Book-Length Poems: The Sequel

August 27, 2016

I got so many responses to the previous post I set out to make a list for easy reference, but you can do that for yourselves simply by reading through them.  I thought of many more myself: Hart Crane’s The Bridge, Martha Collins’ Blue Front, Kathleen Flenniken’s Plume, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Kevin Young’s Jelly Roll,  Steven Cramer’s Clangings, all of Linda Bierds’ books.  I would also add a book labeled fiction, Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic: each of its stunning eight chapters is really a prose poem.  People listed the classics, epics, novels in verse, character portraits, books driven by obsession, books driven by research–of course these categories overlap.  Book-length poems are a way to have our cake and eat it too: the intensity of lyric combined with time to meditate, ponder, go through a range of emotions.  I think the hardest part of writing out of research is transforming the results into music, into poetry.  I’m deeply wedded to the 20th-century idea that a poem is not a description of the world, but a world in itself, so the modern and contemporary books here that most compel me are the ones that transform their raw material into something else, that spin straw into gold.  I’m less moved by the ones that don’t accomplish that alchemy, that are closer to social commentary or history than to poetry.  Long or short, I want the music of poetry, I want to feel as if the top of my head is taken off.  My uncle, a mining engineer, described the process of assaying for gold that my great-grandfather would have followed: First he would have heated an ore sample (the raw material) and reduced it a lead “button.”  Then this would be heated in a little dish called a cupel that would absorb the lead and leave just a bead of whatever gold and silver had been in the raw material.  I think my favorite poems of any length are the ones that have done that refining and reducing, getting rid of the dross, until only the essence remains.  My own list of favorite book-length poems would feature those that have the same tautness and economy as a short lyric, where the white space between lines is as eloquent as the lines themselves.  Any thoughts about the possibilities and difficulties of writing good book-length poems?

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  • Reply Frances Donovan August 27, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    I was quite impressed with the late David Rakoff’s verse novel “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish.” I believe it’s all in heroic couplets.

  • Reply Christopher Bakken August 30, 2016 at 8:04 am

    Derek Walcott’s OMEROS has both the music and the historical consciousness that helps sustain a book-length poem. Or is that too long a poem for the discussion here?

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 30, 2016 at 8:29 am

      Definitely not too long–I put it on my first list. I re-read it not long ago and was even more knocked out than the first time. It’s so beautifully written, and then it moves from one thing to another they way a lyric poem might, and manages to bring them all together. The scope is so large and the level of craft so high, I can’t imagine how he wrote it.

  • Reply Wendy Mnookin August 30, 2016 at 10:33 am

    I’m loving these ideas and especially Sharon’s list–have some reading to do! I’m always finding gaps in my reading and then feel excited at what’s waiting for me and a little dismayed that there’s so much I haven’t read before.

  • Reply Michelle Boisseau August 30, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    I don’t think I noticed if The Book of Nightmares was on the list. I read it freshman year in college in my compulsory (for creative writing English majors) Intro to Poetry class, and I remember being baffled, amazed, and fired up: so here is what I’m going to do, I said to myself. I read it over and over, terrified and awakened. The next year with the same prof I read Dante. And with others in the next years The Prelude, The Fairie Queen and so on. In grad school I filled in things I thought I was missing like The Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, In Memoriam, Song of Myself and so forth while reading contemporaries. Later on I found myself teaching the whole arc, one way or another, like The Iliad, Beowulf and The Waste Land.

    These long poems from the canon have helped me see the variety of approaches, purposes, techniques, strategies, opportunities while fabulous long-poem books were coming out by living poets. A few I’d like to add to the works folks people have already listed are Andrew Hudgins’ After the Lost War, Mark Jarman’s Iris and Holy Sonnets, Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination, Heaney’s Station Island, many of Harvey Hix’s books, as well as the reimagining of family stories in Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah and Marilyn Nelson’s The Homeplace. (And did Merrill get mentioned?) I also want to mention gorgeous and/or just fascinating work from abroad: Carol Ann Duffy’s World’s Wife, Alice Oswald’s Dart and Memorial, Carrie Etter (who’s an American teaching at Bath Spa) who herself was adopted has a recent book called Imagined Sons in which she explores the possible lives of the son she gave up for adoption.

    Some of these books I mention are series and I think that’s often a great way to approach a big subject. But I’d also like to say that there are too many books out there that are conceived as “projects,” more than something that comes out of a passion, an irrevocable need to work out or through something (as was The Duino Elegies), and these project books can seem to have too much filler, not enough moving poems. I don’t think Bishop’s Crusoe would have been improved if it were book-length, and I think of Terry Hummer’s first book and his moving sonnet sequence “The Carrier” about his rural letter carrier father. It doesn’t take up the whole book. It doesn’t need to. I’m sure we could chime in with many examples about how short series or longer narratives can work beautifully, but to push them longer to book-length would make them fail.

  • Reply Eileen cleary August 31, 2016 at 12:59 am

    Michelle, you’ve suggested some new opportunities for reading to me and also, I agree that there are many poem sequences that are not book length and are powerful, distilled worlds of their own. When I find these sets of poems I’m always drawn in. I think this would make another outstanding topic to discuss. But first, I have to get my hands on “The Carrier” sequence.

  • Reply Annie Finch August 31, 2016 at 7:17 am

    I’d concur about the music. When someone tells me they are writing a book-length poem one of the first questions I always ask is, will there be a form/metric to hang it on? A regular beat can act as the warp to the weft of the story, empowering the whole with a three-dimensional quality. Whether or not there is a steady metric, having some kind of overarching vision for the form of a longpoem seems very helpful, if not essential. My own two book-length poems answer the question of form in opposite ways—a rhythmic pastiche of conversing free verse voices in The Encyclopedia of Scotland and regular dactylic stanzas in Among the Goddesses, a small epic poem of 81 stanzas. Shout-outs to a couple of favorite book-length poems from different centuries: Alice Notley’s ingenious use of multiple paired parentheses in her epic The Descent of Alette is fascinating and effective. And if you haven’t read Evangeline lately, it is worth it–a gripping example of a love story as epic, and students love it.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 31, 2016 at 7:55 am

      Thanks, Annie, for this, and for the reminder of your two books. The music of Deep Step Come Shining is the first thing that drew me in and what keeps me coming back. It’s a poem, not a research paper. Descent of Alette is wonderful. Evangeline of course, and The Prelude.

  • Reply Sharon Klander September 5, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    One of my favorite book-length poems is For the Time Being by Auden, perhaps because I’m always fascinated by a re-fashioning, re-visioning of traditional Christian stories.

  • Reply Robert McDowell August 12, 2022 at 3:23 pm

    Iris by Mark Jarman. The Country I Remember by David Mason. Can we agree that Rita Dove’s Thomas & Beulah is a book-length poem? The Adventure by Frederick Pollack. Happiness, also by Pollack. Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. How about all of Ai’s books? E. A. Robinson’s book-length poems. The Women at Point Sur by Robinson Jeffers & many other titles from the same author. The Donner Party by George Keithley. The Diviners.

    • Reply Sharon August 12, 2022 at 3:37 pm

      Hey, Robert. Glad to know you’re reading. Yes to Thomas and Beulah. I don’t know the Mason or the Pollack, but will look for them. Thanks.

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