Eliot's genius. However, Eliot and Jones together make more sense than the words "modernism" and "post-modernism" suggest on their behalf: both posit the Tempora Christiana as our elusive destination.

It must be said at once that Christian mysticism, even one as solidly rooted as Jones's, is not the answer. We could liken it to dry ice vapourising around a pop singer. We see, for example, that of Julian of Norwich masking an antisemite. And while Chaucer's antisemitism does not lift its head in a mystical framework, but rather a robust narrative popular Christian one, this does not make it any better. Traditional popular Christianity, like Christian mysticism, can hide a multitude of sins. As such, therefore, neither are capable of providing the content we are looking for.

The greatest obstacle to the recovery of the Matter of Europe from our common past is the history of the church. That which ought to have been the transmitter of the Matter was its grave digger. It is not a coincidence that the corruption in the church, which finally caused Nietzsche to blow the whistle on it by pronouncing "God is dead", is precisely the same corruption which obstructs our understanding of how to make a sacred epic in our time. It does so by preventing us seeing how we fit evil into the sacred economy of our coherent epic. Well it would, wouldn't it.

Because of the damage done to our brains by the undeniable horrors of the 20th century, let alone any number of centuries before that, the challenge to the poet has never been greater. But nor has the chance to solve the problem been greater either. So what, then, is the Matter of Europe? It is the unbroken sacred tradition extant in the world today derived from long before the birth of writing and Gilgamesh in the Land between the Rivers. We know, too, that Mesopotamia, in the form of Sumeria, got its sense of the sacred very probably from the Indus Valley. Shamanistic tradition before that reaches back to the paleolithic. The great themes of Judaism do not start with Abraham. Nor do Christianity or Islam kickstart the engine. The engine which drives the Matter of Europe.

All in all, the Tempora Christiana, situated in a prehistorical backdrop, but deduced and understood from the written records in and about itself, presents us with a truly staggering amount of objective historical knowledge, with a small pearl of wisdom at its centre. This is the pearl of great price. A word of caution is called for. To detect this literature, it is necessary to look beyond fashion and the market-place, although both show fascinating signs of recognising it.

CHECKLIST OF LONG POEMS

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

The Nightfishing & Implements in their Places, W.S.Graham, 1955, 1977, Faber & Faber
Suicide of an Undergraduate, Richard Wonnacott, Great Works, 1979.
Letters in the Dark, Herbert Lomas, O.U.P., 1986.
The Floor of Heaven, John Tranter, Angus & Robertson (Aus.), 1992.
The Iron Christ, Morant Bay, Illnesses, & Ghosts at the White Settlement, Francis Berry, Collected Poems, Redcliffe Press, 1994.
The Chrysalis Machine, Steve Littlejohn, Sport Publications, 1995.
Sappho's Daughter, Theo Dorgan, Wave Train Press (Dublin), 1998.
Cage of Laughter (in Adam's Apocrypha), Richard Wonnacott, Spectacular Diseases, 1999.
Twentieth Century Blues, Robert Shepherd, (an ongoing work), various publishers, 1991/99.
Time on Earth, Dinah Livingstone, Rockingham Press, 1999.

NEW MEMBERS' APPLICATIONS

Matthew Francis (Winchester); Wolfgang Görtschacher (Salzburg); Ian Hunter (Brentford); Richard McKane (London); and Jay Ramsey (Painswick) are confirmed as members of the Long Poem Group in compliance with the criteria stated in the first newsletter.

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