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Learning to Love the Long Poem



April 4, 2024



By Lynnell Edwards, poetry faculty and associate programs director

 


My most common revision notes for poems (including my own) are usually aimed at condensing and cutting: start the poem in the second stanza and cut the first; the final stanza is redundant, thus unnecessary; consider active, present-tense verbs; consider more impressionistic and less discursive syntax; metaphor rather than simile; ask whether a sixteen-line poem wants to be a fourteen-line sonnet. But sometimes what the poem wants is more. Maybe much more. And so I have lately been thinking about the practice of writing the long poem of four or more pages. The space and time to tell a complicated story, to bring in multiple voices, to move around in different landscapes or interiors is thrilling. But I hadn’t had the courage to attempt one until putting together my collection This Great Green Valley. The second section of that chapbook consists entirely of a single, long narrative poem, set during my childhood spent boating on the Kentucky River—a subject and theme that, in my thinking, would resonate with the short historical poems of place in the collection’s first half. 


I should say, rather, that I assembled this poem because it started out as a series of shorter narrative and lyric poems addressing different facets and memories of that brief time in my childhood. In fact, over the course of the five or so years I spent working on it, the poem went back and forth between being a long poem in distinct sections and a series of individually titled short poems until finally becoming “Locking Through,” the nine-page poem that appears in the book.


Historically, the “long poem” has meant the book-length epic: either the civilization-documenting “epic poem” (think: The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and the classical canon: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid) or poems in the neoclassical tradition that either parody the epic (Alexander Pope’s mock-epic The Rape of the Lock) or seek to elevate religious or philosophical themes through narrative verse, such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost or Dante’s Divine Comedy.


Long, but not book-length, poems that emerge in the nineteenth century variously took up heroic and more ordinary subjects. Notably, the Romantic poets step into this tradition with a spectacular diversity of subjects and themes: Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”); William Wordsworth (“Michael: A Pastoral Poem”), and John Keats (“The Eve of St. Agnes”), among others. And of course, the renegade American Romantic writer Edgar Allen Poe gave us arguably one of the most popular long poems of all time: “The Raven.”


Among twentieth-century American models, Robert Frost’s narrative poems “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Home Burial,” and others demonstrate complex character development and a nuanced understanding of the rural American landscape and the people in it. Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage” is a polyvocal masterpiece documenting the chaos, trauma, and violence of the slave trade. Allen Ginsberg’s revolutionary Howl,” part lament, part jeremiad looks toward Walt Whitman’s long lines and expansive stanzas. More contemporary examples include Elizabeth Alexander’s title poem in her 2004 collection The Venus Hottentot, which gives voice to the beautiful young woman of Africa who was famously exhibited as a scientific curiosity in nineteenth-century Europe.

 

In her astonishing 2011 collection Head Off & Split, Nikky Finney includes an expansive nineteen-sonnet sequence, “Plunder,” that imagines and sharply critiques the distracted and fantastical interior life of George W. Bush as he presided over the tragedies in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Kevin Prufer’s The Fears (2023) contains multiple poems spanning four or more pages, long lyric narratives that roam over time and place in a register both personal and public.


I know that in this necessarily brief review of the long poem I have left out many important poems—and I encourage you to let me know your own favorites! I hope what is clear, though, is the many ways in which a poet might work toward radical expansion of a poem’s scope when the themes and subject matter call for it.


I found that when bringing together the original shorter poems of “Locking Through,” the energy of a narrative arc brought the poem into a clearer thematic focus. There became apparent a “whole” in the long poem that was not implied in the sum of the shorter poems. Writing the short poems, I had the sense that they weren’t really adding up to anything, and further, there didn’t seem to be a theme beyond some sort of lyric local color about boating on the Kentucky River in the 1970s, some pleasant memories that weren’t really lifting off the page. However, when I imposed the narrative of a single summer day onto the various composite experiences, something more emerged. Further, the narrative work I did unfolded a more shadowed, richer heart to the memory than I had suspected was there.


I returned to the idea of the long poem for The Bearable Slant of Light, though with an entirely different method for an entirely different end. In this case, I found that the long poem—this time more collage in method than narrative—was the best way to yoke together dissonant impressions, voices, and actions. The poem jumps and jars, with portions of it containing “found” clinical documentation and unattributed dialogue. As with “Locking Through,” it pulls composite experiences and events into a single narrative; in this poem, though, it provides a backstory for the occasional and historical poems that follow.  

 

So if you’re asking yourself whether you could learn to love the long poem as a form for your current material, consider:


  • None of the usual revision hacks are really creating the spark and momentum you want: not re-ordering stanzas or general organization of information; not changing the point of view; not putting it into or taking it out of a fixed form; not trying composition on the page or changing the length of the line. But, maybe most importantly, it’s just not really clear what this poem is trying to be or say. It could be anything, but somehow it’s still .  .  . not much. Maybe it should be longer.

  • The literary elements of character, setting, and plot are getting unruly. While even the smallest poem—the haiku—can suggest transcendentally the most expansive themes, subjects that involve several people, several places, or several events sometimes simply need more space.

  • Any single one of the above elements is unusually rich thematically or archetypally—a garden, a river, a house, a death, a king (or contemporary public stand-in), a parent, a child, a birth, a death, a harvest, a journey—and is an opportunity to tease out a fuller narrative that tips the poem into a longer form.

 

Currently, I am in an on-again-off again relationship with a sonnet crown. The subject matter is nominally the morning hours of a hunter (in the field) and his wife (at home), the landscapes pastoral and domestic. The theme? Possibly, a coming apocalypse. This very tight form requires the final line of the first sonnet to become (often slightly varied) the first line of the next sonnet, and so on through a sequence of fourteen sonnets, concluding with a fifteenth sonnet made up of the fourteen prior first lines. Whew. It’s a puzzle, but the method of line repetition creates a necessary narrative premise for each sonnet that I’m finding pulls me into the next one in fascinating ways. With eight sonnets completed, I’m at the halfway point and I’m still not sure where I’m going. But I’ve settled into the form and started thinking in sonnets. There’s no turning back now.

 


 

Lynnell Edwards is associate programs director for the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing, where she lectures and mentors in poetry and is the book reviews editor for Good River Review. Her most recent collection is The Bearable Slant of Light (Red Hen Press, 2024). More about her writing and work at lynnelledwards.com.

 

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