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(Eric Owens in Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold)
by Garry Thomas Morse
Lately, I have been hearing a lot about the long poem, and what is more, the lifelong poem. And as I wrinkle my nose over various versions of a failed poetics residing in the leftmost panel of a shattered vanity and optimistically attempt to drive from my mind countless gnomic tangentials, decidedly, I elect to ramble.
Often, in our kneejerk obbligato admonishments of the lyric voice, at least in circles I have travelled, we tend to overlook that for such poets as Anacreon and Sappho, shorter lyric poems were a way of addressing the excessive bombast and bloated “inflatus” of epic poetry. In essence, the lyric was a critique of both content and form, generally turning from the mythical to the personal. In spite of our contemporary perspective on lyric voice, I would venture that the majority of poems in journals across North America take this form, in neat squares or tidy couplets, before ultimately finding their way into one of numberless books, self-published or otherwise.
It has come to my attention, on account of C.S. Morrissey’s new Talon translation of Theogony and Works and Days, that one of my favourite poets of my youth was one of the first to encourage this shift from epic form to personal experience. In the wake of familial rivalry and marital stresses, Hesiod came to develop a new conception of Eris (or strife):
This is now the iron age.
Neither in daytime,
nor at nighttime,
does pain and distress ever cease
wearing us down.
The gods have given us difficult things that consume our care.
But even so, for this age,
noble things will be mixed in with the bad.
In Theogony and in many works to follow, emphasis is placed upon the effect of the poet (or rhapsode), on the turmoil of the individual soul, as Eric Voegelin indicates,
When the soul of a man is in sorrow through recent grief, and distress fills his heart with anxiety, he will forget his disturbance when the servant of the Muses sings the glorious deeds of the men of old and of the blessed gods.
It is worthy of consideration that Socrates (or was it Plato?) described the rhapsode as going out of his mind during the course of reading. I might not dare to utter the oft-bandied-about word “catharsis”, had I not just read an interesting statement in Karl H. Siegler’s ornate essay (or perhaps ranticle) “On Value” in subTerrain #62:
If humanity is every to achieve the catharsis of pity and fear that Aristotle claimed was the sole purpose of the public performance of tragedy, and which constitutes a necessary precondition for public discourse, we must remember and reengage what we have repressed–the lessons of history, particularly those of the age of conquest, the horrors and genocides of which the 20th century was the spectacular apotheosis.
Ezra Pound formalized the definition of the epic poem for us as “a poem containing history” and part of his work, and that of the Modernists (including T.S. Eliot and H.D.) also beset by not one but two World Wars, involved drawing attention to this kind of repression in the celebrated epic poems of Homer, which contain historical traces of quashed cultural ritual and also the mythically glorified story of a trade war, one that has been thought to involve Western domination of resources in the fabled East. For all his failings, I feel that with his Cantos, in a work that ultimately documents his fragmentation of self and inevitable decline, Pound was trying to show that the founders of his contemporary Nation-state were also in favour of a revisionist history, or one that they were writing as they went along.
There is a similar tension in The Prelude that reminds me of Hesiod’s poetry, in William Wordsworth’s shift from mythology as topic to his expression that the mind and imagination of the individual being is just as worthy a topic for epic poetry, if not more so. Yet, his work moves from the realm of personal experience to some of the effects and repercussions of the French Revolution. Once again, I am not advocating a particular point of view here. I am merely expressing that this poetic shift from the state of self to the state of the world, and perhaps back again, is of great interest to me in the course of a long work, a lifelong work if need be.
In the wake of a great deal of poetic pioneering in William Carlos William’s Paterson, a long poem dealing with something like the “thingness of things” in everyday life that merge the individual with his immediate locality as topic, as subject, Louis Zukofsky present us with the overwhelming “A”, his long poem that combined the political, historical, and personal with a distinct musicality, that informed his content and form.
With regard to Charles Olson’s own contribution The Maximus Poems, I will quote the Academy of American Poets:
The person, Maximus, represents Olson’s alter ego, and is named after the second-century Maximus of Tyre, as well as a fourth-century Phoenician mystic, and may also refer to Olson’s impressive stature (he was six feet seven inches tall). The place is Gloucester, Massachusetts, or more accurately, the small town communal American life that Olson struggled to preserve. Taking up local issues such as preserving the wetlands and documenting the history of fishermen in the Northeast, Olson’s poems are widely read as political, but like the Cantos, they also contain deeply lyrical and personal passages as well.
Once again, we have echoes of the individual, merging with some concept of the larger world, whether local or global. Canadian Poet Laureate Fred Wah also frequently emphasizes the importance of Olson’s approach, what may be described as a poetic archaeology, upon his own sense of poetry’s possibilities, recognizing “the poem as discourse for place and history.”
In a more general sense, I am often overtly conscious of the way these cross-border poetics have spilled over into hallmark works in Canadian poetry, particularly those in B.C. that exhibit something akin to a geographical poetic, concentrating upon aspects of local or communal history, along with continual urban transformations over time. Off the top of my head, these includes works such as George Bowering’s Kerrisdale Elegies, Daphne Marlatt’s Steveston, Stephen Collis’ Mine, Wayde Compton’s 49th Parallel Psalm, and Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture.
I will mention my own Discovery Passages primarily because I think it falls in this category, and as I so often point out in interviews and at festivals, it was heavily influenced by these other preceding works, and I also would like to include Catherine Owen’s Seeing Lessons, and in all likelihood, Owen’s latest work The River Sequence, which in her own words “features a locus that compels recurring entrances into the site, interwoven with the day’s memories/perceptions.”
As I expressed in the Vancouver: Influence Issue of Poetry Is Dead, one of my favourite of these works is Daphne Marlatt’s Vancouver Poems (originally published with Coach House Press), and one of my most sincere wishes has been to see it back in print. For those who have not yet heard, I am happy to report that Marlatt has more than risen to the occasion of Talon’s Spring 2013 list, also bringing forth new poems that take into account Vancouver’s changing pace and landscape in Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now.
Cover photograph by Fred Herzog
I am generalizing of course. In some cases, these works might be considered to be long poems and in others serial poems or sequences, or collections of poems in which the poetic cohesion of parts suggests a larger notion of “longness”. For that reason, although Sharon Thesen’s The New Long Poem Anthology may be a misnomer as a title, I think it is particularly good for stalwart admirers of Canadian poetry, and also as an entry point for poets considering ways in which they might approach the poem, or at least think of it in a different way. I was also pleased to hear that earlier this year, Jay MillAr of BookThug was making use of this anthology in his long poem work shop for the Toronto School of Writing.
Beyond the usual squabbles over poetic typification where anthologies are concerned, I greatly appreciate Thesen’s inclusion of diverse long (or serial, or continuous) works by writers such as Dionne Brand, Anne Carson, Diana Hartog, Roy K. Kiyooka, David W. McFadden, Erin Mouré, Lisa Robertson, George Stanley, and Lola Lemire Tostevin, who seldom fails to bifold the ear:
In reaction to material from my own ongoing long poem, or lifelong poem, The Untitled, Thesen sent me a helpful quote from Robin Blaser’s essay on Charles Olson in The Fire that caused me to reflect even more upon the relationship between the individual and rerum natura:
“What I have noticed in the poetry and poetics of the most important poets is that they are arguing, weaving, and composing a cosmology and an epistemology. There is no epistemological cut-off in our deepest natures, nor in our engagement with life. Nor is the ambition of what is known short on its desire for cosmos. It is this structuring, large and deep in the nature of things, that still thrills us in Hesiod’s struggle for the sense of it….Repeatedly in the history of poetry we find ourselves returning to epic structures….I suggest that great poetry is always after the world–it is a spiritual chase–and that it has never been, in the old, outworn sense, simply subjective or personal.”
A while back, Douglas Glover very graciously posted a piece of The Untitled, along with a statement about Canadian poetics, and including my own two bits on what I’m trying to “get at” in my own long long long work.
Of course there are many many other directions to move in. In the new poetic works that interest me most, to once again generalize, I am noting a poetics of surface that feels ever so tenuously associated with tendencies found in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement, if language can be said to even say such a thing. The other predominant tendency towards startling revisions of the lyric voice has a slightly acerbic taste and takes into account our new lives as technological units exchanging social currency, although the use of the serial form caught in abrupt epiphanies of its own shifting linguistic identity reminds me most of the work of Jack Spicer.
Whether they wrote long poems or ranticles, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, bp Nichol, and Artie Gold (go Canucks!) are examples of poets who left us with brilliant collections of poetry that in the end were blessed by the gods as lifelong poems, so to speak. For someone like myself, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser’s The Holy Forest, The Collected Books of Artie Gold, and bp Nichol’s Martyrology are always within reach. Actually, not the Martyrology, but you can check out a large part of it online, courtesy of Coach House Press.
Among the living there are many other examples, but I am most smitten with the work of Lyn Hejinian, particularly with long time favourite The Cold of Poetry, as her fragmentary offerings give the impression of being part of a longer continuous whole and do not feel like pieces tossed together, as so many collections in North America do.
In Stephen Collis’ upcoming book of poetry, The Barricades Project, something of a poetic companion to his current non-fiction book Dispatches from the Occupation, he includes a brief overview of The Lifelong Poem, touching upon Lyn Hejinian’s book My Life which is also discussed in a biographical helping about Hejinian, courtesy of Poetry Foundation.
And it is more than noteworthy that in her latest book, Adeena Karasick has aimed her personal canon of dazzling verbotechnics at the long poem form, constructing This Poem out of every plosion in a work that
interrogates the tradition of the Canadian long poem, systematically and systemically accusing it of being a multi-platform interdisciplinary repository, an archive of fragments, updates, analysis, aggregates, treatises, advice, precepts, echoes and questions, unravelling into itself, in an ever-enfolding, luminous text of concomitance.
After blathering on, I should point out that in the wake of my wariness about making even one statement about the nature of the long poem or lifelong poem, I turned to poets Oana Avasilichioaei, Dina Del Bucchia, Wanda O’Connor, Catherine Owen, Sharon Thesen, and Daniel Zomparelli and asked them for their thoughts on the long poem, or lifelong poem, or even the serial poem, and so on, at the same time spidering some snippets of text from Robin Blaser, Michael Carlson, Alain Deneault, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Theodore Enslin, Lindsey M. Freer, Charles Olson, Sina Queyras, Jack Spicer, Sir Donald Tovey, Jerry Zaslove, and Jan Zwicky.
Even the best poets sometimes have to take a peep at “Nudisme”.
Ein musikalischer Spaß (“A Musical Joke”)–at one time a short-lived online exercise in “Nudisme” (in the spirit of a relation of mine who still insists upon torching his own tribal masks for the resultant “significance” that is completely misunderstood by the uninitiated) that was too stark and avant-garde for The Capilano Review blog and resulted in a censorship controversy about as raging as the Yellowism movement (which is primarily about yellow)–surviving as this non-concomitant end-of-days statement full of surprisingly random accompaniments that is of course like all grand oeuvres in D Minor and like totes serious, you guys.
You can check it out here as a PDF.
(Disclaimer: this is not officially typified as a ranticle.)
In connection with musing about poetic preoccupations with mythology in Western poetry over the centuries, and the way this archetypal reservoir has been repeatedly mined for new modes of expression for the individual in a given time, I have been watching Quebec-born Robert Lepage’s brilliant Metropolitan Opera production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs) in its entirety on PBS (whose fate may hang in the balance of the current U.S. Election?).
The Ring Cycle is in essence an epic (or long) poem by Wagner that skillfully weaves together Norse and Germanic mythology. Of key significance is that by setting this work to his own music, Wagner was placing a greater emphasis on poetry and speech in opera than ever before, while also creating an intricate system of musical leitmotifs that are subject to their own development and evolution over the course of the opera cycle, which in its totality is about fifteen hours in duration.
In defense of my recurring interest in Wagner and Rilke and working with modes of German Romanticism, particularly in musical form, I must say I was struck by how topical The Ring Cycle seems in this era. The gods have outsourced labour to build their dream home, and their murky finagling calls to mind certain subprime lending fiascos. The central theme of the opera cycle is that the theft of some gold in the Rhine, the original act of corruption that threatens natural or elemental forces, creates the means for particular individuals to make slaves of their fellows and also to extract more and more natural resources from the depths of the earth. Everyone is warned about impending apocalypse and that the end is nigh, but no one takes any notice.
Of course, that kind of “iron age” doesn’t sound at all familiar, right? Or maybe you should take a look at Talon’s new release of Imperial Canada Inc. You can also check out Quill & Quire for the full story (a long epic in itself?) on sending that book to press.
Wagner’s musical approach was a source of inspiration (or influence or ignition or disturbed attraction) to French writers such as Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Marcel Proust, who in general were tired of other more stuffy and conventional operas. Of course, artists and poets tend to get worked up about what they believe in. And oddly, the Jungian archetypal unconscious sometimes works wonders for the most unappealing of party guests.
Does artistic tension cause us to spout ranticles? Hmm…
So much tension in here. So awkward, so palpable. Perhaps the important thing is to keep on keeping on and not to give up on your own personal vision. After all, it is your life. Or stuff of life. So rant on, I say. Ranting on is just so ranticle!