This is the first of three posts about the writing of Anhaga. The full report will appear on the website when all three have been posted.
Reinventing the Long Narrative Poem.
Well, that’s the advertising tag, but anyone who claims to have done something new in poetry is either ignorant of history, suffering from a temporary though convenient historical amnesia, or delusional. It’s all been done, several times and poets and critics who claim to be creating or recognizing something ‘new’ or ‘innovative’ are simply forgetting the wheel has already been discovered and refined. Or they have found new ways of ‘conceptualizing’ the wheel in such a way that the theory sounds like its different but in practice the wheel still rolls.
So in writing Anhaga I wasn’t out to ‘reinvent’ the long poem.
I started with a question: how could a story told in a sequence of poems differ from a story told in Prose.
As a result of what’s been called ‘the lyricization of poetry’ the short ‘lyric’ poem has become the default model: it’s what most people think of when they hear the word ‘poem’. There have been book length narratives, but they tend to be in the minority. Some of them are very good. Australia seems to have produced its fair share of excellent examples: Freddy Neptune, The Monkey’s Mask and The Love Makers stand out. More recently, Lisa Jacobsen’s The Sunlit Zone’was an interesting example.
So I started out to become knowledgeable about the field. I already knew most of the long poems prior to the Twentieth century, though during a break I did read The Ring and the Book….
At the start of this project I set myself the task of reading or rereading all the long poems and sequences written by major poets in the twentieth century side stepping the question of whether they were narrative or not. Whether this is immersion in the tradition, or possession or simply knowing remains a moot point. I read: The Baboon in the Night Club, Paterson, Four Quartets, The Waste Land, Cantos, A, On Being Numerous, Briggflatts, Villon, The Spoils, Chomei at Tomai, The Great Hunger, Station Island ,V, For all we know, The Monkey’s Mask , The Sleeping Beauty, What A Piece of Work, The Bridge, Crazy Horse in Stillness, Bunny, Freddy Neptune, Sedgemoor, The Dream Songs, The Love Makers , Time's Fool, Quiver, Deepstep Come Shining, My Life, The Maximus poems, Ketjak, Summoned by Bells, Slinger, Madoc: a mystery, The Changing Light at Sandover, Ko:or A Season on Earth, In Parenthesis, The Anathemata, Things that happen (Ten volumes), Ghost writer: a novel in verse, Autumn Journal, Autumn Sequel, Autobiography of Red, Meme, Billy’s Rain, Crow, Mercian Hymns, Rapture, My lover as a horse, Dart, The Golden Gate, The Triumph of Love, the Orchards of Sion, A Drunk man Looks at Thistle, The Battle field Where the Moon Says I Love You , I have to go back to 1994 and kill a Girl, The Inevitable Gift Shop …
Anyone reading this list will probably wonder what happened to the idea that I was reading 'Major Poets'. They will also probably notice their favourite absolutely essential candidate is missing. More on that later....
The length of this list took me by surprise. Given that ‘the Lyricization of poetry’ is generally accepted as an historical phenomenon, there seems to be no shortage of long poems or sequences. It’s a good trivial pursuits question: Name a well-known poet who didn’t attempt a longer poem or sequence?
But the length of this list (with the three dots at the end) is not to demonstrate my diligence or to show how well-read am I, but to underline the fact that there is no practical way the list can be ‘completed’. I’ve always believed Eliot’s comment in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ that a poet needs to know the Tradition but as usual with Eliot, famous and resonant critical statements tend to turn to smoke when you try and put them into practice.
I had thought to read those written by ‘major poets’ but what does that mean? There was no objective standard by which one poem could be included and others left out.
If I were preparing a survey course in English Medieval Poetry, there are certain poems and poets that cannot be avoided. I may think the anonymous genius who wrote ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ is more interesting as a poet than Chaucer, but it would be willfully perverse to pretend Chaucer was not more important in the long term and fatuous to claim that Robert of Gloucester was more important or a better poet than either.
However, it’s difficult to see who MUST be included in a study of the long poem/sequence in the twentieth century. Or for that matter what constitutes a ‘long poem’ or a ‘sequence’. Attempts at definition are about as helpful as attempts to define ‘the lyric’ or to distinguish between ‘narrative poem’ and ‘verse novel’. Is it even meaningful to lump such disparate productions under their various hyphenated categories. The fact the lines don’t always reach the right hand margin is about all they have in common. That's a thought for a different line of enquiry.
The Waste Land is only four hundred lines long. If it’s long, what is The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, at 15,283 lines. At the beginning of my research I assumed The Waste Land and the Cantos were essential parts of the tradition, (rather than essential in the way I think Briggflatts is) but there are lines of influence in twentieth century poetry that simply ignore their existence. The field is not coherent. There will always be a text I haven’t read, and no way of knowing if that text would have answered my question had I read it. So if you think I missed out an essential text, I'm sorry. But you can always tell me and I'll read it.
However, the majority of these poems, no matter how good they are, leave the question open: Would Freddy Neptune or the Monkey be lesser books if they were written in continual prose? They tell a story with fixed internal focalization using an autodiegetic narrator. Compared with the narrative freedom of a lot of modern prose or even some forms of cinema, poetry seems very conservative as a narrative vehicle though I’d exempt Carson’s ‘For all We Know’. It seems to me that Alan Garner and Werner Herzog have been doing far more interesting things with narrative. And I’m sure other people with vastly more knowledge of prose could make a longer list. (Okay, I’d throw in Cervantes, Stern, Le Fanu, Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien.)
There are of course the ‘post modern’ variants. Brian McHale managed to write a fine book about the postmodern long poem, The Obligation Towards the Difficult Whole, without actually defining either long or post modern. He identifies (p. 258ff) three ways in which the postmodern poem outflanks the modernist ‘interdiction on narrative’, the third being the strategy McHale calls ‘weak narrativity’. This ‘involves precisely telling stories ‘poorly’, distractedly, with much irrelevance and indeterminacy, in such as way as to evoke narrative coherence while at the same time withholding commitment to it and undermining confidence in it’.
It’s a classic example of what passes as profound in literary-speak. The return to telling stories involved not telling stories. The return to cooking involved avoiding cooking. As Peter Brooks pointed out, if the narrative elements don’t cohere, you don’t have a narrative. You can theorize this til the cows come home, but unless the reader can link the story elements without external prompts, then you don’t have a story.
So my question was: how might a story told with poems, be different to a story told in prose and still be a recognizable story. Part two to follow. There is an answer to this in part three.