The long poem in twentieth-century American poetry has taken a variety of forms and raised a number of critical issues, including the question of exactly how a long poem might be defined, and what principles of coherence it could and should have. These questions became more difficult to answer as the century progressed. Certainly, however, the long poem retained for many poets its traditional status as "important" for a poet for write, although the New Critical poets of the 1940s and 1950s are an exception, generally favoring well-crafted, shorter lyrics.
Before the collages of such modernist long poems as Ezra Pound's Cantos (1916-69), T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), and William Carlos Williams's Paterson (1946-58) appeared, Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost both wrote long poems that borrowed from drama and the novel, poems that use narrative to explore the uncertainties of a world that had lost some of its earlier comfortable beliefs. Frost's early "marriage poems," such as "The Death of the Hired Man," "The Witch of Coos," and "Home Burial," remain among his best longer poems, dramatizing and revealing through dialogue and action, rather than stating explicitly, the tensions within the marriages at their center. Some of Frost's later treatments of the theme, such as "West-Running Brook," are rather over-structured and somewhat too neatly resolved by comparison. Robinson's longer poems have found less favor with modern audiences, but in a poem such as "The Man Against the Sky" he claimed the long poem as a suitable and serious vehicle for the examination of some central philosophical issues. In this work Robinson presents a dramatic backdrop that serves as a vivid counterpoint to the poem's more abstract speculations, although for the modern reader his later long poems, centered upon Arthurian England, do so less successfully.
This use of the long poem for philosophical speculation was taken up by Wallace Stevens in the late 1930s and for the next 15 years he produced a number of complex, sophisticated long poems. An earlier long poem by Stevens, "The Comedian as the Letter C," had been framed around a narrative of settlement, although as always with Stevens the poem was centrally about the poet's relationship to the world in which he found himself, and to the language with which he could express it. The letter C, and its associated sounds, are to the fore of the poem's witty narrative. This poem appeared in Stevens's playful first volume Harmonium (1923). But with such long poems as "The Man With the Blue Guitar" (1937), "Examination of the Hero in a Time of War" (1942), "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" (1947), and "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" (1950) Stevens claimed for the long poem the seriousness that Robinson had claimed, and these poems are often seen as Stevens's finest achievement. The long poem particularly lends itself to poetry of meditation. In the case of "The Man Against the Sky," the poem explores multiple possibilities that all finally have equal status, while Stevens foregrounds process, the action of the mind constructing meaning piece by piece, always conscious that such meaning has no absolute status, is always a necessary fiction. By contrast, the searching in Eliot's poem of meditation, Four Quartets, is founded upon the certainty of the poet's Anglican faith. As Eliot's title suggests, musical parallels are an important unifying device in the poem.
Eliot also published, 20 years earlier, the most famous of the collage poems, The Waste Land. Pound's editing of the poem, as the manuscripts demonstrate, made it more fragmented than it originally was, dissolving continuities and allowing juxtaposition to suggest open-ended thematic possibilities. But in this and many collage poems in which fragmentation is a central feature, there remains the issue of what status to give to the poem's continuities - its motifs, symbols, myths, recurring figures and voices. Are they ironic echoes of a form that can no longer bring coherence? Or do they reflect a foundational potential that has some possibility of recovery - a reading in the case of The Waste Land possibly invited by Eliot's later poetry.
Ezra Pound's Cantos came out of the same post-war London avant-garde milieu as The Waste Land, although Pound's poem is open-ended both in conception and in its eventual accumulated record of 50 years of its author's ongoing interests and experiences. As more material from history, economics, literature, various cultures, and Pound's own life enter the poem as new cantos appeared over the years, thematic significances shift as the new material impacts upon the existing poem. While there is a self-contained - although multiple and complex - set of associations in The Waste Land, in Pound's poem these associations are never complete, in fact the poem itself is unfinished. Critical debate differs over whether the parts of the poem "cohere" - to use Pound's own term - and Pound himself late in life felt that he had failed in this task. But the demand for such coherence is itself arguably an arbitrary imposition upon a poem concerned with process and open-ended possibilities. Nevertheless for many readers the most successful section of The Cantos is the "Pisan Cantos," numbers LXXIV-LXXXIV, written while Pound was held prisoner by the allies facing charges of treason for his broadcasts over Italian radio in support of Mussolini. In these cantos, more than elsewhere in the poem, the poet himself enters as a unifying focus for the memories, observations, regrets, and spirit of determination that make up this section of the poem. The detail is alongside, more than elsewhere in the poem, a recognizable voice with a recognizable - and often moving - range of emotions.
Paterson came late in William Carlos Williams's career, after he had spent 30 years exploring the implications of imagism in shorter lyrics. But Williams is an example of a writer attracted to the challenge, even the necessity, of writing a long poem, and his five-book Paterson is in many ways conceived as his "local" answer to Eliot and Pound's longer poems. There is critical debate over the nature of his achievement. Marjorie Perloff, for example, sees the poem as a late, derivative work following but not contributing to Pound and Eliot's innovations. But for other critics, for example Paul Mariani, Williams's biographer, the poem is Williams's major work. The poem represents his particular solution to the problem of how to write a long poem that is still rooted in the imagist principle of immediacy. Although, like the Cantos, it is in its way a poem about history, Paterson foregrounds the process of composition and reception much more than does Pound's poem. "Dr. Paterson," the protagonist, is engaged in a quest to write the poem, and a search for an adequate language in which in can be written. The letters, historical extracts, and other prose documents that accompany the poetry are part of the poem's examination of language itself, historically and in terms of immediate need. The poem emphasizes open form in theme and structure, although there are a number of what appear to be attempts at formal closure, or at any rate summation, at the end of book IV and again in book V. Michael Bernstein has suggested that these multiple attempts at closure cancel each other out, and finally reinforce the poem's open-endedness, almost despite Williams's formal gestures. At any rate, like the other collage poems, Paterson is an example of a poem where a first-time reader would never notice if ten or twenty pages were missing. This is part of the challenge that such poems present to what they regard as restrictive conventions.
Charles Olson's Maximus poems (1960-75) also use the collage form, and, like the modernist writers, Olson wanted to move the long poem away from the inwardness of the Romantic poets and return it to social relevance. Olson felt that Williams's account of Paterson contained too little of the reality of the city, while he felt that Pound's Cantos centered too much upon the poet himself. Using the Dr. Paterson-type figure of Maximus of Tyre, and the locale of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Olson set out to write a poem avoiding what he felt were these two faults. In later books of the poem Olson became less interested in Gloucester and more in myth. Whether the result represents an advance upon his two models or is finally derivative of them has been a matter of critical debate.
Two poets who returned to more traditional devices in their long poems were Hart Crane and W. H. Auden. Crane saw the affirmations of The Bridge (1930) as an answer to The Waste Land, and sought to move beyond the denotative functions of language through symbols, most centrally the evocative power of the Brooklyn Bridge itself; the sweep of the poem, like that of the bridge, was to transcend its individual parts. Crane's poem is intended as itself a bridge, taking in American history and looking to the nation's future. Crane's achievement was hindered by his having to write the poem over a number of years, and by a decline in his health towards the end. Readers differ on the degree to which the poem's consequent unevenness compromises its unity. In another alternative to the fragmentary collages of the modernists, Auden used the resources of various literary genres in a number of long poems written after he took up residence in the United States in 1939, for example "New Year Letter" (1940) and the dramatic form of The Age of Anxiety (1944-6), which he subtitled "A Baroque Eclogue."
In the 1950s long poems that resembled frank, open-ended personal epics were one reaction against the well-wrought short lyric of New Criticism. Whitman's long lines provided a model, used famously by Allen Ginsberg in "Howl" (1956). A major difference is that, whereas Whitman's catalogs cohere through his affirmations of inclusiveness, in Ginsberg's poem the experiences that the poem's long lines recount cohere only as representative examples of a generation destroying itself fighting a culture that would repress its sexual and imaginative energies. When the poem reaches out to a reader, as Whitman reached out to his readers, Ginsberg's particular reader, Carl Solomon, is in a mental hospital. In Ginsberg's later Kaddish (1961) his mother's tortured days find an end in death, and a comforter in the poet's recitation of the funeral rites that she did not receive when she was buried.
Ginsberg's affirmations, even with the ironies that surround them, leave more of a sense of the speaker's ability to function in the hostile world outside of the poem than is the case with the personal epics of some other poets. In the long sequences of Theodore Roethke, in John Berryman's Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956) and The Dream Songs (1969), and Robert Lowell's
Life Studies (1959), the character behind the personal voice is more unstable, the outcome less predictable. With such personal poems, the poet becomes a public figure, although one who cannot always function in public. The self-destructive public and private behavior of Berryman, and to a lesser extent Lowell, almost seem an extension of their poems.
Open form and the personal narrative found another kind of expression in the "notebook" poems of the 1960s, examples of which appear in the work of Lowell, Notebooks, 1967-1968 (1969) and Denise Levertov, Relearning the Alphabet (1970). Such work emphasizes the immediacy of the poet's engagement with the issues described - in Levertov's case her opposition to the Vietnam War - and the open form suggests resistance to or ambivalence about convention, an aesthetic committed to the nuances of the moment, and unpredictable results. For some critics the notebook poem degenerated into a fashion, or an excuse for some unfinished and weak writing, and perhaps more than some other examples of the long poem looks dated from the perspective of the twenty-first century.
The long poem in the century's African American writing has been used most effectively to integrate history and folk traditions even while - as in Langston Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) - it embraces fragmentation, distortion, and broken rhythms. For Hughes this is the musical and oral heritage of an oppressed but vital black culture. Melvin B. Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953) and his posthumously published A Gallery of Harlem Portraits (1979) also integrate much African and African American history and culture into the poems, although their dense and complex allusions give them affinities - especially the Libretto - with the work of Eliot and Pound more than with that of Hughes. More recently Rita Dove's history of her family, Thomas and Beulah (1986), is an example of a sequence that gives voice to a more personal past, although one that is representative of the millions of quiet lives lived by America's black population that have until recently found little voice in American poetry.
Affirmation of cultural and/or sexual identity is the subject of a number of recent extended poems by poets writing on ethnic or gender issues. Adrienne Rich's "Twenty-One Love Poems" in her The Dream of a Common Language (1978) is a prominent example of the latter. This sonnet sequence frankly celebrating lesbian love reclaims what had formerly been, at any rate in literary history, a form for male writers. Rich's volume begins with an epigram from one of H.D.'s late long poems. Feminist poets and critics have helped return attention to these poems of H.D., a contemporary of Pound, Eliot, and Williams, who was formerly studied more for her imagist poems of the 1910s and 1920s than for the 1940s wartime trilogy The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, and The Flowering of the Rod, or the early
1950s Helen in Egypt, all of which are concerned with the rediscovery of feminine creativity.
James Merrill and John Ashbery have both made signal contributions to the long poem form. Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover (1982) finds a way to bring epic scope back into the long poem with the account of his and David Jackson's experiences with a Ouija board over a number of years. The long poem form here allows for multiple voices and a cast of protagonists whose characters develop and are even radically transformed over the length of the poem. The narrative concerns nothing less than the fate of the human race and what might be done to avert its doom. Time is a constant presence in Merrill's poem, as a marker for important spiritual events, and as a reminder of the short span of earthly life (some of Merrill's friends featured in the poem die during the years of the poem's composition). Time functions in a different way in Ashbery's long poems, where it is sometimes the only constant in a poem's shifts of direction and language reflecting the poet's ongoing experience of the world. Ashbery has said that he finds the long poem more useful than shorter lyrics for recording his central interest in the engagement of consciousness with reality.
The flux of time in Ashbery's poems parallels the flux of language in long poems by poets associated with Language poetry such as Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, and Susan Howe. Such poems call attention to how language constructs a version of reality that pretends to referentiality, although the poems insistently call the reader back to the process of construction. In such poetry the long poem is being deconstructed at the same time as it is being constructed. Such avant-garde poetry is sometimes associated with the gender and ethnic poetry discussed earlier - the parallel concern being how systems can impose meaning and value in a way that can be oppressive or marginalizing to certain groups. Notable examples are Silliman's Tjanting (1981), Hejinian's My Life (1980 and 1987) and Howe's Pierce-Arrow (1999).
The different forms taken by the twentieth-century American long poem, whether the emphasis is upon personal or social narrative, fragmentation, flux, a dispersed history, or an identity that the poem seeks to integrate, kept it a vital and innovative form throughout the century. But such diversity has sometimes made difficult the identification of what is a long poem. Contemporary volumes of poetry are often carefully arranged by the authors in thematic groupings - unlike the days when a publisher threw together the gatherings of the poet's most recent few years of work - and such thematic categories sometimes extend to the whole volume. When should a group of related lyrics be regarded as a long poem? Such a sequence certainly exhibits some of the characteristics of the modern long poem in its disjunctions, recurring motifs and themes, and sometimes disparate forms and languages. Many readers would want to define as "long poems" the collections of lyrics in Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares (1971), Dove's Thomas and Beulah, Lowell's Life Studies (1959), and perhaps Sylvia Plath's Ariel (1965) - which she planned the arrangement of carefully, although that arrangement was not followed in the posthumous publication. The problem extends back to modernist sequences too. The 27 poems of William Carlos Williams's Spring and All were published with interspersed prose as a book in 1923, the poems numbered successively with Roman numerals, poem I arguably a "beginning" and poem XXVII a "summary." But in later volumes Williams dispensed with the prose, published separate groups of the poems, and when he did publish all 27 added a twenty-eighth poem. Such transformations led Donald Davie to conclude that even Williams himself did not know what kind of book Spring and All was. Meanwhile classroom anthologies print poems from this book and from the related lyric sequences of other twentieth-century poets, usually with no notice of the context of the poem, as if the poems were individual lyrics. In effect, an editor is thus making his or her own decision as to the status of the work from which the poem is drawn. Of course, the reason that this is an issue at all is the challenges that American twentieth-century long poems have made to received ideas of form. In the process of making such challenges they have enriched the possibilities of the long poem in ways that have kept the form innovative, contemporary, and relevant.
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