Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 2

Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 2

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.

This is the second of six installments (you can see the others here, here, here, here and here.) Scroll down or click on the links to read:

Marianne Boruch on Ellen Bryant Voigt
John Koethe on John Ashbery
Jon Davis on Lyn Hejinian
Camille Dungy on Cyrus Cassells
Cate Marvin on Matthew Yeager
Rachel Hadas on Lucretius
H.L. Hix on Bhanu Kapil
Shane McCrae on Veronica Forrest-Thompson
Nicole Cooley on Muriel Rukeyser
Gretchen E. Henderson on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
David Caplan on T.S. Eliot
Jake Adam York on A.R. Ammons


Maybe a truly fine collection of poems means this in the end: you don’t need the book in hand to be moved, solaced, troubled, haunted by it. You might not even need words anymore.

Case in point: In Scotland as I write this, I stupidly forgot to bring my copy of Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie to think through again, to write of as promised, however brief.  So at first, I could only remember that long poem, a sequence of linked sonnets and semi-sonnets that concern the flu epidemic of 1918.  Which is to say that minus the book itself, I could only close my eyes on this city of Edinburgh and see into those little square windows of Voigt’s sequence, into that stricken time.

But how it persists. Human gesture–the young teacher who dares not touch her pupils who weep and come close, or a hand wiping down a fever, the cloth abruptly to be burnt. Unthinkable image: a cat’s throat cut, hung out to fend the dark thing off. A bed in which one after another after another is born and then dies. Letters of a boy sent from war where the same sickness rages but still so vivid, the red scarf he was given. A doctor’s black satchel, empty. A photo album that says: who were these people?  The way the shovel hit, so many graves to be dug.  Heard patterns that burrow and stay in mind, going rigid then loosened by rhythms from childhood, familiar and startling here–the barber, the baker, the teacher, the preacher, they fell into bed and never got up. The complex expanse of it–history–pressed by Voigt’s characteristically fierce, unsentimental grip. Even in memory, it’s little until it’s huge. Person by person. Loss by loss. Edged, tough, believable voice upon voice, individual, communal. Her long poem does its terrible work with lyric precision and narrative reach, and so enters an epic dimension.

Later, in spite of the notorious problem of distribution (our poets’ books mostly not here, theirs not available to us), I do find a copy of Kyrie in Edinburgh, kept safe in the National Library, Scotland’s Library of Congress. I’m like that poor pilgrim who’s traveled years in search of the beloved object: here it is, more poignant than imagined. But no lending allowed.  No, you order the book and it appears. You enter a room with only paper and pencil; you sit like a monk at long tables amid the hushed page-turning of others there to drop into whatever deep sea their reading takes them. I open randomly to this:

Have you heard a dead man sigh?
A privilege, that conversation.

A mere bicycle ride away, this place, this I-thou descent into a silence equal to what grounds Kyrie itself.

Voigt’s silence is thrilling, immense, backdrop to tragedy, to what the world never wanted and could barely bear. That barely is the thing that convinces.  I can see via line break and fragment an austerity in her phrasing, her pauses, her many refusals.  To speak at all is to burn back and release. “Oh yes, I used to pray,” someone says darkly.  That’s it, isn’t it?–poetry takes over from there.


John Ashbery’s “Clepsydra,” which I regard as one of his (many) masterpieces, is a poem of about two hundred and sixty lines, first published in Art and Literature, a magazine he co-edited, and then included in his 1966 collection Rivers and Mountains.  That book had been preceded by 1962’s The Tennis Court Oath, one of the most radically disjunctive books in American poetry, and I suspect that most readers found the poems in Rivers and Mountains to mark a distinct shift in Ashbery’s development, since the syntactic fragmentation so prominent in the earlier book was almost completely absent from the new one.  But I had only discovered The Tennis Court Oath in early 1966, just before Rivers and Mountains appeared, and reading the two books in close proximity to each other I had a greater sense of a kinship between them than I probably would have if I’d read the latter four years after reading and musing on the former.  “Europe,” the longest poem in The Tennis Court Oath, is both conceptually and syntactically fragmented, though, like many of the poems in the book, with a sense of a narrative or story invisibly unfolding beneath the fragmented surface.  “Clepsydra,” the central (though not the longest) poem in Rivers and Mountains, renounces that syntactic fragmentation, unfolding in labyrinthine but nevertheless complete sentences; yet it retains the conceptual disjunctivness and the sense of an invisibly unfolding narrative.  Like the earlier poem it remains a verbal artifact:  its hundreds of lines are dense, relentless, and without stanza breaks, and Ashbery has said that his governing image of the poem was of a tall, narrow marble slab down which a single drop of water slowly trickles (the title “Clypsedra” means “water clock”).

The poem opens with a question in search of a subject (“Hasn’t the sky?”), and to the extent that it has a subject, it is, as James Longenbach has observed, the feeling of the passage of time—indeed the poem begins in the morning (“The reason it happened only since you woke up”) and concludes at the end of the day, when “the body is changed by the faces of evening.”  But if the passage of time is its only real subject, I want to suggest that the poem is also (like many of Ashbery’s long poems) a kind of quest-narrative.  In this regard it is usefully compared to Marianne Moore’s “An Octopus,” which seems to me one of “Clepsydra”’s precursor poems.  Moore’s poem, which Ashbery has suggested may be her greatest, is comparable in length to his, if a bit shorter, and is also a verbal slab, in this case with one stanza break.  It is (as many of her poems are) a linguistic collage, and though more static and impersonal than “Clepsydra,” it traces–by stringing together a variety of quotations from disparate sources–an ascent of Washington’s Mt. Rainier, from the fir trees at its base to the “snow falling on the peak,” a movement in which “you have been deceived into thinking you have progressed.”  Ashbery’s poem even contains what may be an allusion to “An Octopus” in a passage about travelers ascending a mountain:

                                                   the way
A telescope protects its view of distant mountains
And all they include, the coming and going,
Moving correctly up to other levels, preparing to spend the night
There where the tiny figures halt as darkness comes on,
Beside some loud torrent…

The object of “Clepsydra”’s quest-narrative is more abstract and indeterminate than Moore’s summit and emerges only gradually.  The poem moves forward in a meandering, lackadaisical fashion that seems like the external representation of some drama occurring in a private, inner realm it both manifests and guards, until a little over halfway through it reaches its first moment of crisis, with the realization that this poetic enactment has taken on a life of its own, a realization the speaker finds both disturbing and liberating:

                          there was something
Not quite good or correct about the way
Things were looking recently: hadn’t the point
Of all this new construction been to provide
A protected medium for the exchanges each felt of such vital
Concern, and wasn’t it now giving itself the airs of a palace?
And yet her hair had never been so long.

From this point on it becomes increasingly clear that the goal of the quest is the possibility of poetry itself, the possibility of poetry that is recognized and acknowledged (a goal that animates much of Ashbery’s subsequent work—for example, “Soonest Mended” and “Grand Galop”), which the speaker more and more despairs of attaining:

It seemed he had been repeating the same stupid phrase
Over and over throughout his life; meanwhile
Infant destinies had suavely matured; there was
To be a meeting or collection of them that very evening.
He was out of it of course for having lain happily awake
On the tepid fringes of that field…

(Though Ashbery wrote “Clepsydra” in his mid-thirties, well before he had gained the wide recognition he now enjoys, he was already a kind of senior figure to a small group of younger poets, something about which he seemed ambivalent.)  The fear that poetic validation requires the communication of something incommunicable, something on the tip of one’s tongue that eludes formulation, leads to a second, terrifying crisis:

That we shall never see in that sphere of pure wisdom and
Entertainment much more than groping shadows of an incomplete
Former existence so close it burns like the mouth that
Closes down over all your effort like the moment
Of death, but stays, raging and burning the design of
Its intentions into the house of your brain, until
You wake up, the certainty that it
Wasn’t a dream your only clue to why the walls
Are turning on you and why the windows no longer speak
Of time but are themselves, transparent guardians you
Invented for what there was to hide.

Yet this mood of despair is suddenly dissipated by the almost Witttgensteinian realization that the picture of a realm of introspected, incommunicable thoughts and meanings that poetry has to strive, vainly, to articulate is a kind of inescapable illusion:

                                   It is not a question then
Of having not lived in vain.  What is meant is that this distant
Image of you, the way you really are, is the test
Of how you see yourself, and regardless of whether or not
You hesitate, it may be assumed that you have won, that this
Wooden and external representation
Returns the full echo of what you meant…

And with that realization the poem proceeds to its serenely beautiful conclusion, ending with two lines Ashbery had jotted down and saved before it was written:

                                  moving in the shadow of
Your single and twin existence, waking in intact
Appreciation of it, while morning is still and before the body
Is changed by the faces of evening.

“Clepsydra” is an astonishing performance, possibly the purest poem Ashbery has written and one of the great poems of the twentieth century.


Poetry ought to do everything and nothing. It ought to mirror our socially-constructed selves back to us; it should challenge our preconceptions and notions of selfhood. It should embrace life; it should reveal the horrors that make life unembraceable. It should engage the pleasurable enfoldings of conventional syntax; it should also shatter syntax for political reasons or to more closely approximate one’s experience of the world. It should delight and inspire–and it should crush us. And sometimes, as in My Life by Lyn Hejinian, it should challenge what we thought we knew about what a person is and how we speak of personhood. My Life is, I’m pretty sure, one of the great books of the twentieth century. But, were it granted the power, My Life, the book, would likely reject both its bookness and its greatness and even  “the twentieth century.”

What I admire about My Life—if I can indeed get at what I admire about My Life in a few brief paragraphs here—is the sheer inventiveness of the thing. I have always loved wit and aphorism, and My Life is chock full of both. Chock being, of course, a variant of choke, so chock full means filled to choking, which is an apt image for the richness of the book. There’s too much here, and that’s one way the book reveals the life and the self–as myriad, conundrous (I made that word up), mysterious, over-full. “It is hard to turn away from moving water,” Hejinian writes, and it becomes something I say on a hike in the New Mexico mountains one afternoon. “The refrigerator makes a sound I can’t spell,” she writes, and I find myself saying it one late night when the fridge does its hum/buzz/rumble. And when, one sit-around-and-talk-after-the-reading night, someone mentions the poet Frank Stanford, I find myself thinking, “Ah, the romance of the vanished”—My Life, page 37.

Do I wish the book’s language were sometimes more supple? Yes. Do I wish sometimes for more music? Yes. Is the book too sunny in its disposition, too satisfied in its skin? Perhaps. Does any book satisfy all of one’s needs? No. And My Life challenges me constantly to look again, look deeper, look askew and askance, and just look. As a reader, I’m challenged to introspection, reconsideration, and humility. As a writer, I am challenged to open up to possibilities. Which possibilities, I couldn’t say exactly, and that’s part of the pleasure of the book—it destabilizes self, world, language. In the language of the Russian formalists, it defamiliarizes the world. There is also, in the work, a challenge to hierarchies, a movement between large abstraction and minute particular, a movement outward from the local to the global and back to the local, an attending to phenomena generally unattended, and radical shifts in centers of consciousness. Hejinian once said, in 1978 (the year the first edition of My Life came out), “Where once one sought a vocabulary for ideas, now one seeks ideas for vocabularies.” This language-first method–if that’s what it is–results in some surprising, often enigmatic, statements.  Although the book is a carefully-woven web, it is also aphoristic and therefore invites excerpting. In just the first five sections of the book, I find these sentences that continue to intrigue–and sometimes make me laugh–some twenty-plus years after first encountering them:

–“The afternoon happens, crowded and therefore endless.”
–“Anxiety is vigilant.”
–“I was in a room with the particulars of which a later nostalgia might be formed, an indulged childhood.”
–“You cannot determine the nature of progress until you assemble all of the relatives.”
–“I could have ridden in the car forever, or so it seemed, watching the scenery go by, alert as to the circumstances of a dream, and that peaceful.”
–“It became popular and then we were inundated with imitations.”
–“What follows a strict chronology has no memory.”
–“Can there be laughter without comparisons.”
–“The tongue lisps in its hilarious panic.”

And so as not to misrepresent the complex interactions of the sentences in the book, here’s how a small section of the “web” reads:

Flip over small stones, dried mud. We thought that the mica might be gold. A pause, a rose, something on paper, in a nature scrapbook. What follows a strict chronology has no memory. For me, they must exist, the contents of that absent reality, the objects and occasions which I now reconsidered. The smells of the house were thus a peculiar mix of heavy interior air and the air from outdoors lingering over the rose bushes, the camellias, the hydrangeas, the rhododendron and azalea bushes. Hard to distinguish hunger from wanting to eat.

For me, this passage overlays an engaged telling of childhood’s wanderings and investigations and misprisions—“we thought that the mica might be gold”—with an almost archaeological detachment that reminds me of Charles Olson’s procedure in The Maximus Poems—the attempt to create “theory” and apply it retroactively to experience.

Among the many voices in my head when I was writing, back in the early nineties, my own long sequence, “The Ochre World,” were Federico Garcia Lorca, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Galway Kinnell, poets who were “unfashionable,” given their mystical leanings and settled coherence, as well as Lyn Hejinian and her co-conspirator Leslie Scalapino, whose even more radical work sought estrangement, explored the limits of point of view and objectivity, and attempted to reveal how subjectivity warps and shapes the “physical” world. They are both, in a way, phenomenologists, but phenomenologists who challenge even the possibility of a shared discussion of phenomena, since, if we are really paying attention, we’ll understand that we each see a radically deformed, hammered, bent, or entirely liquefied world. According to this view, our cherished sense of stability is an invention and we both are and are not its inventors. Hejinian and Scalapino would ultimately venture far beyond My Life’s perhaps too-comfortable acceptance of syntax–and the values carried by syntax–into more radical disfigurings and reconfigurings of the sentence, but My Life remains powerful, for me, because it lives in both worlds, the world in which language reveals life and the world in which language transforms our view of life.


Now the moon darns the moor with its fabric of minnows,
And the sea rushes with the ecstasy of ants.
Down from the houses of magic, a healing wind sweeps,
Down from the houses of magic.

From the first lines of Cyrus Cassells’ “Down from the Houses of Magic,” I am hooked. Opening in anapestic tetrameter with a feminine foot, the rhythm of the rest of the poem is both regular and varied, so that I feel at home in the natural sounds of the language.  The sea he describes, the breeze-ruffled heads of the fields of flowers, these too move in patterns both regular and varied, and so the rhythms and language Cassells uses to describe “the Cape [he’s] come to” lends to his description.  Each aspect of this poem operates thus, describing a magical place by enacting parts of its magic.  This multi-front campaign is the means by which the poem maintains momentum through 10 sections and nearly 200 lines.

In addition to his masterful play with rhythm and meter, from the start of the poem Cassells completely engages all the senses.  The opening section is synesthetic and onomatopoetic, allowing Cassells to describe flora and fauna in such enveloping detail that I feel as if I can see and smell and hear and taste and even touch all the “choirlike, match-stemmed, fiercely gallant flowers.” The language moves from the colloquial (“razzamatazz”) to the scientific (“systole and diastole”), precise ground (“On Gull Hill, in the flaming garden”) to unfathomable space (“the starry night”), so that it grows evident that it is possible to register the magic he describes every way in every thing and everywhere. “When providence brims to the outermost land,/ No lack, no lack, but in my human mind,” he writes at the end of section 2.

Another poet might have ended there.  Quite enough has been said already. The catalog of the potential of magic in the commonest of places is absolutely clear. But this poem is larger than that.  It hasn’t even really gotten started yet.  It has to move “Beyond the garden,” in order to confront “the world with its rills of blood.”  Though in subsequent readings it is clear early on that we are witness to the many ways “the blue earth resumes its measureless dialogue/Between catastrophe and plenty,” the deep horrors the poem is called to confront don’t fully manifest until section 5.  It is in this section that the hand of the disenfranchised appears to haunt the poet even in his glorious garden:

Till at last words spill out,
Ones I shrink from:

Are you hungry all the time?

Yes, all the time—

O grant us strength to fashion a table
Where each of us has a name—

Halfway through the poem, Cassells lays out the central concern.  Within this world of wonder and plenty there is also a vast swath of alienation. “Down from the Houses of Magic” suggests both to call down from and to fall down from, and so this is a poem both of paradise and of the hell we have made of the world.  “Here are flowers of deep suffering,” here is the story of Hiroshima, war, and other oppression, here is the menace of the ruination of the world.

Another poet might have ended there.  Quite enough has been said already.  What I love about this long poem is that it has so many possible endings, and each one seems fitting and possible and true, and yet Cassells keeps continuing, reminding me that there really might not be an ending to any of this.  My desire to end any of this is a kind of folly the poem directly confronts.  Even with complete personal transformation, even were I able “To discern/God-in-the-guise-of-the-stranger,/God-in-the-guise-of-this-flesh,”  would the next person and the next person and the person after that? The poem, with its many doublings of sound and sense and possibility, reminds me that the scope of the world is unfathomable and that everything is going to go on.  As I come to that realization, which is distressing and which makes me see anew why the disembodied, scuttling hand of Section 5 would have been so distressing to the poet, I come to the poem’s most succinct section, one that simultaneously articulates hope and horror:

And if the husk of the world is ripped away,

We will not have altered the consciousness of one leaf—

In the penultimate section, Cassells differentiates between the world and the earth.  He reminds me that the possibilities of our world coming to an end are very real, and he also reminds me of the resilience, the perfection, of so much that is with us on the earth, the earth that could, as the poem articulates in the final section, “become a heaven.”

At the end of 10 sections and nearly 200 lines, Cassells performs what I think is one of the most amazing feats of the poem, he pushes me back to the beginning so that I am driven to read the whole thing again.  The poem is not linear.  One idea does lead to the next, but the poem also moves backward and circularly.  Though “a wild cavalry of wind sweeps/Down from the houses of magic/ Down from the houses of magic/Down from the houses of magic” in the last four lines of the poem, it is in the first lines, not these final lines, that a “healing wind” is directly conjured. Everything that is good and everything that is horrible is here in the poem, as it is on the earth.  We just have to look in the right places.  As I come to the conclusion of the poem, I realize how masterful, how magical, the first sections are with their synethesia, their catalogs, and their compounding of sound and sense.  It is in the beginning of the poem that I am trained to look beneath what is beneath what I see.  It is in the garden that I am first trained to understand there is “No lack, no lack, but in our human minds.”  Therefore, by the end of the poem, when the garden becomes more than just a collection of flowers, I can take that lesson and apply it in a broader sense. That is the magic of poetry, the magic of this poem.


There’s the cliché that watching your child grow up is akin to seeing your own heart step out from your body and walk into oncoming traffic. Matthew Yeager’s “Sleep Mothers” explores that parent-child connection from the perspective of the child grown, a child who, now an adult, attempts to reach back toward the mother who once “put her palm on [his] forehead” and has now “only shifted forms,” for (he insists) “[s]urely she is somewhere / Down some figurative hall behind some figurative door behind some figurative glass knob.” Consider also the terrible uniformity of the collective sleeping mothers in this poem, all of whom rest in mirrored rooms of the sub-conscious in which they are accompanied by respective versions of “their child who is always their child.” These mothers are, in fact, our mothers. We share them as they cannot share us.

They don’t know one another they are one another
Would your mother and my mother be friends?
They would all be friends they are alike as taxis
They want the phone to ring on Sunday and it be their child,
Their child who is always their child…

The adult child moves alone, alongside his mother’s dream, “from pool of streetlight to pool of streetlight” in the distant city in which he now lives, his “hands clutching backpack straps frightened into fists.” Significantly, the time of night is marked as exact, yet passing: “It is 1:56 it is 2:28 it is 3:07 exactly in the morning.” Why is the speaker walking the streets when the rest of the world is asleep? Where is he headed? There is no destination, just as there is no origin. It would seem that the speaker’s internal clock has been reset, or that it is at the very least deranged. Moreover, “night after night” he has no rest. The speaker’s life moves anxiously toward the future as hands wind endlessly around the face of a clock; as such, this life stands stark in contrast to the collective lives that are the poem’s focus. Its mothers are similarly punctual, consistently appearing upon one another’s doorsteps to “ring doorbells holding food in casserole dishes,” assuaging the latest widow’s grief.

We’ve seen the umbilicus’ strangle-hold in Sylvia Plath’s “Medusa,” in which she rejects her mother-as-parasite with the disgusted command: “Off, eely tentacle!” Yeager’s poem is different. Here, the mother has accepted the separation between herself and her child. The cord has been successfully severed, has it not?  For the mother in this poem is not fretful or awake with anxiousness, nor does she appear angry at a perceived absence:

The children have left and live in cities and are busy they know that.

But, wait. At the other end of the umbilicus one finds guilt. A veritable sledgehammer of guilt. For the question that’s made central to the reader of “Sleep Mothers” is why the speaker is not presently at home, has indeed chosen not to assist his mother as she assumes the responsibility of her second child, the aging husband who has turned child-like, the man for whom she “sit[s] in waiting rooms patient and waiting” beside “ferns and magazines.” We deduce that “the husband” is in fact the speaker’s father, whose presence is a mere shadow that, while textually minimized, retrospectively looms over the entire poem.

Because, really, this poem is an elegy for childhood itself, for the love sustained between mother and child, and the sleep itself to which the mothers nightly succumb is also a sort of death, just as the responsibilities placed upon these collective mothers is a death sentence: the father enters briefly, a “husband in a white undershirt [who] smokes cigarettes and laughs to himself remembering football / In the wooden chair he always sits in he can barely walk.” The tension here is subtle but no less treacherous.

“Sleep Mothers” is ultimately a criticism of the culture in which we now live: the child is expected to disassociate from his or her primary family to make off into the world to pursue his or her individual success. A culture in which those responsible for the care of our aging parents are the parents themselves (being responsible for one another), the community they live within, or, much later, residential facilities for elderly and nursing homes. Surely, this was not the fate we intended for those who raised us. Surely, there must be another avenue, a way to live freely as liberated individuals yet care faithfully and dutifully for our loved ones? The problem presents itself as the impossible equation it so often is. The problem appears on our doorstep, a casserole in which the ingredients combined threaten to serve up a meal of sorrow.

When asked to write about a long poem I admire, Matthew Yeager’s work immediately came to mind. He’s devastating yet playful, a poet who’s most at home inside poems in which he can stretch his legs.  In fact, “Sleep Mothers” represents one of his shorter poems.  While he’s not yet published a full collection, two of his astonishingly energetic and longer pieces, “A Big Ball of Foil in a Small New York Apartment” and “From ‘A Jar of Balloons or The Uncooked Rice,’” were featured, respectively, in the 2005 and 2010 Best American Poetry anthologies.

I first encountered “Sleep Mothers” when flipping through the journal Supermachine in McNally Jackson Books. Strangely, my mother was with me at the time. My mother is almost never with me. She lives in New Hampshire; I live in New York. She was browsing somewhere else in the store when I fell into Yeager’s poem, only to climb back out, changed, then walk by my 70 year-old mother’s side down the streets of Soho.

Inside them their love for their children is sleeping
Inside them the names of so many they know are sleeping
Their names are Jan and Joanne and Marcy-Ann and Mary Jo
Their names are Margaret and Harriet and Nancy.
Their names are Kathy and Janet and Diana and Debbie
Names they’ve had their lives entire.

My mother’s name is Mary Jo. She’s sleeping as I write this.


I can’t remember when I first encountered Lucretius’s great, mysterious poem. Could it have been in high school? Maybe it’s inaccurate hindsight that tells me I was already a little conversant with De Rerum Natura when I took a college course devoted to the poem. Taught by the genial, urbane, and learned J.P. Elder, the course was one of the two best Classics courses I had. (Latin love elegy, taught by G.P. Goold, was the other; I was less fortunate in my Greek teachers.) Under the influence of Elder’s course, and still, I guess, ignorant of Tennyson’s poem about Lucretius, I wrote a dramatic monologue, “Lucretius’s Widow Thinks Aloud,” which I’m startled to remember as clearly as I do. The poem was published in The Harvard Advocate or The Lion Rampant or The Quince, but never collected. My poem begins:

You only wanted to get rid of fear.
Put fear behind you and the sky was open,
You said; and fear was finally fear of death,
Shattered and put together cleverly
With only love left out. Love falsifies
And men are sickly-spirited enough
Without confusion.

Mortalibus aegris!

Almost two decades passed, and I must have gone on being at least conscious of Lucretius. For example, I suggested the title of my husband’s 1984 piano solo piece, “Suave Mari Magno,” the phrase which begins the magnificent opening of Book II: “How sweet it is to watch from dry land when the storm-winds roil….” In 1985 Willard Spiegelman gave me his excellent monograph, “Some Lucretian Elements in Wordsworth.” In 1999 I was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of A.E. Stallings, whose superb translation of Lucretius, published in 2007, I use in the phrase quoted above. Stallings’s amazing achievement is to have rendered De Rerum Natura into rhymed fourteeners with accuracy, grace, wit, and inevitability. But it is also true that Lucretius retains some of his unique flavor in any translation. It isn’t that, like Cavafy, Lucretius sounds good in anyone’s rendering. But he does always sound like himself: urgent, passionate, willful, possessed by the big picture but willing to stop and note details–or unable not to stop. Palmer Bovie and Rolfe Humphries, less felicitous than Stallings, still both capture a good deal of the sheer energy of the poem.

Stephen Greenblatt’s 2011 study The Swerve has presumably introduced Lucretius to a new generation of readers; New York University held a Lucretius conference in the same year. Lucretius seems to be one of those writers destined to be rediscovered and cherished periodically by people whose interests do not normally encompass Latin or Epicureanism or poetry. A very imperfect analogue to Lucretius’s durable but also rarefied reputation might be found not in Wordsworth (though as Spiegelman points out, analogies do abound between Lucretius and Wordsworth) but in Wallace Stevens, who stands apart from many poets of his (or any other) time and whose work means a great deal to many people who don’t necessarily count themselves lovers of poetry. Perhaps it’s relevant in this connection that we know almost nothing about Lucretius’s personal life, and that what we know about Stevens’s doesn’t help us much with the poetry.

You can dip a finger in Lucretius anywhere and come upon him energetically lecturing, almost hectoring, urging us to pay attention (nunc age quod superest cognosce et clarius audi). You can also easily find lush and beautiful passages–the invocation to Venus and the start of Book II are among the more famous, but there are many others–which sometimes form part of his argument, sometimes introduce a point or sum up a section (tantum religio potuit suadere malorum) and sometimes feel like a spontaneous effusion of fervor, as if the poet is bursting the boundaries of his own rhetorical structure (Avia Pieridum peragro loca nullius ante/trita solo…). There is the unforgettable if also finally unconvincing argument against the fear of death. But there’s also a profusion of less famous passages about what Lucretius’s title promises: the way the world works. After Hurricane Irene, for example, I felt the need to turn to the passage on floods, and I lazily asked Alicia Stallings to point me to the right spot, which she obligingly did–for this is not a famous passage. Here it all was–the downed trees, the washed-out bridges. Lucretius might have been describing central Vermont.

De Rerum Natura does not offer narrative or mythology–or rather the only mythology Lucretius serves up is the allegorized anti-mythology of his underworld, where each hellish torture is psychological. The length of the poem in combination with the lack of narrative presents readers with a serious problem, or rather, it would were it not for the onrushing force, not so much of the argument as of the vision.

Still, the lack of narrative arc means that the poem isn’t a page-turner; we can get swept up in the rhetoric, but we can equally lose ourselves in the beauty or sheer fascination of any number of individual passages. (What causes wet dreams? Why are some people so passive and others so quick to anger? Which is more important, nature or nurture?) No characters, no plot, and yet we go on reading. What holds us is the voice–and any authorial voice, however vigorous, is necessarily at times more compelling than at other times. Hence our attention may wander; and hence Lucretius, knowing this to be the case, buttonholes us from time to time. The honey of his verse is surely designed not only to sweeten the bitter cup of atomic theory but to keep us lazy listeners and readers in a good mood.

A long, plotless poem that so trusts our attention and patience, while also leaving room for a little mental meandering–this certainly (to repeat) sounds like Wordsworth to me, as it has to Spiegelman and many others. But I am also reminded of the requirements Wallace Stevens sets forth (in his own demanding and plotless longish poem “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”) for a successful work of the imagination. Stevens’s criteria are three: It Must Be Abstract; It Must Change; and It Must Give Pleasure. Lucretius triumphantly meets all three requirements, and in so doing he gives hope and inspiration to all the poets who follow him, and who aspire to something larger than the single lyric but are not drawn by narrative.

In its very strangeness and, yes, abstractness, De Rerum Natura has been and continues to be an idiosyncratic blueprint or roadmap for other poets wandering “in the uncharted country of the Muses,” those avia Pieridum where it was Lucretius’s proud and lonely boast that he was a pathfinder.


By the word strangers we often refer to persons previously unknown to ourselves. But in the title of her long poem The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Bhanu Kapil, a poet of Indian ancestry, born in England, and currently living in the U.S., uses the word in a way that includes but also extends beyond that common meaning, an extension one may begin to elucidate by noting its contrast to the term’s most famous literary usage, that of Albert Camus, a writer of partly Spanish ancestry, born in Algiers, and living at the time of his best-known works in France. Camus’s stranger discloses his character in such self-reports as his noting that, just before encountering “the Arabs” with whom he had a conflict, “I wasn’t thinking about anything, because I was half asleep from the sun beating down on my bare head.” He is a stranger not because others do not know him but because he is alienated from his own experience.

Camus’s stranger wins an honorific, “the absurd hero,” because his estrangement appears, to the colonizing males to whom Camus addresses his story, elected rather than imposed. Meursault’s society entitles him to his experience, and expels him only after he has elected estrangement. Kapil’s strangers are offered no such entitlement. Meursault makes himself a stranger; society makes Kapil’s subjects strangers. Her subjects are strangers that Kapil says she “met in theaters, forests, laundromats, temples and diners,” and who spoke–as if to make a virtue of necessity–on condition of anonymity. Kapil “traveled in India, England, and the United States, interviewing Indian women of diverse ages and backgrounds,” asking her subjects to respond “to one or more of a predetermined selection of twelve questions” within a time limit of thirty minutes, during which “the questionee was locked in a room without windows, furniture, or overhead lighting.” Kapil “wanted to ensure an honest and swift text, uncensored by guilt or the desire to construct an impressive, publishable ‘finish.’” During the period when she was conducting the interviews, Kapil “answered the questions for myself again and again,” recording her responses “in a notebook, on scraps,” and “on stickers that I affixed to escalator tubing, café tables, shop windows.”

The English word for fear of, and hostility toward, strangers, xenophobia, derives from the Greek word xenos. But the range of meaning for xenos differs from that for the English stranger. Liddell and Scott give hospes as the Latin equivalent, and report that xenos meant first “the friend, with whom one has a treaty of hospitality: in this sense both parties are xenos, and the relation was hereditary.” Thus, though the foregrounded characteristic in stranger is lack of affiliation, in xenos the foregrounded characteristic is affiliation. Vertical interrogation, I suggest, posits xenophilia in place of xenophobia, by assuming an inherited treaty of hospitality, and treating the stranger as one with rights of hospitality. Vertical interrogation returns the stranger to her original status as holder of rights, locus of honor. Vertical interrogation of a stranger accords her not the “absurd hero” status of Meursault nor the “enemy combatant” vilification imputed to the strangers interrogated at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, but the status accorded Odysseus in the palace of Demodokos, status as a stranger whose story is asked for, then wept over.

How one construes “stranger” and how one practices “interrogation” are not unrelated, as the U.S. has demonstrated in its foreign policy since 9/11. The Executive Order issued on 20 July 2007 by President George W. Bush is representative. It names, as if it were a single polity, “al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces,” and reaffirms a prior “determination” (from 7 February 2002) that members of this purported polity are “unlawful enemy combatants” and therefore “not entitled to the protections that the Third Geneva Convention provides to prisoners of war.” The construction of stranger sets the terms of the interrogation: I determine whether you are a stranger; association with “bad guys” is adequate grounds for such a determination; your status as stranger appoints me the interrogator and awards me all rights, and denies you any rights, during interrogation. That you as a stranger know nothing of value to me except information that might help me thwart the threat to me that you participate in posing removes you from any reciprocity, removes any constraints on my mode of interrogation.

Kapil’s poem embodies an alternative to the ways of relating interrogation to strangers depicted by Camus and enacted in U.S. foreign policy. Attempts to evaluate poetry tend to assume what is implicit in Dana Gioia’s question, “Can Poetry Matter?,” namely that the value of poetry will inhere in what poetry accomplishes, in its use value. I suggest instead that more of poetry’s value will lie in what it is than in what it does, in its intrinsic value rather than in its use value. Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers was published in 2001, so it must have been written before 9/11 and before the public disclosures of torture in U.S. detention facilities. Subsequent U.S. policy decisions, including those made by the Obama administration, demonstrate that the book did not have discernible political effects. But now it helps to update Auden: Kapil’s poem makes nothing — rather than something — happen. Poetry need not have political effects to have political implications. Poetry, whether or not it accomplishes anything, is akin to civil disobedience in positing, and fulfilling, an alternative ideal. Poetry can recognize strangers, and interrogate them, as Kapil’s poem does, in fulfillment of such recognition, vertically.


Gentlemen, don’chewknow,
But never wrote an epic.
—Louis Zukofsky

In “The Poetic Principle,” Edgar Allan Poe famously wrote that “a long poem does not exist.” His argument was simple, and flush with a lovely, crazy logic: A poem can only properly be called a poem insofar, and for so long, as it “excites, by elevating the soul.” But all excitement is passing; the necessary degree of excitement can be maintained by a poem for, at most, a half hour. Therefore, any piece of writing that requires more than a half hour to read cannot be a poem—it might, however, be a series of poems. Now, I’m no fan of Poe, but this is really quite nice. You know what else doesn’t exist? The four-minute mile, because I can’t run one.

By Poe’s standard, Veronica Forrest-Thomson never wrote anything that could be mistakenly called a long poem. Her longest, “Cordelia: or, ‘A Poem Should not Mean, but Be,’” takes up a mere six pages in her Collected Poems. But I want to here assert a different standard, according to which “Cordelia: or, ‘A Poem Should not Mean, but Be’” is a long poem. It is a standard to which most readers of the poetry of the past hundred years or so seem to subscribe: A poem is a long poem, or is not a long poem, according to its content and its place in the author’s canon. According to this standard, both “The Waste Land” and The Changing Light at Sandover are long poems—even though the latter is much, much longer than the former. “Cordelia: or, ‘A Poem Should not Mean, but Be’” is a long poem because it’s Forrest-Thomson’s longest, it’s a long poem because it ranges like a long poem, and it’s a long poem because it’s in dialogue with other long poems.

And it’s funny. It’s really funny. It could perhaps most usefully be called a “mock epic,” except it really mocks long poems altogether, not just epics. Nonetheless, Forrest-Thomson announces her intentions in an epic strain—and in fourteeners, no less, in what I take to be a metrical reference to Chapman’s great translation of the Iliad:

I with no middle flight intend the truth to speak out plain
Of honour truth and love gone by that has come back again
The fact is one grows weary of the love that comes again.

She’s quoting the beginning of Paradise Lost here (coincidentally, Paradise Lost is the first long poem Poe singles out for attack in his essay); she goes on to reference Eliot’s Four Quartets (along with several other of Eliot’s poems), Dante’s Commedia, and both of the Homeric epics, and opens up spaces for both Joyce’s novels and Shakespeare’s plays to be thought of as long poems, so that they become objects of mockery by association. But most spectacularly, by creating an atmosphere of the long poem—of mocking it, yes, but also ruminating upon it—and by drawing upon so many different sources to do so, she makes her own poem a kind of long poem singularity—a super-dense long poem, taking up a tenth of the space of the sort of poem one might ordinarily be inclined to think of as a long poem.

She does all this joyously, and she does all this while digressing for the bulk of the poem, joyously, touching upon a number of topics seemingly unrelated to the long poem, so that she flies no middle flight but instead a flight of no fixed altitude. She has only a little space in which to be as everywhere as long poems are, and yet she manages to be everywhere, as long poems are. I wouldn’t want the poem longer—it’s perfect as it is—but I don’t doubt that it is long.


On September 13, 2001, Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” forever changed the way I think about the teaching and writing and reading of poetry.

Published in 1938, in Rukeyser’s collection U.S. I, “The Book of the Dead” is a long sequence poem about a 1929 mining disaster in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. The poem relates the experience of the miners, mainly African American men, who contracted silicosis, a deadly lung disease, while building the Hawks Nest Tunnel for the Union Carbide Company. The text includes a range of kinds of language, from personal testimonies to a stock report.

We were scheduled to discuss the poem two days after 9/11, in the second week of the seminar I was teaching on the twentieth-century long poem, at my New York City university. Smoke was visible along the horizon; a sharp smell of burning lingered over our campus. The sky was bright blue, silent and empty, all airline flights grounded. I worried that my students, or members of their families, would be dead or missing. I had no idea how to talk about what happened in our city, in our country, and yet not to speak about what had happened with my class seemed wrong.

And, as I stood outside the seminar room, afraid to enter, I believed we should not talk about poetry on a day like this. Not only was Auden’s dictum “for poetry makes nothing happen” on my mind–stuck on repeat in fact–but in the face of a large-scale disaster a few miles from campus, I couldn’t imagine starting a discussion about a poem’s language, syntax and form. All felt inconsequential now. All the poetic–aesthetic–values I held close, on which I based on my teaching, writing and reading, were rendered invalid.

But I was wrong. Or, I was thinking about Rukeyser’s work in all the wrong ways. Now, more than ten years later, I realize that before 9/11 I had never understood Rukeyser’s poem at all.

“The Book of the Dead” opens with an invitation to the reader: “There are roads to take when you think of your country / and interested bring down the maps again . . .” The poem offers its own “road,” its path into a representation of a disaster that is unfamiliar to must of us, and yet the poem does not simply relate the event. Most importantly, the poem takes us to this place and time where we have never been by giving us the voices and subjectivities of the citizens of Gauley Bridge. Rukeyser explores the incident from a range of perspectives including the miners, their family members, the lawyers, the doctors who made the diagnosis, and a mother who has lost all her sons.

By bearing witness to the disaster through individual voices, “The Book of the Dead” offers itself as a counter-narrative to the official history of the mining disaster, which so often excludes those voices. For instance, often Rukeyser positions a miner’s testimony against an official voice, as in “The Disease,” when the clinical and legal speech of doctors and lawyers is interrupted by lines spoken by miner describing his illness: “It is growing worse every day. At night / I get up to catch my breath. If I remained / flat on my back I believed I would die.” The miner’s words are all the more compelling because of the stark contrast with official, desensitized language.

That afternoon, in my class, we started our discussion with these lines, from the end of “The Book of the Dead”:

What one word must never be said?
Dead, and these men fight off our dying,
cough in the theatres of the war.

What two things shall never be seen?
They: what we did. Enemy: what we mean.
This is a nation’s scene and halfway house.

What three things can never be done?
Forget. Keep silent. Stand alone.

Our focus that afternoon was on voice, and not in the ways I had discussed voice before in my poetry classes. This time, we moved from Rukeyser’s poem to the world outside the windows of our classroom, the city that was still burning. We talked about silence. We considered who is allowed to speak about a disaster and why and how poetry–through its use of voice and its voicing of individual experience–can help us to remember the past.

Rukeyser’s poem gave us a language to talk about disaster and demanded that we ask a new question: What work can poetry do in the world, in the face of catastrophe? How can poetry not only offer us the pleasure of the text–in which I still deeply believe–but even save us? Never before had I understood that question, and though I still, years later, am not sure of the answer, I am so grateful to Muriel Rukeyser for bringing me to the place where I could ask it.


Dissembling the Long Poem: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée

In Silence, John Cage recalls going into a soundproof chamber, hearing his circulatory and nervous systems, and realizing true silence doesn’t exist. In his preface to Un coup de dés, Stéphane Mallarmé compares white space in a poem “as a surrounding silence.” Surrounded by white space, the epigraph of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée amplifies Sappho’s verse:

May I write words more naked than flesh,
stronger than bone, more resilient than
sinew, sensitive than nerve.

For Cha, Sappho’s words in(tro)duce bodies: muses (with a fabricated Elitere in the line-up, echoing literary or (il)literate) of History, Epic Poetry, Astronomy, Tragedy, Love Poetry, Lyric Poetry, Comedy, Choral Dance, Sacred Poetry. Amid these nine (dis)contents, only “Poetry” repeats: echoing, dissembling, disassembling. Dictée divides in nine parts and more, cleaving and parsing multilingual prose and poetry, uncaptioned photographs and documents, cinematic stills and white space. Silences accrue and invite more muses to breathe: the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, Jeanne d’Arc, St. Thérèse, Demeter and Persephone, Cha’s mother Hyung Soon Huo (born in Manchuria to first-generation Korean exiles), and Cha herself (born in Korea in 1951, immigrating to the United States in 1964), who writes with self-conscious speech: “Open paragraph It was the first day period” and before that “Aller à la ligne C’était le premier jour point.” On the next page “She mimicks the speaking. That might resemble speech…. The others each occupying her.” Struggling to speak (of occupation and exile, lost in translation, fragmented inheritance, part memory and dream), syllables compress through pulsing, split lines, peeling and appealing, paragraphs and diagrams (of larynx and vocal chords, acupuncture chart, geographic map, printed and handwritten letters), un-doing the sentence of sentences: “Unfathomable the words, the terminology: enemy, atrocities, conquest, betrayal, invasion, destruction… has disregarded the humanity of another. Not physical enough. Not to the very flesh and bone, to the core, to the mark, to the point where it is necessary to intervene.” And: “Undefinable. Shift. Shift slightly. Into a different sound.” Resonant with presence as much as absence (of languages: English, French, Korean, Japanese, and more), Dictée slips toward and away from any singular genre. By what it is (not), Dictée (“dictation”) confounds its form, throwing the question back to us: dissembling but re-assembling the memory of a dream of what may be a long poem.

Over and over. Again and again.
Seen and void. Void of view.
Inside outside. As if never.
As if it was seen for the first time.


The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was the first poem I read as a poem. In either my freshman or sophomore year in high school, I somehow came across it on my own, before it was assigned to me in any class. The poem moved me in ways I could not explain; it articulated in its rhythms—its nervous silences and hesitations—something both urgent and elegant. It overwhelmed me.

To make sense of the poem and the experience of reading it, I read as much of Eliot’s work as I could find, seeking out his poetry as well as his prose. I read both innocent of context. In his criticism, for instance, Eliot analyzed poems I did not know and argued against positions I had not encountered. One afternoon in the high school library, while other students gossiped, day dreamed, and flirted, I read the lecture where he dryly observed, “[R]easons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.” I vividly remember that moment, even though I did not then know what the passage meant, except that, for reasons I could only guess, this great poet would not think much of me.

It is easy to mock or at least remember with faint condescension our early reading experiences. Eliot, though, remains my favorite poet and “Prufrock” my favorite poem. It is, I think, the greatest poem written in English during the twentieth century. My early experience with Eliot’s work also taught me two important lessons about poetry. One, in Eliot’s own words, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” I doubt that I could have passed a reading quiz on “Prufrock,” but sensed that its jagged, shapely lines somehow offered language at its most intense: ugliness and self-loathing raised to the condition of art. Second, a poem might powerfully express repellent ideas and emotions, a principle more clearly demonstrated when Eliot elsewhere disgustedly reviles “the jew.” Like the men and women who wrote them, even our favorite poems do not give us only what we want.



All night we float in the dark, the ether, the vapors
of the breath, on the pillow, the mattress, below
the tick, and morning comes, concentrating light

again from the sprawled darkness: slowly I begin
to be something other than the robins bleating
in the silver maple or the ailanthus which shouldn’t

be here but is: that’s the way I feel: concentrating
slowly into the space between these ears, into this
skin, these hands, which have to reach out later

to students and colleagues and, most important,
readers: extend, not reach, but what: what will I
stretch after I’ve stretched: after I’ve made this space

within myself I fill what the world hasn’t filled: I
offer this distillate of what I’ve made of the world
made with the world: to be a body, to be a friend,

to be a husband or citizen is to be like the poem’s
well: accepting well what flows from the surrounding,
the dog’s nuzzle, the wife’s coo, and showing

what was there, all around, the possible, the necessary
that was always already there: the concentration,
the meditation that requires, at times, the closed door

of the tercet, the section, the 6/7ths of the sonnet,
the argument, the negotiation, without resolution,
opening again into the next adjacency: the radio

audible from a passing car, the radio in the other
room, the sound of a friend’s voice remembering
my mind as I read her e-mail, Archie’s voice filling

in the words as I read the poem again: Archie
calling me into his office: Archie’s voice, an alto
saxophone played at its lowest register: Archie:

I know the meditator reads the world to become
the mediator to move beyond the mediation,
immediate and perhaps, perforce, immoderate:

thus from Aquinas, thus from Aurelius, thus
from Bradstreet and Emerson and Whitman and
Stevens, thus from Bartram and Thoreau: what

descends also ascends, so even though you
have differentiated into undifferentiation, I can still
talk back to you, and, I imagine, you can still

kick me in my butt: but the point I’d gathered
there, the aria in the air, the boot in the butt, still
the controversion, how what’s still can move

and move into all motion that will seem still
and what still move too to what would move:
what’s on the edge become a center, what’s

central become peripheral, fall off the edge:
the potential of my one vote the veto, the potency
of the presiding, the residue of my residence

always more than I’d presumed: the wife calls
to take out the trash and the charity box, always
more here than we can find places for: I hide

my six copies of Sphere in different places so
the duplicates don’t appear: like the seismograph,
they form a figure for the poem, expanding

to include: reticulum not ridiculous: once every-
thing’s in, it seems, a peace settles in, an in-
tegration, a sense of oneness, a wave moving

through the heterogeneous toward the genial,
a concentration of all things: I take this back too
into myself, my particulate, knowing soon

the daylight again must diffuse, diffracted through
the lenses of the rain or the dew, through the
condensate on the evening’s glass of beer,

and then I, too, diffract, diffuse, effuse … in eddies
of music and talk, taking in and being taken away
into so many other versions of the day, but

as Walt dreamed, I am there, you are there,
in that other now, and again in the furl of the curtain
in the evening breeze, the temperature falling:

the night concentrates again the last warmth
cricket-thin: we pull the ticks over ourselves again:
in the hush of the leaves, we sail


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