June 9, 2009KR BlogKR

A March of Opposites

What makes the long poem (any of more than a few pages) and the poetic sequence (any of more than three, say, distinct parts) so oppositely difficult to write?

They mostly can’t be done. Don’t believe me? Wordsworth gave us the ambling, often-beautiful Prelude, but then smashed himself upon his horrible “Ecclesiastical Sonnets” (…if you don’t believe me); John Berryman charged into the Dream Songs but left us with 150-some rote, diaristic superfluities along the way. And yet! I’ve spent the evening (in the professor of American Studies’s house where I’m staying, with the great Tyler Meier, his wife Katie, their baby, and the professor’s cat and orchids; the power’s out, but it won’t be dark for another few hours) in bliss, with these two forms, and two of my favorite poets. The long poem was the countryside of the grandiloquent, wounded, mythologizing rover Larry Levis, and the sequence is the ritual of the snow-hushed, prayerful, buzzing Fanny Howe. Here’s what they look like:

Per Howe’s Ireland trip and Levis’s thimble of water: the long poem establishes poetic authority, and a single state, once, then it pours out, like in Levis’s central/side trip, “asking if we knew what happened / To the Sibyl at Cumae after Ovid had told her story.” But the poetic sequence spurns states, suggesting their flimsiness by ringing and shifting between them, and suggesting conversely the durability and reality, through these states, of the soul (or speaking personality) of the writer. The forms differ like blood and marble spolia, or a river and a string of seed pearls.

This is not to say a sequence can’t have a conclusion. As Zach Savich puts it in his KR Online review of James Longenbach and Donald Revell, “we see that the line of sight is itself a kind of transport.” Fanny Howe’s best work resonates in the reader, tolling at its end like bells in cloth.

Varieties of concluding a sort of sequence? Say: the way I make mistakes–eating ice cream with a head cold, sleeping on a dusty pillow, reading eye-lazily by a neighbor’s glow on a plane at night, yelling at deer, drinking too much–to rearrange and individuate my fear of mistakes, sequencing. Say: here in Gambier, the wind is blowing pollen through the professor’s trees, in a low rustle like an ecstasy of satiety, a transport of normalcy and satisfaction, sequencing. As Fanny Howe sternly memos us: “Domesticate your fire and send sufficiency.”

–Or, in a few of my favorite lines (in the excerpt from her O’Clock linked to above):

Every glance works its way to infinity.
But blue eyes don’t make blue sky.
Outside a
grey washed world, snow all diffused into steam
and glaucoma. My vagabondage
is unlonelied by poems.

It’s time for a birthday call from my mom (I turned 26 today!). But hey, listen: even though some High Modernist hippie drums in the background, Ezra Pound turns his “Seafarer” (a long poem!) into something unforgettably strange. And on the subject of Mr. Zach Savich, his sage goofball statement on poets from The Millions (“I am made of feelings and toys”) for your perusal here.