17 September 2008

The Long Poem: How, When, and Why

If I had a lot of spare time, I'd do a word count of all my poems and see what my range of words-per-poem ends up being. I do write 500+ word prose poems, which is a form I've worked with since I was in high school. But I haven't ever written a long poem. I guess there was some kind of 2-3 page segmented thing in my MFA thesis. But it hardly qualifies as a long poem.

I've been wondering about long poems, and whether I should attempt one. My attention span isn't the best, so it might have to involve multiple sittings (which is why I ultimately chose poetry over fiction as my genre).

I have written the same poem over and over again in the past, and I wonder if it's somewhat like that. I imagine it requires some serious commitment, and enough inspiration to sustain itself. I also suspect that it shouldn't be a bunch of slight, minor poems stuck together.

Dear readers, have any of you tried your hand at a long poem before? What advice do you have? What long poems should an aspiring long poem poet read before attempting? I mean, other than "The Waste Land," which I have most certainly read.

PS--I felt compelled to show you a few pics of Akron after Ike. I've never seen so many trees down before. It's like a giant stomped through here. Maybe I'll write a long poem about the storm. Or not.


JB said...

I think reading anything by Alice Notley is a good place to start. My favorite book is Mysteries of Small Houses.

Advice on writing a long poem? Wish I had some-- I'm still working on it myself!

So sorry to hear about and see the damage in Akron.

Oliver de la Paz said...

I've written a few poems that are within the 5-6 page range. But never a long poem longer than that. It's always been easier for me to write something long that's character driven . . . maybe because it's just easier to latch on to a character and explore the character for an extended amount of time. I like to look at later Larry Levis. He manages to be very recursive in his longer poems, and I think that helps sustain the energy of his poems--hitting the refrain points at specific junctures and using the echo of the refrain as a way to get more air. Sort of like a kid on a trampoline using the air from his last vault to vault him up higher and higher.

Oy vey. I can tell it's almost time for me to start teaching again. My explanations are getting stranger and stranger.

garylmcdowell said...

I'm in the middle of constructing a 15-20 page poem (in sections, of course). It's been a 4-month process, so it's definitely different than my usual method. I work on it here and there... it's become a composite, a compendium of sorts. I love the form, but it's exhausting when I think about how I'll revise it, how I'll make it work when I "finish" drafting it. I'd love to write a book length poem, but I simply don't have the longevity (or time) right now.

As for long poems to read, try Ashbery's book _Three Poems_... especially since you're into the long-ish prose poem. WCW's _Spring and All_. Ashbery's "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror." Cole Swenson's _The Glass Age_. Berryman's "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet." Etc.

Penultimatina said...

You folks are awesome. Thanks so much!

OdlP--got the books! Hooray! :)

Anonymous said...

How about Joshua Marie Wilkinson's book-length poem? "Lug Your Body"

Good luck! Peter

Michael said...

I was going to suggest Ashbery but Gary beat me to it. Though he is not popular with all, I like his work and I'm otherwise I guess not crazy about prose poetry. I'm not sure why.

Most of my poems are shorter. I've though of trying longer material but I think I must have a phobia or something holding me back.

Clay Matthews said...

A favorite:


Keith said...

I second Oliver's Levis mention. Love Levis. Always have. Even before I was at VCU. Despite so many folks' reservations about ELEGY, I think it's going to be (or already is?) and will remain one of the most important books in contemporary poetry.

That would be my first suggestion.

Leslie said...

I heart Levis too, though I love Winter Stars beyond all reckoning. I have a long-ish poem that is actually 50 tiny poems that each do their own thing, but hang out more or less together.

I've always resisted long poems because they seem to require narrative in ways I am not very good at. I'm going to check out Notley so see if she is an exception to that theory.

For long poems, you could alway try Merrill's Changing Light at Sandover. That might keep you busy.

Oliver de la Paz said...

Did I mention I'll be teaching a grad class on this? See here for a previous discussion 'bout this over on my blog.

And glad you got the books. I got the T-shirt! Zips! Woohoo!

M. C. Allan said...

"Mose" by Loren Graham. It's a book length poem dealing with a convict serving time in a Texas pen for murder ... alternates between third person descriptive and first person narrative. It's really stunning work and deserves more readers. There's some great longer Merwin, too, and Kinnell has written some really excellent long pieces (including one of the only really good poems about 9/11 that I've read).

I think the challenge of writing long poems comes in dealing with narrative structure; how much, if any, to provide and how to keep the prosiness out.

M. C. Allan said...

Just thought of another one: Evan Connell's "Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel." One of the strangest books you could ever hope to read.

Stephanie King said...

I have been striving to write a long poem since college. I can't ever seem to do it. The closest I came was just a couple weeks ago. I sat down and told myself I was going to write a ten page poem. I ended up with one and a half.

I wish you luck. If ever I find out how to discipline myself to write a longer poem, I will let you in on the secret. :)

Dominic Rivron said...

I think Basil Bunting's Briggflatts is an awesome poem. Long, too. The first part is online somewhere, but the whole thing is worth reading. It should be read and talked about a lot more, in my opinion. I love opportunities to bring it up!

Pamela said...

James McMichael's Four Good Things is genius. After reading and rereading that book, I've been seduced by the long poem.

I'd second the Levis and Ashbery poems as being beautiful; also look at Judy Jordan's Carolina Ghost Woods (predominantly long poems), and 60 Cent Coffee and a Quarter to Dance (a book-length poem).

Almost all the poems I now write are longer than 100 lines. When 50lines is the maximum length for a submission, I'm tempted to submit just a title.

Take on May

It's the first day of finals week and I already have that loopy off-my-routine feeling. Waiting for things to grade, and when those ...