Against Brevity: Stephen Cushman on the Long Poem

A long poem? Really? Edgar Allan Poe said there was no such thing, and Ernest Hemingway dismissed it with a swift coup de grâce worthy of one of his matador heroes finishing a bull in the ring at Pamplona: “Remember this too: all bad writers are in love with the epic.”  Both Poe and Hemingway bet on brevity and made huge contributions to the legacy of the one literary form the United States has contributed to world literature, the short story.  Whether they read these two or not, writers of flash fiction and other short forms are in their debt.

But even without dismissive thumbs down, the long poem has a lot of explaining to do, especially in a country fixated on oracular utterances of 140 characters.  Brevity, speed, disruption, distraction, user-friendliness, transience: these are the muses of our moment. A long poem? Really?

And yet, beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, writers born in the United States have brought forth on this continent and in Europe another poetic form, one its practitioners can’t exactly claim to have invented—Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Wordsworth tower as prominent antecedents—but one with a roster hard to ignore: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, H. D.’s Trilogy, Wallace Stevens’s “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction,” Melvin Tolson’s Harlem Gallery, Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, Langston Hughes’s “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, among many others.

We love brevity in many things, but not all. Few of us wish it for our lifespans, for example, or for our best relationships. We don’t want it when it comes to health or good fortune or annual vacation. Or joy. Or serenity. There are many things brevity cannot do for us and many ways in which it can hurt us or cause us sadness.

Brevity, especially brevity with snappy, punch-line closure, all neatly tied up with a quotable bow, can be fraudulent, especially with respect to our ongoing, intractable concerns, uncertainties, and preoccupations. A determination not to fake fraudulent closures lay behind my first attempt at a longer poem, The Red List (LSU, 2014). That poem was set in motion by a particular crisis or emergency, and it developed by working to stay open to the concentric rings of other crises or emergencies, or to other endangerments.  (“The Red List” is a name for the Endangered Species List.)

The model I followed for The Red List was Bashō’s The Narrow Road to Oku, sometimes translated as The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This seventeenth-century book is a travel diary in haibun form, with Bashō’s haikus punctuating the longer sections of prose narrative. The adaptation I made was to substitute sections of verse in longer lines for Bashō’s prose narrative.

By the time I finished The Red List, I felt as though I had learned how to work with the haibun form, and I turned to it again for my new collection Hothead (LSU, 2018), which is not about a particular crisis or emergency or set of endangerments.  Instead, it’s an attempt to bring to our wired, distracted, disrupted moment two principles that have influenced me.  The first is from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”: “let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not and see it not.” The second is from A. R. Ammons’s long poem Sphere: The Form of a Motion: “touch the universe anywhere you touch it / everywhere.”

Hothead records the honest thoughts of a hotheaded speaker who tries to touch the universe in many places, social, political, historical, economic, environmental, spiritual, sexual, technological, and poetic. His coach or consort or side-kick along the way is his aging laptop computer, whom he names Patience and calls Patty for short. As Hothead and Patty work their way through the seasons together, from fall through the following summer, they talk about many things and come up against some challenging complications, among them those arising from their relationship, which occasions arguments and debates about contemporary poetry and poetics.

Above all Hothead is about rhythm itself, how many kinds of repetition within us and around us can rise above the mechanical, robotic, or monotonous and become organized into ongoing flow that floats us and carries us along, sometimes even with hope and with humor. A long poem. Really.

In addition to the books named above, anyone interested in recent long poems could look at:

Kazim Ali, Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (Wesleyan, 2009). A global song of the self refracted through various cities in the U. S., Europe, and Egypt.

Ammons, Tape for the Turn of the Year (Norton, 1965). Ammons put a roll of adding machine tape into his typewriter and typed through it from December into January.

Ann Carson, Glass, Irony and God (New Directions, 1995). Especially the first section, “The Glass Essay,” in which the speaker visits her mother and thinks about various difficult relationships.

Carmen Gillespie, The Ghosts of Monticello: A Recitatif (Stillhouse, 2017). Organized as a series of monologues spoken by residents of Monticello, Hemingses and Jeffersons.

Matthew Thorburn, Dear Almost (LSU, 2016). Addressed to an unborn daughter lost to miscarriage.

Charles Wright, Zone Journals (FSG, 1988). See especially the central section, the 50-page “Journal of the Year of the Ox,” for Wright’s meditations from January to December 1985.

A native New Englander, Stephen Cushman has written several volumes of poetry, two books of literary criticism, and two studies of the Civil War. He is also the general editor of the fourth edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. He is Robert C. Taylor Professor of English at the University of Virginia and lives in Charlottesville.