poem has been the measure and the lifework of many significant 20th-century American poets. Yet the term long poem is a notoriously vague descriptor applied (by poets and critics alike) to poems of vastly different lengths and forms. One can discriminate, however, between those long poems in the 20th century that maintain the organizational structure of the epic and those that adopt the random and incomplete process of seriality. Epic poems by 20th-century poets adapt or renovate forms whose theoretical and structural underpinnings were set in earlier periods. The series, or serial poem, is remarkable for being the long form that is entirely new in 20th-century poetics.
The epic poem remains the classic type and model for the long form in poetry. The modern epic, however, can be distinguished from its predecessors and other types of the 20th-century long poem. The "open" nonnarra-tive models for the modern epic differentiate it from such earlier works as John Milton's Paradise Lost (1674), William Wordsworth's The Prelude (1850), and Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book (1868-69), which maintain the developmental structure of a narrative (see narrative poetry). Yet the modern epic shares with its predecessors the demand for comprehensiveness—not in a narrow sense of a "comprehensive" treatment of a particular subject, because no epic limits itself to a single thematic concern nor claims to have "exhausted" a given subject, but rather in the sense of a complete worldview, a breadth of intellectual range. Classical works, such as Lucretius's De Rerum Natura (50 B.C.), on everything from atomism to Zeno, or Ovid's Metamorphoses (a.d. 1), with its definitive re-creation of the Greek mythology, offer themselves as models, though neither of these presents an extended narrative with an heroic figure. In fact, Arthur Golding's translation of Ovid (1567) is a primary source for Ezra pounds rein-spiring of classical mythology in the cantos (1972). The theory of the universe presented in book I of the Metamorphoses and Lucretius's treatment of science and philosophy can also be said to anticipate James merrills the changing light AT sandover (1982) or Frederick Turners The New World (1985). Central to the epic, then, whether narrative or otherwise, is its capaciousness; its length is only justified by its breadth. Thus the form demands a complete portrait of the culture (not an excerpt) or a whole system of belief (not a single idea).
The epic in 20th-century American poetry can also be distinguished from other long forms in its desire for "totality." Pound's Cantos demand—even if they do not achieve—a coherent synthesis. They posit an authoritarian hierarchy so that Pound's claim for the sponsorship of Benito Mussolini should not be surprising given Virgil's endorsement of the Augustan reign at the conclusion of book VI of the Aeneid or given Ovid's reverential treatment of the "Deification of Caesar" in the final book of the Metamorphoses. The modern epic is characteristically concerned with "centering," bringing diverse materials into a synthesis. In contrast, dispersal or separation is more characteristic of serial poetry. The modern epic feels compelled to assert complete control over its materials; the series enjoys its own abandonment to the materials of its presentation. In this sense, the series is more appropriate to an increasingly heterodox culture. Totality in the modern epic represents an attempt to realize a grand design upon the world; the postmodern series accedes to the condition of flux, revels in the provisional state of things. The epic, assertive in principle, gives way to the serial articulation of particulars. The series forsakes mythic permanence in the recognition of cultural transience.
An important transitional work between the modern and the contemporary long poem, the maximus poems of Charles olson (1970) elicits praise for, and raises objections to, the method of Pounds Cantos as an "ego-system" and of William Carlos williamss pater-son (1963) as an "emotional system." Olson establishes these two modern works as "halves" of a job The Maximus Poems would encompass and complete. The poem relies upon the superhuman persona (character) of "Maximus," through whom the poet assumes a didactic authority. In its use of the city of Gloucester, Massachusetts, (like Paterson, New Jersey) as focal point, the local situation provides the major organizational device of The Maximus Poems. Olsons use of persona and locale attempts to provide the comprehensiveness and the coherence to which both The Cantos and Pater-son originally aspired.
Like Pound and Williams, Olson adopts a compositional method of nonnarrative collage of historical and cultural documents in The Maximus Poems. Merrill, in The Changing Light at Sandover, prefers dramatic structure as the more illustrious conveyance of the epic into the late 20th century with its expansive worldview. The stylistic and structural contrasts between Olsons and Merrills poems make for a fascinating study. One pictures the disheveled Olson with a day's growth of beard, drinking Johnnie Walker Black straight from the bottle and jabbing at an enormous topographical map of Gloucester tacked to his study wall. His rambling monologue on the arcane details of the early settlement of Massachusetts perplexes his visitors. In contrast, the urbane and wealthy Merrill hosts a séance for the amusement of a small party of friends in the sumptu ous dining room of his mansion at Stonington, Connecticut. His guests are amazed by what reveals itself on the Ouija board, under the guise of entertainment. Despite these fundamental differences of style and substance, both poets are obsessed with cosmology, the creation and evolution of the world. Olson summons this theme of the origin of the world by incorporating substantial portions of Hesiod's Theogony (eighth century B.C.) and relating its mythology directly to the New World locale that provides the principal landscape and sensibility of the epic. In "Maximus, From Dogtown-I," Olson models his account of the local lore of Dogtown, the "WATERED ROCK," on Hesiod's tale of Gaia and encircling Okeanos. Merrill, for his part, proposes to tell an "old, exalted" story, the "incarnation and withdrawal of / A god." In his masquelike poem, Merrill introduces his own pantheon; in place of Greek deities, we meet the God Biology and his twin Nature, who doubles as Chaos. Both Olson and Merrill aspire to create a world inside their poems; with map or Ouija board, they chart the dimensions of the epic as universal statement.
The epic demands—even if it does not always achieve—a coherent synthesis of its socioeconomic, anthropological, or cosmological materials. In keeping with what used to be called the "argument" of the poem, the modern epic retains a hierarchical superstructure, even if only the pro forma one of the traditional 24 books. Making his own distinctions between a long poem and a serial poem, Sherman Paul employs the word "long to cover poems of length that have a structure that encloses them, frames them, guides them" (37-38). An external framework of accepted ideas "both encloses and closes the poem: the long poem, as I define it, is a closed poem" (Paul 37-38). The epic poem strives always to be complete. Olson, literally on his deathbed, felt compelled to designate to his literary executor the final poem of Maximus so that if the manuscript finally lacked the kind of cohesion to which he aspired, it would most certainly have closure. Ronald johnson constructs his epic, ark (1996), on an architectural model of Beams, Spires, and Ramparts, "based on trinities, its cornerstones the eye, the ear, the mind." Acknowledging a debt to the spiritual triad of Dante's Divine Comedy (early 14th century), Johnson's poetics also invoke the essential elements of "sight, sound, and intellection" in Louis zukofsky's 24 part "a" (1978). The transept of ark is capped by Johnson's RAD I OS, his rewriting of portions of Milton's Paradise Lost by excision, beginning with Milton's text and then deleting lines and even parts of words to form a new text. In an entirely different vein, the completion of Merrill's elegant Sandover inspired New Narrative works that deploy a wide cast of characters and developed plots (see new formalism). Vikram seth's chronicles of the foibles of Bay Area yuppies, The Golden Gate (1986), takes the form of a 307-page novel-in-verse.
The serial form in contemporary poetry, however, represents a radical alternative to the epic model. The series describes the complicated manner in which one thing follows another. Its modular form—in which individual elements are both discontinuous and capable of recombination—distinguishes it from the thematic development or narrative progression that characterizes other types of the long poem. The series resists a systematic or determinate ordering of its materials, preferring constant change and even accident, a protean shape and a chance-determined method. The epic systematically creates a world through the gravitational attraction that melds diverse materials into a unified whole. But the series describes an expanding and heterodox universe whose centrifugal force encourages dispersal. The epic goal has always been encompassment and summation, but the series is an ongoing process of accumulation. In contrast to the epic demand for completion, the series remains radically and deliberately incomplete.
The fizzling of several modernist epic poems to cohere or achieve their goals, including The Cantos and Paterson, and the distaste for the hierarchical structures and belief systems that frame them has led many postmodern poets to serial composition. Poems written in many loosely associated parts also signify the impatience of poets with the short personal lyric demanded by some poetry journals. The series, a modular form in which individual sections are both discontinuous and capable of multiple orderings, contrasts the linear causality of most narrative forms; the serial poem is random and polyvalent, accommodating an expanding and heterodox universe. As discussed in Joseph Conte's
Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry, examples in the first half of the century include Williams's Spring and All (1923), George oppens Discrete Series (1934), and Zukofsky's Anew (1946). The postwar poetics of the BLACK MOUNTAIN SCHOOL and SAN FRANCISCO
renaissance produced several book-length serial poems: the "unbound and uneven" poems of Robert duncans infinite series, passages; Robert creeley's granular Pieces (1969); the journals (1975) of Paul blackburn; Jack spicers books, such as Homage to Creeley (1959) and The Heads of the Town up to the Aether (1962); Diane di primas multifaceted experimental loba (1973, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1998); and Robin blaser's open-ended imagenation series so far compiled in The Holy Forest (1993).
Among more recent poets, there is Seth and his Golden Gate. Nathaniel MACKEY combines jazz tonalities and Dogon mythology in his "Song of the Andoum-boulou" and "mu" series, both open-ended works appearing in multiple volumes after the style of Duncan and Blaser. Leslie scalapino prolifically explores the shifting, repetitive, and combinatorial form of seri-ality in that they were at the beach (1985) and Way (1988). As Lynn Keller observes in Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women, such poets as Rachel Blau duplessis (in drafts) and Beverly dahlen (in A Reading) have turned to serial poems as an alternative to the patriarchal assumptions of culture prevalent in maledominated epic poetry. The serial poem represents postmodern poetry's most innovative contribution to the long form.
Bernstein, Michael André. The Tale of the Tribe: Ezra Pound and the Modern Verse Epic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.
Conte, Joseph M. Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern
Poetry. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Keller, Lynn. Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Paul, Sherman. Hewing to Experience. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989.
LORDE, AUDRE (1934-1992) "I want my poems—I want all of my work—to engage, and to empower people to speak, to strengthen themselves into who they most want and need to be and then to act, to do what needs being done," Audre Lorde once said ("Above" 94). Poetry as a transformative force in the light of continuing oppression was central to Lorde's artistic, moral, and political vision. As a self-defined "Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet," Lorde spent her writing career negotiating the implications of this complex identity, trying to find ways to "make necessary power out of negative surroundings" (Lorde "Above" 91). Loosely associated with the black arts movement in the 1960s, Lorde continued to be a friend and mentor to poet-activists committed to breaking cultural silences, including Adrienne rich, June Jordan, Pat Parker, Essex Hemphill, and Barbara Smith.
Lorde was born in Harlem to West Indian parents. Educated at Hunter College and Columbia University, she worked as a librarian from 1961 to 1968; from 1968 to 1988 she taught English and creative writing, mainly at the City University of New York. In 1989 she received the American Book Award for her collection of essays, A Burst of Light. As writer, educator, and activist, she was always concerned with improving public visibility for women of color, both within the United States and internationally: In the 1980s she cofounded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press and Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa. She also a received the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit and was named poet laureate of New York in 1991.
Lorde's 1968 debut poetry collection, The First Cities, has been linked to the Black Arts movement; her complete body of work, however, shows an independent, singular voice. In The Black Unicorn (1978), written after a journey to Dahomey in 1974, Lorde broadened the mythic scope of her writing to include West African influences. In the 1980s and early 1990s, she continued to hone a lyrical idiom characterized by both its complex and evocative imagery and its exceptional emotional and intellectual courage.
Lorde's poetry encompasses a wide spectrum of themes, from the necessity for self-definition in "Coal" (1968)—"I / Is the total black, being spoken / From the earth's inside"—to the political responsibilities of the writer who promised of her pen, "never to leave it / lying / in somebody else's blood" ("To the Poet Who Happens to Be Black and the Black Poet Who Happens
"LOVE CALLS US TO THE THINGS OF THIS WORLD" 287
to Be a Woman" ). Whether she expresses her anger at the violence directed at black children who "play with skulls / at school" ("School Note" ) or examines how love between women of different races "means a gradual sacrifice of all that is simple" ("outlines" ), however, Lorde's overarching vision is, as she expressed it in the essay "Age, Race, Class, and Sex" (1984), to understand "human difference as a springboard for creative change."
Dhairyam, Sagri. "'Artifacts for Survival': Remapping the Contours of Poetry with Audre Lorde." Feminist Studies 18.2 (summer 1992): 229-256. --. "An Interview with Audre Lorde," by Karla Hammond American Poetry Review (March/April 1980): 18-21. Lorde, Audre. "Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference," in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Freedom, Calif.: The Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 114-123.
--. "Above the Wind: An Interview with Audre Lorde,"
by Charles H. Rowell. Callaloo 14.1 (1991): 83-95.
Was this article helpful?