Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Long Poem

As happens as often as not, this musing came out of an adventure with used books. No matter where I am, I will usually make time to browse through any books around, be they new or used. This time I was snuffling about in the various materials available at a local used book store. The treasure I found for myself was a copy, in good condition, of a poem by Joy Kogawa as illustrated by Lilian Broca called A Song of Lilith.
I knew and admired Kogawa's poetry long before she became an award-winning novelist, but I had not read or even seen this work. It seems that Broca had produced a series of works dealing with the mythical "first wife" of Adam; friends who are classical musicians suggested she find a composer, a writer, and a number of actors and musicians to present a concert/performance around the pieces. Kogawa was the writer brought in. This is part of the multi-disciplinary result.

What attracted me was the label poem, the singular, on a full size book. The work consists of seven sections, with more subsections. Then I looked at my own work and again wondered at the difference between a collection and a long poem.

Remember, the earliest of our poems are long ones, the epic poetry of Greece and Rome and the great works in English like Beowulf and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The tradition continued through Milton to Whitman and Hart Crane. Even early Canadian poetry has its examples.

So what constitutes a long poem, as compared to a collection of poems? First of course is its length - but not simply its length. The length should be so integral the the poem could not be and say what it does in any other form. Second is the unity of the material. Like Kogawa's poem, all segments (if the poem is divided into such) should flow from and into a common idea.

This brought me to consider my own works. I have a long poem, Garden Concert, which falls easily into these parameters: it is self-contained, all segments are variations on one theme. But I also have a small book consisting of thirteen pieces which I consider a "sequence" rather than a long poem. Even though it is partially narrative and deals with the same specific idea, there is a plurality of voices and time is fragmented enough that I'm not comfortable considering it as a whole although something like Eliot's The Waste Land is. And then again I have a long, book-length collection of short poems which I sometimes tend to see as one extended poem. Ezra Pound spoke about the long poem as an "expression of the tribe" in regards to his Cantos, and my We Measure Our Time In Coffee Cups would fit as a voice of the "Tim Hortons" tribe.

So it's good to see the long poem holding its own. Its problem seems to be finding a place for publication. Perhaps a multi-media approach, as illustrated by, as performed by, or again as narration for film ... (something I hope to be working toward soon.)

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