Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Long Poem as Technology

Our presentation yesterday for the Text and Techne conference has me thinking about the long poem. Our belief in putting together our panel is that the long poem, as a form, is a poetic technology. I am even more convinced about that after hearing the presentations yesterday and thinking more about it.

What is the technology of poetry?

First, I think I need to explain what I mean about the technology of poetry. Technology means the art and science of applying technical or scientific knowledge to practical problems in a field. In poetry, technology often refers to the means of distribution for poems. Technology is the paper that poems are on, how they are printed on that paper, how that paper is bound together with other pieces of paper, and then how it is distributed.

For a single poem, the technology of poetry is formative of the length of a poem. Poems published in journals of 6” x 9” are different than poems in journals that are 9 “ x 12” or journals that are 2” x 3”. This may not be a conscious different on the part of the selecting editors, or it may be. Moreover, poems today tend to conform to a length to fit on a single page or two pages for the conventions of the journal.

These to me seem the technological realities of poems that infuse the writing of poems.

What is the technology of the long poem?

The long poem is a new technology for poets because it require breaking these technological assumptions about poetry. To me breaking these assumptions is also connected with poetic ambition. My favorite comments on poetry and ambition are from Donald Hall in an essay of the same title. What I am thinking about is a different sort of ambition, however, with due respect for Hall’s thinking to which I return repeatedly. The long poem requires a poet to think about writing beyond the length of the majority of poems. It requires her to consider from a lyrical and narrative perspective how to break through the conventions of length. This is an ambitious undertaking for both the poet and the poem. In this way, the technology of the long poem may be what makes a poem think - in addition to making the poet think.

There are many assumptions about the long poem that I hear regularly discussed. First, people talk about the long poem as an epic. Certainly, historically, it was. I don’t think that the long poem in contemporary use or recent historical use is epic in nature however. That is, I think that we can write long poems and think about long poems without being bound by the epic tradition. A corollary of this is often that long poems are historical in content or rely on some part of history for their content. Again, this may be true, but I don’t think that it is a requirement.

Another truism accepted about long poems is that they are necessarily failures - the example often given is that of Hart Crane’s The Bridge, ably discussed by my colleague Gerald Maa yesterday. Again, I must disagree with this truism. I think that part of the validity given to this assertion comes from a narrow vision of what the long poem is and that is what I want to expand.

The Long Poem: A New Vision

I actually believe that the long poem is alive and well in contemporary poetry though we do not recognize it in this way. This is to say, I believe is a long poem is a poem which has ambitions beyond a two page poem and seeks through that ambition to reflect our emotions and our lifetimes in extensive ways. I’d argue that many books published today are actually long poems even though they may be comprised of a series of poems with individual titles. Certainly, Hacker’s book length sonnet sequence, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, is a long poem, even though it is made of up discreet sonnets. Other books that I think could be considered long poems are Gregory Orr’s Concerning the Book the is the Body of the Beloved, Marie Howe’s new book, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, and Carl Phillips’ Rock Harbor. In writing this, I realize that first books by poets are rarely long poems and even rarely contain long poems (with the narrowest definition of extending beyond two pages.) To me that is part a function of how technology shapes our lives and our poems. As writers continue their work, however, the technology of the poetry available to them expands as does the ambition available to them.

For me, I’m reading Lysistrata in my free time. Fancying myself after H.D., I’m think that there is a long poem in there. Contradicting my own assertions above, I’m looking to the historical and the epic for subject matter. Writing rules and them using them as fodder for breaking them myself all within this one lifetime.

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