For our latest feature, we’ve asked 50 poets to weigh in (briefly) on the long poems that interest them. To avoid spending too much time on the usual suspects, we suggested that most of our contributors focus on poems from the last 70 years.
–R.T. Smith on Robert Penn Warren
–Michael Leong onÂ Nick Montfort And Stephanie StricklandÂ
–Dana Levin on Anne Carson
–Paisley Rekdal on Marianne Moore
–Cecily Parks on Lorine Niedecker
–John Poch on Charles Martin
–Daniel Bosch on Derek Walcott
–Spencer Reece on Adrienne Rich
–Michael Ryan on Emily Dickinson
–Sam Hamill on Thomas McGrath
–Erica Dawson on Anthony Hecht
–Robert Pinsky on George Gascoigne
R.T. SMITH ON ROBERT PENN WARREN
âTell me a story,â says the child yearning to delay the darkness, and all the better if the story features recognizable characters and patterns, if something important is imperiled in the narrative, then rescued, Â and if the tale is, in the end and against expectation, soothing.Â In an era of so much discordant poetry built of fractured structures and anti-melodic prosody, I remember how startled I was on first encountering the shifting planes, altered pitches and bold, jigsawing parallelisms of Robert Penn Warrenâs poetic sequence Audubon: A Vision.Â He has anticipated so many of the current free-wheeling strategies, but without sacrificing coherence and the conventions of common sense, without striving to be gnomic or difficult.Â And I also remember how spellbound I was with the flashes of candor from Warrenâs narrating persona, who says in the final movement, âI did not know what was happening in my heart.âÂ Forty years after the poem first found me, I am still in awe of it.
Why was the discovery of that poem so word-altering and world-altering?Â Operating by turns as agent of historical narrative, allegory, meditation and lyric–a song as well as a story–Audubon brought back into relevance the frontier, the haunting natures mortes of the great artist/ornithologist and my own questions about source and destiny.Â It serves as a powerful reminder of how the Other of the natural world, confronted deliberately, could provide direction and amplitude to the search for identity, as well as an arena for epiphany.
The poem is a benchmark, beyond Warrenâs own aesthetic evolution, a guide for Americans willing to admit to shortcomings like pride, greed and pretentiousness always marbling the national virtues, for the person fleeing civilization with its (as Merwin puts it) âruth of the lairâ to risk the indigenous perils and revelations lurking in the wilderness.Â The poem dramatizes both Audubonâs and the authorâs attempts to reconcile romantic idealism and pragmatism, to reach out and discover oneâs own unclassifiable core in a realistic realm both mysterious and flat-iron factual.
The shape of the poem is not simple, yet its seven numbered parts signal to readers a design near-symphonic, if rife with elements of fugue, riff and aria, all brought to bear on questions of identity, myth, dream and compromise.Â In the final section of boyhood epiphany, the poet makes a plea, asks to be told a story âof great distances and starlight,â named Time, but that name unuttered, âa story of deep delight,â a phrase surely borrowed from Coleridgeâs interrupted dreamer.
The glory of this poem is, in part, its boldness: by turns imagistic and elliptical, in part philosophical, it combines episode, summary and conclusion, but refuses mechanical continuity, employing tonal overlap and emotional resonance on a cosmic scale (the dawn is âGodâs blood spiltâ), conveying a three-dimensional feel.Â Yet its central episode, in which the painter/hunter is rescued from goblin-like outlaws who would slit his throat over a gold watch, is riveting in its naturalism, while offering a troubling chronicle of the inevitability of horror.
The two aspects of this poem which most haunt me are the grim story which unfolds at dark; âOn the trod mire by the door crackles the night-ice already there formingâ to provide the threshold of a âdark hovel /In the forest where trees have eyes,â which he (surely Warren here, through Audubon) retains from childhood.Â The deliberate pace, building suspense, the imagery of dim light, a one-eyed Indian, the âwhish of silkâ as the grotesque hostess hones her knife on a spat-upon stone, the terror and paralysis–itâs one of the great episodes in our literature.
Over the years I have concluded that Warren has led me to experience poetry as language sculpture, architecture, without sacrificing the thematic weave, satisfying patterns and echoing, reinforcing sounds, which in Understanding Poetry he had called âthe tangled glitter of syllablesâ and which I went to the well of poetry in quest of.Â Once I recovered from my shock at the formal appearance of the poem, I began to learn my way around it, weaving through biography, history, metaphysics, folklore and bold invention.Â I had not expected any poem to quench and nourish me the way âAudubon: A Visionâ had with its imprinting in my imagination a distinctly American quest accepted by a man who represented our national hardships and achievements, their romantic distractions and their roots in the understory of the forest, where power and access, beauty and apprehension are steadily negotiated.Â In short, Warren had made it personal in ways I could neither ignore nor deflect.
Even now, as I have learned it by heart, I find the poem coming alive inside me at moments of strong emotion,Â as I hear âThe great geese hoot northward,â delivering that âdeep delightâ with, even in the resonant âfirst dark,â Â so much promise, richness, the sheer pleasures of Â mind and tongue.
MICHAEL LEONG ONÂ NICK MONTFORT AND STEPHANIE STRICKLAND
O What an endlesse worke haue I in hand,
To count the seas abundant progeny
âEdmund Spenser,Â The Faerie Queene
Other structures include a series of imperatives, such as âcircle on,â âdash on,â âloop on,â âreel on,â and âroll on,â which I read not only as a meta-textual commentary on the potentially endless unfurling of stanzaic structures but also as an extended dialogue with the climactic and penultimate section of Walt Whitmanâs âCrossing Brooklyn Ferryâ (a lyric in which the speaker memorably exhorts the river, waves, birds, and ships to â[f]low on,â â[f]rolic on,â â[f]ly on,â and â[c]ome onâ), creating a suggestive triangulation of three of the most inimitable American writers of the nineteenth-century.
The field created by the generator is a âsea-likeâ expanse framed by the dimensions of the web browser, allowing the reader/user/performer to scroll vertically and horizontally through the text, simulating the effect of nautical navigation (Sea and Spar Between was first published in an electronic journal calledÂ Dear Navigator).Â Such an effect might be analogous to what Ezra Pound called sailing âin periplumâ (the stated objective of hisÂ Cantos)âthat is, apprehending the earth ânot as land looks on a map / but as sea bord seen by men sailing.âÂ Yet the sensitivity of the program is such that just a modest movement of the computer mouse or gesture on the touchpad will send the reader hurtling through the stanzas at sometimes vertiginous speeds. Â It is sailing âin periplumâ but turbo-charged.
IfÂ Sea and Spar BetweenÂ is a map-like representation, it is a dynamic one that refuses a totalizing schema. Â One is able to zoom out in an attempt to get a birdâs eye view (by pressing the âZâ key) but only to the limited extent that 70 whole stanzas will be visible at any given time. Contrastingly, by pressing the âAâ key, one is allowed toÂ zoom inÂ to a much greater degree, to plunge into the blue, to delve deeper and deeper into the spaces between lines, to conduct what poet Ed Roberson might call âresearch at the interstice.â
These videos above dramatically demonstrate new interactive modes of reading that are now possible in our digital age.Â But rather than repudiating older, more established ways of reading, Sea and Spar Between asks the reader to conceive of reading in the twenty-first century as a heterogeneous activity that encompasses a variety of skills, concentrations, and demands.Â That reading is not a monolithic process seems obvious.Â Yet when it comes to approaching literary texts, reading is almost always (and not surprisingly) defined as a slow and painstaking endeavor.Â For example, after Oprah Winfrey chose Toni Morrisonâs Song of Solomon for her book club in 1996, Winfrey called Morrison and asked, âDo people tell you they have to keep going over the words sometimes?âÂ Morrison famously responded: âThat, my dear, is called reading.âÂ More recently, Dana Gioiaâs preface to the NEAâs controversial report Reading at Risk (2004) has extended this conventional wisdom in claiming that â[r]eading a book requires a degree of active attention and engagement…. By contrast, most electronic media… make fewer demands on their audiences…. Even interactive electronic media… foster shorter attention spans and accelerated gratification.âÂ As a literary text, Sea and Spar Between is remarkable in the way it calls for not only a narrowly defined kind of âactive attentionâ but also an âacceleratedâ engagement.Â The readerâs ability to rapidly surf across the flickering surface of the poem might be understood, along with the related on-line activities of browsing, skimming, and scanning, as the passive and impoverished type of reading that Gioia decries.Â But I would argue that this âspeed reading,â as it were, is a crucial component to the overall appreciation of the poem.Â Montfort and Stricklandâs readers are able to enjoy the aesthetic experience of skimming through a vast and breathtaking textual ecology just as readers of a printed codex can relish the turn of each page and the sensuous feel of the book in their hands.Â Surfing through the trillions of these fragmentary stanzas allows one to more fully register the poetry generatorâs mathematically sublime output.
Moreover, Sea and Spar Betweenâs zoom function encapsulatesâin a brilliantly transformed fashionâboth âclose readingâ (hearkening back to a reading practice that started at least with I.A. Richards and progressed, most notably, through the New Critics) and what Franco Moretti has polemically called âdistant readingâ (a recent methodology, outlined in the essay âConjectures on World Literature,â which involves not the careful scrutiny of particular texts but the synthesis and analysis of large sets of quantitative data in order âto focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropesâor genres and systems.â) The output of Sea and Spar Between is a rich, combinatorial poem in its own right, but it also offers the productively defamiliarizing experience of reading Melville and Dickinson âat a distance,â giving us a âslantâ perspective on two very familiar, canonical authors.Â Toggling back and forth between the close and the distant allows for exercising different scales of focus whether it be jumping from a pâs descender to an lâs ascender in the word pole (like Melvilleâs Ishmael hopping âfrom spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadowâ) or floating far above the stanzas in this digital sea (like one of Dickinsonâs butterflies cruising â[i]n purposeless Circumference / As âtwere a Tropic Show.â)Â We can say that Montfort and Stricklandâs poetics privileges neither the sea nor the spar but the between.
In short, Sea and Spar Between suggests that the long poem in the digital age has to make room for shifting kinds of attention, slow and fast, near and far.Â If we are to ponder the fate of reading (and of reading the long poem) at the beginning of this new century, at this interstice between print and digital textual cultures, we would do no better than to explore the sublime permutations of Sea and Spar Between.
DANA LEVIN ON ANNE CARSON
Clear as an Alarm: 675 Words on Anne Carsonâs The Glass Essay
Anne Carsonâs thirty-six page poem The Glass Essay, from 1995âs Glass, Irony and God, turns on the most precarious of pivots: love lost. Who has not attempted such a poem, only to be repelled by melodrama, self-pity, sentimentality, clichĂ©? âNot enough spin on it,â the speakerâs lover of five years declares on page eleven. Stunned, demolished, the speaker flees to her motherâs home on the Canadian moors, The Collected Works of Emily Bronte in tow. There, where âthe April light is clear as an alarm,â where âthe bare blue trees and bleached wooden skyâ carve into her âwith knives of light,â Carsonâs speaker gets down to the work of trying to understand what has happened to her. She reads, she thinks, she walks, she has banal conversations with her mother; she says âI am not unfamiliar with this half-lifeâ after describing Bronte inventing a Heathcliff who, in the place of a soul, has âthe constant cold departure of Catherine from his nervous system.â For a poem sparked by a break-up, with the heart-slinging, fate-slapping Wuthering Heights as ur-text, the tone of The Glass Essay is thrillingly, devastatingly, deadpan.
Where then is the drama in this long poem? The drama is in perceiving and thinking, in the desire âto speak more clearlyâ and the cool, lacerating narratives of analysis that follow. The drama of feeling is constantly deflated or displaced. Descriptions of light, weather and landscape, quotations from Bronte, and, later, the hallucinatory appearance of the fantastic Nudes, serve as feeling-emblems; the speaker âwhachesâ them like a reporter at a parade. âTo be a whacher is not in itself sad or happy,â Carson writes; sheâs describing Bronte but itâs a key too to understanding the poemâs tonal attitude, so at odds with the excruciating pain we know, via image and quotation, the speaker is feeling (the poem is a triumph of the objective correlative):
When Law left I felt so bad I thought I would die.
This is not uncommon.
I took up the practice of meditation.
Each morning I sat on the floor in front of my sofa
and chanted bits of old Latin prayers.
De profundis clamavi ad te Domine.
Each morning a vision came to me.
Gradually I understood that these were naked glimpses of my soul.
I called them Nudes.
Nude #1. Woman alone on a hill.
She stands into the wind.
It is a hard wind slanting from the north.
Long flaps and shreds of flesh rip off the womanâs body and lift
and blow away on the wind, leaving
an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle
calling mutely through lipless mouth.
It pains me to record this,
I am not a melodramatic person.
But soul is âhewn in a wild workshopâ
as Charlotte BrontĂ« says of Wuthering Heights.
If we had kept on with the Confessional impulse as an exploratory modeâif its central practitioners had not been felled by madness and compulsionâmaybe we would have eventually gotten a poem like this out of Berryman or Plath: a poem without raging and maudlin ahoys, where Confessionalismâs essential giftâself-analysisâwas given free rein to get beyond personality (Lady Lazarus! Henry!) and closer to what might be called a sense of soul. The Glass Essay deflates self-importance while at the same time completely validating the scarring nature of personal emotional experience; it also honors such scarring as a subject worthy of poetryâperhaps not the most casual thing to do in the early 1990s, as American poetry was walking away from Confessionalist bequests. The primary difference between Carsonâs Nudes and Plathâs Lady Lazarus is that Carsonâs speaker doesnât take personally the emotional stripping loss compels; she recognizes it as part of the soul-hewing in the âwild workshop,â a hewing that, in the quest to âcarry this clarity with me,â she endures until the last pageâs last Nude, whose bones stand âsilver and necessary/âŠthe body of us all.â The poem teaches us to think through feeling; I find it immensely solacing.
PAISLEY REKDAL ON MARIANNE MOORE
Mooreâs poem âThe Jerboaâ may best be summed up as a poetic debate about what defines versus what passes for art. Â In the first half of the poem, Art is either representational–in particular, mimicking the elaborate and entirely organic forms in nature, such as the pine cone, duck wing or the tail of a peacockâor manipulated, in that animals are taken out of their natural environment and forced into activities meant for human entertainment, such as the âdappled dog-/catsâ used âto course antelopes,â or the baboons that perch âon the necks of giraffe to pick/ fruit.â Moore is clearly suspicious of both these kinds of art, which is everywhere slyly denigrated: from the heading of the first half of the poem itself (âToo Muchâ) to the sidelong glance inherent in Mooreâs subjunctives and passive verb tenses (âOthers could buildâ and âit looks like a work of artâ), artistic representation is based on manâs assumed mastery over nature, as everything here is massaged, manipulated or brutally trained into pleasing use-forms for the households of nobility. Here, art is not just a product of empire, it is a way of maintaining empire itself. And how can it not be, when the art proves to be so voracious in its accumulative gaze that it becomes âa fantasy/ and a verisimilitude that were/ right to those with, everywhere,/ power over the poorâ?
Such, Mooreâs poem argues, is the real definition of âtoo muchâ: any art swollen with self-importance and notions of political mastery becomes, finally, an art of accretion, domination and excess. Itâs tempting to extrapolate from this Mooreâs possible suspicion of representational art in general, and to consider the poemâs possible critique of certain art forms today. For example, is this a problem representational or narrative art itself creates, or is it a problem that arises in the specific instance where empire meets representational art? Is representational art the ânaturalâ choice for consumerist societies, in particular cultures busily ravaging the natural landscapes around them? Is it the expression of an empireâs faded dreams or its final death knell? Reading âThe Jerboaâ now, I canât help thinking of the recent death of that famous American workhorse Thomas Kinkade, and of his kitschy, hyper-elaborate and pseudo-pastoral landscapes that were (and, Iâm guessing, still are) sold in the exhaustively cultivated bucolic downtowns of places likeÂ Aspen or Solvang.
Compare this, however, with Mooreâs notion of âAbundance,â the title of the second-half of her poem. Here she finally presents the jerboa of the title: a pin-thin, tidy little desert rat whose two real skills in life are a) being able to jump exceptionally well and b) being able to disappear into its environment. Leaving aside for the moment Mooreâs famous introversion which might make her seem like the perfect ally for a desert rat (or vice-versa), whatâs important about Mooreâs imagery of the rat is how it, too, manages to encapsulate within its appearance a plenitude of other animal and natural forms. The jerboaâs head is like a bird, it has âchipmunk contours,â moves with âkangaroo speed,â and has fur on its back thatâs âbuff-brown like the breast of the fawn-breasted/ bower-bird.â Even the fine hairs on the tail possess a mark âfish-shaped and silvered to steel by the force/ of the large desert moon.â The jerboa becomes the art form into which dozens of other animals are contained, not by political but by natural comparison and accretion; also, implicitly, by the force of Mooreâs imagination.
Thereâs also the issue of race to be considered. Â As Moore writes in the opening to her second section:
The conqueror sent
From Rome. It should mean the
Untouched: the sand-brown jumping ratâfree-born; and
The blacks, that choice race with an elegance
Ignored by oneâs ignorance.
Itâs a back-handed and also racist âcomplimentââto compare Africans (and by extension African-Americans) with a desert rat as an indirect attempt to criticize Americaâs ignorant racial policies–but I think Moore is exploring a larger point about the problems of critiquing narrative representation, even as she makes the same mistake herself. To express ourselves to ourselves, as âThe Jerboaâ argues, we often have to resort to images that we create about the natural world. These are images that we worship, desire, cultivate and abuse, but they are often the only way through which we can express our more abstract longings. If an empire is obsessed with the reach of its political power, the art forms it chooses will begin to reflect the anxieties of that power, which is why the Romans seemâas Moore notesâto like âsmall things,â and why the words âfree-bornâ and âfreedomâ reappear (and why âthe blacksâ would be a notable inclusion) in the poem as important descriptors. Moore is no better than the Romans she critiques in this regard: as they have made representations of peacocks and pine-cones to reflect and be dominated by their aesthetic and political interests, so too has Moore loaded down the simple jerboa with her own yearnings for the freedom she assumes that simplicity, natural skill and invisibility will provide.
Which is why I think the aesthetic divide between the âToo Muchâ of political art and the âAbundanceâ of natural or organic forms of art that âThe Jerboaâ proposes is ultimately a red herring. In the end, Moore canât escape the problems of representation that she investigates as these problems are built into any language contained in narrative argument: as soon as you start to describe the world in any representational terms, you have made a stance. Language itself isnât clean, containingâand representing–as it does both literal definitions and figurative meanings. We may applaud the simplicity of the jerboa, but the language that Moore uses to describe it is as ornate as anything the Romans contrived as toys for themselves. The question, then, that obsesses me as I read Mooreâs poemâand the one which may best define my own political self-understandingâis which type of excess I want to believe passes as more naturally âartful.â Itâs one reason why I return to âThe Jerboaââand Marianne Mooreâso frequently: to see how my own definition of art continues to change, and to test it against Mooreâs own bracing examinations.
CECILY PARKS ON LORINE NIEDECKER
Lorine Niedeckerâs âPaean to Placeâ celebrates Blackhawk Island, Wisconsinâa periodically flooded peninsula flanked by Rock River and Lake Koshkonongâwhere the poet spent most of her life.Â The poem spans decades, beginning with an account of Niedeckerâs childhood and ending with a meditation on the marginality of human life in contrast to the sometimes-cruel landscape that makes such life possible.Â The poem cascades through multiple pages, but its lines are almost ruthlessly short:
floodWater lily mudMy life
In eight words, this opening stanza introduces the three most captivating aspects of Niedeckerâs poem: her music half-indebted to the nursery rhyme, her trust in the chosen word to build an expansive line, and her celebration of a natural world that includes not the birds and flowers of the pastoral tradition but rather fowl (a pun on foul) and mud.
The form and content of âPaean to Placeâ reinforce a theme of subsistence in a place without sweetness, without brightness: âNo orangesânone at hand / No marsh marigold[.]âÂ When Niedecker remembers her father coming home with âa sack / of dandelion greens,â the reader tastes the weedsâ bitterness and feels their jagged leaves inside her mouth. Â Unpleasantness also characterizes Niedeckerâs parentsâ dissolving marriage, in which the poetâs father âSaw his wife turn / deafÂ // and away[.]âÂ For the poet herself, there was: âSeven years the one /dress // for town once a week[.]âÂ The poem celebrates not what Blackhawk Island provides but rather the thrill of living in a place where provision is scarce. Â Niedecker declares:
O my floating life
Do not save love
Throw thingsTo the flood
Over the course of the poem, the act of writing reveals itself as an act of jettisoning: âPaean to Placeâ allows Niedecker (who was in her sixties when she wrote it) to cast accumulated adversity into the flood of time.Â What remains is âmoonlight memory / washed of hardships[.]â Â By calling the poem a paean, Niedecker indicates that it is meant to communicate triumph.Â What triumphs is the act of thinking, which becomes inseparable from the floodscape where it takes place.Â The poem concludes:
the sloughs and sluices
of my mind
with the personson the edge
Among the anonymous persons who stand poised to be washed away by the force of the flood is Niedecker, who relinquishes herself, and the poem, to the white space after the poemâs final unpunctuated word.
JOHN POCH ON CHARLES MARTIN
There are few good poems in terza rima in English and there are perhaps even fewer good poems about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center of September 2011.Â You would think that Charles Martinâs âAfter 9/llâ would be an impossible poem to write. It is impossibly good.
Some might not think of a 118-line poem as a âlong poem,â but when you see the dearth of poems in English terza rima written with an essential and cleanly rhyming iambic pentameter, you tend to think of this kind of poem in different terms. Dante had an easier time achieving the rhyme in the vernacular Italian, for sure.Â The only other recent poem worth reading in English terza rima I can think of is Greg Williamsonâs âOn the International Date Line.âÂ Richard Wilbur, our best living master of the iambic pentameter line, has a poem called âTerza Rimaâ in the form, but it is only sustained for seven lines. Who doesnât shrink in the face of Danteâs formal achievement?
Imagine a generation of people 250 years from now who cannot remember the 9/11 terrorist attacks.Â Impossible? Less than 250 years ago, ten thousand captured American men died unimaginable slow and torturous deaths just off the Manhattan coast in Wallabout Bay where they were imprisoned in the holds of the ships there. When they were sufficiently dead, their bodies were thrown overboard, a few washing up on the shores where they were retrieved and could be buried properly.Â Martin does not try to describe this. Rather, he faces the cold fact of our having forgotten our dead: four times the number of dead from the World Trade Center attacks. Four times. Imagine forgetting this kind of human terror.
We hear the politicians cry, âWe will never forget.â But we do forget. Who doesnât want to forget terror? Oblivion is both the salve and the festering wound, the drug that soothes and at the same time destroys. By virtue of this poemâs form, like Danteâs own greatest of poems, âAfter 9/11â summons us back through a repetition of rhyme that lends itself to the pace of crisis, to the patient equivalent of two steps forward and one step back, to a question of how we remember or fail to do so, to our dead, to a re-orientation of our lives in order that we might be saved.
In a plain vernacular Dante would approve of, Charles Martin writes of the towers âburningâ:
Together, like a secret brought to light,
Like something weâd imagined but not known,
The intersection of such speed, such heightâ
These towers then âunmakeâ (a term Dante famously used) their outlines and the scene, by virtue of an almost endless repetition on television. And then, despite our memory, the horror âWould grow familiar; deadening the ache.âÂ âGrim repetitions,â Martin writes, and this is a result of what Time perpetrates against us. Toward the end of the poem, the anaphoric use of the words âTimeâ and âAgainstâ portray our annihilation through the repetition of the moments that add up to that monster, Time, reminding us of Audenâs own repetitious âTime will say nothing but I told you so.â TimeâŠ AgainstâŠ us. The ticking of the clock is hypnotic, and we must ultimately sleep. Any poem may suffer its own repetition of rhyme, of anaphora, of historical duplications, but repetitions (especially rhyme) are powerful mnemonic devices, as well.
The poem ends almost hopelessly: âAgainst the need of the nameless to be named / In our city built on unacknowledged bones.â For who remembers the dead of Wallabout Bay?Â Who had ever heard of the ones who died at the very birth of our country fiercely seeking its independence, liberty, and individual human freedoms we mostly take for granted? Not one in ten thousand you might ask on the street would have any idea. But the poem itself, this poem, signifies that while we are already in the midst of forgetting the dead of 9/11 (we hate to believe this awful truth), perhaps only poetry can restore the forgotten dead, giving these âunacknowledged bonesâ the power to rise up and walk.Â These âbonesâ are the final word. I am reminded of Donneâs âDeath, thou shalt die.â
DANIEL BOSCH ON DEREK WALCOTT
Samuel Johnson said of Miltonâs Paradise Lost, âNone ever wished it longer than it is.â But every time I read the 197 lines of âThe Spoilerâs Return,â and I must have read them a hundred times, I am sorry to reach the last, and I wish that Walcott had let Spoiler keep talking. (And why shouldnât he rail on? The Spoiler tells us âI decompose, but I composing still.â)
In the context of Derek Walcottâs oeuvre, to call âThe Spoilerâs Returnâ a long poem is a bit perverse.Â The cast net comes back alive with such big, beautiful poems as âOrigins,â âGuyana,â âSaint Lucie,â âThe Schooner Flight,â âThe Fortunate Traveller,ââeven the books Another Life and Midsummer considered as wholesânot to mention Omeros. Â Walcottâs long poems range from archipelagic to continental in size and scope.Â What is so thrilling about this small fry?
I take enormous pleasure in the complexity of the poemâs construction, and in how the poemâs structure is a kind of portrait of both its speaker and its author. The speakerâs explicit concern is to excoriate contemporary Trinidad in song. Â Walcottâs concern, from the late 70s on, is to stake a claim on literature on behalf of contemporary poets who have been told they cannot or ought not try to write poems that resonate with the past.
âThe Spoilerâs Returnâ is a dramatic monologue in heavily-substituted iambic pentameter rhyming couplets, and its speaker, known only by versions of his sobriquet, is the ghost of a beloved calypsonian (perhaps an echo of the real-life âMighty Spoilerâ famed in Port of Spain) who passed away some years before.Â Its eight verse paragraphs are mainly quite short.Â The first five verse paragraphs comprise a twenty-line introduction, a four-line set of song lyrics, a fourteen-line mock-epic invocation, a six-line passage, most of which is borrowed from the Earl of Rochesterâs âA Satyr Against Mankind,â (c.a. 1675), and a two-line refrain that recurs in the seventh verse paragraph. Â The sixth and seventh verse paragraphs, by far the longest at 59 and 72 lines, are satirical discourses in which âSpoilsâ attacks the political, economic, moral, environmental, psychological, and emotional states of Trinidad and its neighboring islands.Â The eighth section is a twenty-line farewell, for The Spoiler must return to a Hell quite like Trinidad.Â To attempt so much in a poem betrays Walcottâs fundamental values:Â a general recognition of verse as a capacious rather than limited form, and a particular and challenging recognition that iambic pentameter couplets remain, in the late 1970s, a flexible and contemporary medium.Â I find it inspiring that each verse paragraph of âThe Spoilerâs Returnâ is so vividly accomplished and so coherent in its expression of the speakerâs character.
Yet it is the voice of The Spoiler that spoils me for other poems.Â In him poem construction and character construction converge: Walcott has built him out of different kinds of utterance and those different kinds of utterance complicate and enrich a polyglottal, polymodal identity.Â Walcottâs investment in such a complex fictional character for the expression of political content came at a time when a typical North American poet was busily âdiscovering (his or her) own voice,â and The Spoilerâs difference is bracing.Â How simple (and in their simple, supposedly expressive structures, how unintentionally cynical about verse) seem to me the speakers of so many political poems by American poets of the same period.Â How delicious seems to me his invocation of fellow satirists (Martial, Juvenal, Pope, Quevedo, Byron, Swift, âMaestro,â âDesperadoes,â âCommanderâ and âAttilaâ) that is itself an evocation of his song as a choral, rather than solo, performance.
The difference of The Spoiler both is and is not Walcottâs difference.Â Likewise, The Spoiler both is and is not Walcott.Â An account of the term âCalypsoââwhich does not appear in the poem, because it is âhiddenâ under a more authentic termâmay help me to explain what I mean. Ethnomusicologist Errol Hill (among others) early realized that the Greek root, kaluptein, meaning âto hide,â must be a European imposition upon or a hybridization of an African term brought across the Black Atlantic by the slave trade.Â Thus associations of a cultural-critical calypsonian with an enchantress out of Homer or an image-cluster derived from the English word calyx, however rich to ponder, however tantalizing, are theatrical scrims we must pull aside, though we do not have to destroy them.Â Hill traces âcalipsoâ (as it first appeared in print in the Port of Spain Gazette in 1900) to the late 19th century Trinidadian term caisoâthe three syllables of which make it nearly homophonic with the earlier Creole kaico, âyou will get no sympathy, you deserve no pity, it serves you right,â which is only a consonant shift away from Hausa kaito, âan exclamation of great feeling on hearing distressing news.â He speculates that as white auditors of caiso music slowly grew to appreciate its poignant rhythms, the term was Europeanized, mistranslated and misconstrued as the name of the island nymph who kept Odysseus captive. Both the heart-rending implications of kaito and the harsh criticality of kaico are for Walcott a living legacy still audible under the classical mask of a persona.
I wish its historical circumstances undone, I wish Walcottâs African ancestors were never stolen from their homes, but this hegemonic grafting of three languages in kaito, kaico, and calipso yields a nexus of meanings I savor when I read âThe Spoilerâs Return.âÂ For English âCalypsoâ acts as the screen for, hides the captive Hausa traveller âkaitoâ in the same way that the sobriquet of the calypsonian performer is a cover for the individual who sings in a received but flexible, polyglottal, and polymodal form. Â (As in the case of Odysseus, the hiding is only a detainment.)Â In much the same way, âThe Spoilerâ is a meta-name and metonym for the whole tribe of satirists, with the added coincidence (and itâs hard for me to believe that Walcott is not aware of it) that the real name of the historical calypsonian âMighty Spoilerâ was Raymond Quevedoâhis last name the same as that of the great Spanish poet and satirist of the Golden Age. Walcott, who has written elsewhere, âI have Dutch, English, and nigger in me, // Either Iâm a nobody, or Iâm a nation,â speaks, from behind the screen-name âSpoils,â an island patois leavened by the same iambic measure that was English prosodyâs best echo of the Classical measures in which Homer conjured his own screens and characters.Â And thus the cry of distress first heard in Africa is reconfigured and made even more resonant as the pitiless bawl of a dead, mixed-race singer, now a tourist in his own fucked-up country, an âArea of darkness with V.S. Nightfall.â
If âThe Spoilerâs Returnâ werenât so funny it would be a tragedy, and if it werenât so sad it would be a silly romp, and if it werenât so ambitious it would not feel so much bigger than its 197 lines. Certainly the decision to make an ambitious poem is no guarantee of success, but without the grain of faith upon which ambitions like Walcottâs rest, without a consciousness that artâs power is always derived from forms greater than any particular self, the question of artistic success is always reduced and sometimes foreclosed.Â The Spoiler says much the same thing about the oil-flush Trinidad of the â70s.Â What good is it to be so richly-endowed with resources (even if only relatively rich) if Trinidad does not raise its ethical sights?Â In âThe Spoilerâs Returnâ Walcott resurrects a one-man chorus of the dead to ask English-language poets a similar question: What good is it to have so rich a heritage if poetry aims so low?Â The answers to such questions do not remain hidden for very longânot even for the length of âThe Spoilerâs Return.â
SPENCER REECE ON ADRIENNE RICH
This week, in Madrid, the news reached me that Adrienne Rich had died.Â The poet Richard Blanco was visiting me, giving readings here in Granada and Madrid after a reading he had given in London.Â We sat in my living room with the French doors overlooking a construction site, the floors a honey-color, as I told him Iâd just read on my little laptop the news of her death.Â There we were, two American poets in Europe, stopping to take in the news.Â Iâve often thought artists, and poets in particular, form their own tribe.Â The loss of one member is felt by the rest.Â He began to recite a line from one of her poems, and then recalled his love of âTwenty-One Love Poems.âÂ Oddly, I remembered the same.
As Easter approaches here at the cathedral, crowds gather with their olive branches and flowers.Â You have asked me to consider a long poem and meditate on what makes a successful long poem.Â I pick this one.Â The long poem âTwenty-One Love Poemsâ has been with me since I was in college twenty-seven years ago.Â My professor, Gertrude Hughes, taught it to us in a large building from the 1800s on the Wesleyan campus there in Middletown, Connecticut.Â Our class was on the second floor, our chairs were wooden with desk-tops that swung up and down.Â Professor Hughes introduced the poem, teaching from a dark blue anthology.Â Many of my classmates were articulate students from New York prep schools like Dalton and Horace Mann, and so I always recall myself listening to them more than saying anything myself.Â The class was captivated by this poem, as I recall.
The mid-1980s was a curious time to be in college out East in America.Â The AIDS crisis had just been recognized in The New York Times.Â We never thought it would touch us.Â But within five years after graduation, five classmates had died.Â The shock of all these deaths coincided with America speaking about homosexuality frankly for the first time.Â Puritan America was going to have to talk about sex, and, more, talk about homosexuality.Â I read this poem at that time.Â Â We, as students, didnât use the word âgayâ in common discourse.Â Although Wesleyan has to be the most liberal leaf shining on the branches of the Ivy League, gay awareness was in its infancy.Â Same-gender marriages were not announced in The New York Times yet.Â There was still a polite avoidance of the topic.
And so this poem, with its frankness about homosexuality, made quite an impression, like someone pulling off the tablecloth on the dining room table in the middle of a meal.Â The poem still holds my attention.Â Listen to how it begins: âWhenever in this city, screens flicker/with pornography, with science-fiction vampires,/victimized hirelings bend to the lash,/we also have to walkâŠ if simply as we walk/ through the rain soaked garbage.âÂ The New York she is describing, the one I remember from the 80s, was not the slick version, Time Square was still dark, muggings were something you cheerfully assented to if you ventured into the subways.
Later in this first love poem, she writes, âNo one has imagined us.âÂ A phrase like this gives the poem permission to be long, I think.Â I have always loved that line, and it meant something to me in college.Â Who would I become?Â My journey would not be what my parents had expected.Â Hardships and joy all awaited me outside that small hill and cluster of brown-stone buildings at Wesleyan.Â Curiously, I lived in a fraternity called Eclectic of which there were only two chapters, and this odd fraternity was designed by the same man who designed the Lincoln Memorial, and, indeed, the building oddly resembled that memorial.Â It was as if that building was preparing us, too, for some kind of emancipation proclamation.
All is to say, this poem has stayed with me, and what sign can there be of a more successful long poem than that? In section three she writes: âSince weâre not young, weeks have to do time/for years of missing each otherâŠ./Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty,/my limbs streaming with a purer joy?âÂ The poem is a joyful celebration of love at middle-age, a hard-won love, against immeasurable odds.Â Perhaps that is why the words and lines stay lodged in my head after all this time?
I will always cherish my memories of Professor Hughes teaching this poem, how excited she was about it.Â I, too, was excited by it, lines like: âthe maps they gave us were out of date/ by years.âÂ The beautiful sexual frankness of the unnumbered section stays with me: âyour strong tongue and slender fingers/ reaching where I had been waiting for years for you/in my rose-wet cave — whatever happens, this is.âÂ That is it, then.Â Whatever happens, this is.
Rich has died.Â New generations have come along. Â The world and the culture keep changing.Â The Episcopal church I work in continues to change.Â Sometimes slowly.Â The Anglican communion is threatening to split over the issue of sexual orientation, in its clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions.Â European Episcopalians tend to be conservative.Â Â A missionary just the other day said he did not approve of gay people, believed they were a destructive force for the church and yet wanted them to come to the cathedral.Â Whatever happens; this is.Â This poem is a blessing of a same-sex union before we used those words.Â I sometimes think poets are the prophets of our days, for prophecy is never a tidy thing.
MICHAEL RYAN ON EMILY DICKINSON
Emily Dickinson’s Long Poem
What Whitman wanted to do in Leaves of Grass is its abundantly-stated subject: literally to “inaugurate a religion” in which he would be the new priest directing not only the cultural life but also, through his spiritual guidance, the political and social affairs of the young nation in which âevery man shall be his own priest.âÂ For this task, Whitman designed what he called a âtransparent, plate-glassy styleâ for the democratic bible that Emerson famously praised as âthe most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet produced,â full of âincomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be.â
Both Whitman and Dickinson come out of Emerson, but what distinguished them from Emerson was their ability to alter poetic form to accommodate what they wanted their poems to do.Â Emerson pointed the way: âit is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem– a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.âÂ Emerson rendered passionate and alive thoughts in his essaysâ life-changing thoughts, which he generated from his journalsâ but he couldnât do it in his poems and this killed them, probably because no matter how he coached himself he was unable to write poems without an inherited preconceived notion of how a poem sounds.
But Whitman was able to, and so was Dickinson.Â Emerson apparently never read Dickinsonâs poems, although in 1857 he was an overnight guest at her brotherâs house next door, and her sister-in-law Sue had copies of most of what Dickinson had written to date.Â Dickinson was 27.Â She had already begun the rigorous poetic practice and poetic project (whose ambition dwarfs Whitmanâs– designedly enormous as it was) based in her remarkable understanding that poetry finds its power in truth but not truth as it can be otherwise described or articulated, much less translated into social or political discourse. This does not mean her aesthetic was privileged but only particular, and thoroughly connected to humanity by being embodied in language and the meaning language can communicate to the poet and her readers when words are arranged and discovered through the agency of poetic form.
To do this, she invented a style more radical than Whitmanâs.Â Whitman abandoned rhyme-and-meter for the rhetoric and versification of the King James Bible and retained conventional grammar. Â Dickinson wrenched the rhyme-and-meter of the hymn stanza and invented a grammar based on an understanding of implication and inference beyond her time and still beyond ours. Â How to make poetry of the English sentence is the question answered passionately by every sentence of every real poem in English. Â Whitman gave us great answers, but Dickinsonâs sentences are more astonishing, various, and ground-breaking than his or any other poetâs ever.Â Â Her best fifty poems are probably among the best hundred poems ever written.Â Do her 1789 poems taken together constitute the best long poem ever written?Â Depends on what you mean by the long poem.
SAM HAMILL ON THOMAS MCGRATH
When I was editing Thomas McGrathâs magnificent 400-page Letter to an Imaginary Friend, I asked Philip Levine to contribute a comment, and received this cogent response: âI hope I can someday give this country or the few poetry lovers of this country something as large, soulful, honest, and beautiful as McGrathâs great and still unappreciated epic of our mad and lyric century, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, a book from which we can draw hope and sustenance for as long as we last.â
Tom McGrath, World War II veteran of the North Pacific, was a Marxist-Leninist socialist sent into interior exile by the patriots of McCarthyism, only to spend half a lifetime working on the greatest American epic poem of the last century, a visionary work borrowing from various of our cultures and visions including the Hopi Blue Star Kachina, the tetragrammatron, biblical revelations, and the common habitat and blue collar philosophies of Midwestern farmlands. It is a work of sustained narrative like no other in our language or in our time. It is, like Pablo Nerudaâs Canto General, a sublimely revolutionary work. The New York Times noted his âinspection of history from the street, an imagination imbued with facts, an uncanny grasp of the politically absurd, an appetite for mockery and affection, and a gift for describing the toils and pleasures of work.â
If there is a âgreat American poem,â it must be McGrathâs. There is simply nothing to which it can be compared, including Whitmanâs Leaves of Grass, which, after all, is composed of poems in sequence, as are Nerudaâs Canto and Ezra Poundâs Cantos. McGrathâs personal-public voice, his visionary and sustained narrative lyrical power, will endure for as long as there are poetry lovers and revolutionaries in the Americas of the future.
ERICA DAWSON ON ANTHONY HECHT
Anthony Hechtâs âThe Venetian Vespersâ terrified me in 2000.Â I still shudder in a persistent flinch. At that point, Iâd never read the best kind of long poem: a poem grandly intimate; constantly turning a corner to something you think you recollect, though it smacks of a strangerâs stroke; a poem treading its space while lapping your skills of apprehension.
Something like absolute magnitudeâthe combination of my very young, unaided eye, and Hechtâs voice, resounding and sounding clean as a piccoloâmade Hecht, too, seem terrifying. He wasnât. I was too shy to introduce myself each of the three times I had the chance.
I had no choice but to give in to âThe Venetian Vespersâ stripping me down to flight or fight. The skull (belonging first to a small bat undermined by the pox in Section I, then the bone concavity of an expatriate in Section II, and, finally, the soldierâs chalice of his own brains in Section III) insisted I move.Â I moved through the final three sections, hoping Iâd find a bone, again, while running fast from its absent eyes wholly fractured.
The skull didnât return in that first read, or ever. Surrounded by thews of the appalling world of dreams, the vermiculated mindâs 4am, a mind scarcely coping with the worldâs sufferings, looking, as if it saves itself by looking, losing but never shaking its protective shell, it keeps its head up.Â It warily finds ward in anything as immediate as any Venice evening, even if, like me, youâve never been.Â Head high, I romanticize what was, its ruins turned memorials reminding me of the equally predictable what will be.
ROBERT PINSKY ON GEORGE GASCOIGNE
Gascoigne’s âWoodmanshipâ is a model long poem: completely original. Under an apparently earnest, foursquare surface, this account of a life is endlessly complicated. The last image of the slain doe’s teatsââMethinks it says, ‘Old babe, now learn to suck’ââ is the climax of possibly the best ending of any long poem, and the prose dedication to his patron, who laughed at Gascoigne’s ineptitude with the bow and arrow, is possibly the best preface ever.
His way of writing about himself, neither introspective nor charismatic, remains unusual: self-celebration qualified and transformed by comedy of the self. The closest comparison for me is with Allen Ginsberg.