Ever since she became a blogger herself (Mosehouse Studio – her new craft blog), Bronwyn has been prompting me to do something about the parlous state of The Imaginary Museum. “You’ve got to put up a new post! People are starting to talk – I’m ashamed to host it in my links list …”
Well, she's quite right, of course, but then I do have the teaching blogs to feed – not to mention keeping up with the reviews of New NZ Poets in Performance on my Bibliography site.
But then I remembered that Maps had made a very interesting suggestion in one of the comments on that 20 favourite 20th-Century novels post of mine, the one that got all the responses:
How about a post on your ten or twenty favourite long poems of all time, Jack?
I’ve been mulling that one over for a while now. I think I dealt with most of the usual suspects from the classical epic tradition in my Car Epics posts (The Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Milton etc.), so there's no need to go through all of those guys again.
Here goes, then, with a (very subjective) list of twenty of my personal faves among twentieth-century long poems:
[Byron & James Dean]
1) W. H. Auden: Letter to Lord Byron (1937)
This was originally included in the travel book he wrote with Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland, and is perhaps best read like that, in situ. I prefer it to his more formal full-dress long poems from the forties: New Year Letter (1941), For the Time Being (1944) and The Age of Anxiety (1947). It's relaxed, funny and revealingly autobiographical.
[Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, "Catullus at Lesbia's"]
2) James K. Baxter: "Words to Lay a Strong Ghost" - from Runes (1973)
I guess the Jerusalem Sonnets (1970) or Autumn Testament (1972) would be more orthodox choices, but I really like this sequence. Runes is a fantastic book, anyway.
[Top 10 Drinking Quotes of all time]
3) John Berryman: Love & Fame (1970)
Yeah, yeah. I know how much everyone raves about the Dream Songs (1964-69). I like them myself. I'm just not convinced that they can be read as a long connected narrative rather than a group of lyrics with the same protagonist. This is the book of Berryman's I like best - at his least pretentious and most honest, and without all the (to my mind) rather forced fireworks of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956).
[Lovers (Herculaneum Fresco)]
4) Anne Carson, "The Fall of Rome: A Traveller's Guide" - from Glass, Irony and God (1992)
This was Carson's first book of poems, and it's fantastically strong. This particular sequence is about a misjudged trip to Rome to stay with an acquaintance who turns out not to be in the least bit interested in entertaining her, and really majors on the misery and dislocation of the whole experience. Splendid stuff. I like The Beauty of the Husband (2002), too.
[Helen of Egypt]
5) H. D.: Helen in Egypt (1952-54)
This is pretty cool stuff, I reckon. There are lots of other long poems to choose from in H. D.'s repertoire, but this one has a kind of classic precision I like.
[The Eye of God]
6) Walter de la Mare: The Traveller (1945)
An odd choice, you think? Maybe so. This long narrative poem describes an unnamed hero traversing the surface of an immense eye. Why? You tell me. The strange dislocatedness of it all appeals to me strongly. I like a lot of his lyrics, too: "Winter has fallen early / Upon the House of Stare" ... I think it might all have something to do with the horrors of the Second World War, also.
[The graphic novel version]
5) 7) T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land (1922)
It's pretty difficult to reject the temptations of Four Quartets (1935-42), but I guess the good old Waste Land has to be the one. It evangelised me as a teenager, so I really owe it a lot. I can't exactly read it now, but that's maybe because I've virtually got it memorised.
[Mass recitation of Kaddish from "We Will Never Die" (1943)]
8) Allen Ginsberg: Kaddish (1961)
By far Ginsberg's greatest poem, his most heartfelt, and his most frightening and disturbing. This tale (perhaps I should call it a transcript) of the growth and progression of his mother's madness is surely one of the great poems of the century. read it and see - or, better still, listen to him reading it out loud on his Holy Soul Jelly Roll collection.
[Eikon Basilike (1649)]
9) Susan Howe: A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike (1989)
A very odd poem from a very odd poet. Susan Howe began in the visual arts, and layout clearly interests her as much (or more) than diction. There's a haunting power in the intensity of her vision, though. Who else would have thought of turning an old discarded library copy of someone else's bibliography of a forged seventeenth-century book into the basis of a poem? Nobody, that's who. Now it's been done once - anybody.
10) Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters (1998)
It still blows me away a bit that I can bring myself to put a Ted Hughes book into this list. I am - to put it mildly - not a fan. But this collection really is extraordinary, and has a cumulative power. Imagine deciding to answer all those iconic, accusatory poems of Sylvia Plath's thirty years after Ariel? It sounded like a bad joke at first - "You said I was snubbing you, but actually you were the one who was ..." Kind of like a bad marital quarrel carried out - in print - from beyond the grave. And yet there's a sort of dignity in it if you read it all the way through. Good on you, Ted. I'm forced to concede him a good deal for the sheer guts of it.
11) David Jones: In Parenthesis (1937)
I could have put in Anathemata (1952) instead, but I think the First World War poem is his finest. Well worth a look - his art work is extraordinary also.
[The Patrick Kavanagh Memorial (Dublin)]
12) Patrick Kavanagh: The Great Hunger (1942)
Cool - and very funny in parts. "The Great Hunger" is actually a plea for some surcease in the sheer boredom of country life in Ireland, rather than yet another lament for the victims of the Potato famine. Hence the fact that he was sued for libel when it first came out.
13) Robert Lowell, Life Studies (1959)
Is this a long poem or a series of poems? I think it's all one poem. The book as a whole has a unity for me which goes beyond that of his other collections. I'm not really convinced by Notebook (1969-73) in any of its many guises, but the three collections - For the Union Dead (1964) and Near the Ocean (1967) are the others - he published in the early-to-mid sixties are each equally impressive and moving in their own way.
[Polis is This]
14) Charles Olson: The Maximus Poems (1950-70)
What a mass of craziness! And yet it's fantastic to read in and just contemplate, in that beautiful big 1983 University of California press edition. I can't claim to have got to the bottom of it as yet, but it fascinates me in a way that Zukofsky's A (1927-78) and even Pound's Cantos (1915-1972) (as a whole) don't.
[The Monkey's Mask (2000)]
15) Dorothy Porter: The Monkey’s Mask (1994)
A verse novel, no less. Dorothy Porter has made quite a specialty of them. This one is a kind of erotic lesbian detective story (hence the saucy film poster). It works very well as a narrative poem, though - all power to her for originality, I reckon.
[Pound reads Mauberley]
16) Ezra Pound: Hugh Selwyn Mauberley: Life and Contacts (1920)
The other one I was thinking about putting in was Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919), since I guess one can't really call Cathay (1915), which I love even more, a long poem. The Pisan Cantos (1949) are also a favourite book of mine – but not really (I have to admit) the Cantos as a whole: too disparate and uneven. Great to read in, though.
17) Peter Reading, Perduta gente (1989)
A fantastic vindication of Reading's uncompromising methods of composition / accretion: a complex piece of storytelling with an antinuclear theme is almost overpowered by the sheer rage and indignation propelling his picture of London's homeless at the height of the Thatcher era.
18) Kendrick Smithyman: Atua Wera (1997) / Imperial Vistas Family Fictions (2002)
I've yet to read any particularly cogent analyses of Kendrick's "long poem about history," Atua Wera. Gregory O'Brien's essay in Landfall 194 (1997: 306-21) seemed to confine itself mainly to descriptions of the Wairoa River and of dreams he'd had about going camping with the old man in the South of France. It's a tough nut to crack, certainly, but I can't help feeling there's rather more to be said about it than that. My own contribution to the debate is the assertion that these books are best regarded as one long poem in two parts. Atua Wera looks into the textual bases of received history, through the person of the shifting signifier Papahurihia. Imperial Vistas Family Fictions, by contrast, mines his own family past in order to enquire into the role of the anecdotal and personal in any larger, objectifying vision. It's a very ambitious scheme, and one which we'll be talking about for a long long time to come, I feel.
19) Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood (1945-1953)
This one's just delightful. Is it a play? Is it a poem? Is it autobiographical? Fictional? There's a wonderful recording of the first performance of the as-yet-unfinished work in New York. Apparently Thomas was literally scribbling out the parts backstage up to the last minute, and then had to be pushed on to take the part of the narrator. Somebody had left a microphone lying in the middle of the floor, and it picked up the whole bizarre occasion. Much better than the posthumous BBC production of the whole kit and caboodle, read by Richard Burton et al., fun though that is too.
20) William Carlos Williams: Paterson (1946-63)
What shall I say about this? It's very readable, and very impressive in its way. A little old-fashioned sounding now, perhaps, but then I guess it largely created the taste which might now regard it as slightly backward-looking. Nothing short of a monument, really - the poet as roving reporter, covering the city beat.
I'd liked to have put in Wallace Stevens' "Notes towards a Supreme Fiction", but I have to confess that I've never got to the end of it, much though I like some of his shorter pieces. One has to be as honest as possible in compiling such a list, otherwise what's the point?
I also note the regrettable absence of any extended poems by Seamus Heaney or Paul Muldoon. Even Seamus loses it a bit sometimes in the midst of his more extended sequences, I fear. Station Island (1984) is pretty amazing, though -- and Muldoon's "Incantata" - from The Annals of Chile (1994) - is one of the greatest elegies I've ever read.