Book-length Poems

August 25, 2016

cdwright-coverI love book-length poems: the long arc, the immersion, some of the pleasures of a novel combined with the repetition of images, the hypnotic pull forward.  Like living in a house instead of a series of rooms, maybe.  A world in a book.  As Stevens said, a planet on the table.  Some of my own favorites, right off the top of my head: C. D. Wright’s Deep Step Come Shining, Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris and Faithful and Virtuous Night, Derek Walcott’s epic Omeros, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish.  What comes to your mind?

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  • Reply Robert McDowell August 26, 2016 at 12:12 am

    Book-Length poems…A lovely topic! You begin with good choices, Sharon. I’d add, from the Immortals, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Dante’s Epic, Paradise Lost, Don Juan, Roan Stallion, The Women at Point Sur; more recent book-length poems–Mark Jarman’s Iris, David Mason’s Ludlow, may I include my The Diviners? (I still like it…)…and I know I am missing so many at this moment.

  • Reply Anne Pitkin August 26, 2016 at 1:27 am

    Anne Carson’s “Red” poems and her elegy to her brother. Also CD Wright’s “One with Others.” Also off the top of my head. I think another of Wright’s books is a long poem–in fact most of her later books are one poem, or at least tightly linked. Surely others will come to mind.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 26, 2016 at 8:10 am

      Yes, Autobiography of Red and Nox.

  • Reply Anne Pitkin August 26, 2016 at 3:03 am

    What list is complete without The Illiad and the Odyssey? Or Paradise Lost or The Divine Comedy?

  • Reply Corey Mesler August 26, 2016 at 7:11 am

    Does Dream Songs count?

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 26, 2016 at 8:08 am

      I thought about what constitutes a book-length poem, and I’m happy to leave the definition pretty elastic. I’d say yes.

  • Reply Charles Hartman August 26, 2016 at 7:25 am

    Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares remains astonishing, forty years after he made the circuit reading it aloud.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 26, 2016 at 8:07 am

      Yes, I heard Kinnell read from it early on, and it was hypnotic. It’s a myth you inhabit when you’re reading it, the way the speaker inhabits the bear.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 26, 2016 at 8:24 am

    Stan Plumly writes: “You can’t leave Robert Penn Warren’s AUDUBON: A VISION off the list.” I know this book from a seminar Stan taught at Iowa on long poems and poem sequences, and it’s powerful and compelling.

    • Reply Nancy Eimers August 26, 2016 at 9:17 am

      James McMichael’s FOUR GOOD THINGS is a really interesting book!

      • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 26, 2016 at 9:19 am

        I don’t know it, but I’m going to look for it now. One reason I asked this question.

  • Reply Wendy Mnookin August 26, 2016 at 9:14 am

    And I would add Louise Gluck’s Meadowlands. I love the way she speaks in various voices in the book and how she uses humor to enhance and to mitigate the pain. When I first discovered that book I was working on a manuscript which, if I remember correctly, was called Rescue, and it was in dire need of some rescuing. Reading Meadowlands gave me the idea of pulling apart two sections of the book that were fighting with each other for space. These sections developed into separate books, To Get Here, about my son’s drug addiction, and What He Took, about my father’s early death in a car accident.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 26, 2016 at 9:21 am

      Ah, yes, not only the pleasure of the reading, but then of the way some books can expand our sense of poetry, and show us a way forward with our own work.

  • Reply John Ruff August 26, 2016 at 9:37 am

    I would put Ovid’s Metamorphosis on the list, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, Milton, and Jersusalem, Anne Bradstreet’s Contemplations, maybe not book length but beautiful and long, and how about Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North? And here’s one that should be in print, Archibald MacLeish’s Land of the Free, his lefty “soundtrack” for those incredible Farm Security Administration photographs he put into sequence.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 26, 2016 at 9:45 am

      These are great suggestions. I don’t know the MacLeish and I’m going to look for it.

  • Reply Grace Schulman August 26, 2016 at 9:48 am

    Philip Schultz, The Wherewithal; Alfred Corn, Notes from a Child of Paradise.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 26, 2016 at 9:53 am

      Ooh–two more I don’t know. It’s a long list. Thanks for this.

  • Reply Susan Rich August 26, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    I would add a favorite of mine, Natasha Trethewey’s, Bellocq’s Ophelia. She moves from one photograph taken of a New Orleans mixed race prostitute out into the entire world.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 26, 2016 at 12:48 pm

      Thanks. Yet another one I’m eager to read.

  • Reply Robert McDowell August 26, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    Yes, absolutely, The Dream Songs! How did I forget that? Also Frederick Pollack’s The Adventure, a terrific book-length poem, an epic about the Afterlife. Let’s add Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, an important book from the 80s. It’s almost a shame to leave Ai off this list–a great storyteller gone too soon. Though her books are made of wonderful narrative poems of length, I’m not aware of a book-length poem by her. Another category…long poems, though not book-length. I’d put the terrific Audubon in this category. Oh, yes, Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate…Several of E.A. Robinson’s poems…

  • Reply Floyce Alexander August 26, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    Thanks very much, Sharon, for citing Stanley Plumly’s praise of AUDUBON: A VISION.

    I’d recommend Thomas McGrath’s LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 26, 2016 at 3:31 pm

      And MGrath’s is yet another one I don’t know. Thanks, Floyce.

  • Reply Fredric Koeppel August 26, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    “Autobiography of red,” certainly, and did anyone mention “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”?

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 26, 2016 at 3:31 pm

      Doh! I even wrote about Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, one of my favorite poems. Thanks.

  • Reply Paul Mariani August 27, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    Hi Sharon. A great idea this. Has anyone mentioned T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and The Four Quartets? William Carlos Williams’s modernist prose & poetry collection Spring & All, and his Paterson? Ezra Pound’s Cantos? Wallace Stevens’s The Man with The Blue Guitar and Auroras of Autumn? Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket? John Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and 77 Dream Songs and Love & Fame? Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems? Gwendolyn Brooks’s A Street in Bronzeville and Annie Allen? Ted Hughes’ Crow? Galway Kinnell’s “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World”? Sharon Doubiago’s early book-length poem whose title escapes me. Long poems, book-length poems, poems connected throughout by theme and plot: variations on a theme. And so it goes.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 27, 2016 at 11:24 pm

      Thanks for these, Paul. When I got it earlier I was just about to have dinner with Joan Houlihan, who has very fond memories of you as a teacher. I love Spring and All. I’d thought of another of Brooks’s books, In the Mecca. Is the Sharon Doubiago book Hard Country? This description makes me eager to read it: “First published by West End Press in 1982, this book-length poem about a journey across America has been out of print for a decade but has maintained its underground reputation as a major response to the male epic consciousness of twentieth-century American poetry.”

  • Reply John Reed August 27, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover?

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 27, 2016 at 11:26 pm

      Yes, absolutely. It came out as individual books, but really is one big epic. I like some parts more than others, but it’s an amazing achievement.

  • Reply Anne Pitkin August 27, 2016 at 11:16 pm

    One more–What the Ice Gets, Melinda Mueller. It’s an account of Shackleton’s diastrous journey to the South Pole, told in the voices of all the crew–a tour de force.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 27, 2016 at 11:24 pm

      Oh, yes, terrific book.

  • Reply Lynne Bush August 30, 2016 at 10:48 am

    Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf translation. Or would you make a distinction between a book-length poem and a story in verse? Not sure myself . . . but would classify myself as a junky for iambic pentameter.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 30, 2016 at 10:58 am

      I think there are a lot of kinds of book-length poems, more than I realized. Everything from linked lyric poems like Gluck’s books to novels in verse to social commentary to epics (Omeros; The Changing Light at Sandover) to many other shapes. Beowulf of course belongs on the list.

      • Reply Floyce Alexander August 30, 2016 at 1:52 pm

        Gary Snyder’s MOUNTAINS AND RIVERS WITHOUT END would be another choice of mine.

  • Reply John Reed August 30, 2016 at 11:00 am

    Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 30, 2016 at 11:08 am

      Yes, someone else mentioned it too. When it first came out I thought the idea sounded terrible–a novel in sonnets? Precious, tedious. At some point I saw it in an airport bookstore (really) and thought, “Okay, I’ll try it.” Read the whole thing on the plane, couldn’t but it down. I taught it a couple of times. What an odd combination: the formality of sonnets with a cast of characters from California–and yet it works. The tetrameter rather than pentameter speeds the poems along, as does the soap-operatic plot. It’s really a lot of fun.

  • Reply Elizabeth Doran August 30, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    I love Alice Notlely’s Descent of Allette… Also Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is possible a book length poem…

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 30, 2016 at 4:44 pm

      Hi Elizabeth. Yes, great additions.

  • Reply Robbie Gamble August 30, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    Such a great list! So many books I have yet to get to! I’m cracking open C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining just now. My two cents worth: I would add A. Van Jordan’s Macnolia, which has an amazing reverse narrative trajectory. Also Joan Houlihan’s two volumes: The Us, and Ay.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 30, 2016 at 4:44 pm

      And yet another one I don’t know at all. Thanks, and yes, Joan Houlihan’s books.

  • Reply Kyeren Regehr August 11, 2021 at 11:54 am

    I’ve often taken from this wonderful “list” of suggestions (and I’m happy to find it’s still here and google-able!)–I’d like to finally offer a few essentials from my own list:
    Windstorm by Joe Denham
    Ossuaries by Dionne Brand
    Assiniboia by Tim Lilburn
    Heavenly Questions by Gjertrud Schnackenberg

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