The Long Poem Group Newsletter/Edited by Sebastian Barker and William Oxley/No.9 July 2000

Editorial addresses

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


In the half dozen years since we decided to found the Long Poem Group and its newsletter to stimulate interest in the art of the long poem, we have learned much. Our experience has confirmed, for example, the on-going paradox that long poems continue to find their way into print - mostly in book or pamphlet form - yet the genarality of poets and readers confess a preference for the short poem. Again, after the initial and widespread flurry of interest in the idea of a national forum for debate on the subject of the long poem, and the concomitant influx of material suitable for use in our newsletter, we have reached a kind of watershed. Both editors have tried to keep their eyes and ears open to spot likely sources of material; and, in particular, to try and get writings from young poets or poets new to the field of the long poem, or from experienced poets endeavouring to present the long poem in new ways. For the current number we present the reflections of Ian Parks and Phil Simmons, two poets caught at the point where they are just moving into longer work. With Frank Reeve, we have an American poet, temporarily based in the U.K., who seeks to present his long poems in a theatrical and musical context. In all three cases it is our belief that what they have written for this issue provides helpful additions to our general survey.

Viewed as a survey of the state of the contemporary long poem, the nine issues of the newsletter aspire to be tentative yet far from definitive. Both editors hope that it has, at least, shed a degree of light on a relatively neglected area. And it is worth adding, by way of afterthought, that we have not been alone in endeavouring to propagate interest in the long poem, for two courses at least have, in recent times, been run upon the subject, one by the London-based The Poetry School (administered by Mimi Khalvati). the other at the University of Plymouth branch in Exeter (a course run by John Daniels).

The True Value Of The Long Poem

It is not everyday that we can say with certainty what the true value of the long poem is in our time. But with the award on May 16th 2000 of lottery money to Tom Paulin to write a long poem we have surely reached that day. The award is a Fellowship from the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts, which Tom Paulin told Stephen Moss in The Guardian he will use to write "a long poem about the second world war." Since the general public are the underwriters of this value, it's common knowledge: 75,000 pounds. This is the financial value. The true value, of course, remains priceless.


Running to a mere 132 lines I'm not quite sure that The Double Man (Poetry Review, Volume 89, Number 4: Winter 1999/2000) qualifies for discussion as a long poem at all; by the same token I recognise that its scope, form, and distinct narrative tendencies preclude it from being considered purely as a lyric. However, this stubborn resistance on the part of the poem to fall easily into either of these categories is merely a reflection of the tensions implicit in the circumstances surrounding its composition - a growing realisation on my part of the potential inherent in the writing of a long poem.

Briefly, The Double Man attempts to describe a dream encounter with the ghost of W.H.Auden, who undertakes to conduct the dreamer on a tour of post-industrial, post-imperial Britain and finds some salutary things to say as the journey progresses. The poem falls neatly into two sections: in the first Auden appears much as he did in the Cecil Beaton photographs of the 1930's as 'the spokesman/ of the border and the group, boyish/ in his drab, ill-fitting suit'; in the second he has become transformed into the elder-statesman of Hockney's sketch, 'half-American;/ the smell of death still clinging to his clothes'. As William Oxley has pointed out to me in a letter, this seemed to be 'a nice way of doing business between the 1930's and the 1990's'. What might be of interest here, however, is the way in which this content went some way towards dictating technical aspects of the poem, and particularly its length.

As I began to write I bacame aware of a developing pattern which expressed itself in a transition from the public to the private realms, a theme which recurs throughout Auden's work. In the first section, for instance, he speaks in an austere, detached manner, proclaiming that

The prophet's day is over now -
the poet and the hero on the lawn
but all the questions of the past remain.

By the end of the second section, Auden's tone has mellowed into the conversational, addressing the dreamer with disarming familiarity.

There is only this to say:
consider your father and your son

and how, in everything that's done
there is a loving and more loving one.

In order to gauge this transition I began to realise that I needed space. The dialogue which developed between Auden and the dreamer also needed to be worked through the poem in order to achieve 'that drama of voices' which Brendan Kennelly introduces into his discussion of Cromwell, in issue 5 of the Newsletter. I tend to consider myself primarily as a lyric poet, and a love poet at that, so dealing with this call for expansiveness proved to be something of a challenge. My feeling is that both lyric and narrative forms are facilitated by their potential for disclosure: with the lyric this becomes, by its very nature, selective - with narrative, experimental. And at first I found the experimental nature of the longer poem quite difficult to come to terms with.

This proved to be something of a stumbling block until I came to realise that I didn't have to sustain the intensity of a lyric poem throughout the whole of a longer piece. The great virtue of the long poem is that it releases the poet to pace, modulate, slacken and intensify where necessary - exactly the sort of vehicle I was searching for in order to resolve the issues raised by The Double Man. To be fair, I approached the poem in the first instance as a series of individual lyrics, linked together by a narrative thread. The final draft represents an attempt to make this technique appear seamless. How far I succeeded in this task remains with the reader! Also, it was important for me to allow Auden to speak in 'his own voice'. The obvious difficulty here was to retain his idiosyncracies without falling into the trap of slavish imitation or falling back on direct quotation. The long poem gave me the room in which to work this problem out.

I consider myself a novice when it comes to the writing of long poems - and in some respects The Double Man is only a long poem by accident, in that certain factors which arose during its composition dictated its length. I still have a lot to learn and a lot of mistakes are waiting to be made. Yet The Double Man has given me a taste for experimenting with longer poems and impressed upon me the enormous potential they hold.


When Nightway, a poem interpreting a Navajo purification ceremony, was first presented by a narrator, dancers and electronic-atonal music, the audience was appreciative but confused. A few years later, Alcyone, a recasting of the Greek myth about a woman who, raped by her brother-in-law, sacrificed herself to join her drowned husband, presented with narrator, chorus, and synthesized music, received a positive response. Recently, The Urban Stampede, a setting of the Orpheus-Eurydice story in a London pub, sung by two soloists, plus chorus, instrumentalists and the ever-present narrator, won warm endorsement. The long poem is finding a new way forward through reviving its roots in music and rhythm and reaching directly into public space.

Because the long poem is neither a libretto nor a dialogue its performance is neither operatic nor dramatic. It includes spoken voice - the skeleton, or backbone of the poem - and singing - its lyric heart. Instrumentation enhances the singing and modulates mood. All three examples cited are shaped by careful, underlying distancing - the basic characteristic of narrative poetry. They tie the dramatic aspects of a well-known story to a cool evaluation of cultural change and linguistic difference. They re-house grand myths from fallen cultures in the Anglo-American consciousness of today, seeking to show the enduring power of language itself and to reunite reading and hearing - to bring spectator, performer and poet together again - in the same space. In fact, at the premiere of the hour-and-a-half long The Urban Stampede, everyone in the audience had a copy of the text. There was no curtain. There was no spectacle, no set, no costuming, no "action". There were only music and words, the signs and lines that the mind's eye and ear assimilate as reality. The performance, like the work itself, was not to be filmed but to be grasped for the meaning poetry gives to life - an immediately apprehensible vision apt in size and shape to our idea of the world, one in which the language of hands speaks to a guiding practical faith and the language of the mind leads to understanding and delight.


(The origins of a Work in Progress)

Slate revolves around a single definite date. In late summer 1997 a little-publicised aspect of the now-famous "Millennium Bug" triggered a malfunction in my laptop computer, which caused the electronic pages of my personal organiser to open at the date on which one of the machine's operating systems was first launched - February 1980. Something about the diary layout of the on-screen organiser, and its very blankness, pushed me to thinking about certain events at that time in my life, principally the breakdown of my first serious love-affair. I was a not very emotionally-stable 20-year-old, and this particular episode prompted a personal crisis which paradoxically both robbed me of the confidence to write for about fifteen years, and at the same time precipitated many of the experiences on which I have subsequently drawn in my poetry. Of course, I immediately set to work trying to use this unsettling experience as the starting-point for a poem. Unsurprisingly I got nowhere. In 1999 I found myself on an Arvon residential at Lumb Bank in the Pennines, which I recognised with some astonishment as being very near a place I'd last visited shortly before the laptop computer's throwback-date. It was also my fortieth birthday, and thus a legitimate point for retrospection. I duly composed the obligatory 'Sonnet On His Birthday', a poem that would have been of little interest - and which I'm ashamed to say even used the hoary old image of the palimpsest - if I hadn't based it on some lines of Wallace Stevens:

If men at forty will be painting lakes
The ephemeral blues much merge for them in one,
The basic slate, the universal hue.

Hence the image of the slate, as geological stratum, as colour, as roofing-material, as writing-medium. The last even seemed to link it, through a simile of education, portability and transience, with the laptop.

So much for the direct parentage of the poem. I was also interested in the idea of a biographical poem demonstrating the development of a mind and sensibility, something akin to Wordsworth's Prelude. This is a notion so deeply unfashionable - post-Modernist antibiography, post-Movement anti-everything else - that I was aware I would need to find a whole new starting-point in order to stand the faintest chance of getting away with it. Fortunately, I've also always been obsessed with Eliot's wonderful line in The Waste Land:

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Rather than the contemplation of a steadily constructed edifice, then, I saw my own 'Prelude' as being a patient act of archaeology, in which the mining of half remembered artefacts from the past could serve as the foundation of an explanation or gloss. Again, the multilayered notion of the slate seemed to offer all manner of possibility - the stone itself being a fragile layering of wafer-thin strata that shatter and dissolve when subjected to overmuch pressure.

Slate deliberately offers little in the way of coherent narrative. It is A heap of broken images similar to the rubbish-tip of Oxyrhynchus, which has provided one of the richest sources of primary archive material on the ancient world, at the same time raising the obvious question: How much can you learn about a civilisation from what it threw away?

As with my own rejected palimpsest, I wonder how much of what was important has not been erased in twenty years from this Slate, and is only visible obliquely, through the used and obscure traces which have been left behind.

Bleeding Upon The Thorns Of Life/Sebastian Barker

I urge all those interested in the long poem to read, if they haven't done so already, Jeffrey Wainwright's detailed analysis of Geoffrey Hill's The Triumph of Love in P.N.Review 133, (May-June 2000). A few snippets: "The notion of pitch, a combination of lexical choice, synctatic arrangement and rhythmical movement that is exactly commensurate to the idea and emotion that is being struggled for, is central to Hill's poetics and practice." "Aesthetics must match ethics in the quest for perfect pitch." "The voice should be pained and suffering, bleeding upon the thorns of life, but its revelations should still not be unlovely." Gems abound. The concentrated attention, the freedom from posturing, the scholarly honesty, are exemplary. The moral and philosophical sophistication delight. Wainwright speaks to the central issues of the Newsletter.

Giving The Epic Feel/William Oxley

        THE SHADOW OF GOD (from Wild Root)
        Ken Smith
        Bloodaxe. 6.95 pounds.

This poem is a kind of epyllion or little epic; or, to quote an earler contributor to this newsletter who suggested that the true invention of modernism in the field of the long poem was 'the compressed epic', then that is what best describes The Shadow of God. Consciously or unconsciously it has affinities - especially given its setting - with the South Slav narodne pesme, the cycles of leys which grew up as a consequence of the Turkish defeats of the Serbs in the 14th century. The poem takes as its conscious point of departure (for compositional purposes) a letter of Suleyman the Magnificent to Francis, King of France, and develops a narrative of one of Suleyman's campaigns into Bohemia where his army inflicted a terrible defeat upon the Balkan Mohacs under King Lajos which inaugurated 'the long Turkish night/ the tomb of the nation' in that country. The power of the poem arises from its clever admixture of bared and terrible imagery, 'horses scream, men scream, the rain falls'; of bald statement, '30 thousand whose last rainy day was this'; monomaniacal rhetoric: 'I am Sultan Suleyman Han, son of Sultan Selim Han,/ son of Sultan Bayezid Han. The shadow of God', and gradual shifts to the present where 'Overhead the high jets in the clear blue/ corridor of cloudless sky above Serbia' are 'flying the line of the great rivers' where Suleyman's armies fought. And in the second part of this epyllion - separated from the first by no more than a long pause signified by an asterisk and a space - a kind of brooding folklore carnival, in which men take to the streets in animal skins, is enacted as a kind of spiritual commemoration and exorcism of the dreadful folk memory of the battles of Suleyman's campaign. Its modern relevance being, of course, a morbid and vatic 'celebration' of the terrible (and continuing) recrudescence of tribal and ethnic hatred, symbolised by the Cross and the Crescent, in the former Yugoslavia today. It is a remarkable poem most of all for the manner in which Ken Smith has skilfully woven his various literary and other materials together to give the true epic feel to a poem which, if not in historical terms long (it is around 400 lines), provides that experience of having made a considerable imaginative journey which is the hallmark of the true long poem. I was impressed when I first read the poem in Poetry Wales; and I am more impressed still reading it again in his most recent collection.

Checklist of Long Poems

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

Europe After Rain, Henry Graham, Headland, 1981.
The Constant Tin Soldier (in Selected Poems), U.A.Fanthorpe, Penguin, 1986.
The Shadow of God (in Wild Root), Ken Smith, Bloodaxe, 1998.
Beowulf, (trans. by Seamus Heaney), Faber & Faber, 1999.
Gold, Elaine Feinstein, Carcanet, 2000.
Metameipoesis Noerai, Peter Russell, Swansea Review 19, 2000.

New Members' Applications

Phil Simmons (Doncaster), Ian Parks (Mexborough) are confirmed as members 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 TQ5 8QY, UK.