On Writing Long Poems In the 21st Century

My old friend and one-time colleague at BGSU, Dave Hawkins, has a killer long poem you need to read; once you do, you might well ask yourself who’s writing long poems these days. A fair number of poets, but you won’t find better craft anywhere than Dave’s. His sense of rigor is absolute and obvious, and yes, I’m a fan of his. I know good writing when I read it. Click on the link above and you will, too. Dave’s work could almost be late-Modernist on the tonal front, but you can hear the ways in which he’s playing with that. One might well have to at consider the Moderns when it comes to one’s approach to the form, since so many placed significant weight to its importance. Love Pound or hate him, you have to acknowledge his presence in the room. Likewise Eliot, likewise Frost, likewise and etc.

That’s old news. It’s also, I think, why some younger writers tend to eschew the long form as a means of expression.  This surely isn’t true of all, of course; if you’re a younger writer who’s at least thought about the subject, you’re neither alone nor strange. More likely, you’re just ambitious.

I’ll admit it: I was. I was in high school in St. Petersburg, Florida in the early seventies, and, I thought, in love. I needn’t have bothered and really shouldn’t have, to be honest, but there you go. I didn’t have much, but I could write, so I figured—if a short poem impresses a little, how about something without an ending? Wouldn’t that impress a lot?

Apparently not. Oh, well. I’m much happier for the way things turned out, trust me.

In case you’re wondering what happened to those notebooks, rest assured I destroyed it all—not because of the end of that relationship or anything, but because of the words on the page. They were all wrong. It (I won’t even write the title, since thankfully it did not survive) did, however, teach me a good deal about the care and maintenance of the long poem. I’ve since become more interested in what Dana Gioia calls the “poem of middle length” (as opposed, say, to Zukofsky’s A, a marvelous and frustrating poem), although the poem on which I’m now working is of indefinite length since first-drafting ends on June 3, 2011 at midnight and there’s no way of knowing how much of what I’m writing now will make it to a “final” draft.

So I’m cheered and enthused to know I’m not alone in this endeavour. Recently, Dave sent me a link to this piece by Rachel Zucker. If you’re a poet, you should read this as well. As to the “extremity” of the long poem, that’s the truth. Look at any of Rexroth’s long poems. My God. There’s extremity on steroids. Yet, I go back and back to those poems because, in part, Rexroth had the balls to decide, not just once but several times, that he had sufficient things to say that they needed hundreds of pages to say entirely, like a two-hour Coltrane solo on “Afro-Blue.” Each poet’s reason for writing is individual and unique, but it takes a certain amount of courage.

As to narrative, that’s one of the things that bothers me with the poem I’m working on. What happens when there actually isn’t a hell of a lot of drama in your life (Thankfully) yet the idea of the poem is that it covers one year in your life? I make no professions of being personally interesting or anything, and so the “narrative” isn’t as much about day-to-day events (can you imagine?) as much as it tries to replicate a train of thought, at times continuous and at others broken and only partly said. A dicey conceit, I grant you. At least it’s one way of approaching the form, if nothing else. The main thing, as Zucker reminds, is that it still has to sing. It cannot sound like prose.

One other dovetail to Zucker’s piece: almost no matter what, the long poem’s going to tell the reader something about the writer. Zucker goes so far as to use the word “confessional” but I’m a bit troubled by that word’s baggage. Yet, without doubt that happens. Berryman, of course, centered the Dream Songs around himself but for the most part he could sustain it. Also Robert Lowell, whose Notebook/History books are sometimes so intimate it’s a bit amazing someone didn’t just go ahead and coin the acronym TMI right there. (I mean, he cribbed his estranged wife’s letters to him without permission and used them in the poem. These are fairly personal excerpts, you see, and their publication caused Elizabeth Hardwick no end of pain) 

I’m not saying we need to do that. Anything but. I’m leery of over-revealing in poems, which is one of the reasons I like Dave’s poem. It reveals/reflects his passion for aesthetics, for history, for what can be learned. Dark Adaptation actually fits aspects of Gioia’s general framework—which contains some pragmatic wisdom for the writer—but does not sacrifice the difficulty factor.

While what I’m doing may be somewhat different, right now I feel a bit more confidence about carrying on with the project. David Hawkins and Rachel Zucker have more than a little something to do with that.

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About johnwylam1957

I'm a poet and teacher now living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
This entry was posted in Poetry/Fiction, Writing in General. Bookmark the permalink.

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