Recently, I came across an article titled “An Anatomy of the Long Poem”. The author, Rachel Zucker, states “there are many short poems I admire and, of course, too many wonderful mid-length poems to name that I adore. But I have a special love for a good long poem.” This gave me pause. I admit that I’m impatient with long poems, preferring the short and punchy. I love the lyric form, poetry that has more in common with music or visual art than prose. I even tell my students to “hook the reader” right away, delivering a zesty first line that will keep her reading until the end of the poem, which, hopefully, will come soon.
My immediate response to Zucker’s comment was yes, there are many short and mid-length poems I admire, but I have a special – not dislike, exactly, but fear – of the very long poem. I’m afraid the poem will lose momentum, will bore me long before it’s done, will be a waste of time, a disappointment, and I’ll go fleeing back to my favorite short poems in short order.
Zucker writes “long poems are extreme. They’re too bold, too ordinary, too self-centered, too expansive, too grand, too banal, too weird, too much. They revel in going too far; they eschew caution and practicality and categorization and even, perhaps, poetry itself, which as a form tends to value the economy of language.” If this is her opinion, and she’s a fan of the long poem, what chance do I have?
I’ve decided to challenge my fear of the long poem. Today I am launching The Long Poem Project. During the next few months, I will read poems longer than one or two pages and share my discoveries here; i.e., were they extreme, bold, ordinary, self-centered, or weird enough to hold my attention? Did they go too far? Was I bored?
As I was writing this, I realized that I have read and enjoyed long poems, even book-length ones: Howl, Song of Myself, Paterson, Garbage, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Hamlet, King Lear.
As a warm-up, I’m planning to read long poems from some of my favorite poets: Seamus Heaney, Mina Loy, John Koethke, and more.
Please join me in The Long Poem Project and recommend your favorite long poems in the comments below.
Categories: The Long Poem Project, This Writer's Life
The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes
Thanks, Leslie. I’ve always loved that poem. Time for a re-read.
Off the top of my head, I’d recommend Campbell McGrath’s Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, W.S. Merwin’s The Folding Cliffs, Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, and Nguyen Du’s classic Vietnamese verse novel The Take of Kieu. The Ainu epics are fun, too, if you want to dip into oral literature.
Thanks, Dave. Great suggestions!
Midwinter Day, Bernadette Mayer
Thanks, Eric. I’m already a Mayer fan. I will read this one.
Gabriel by Edward Hirsch
Thank you, Nina.
Hannah Sullivan’s wonderful new book Three Poems. Brilliantly accomplished, engrossing, constantly shifting – I’m sure you’ll love these. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/long-perspectives-an-interview-with-hannah-sullivan/
Can’t think of one to suggest, but I am looking forward to hearing more about this.
Sohrab and Rustum, by Matthew Arnold. I read this to my children and they wept.
Emily Wilson’s recent brilliant translation of The Odyssey. (There’s Long, and then there’s Very Long!)
Alice Oswald’s Dart or Memorial or the long poem about Tithonus at the end of “Falling awake”.
Looking forward to hearing how you get on!
I’ve been meaning to update this post. I’ll have more about The Long Poem Project in 2019.