Gary Geddes: POETRY: the long and short of it

“Brevity is said to be the soul of wit. Perhaps that explains why the breath of modern poetry comes in short pants,” the professor said, extracting a pinch of tobacco from his leather pouch and packing it into the bowl of his pipe.

“That’s all very well, Sir,” the student replied, “but what about the great long poems of the past, the Greek and Roman epics? Or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Milton’s Paradise Lost? What’s been lost in the process is story, narrative.”

The professor struck a long, wooden match on his thumbnail and applied the flame to the tamped tobacco, sucking in air. He looked up at the earnest young man, one of his best students, and smiled. “The modern poet who pens an epic is a literary flat-earther, someone who hasn’t realized that story has found a new and better home in the novel.”

The young man hesitated, not wanting to contradict his elder, but also aware he was expected to hold his own in these one-on-one sessions. The professor expelled a cloud of smoke that hung momentarily in the air, then added: “Poetry did not die when story-telling moved on. It concentrated on things it was still best able to do—the short, economical lyric, the intense emotional statement, depth rather than scale, exploitation of rhythms which made their optimum impact at short lengths but which would have become monotonous and unreadable if maintained longer than a few pages.”

This was too much, even if the revered professor was only playing devil’s advocate. The young man cleared his throat, uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, eyes wide. “The printing press, Sir, eliminated the need for rhyme and metrics as mnemonic devices. Instead of remembering all those lines, we could simply print up a single copy or open the text to the exact page and there it was, to be read silently or aloud. The printed page privileged the eye over the ear and lent itself to various kinds of typographical gymnastics that are said to be like musical scoring, but contribute little to the sound of a poem. Print encouraged wit and playfulness, but it also catered to the fast-food, quick-fix, fevered pace of contemporary life and the super-charged contemporary nervous system. As a result, the short lyric has become the poster child of slick magazines, a decoration to place between ads for a Porche and a new brand of Vodka. It also dominates anthologies and the classroom because it can be discussed easily in the narrow confines—perhaps ‘coffins’ is a more appropriate word—of the rigid academic timetable. I think it’s worth remembering Northrop Frye’s caution, that the lyric, ‘if cultivated too exclusively, tends to become too entangled with the printed page.’ And, I would add, with the ego.”


I’ve imagined this brief exchange around a comment made by British critic B.S. Johnson, one of many modernists who, starting with Edgar Allan Poe, have dismissed the long poem as a contradiction in terms, which, like his initials, is so much B.S. In my experience, it’s not an either/or issue. I love the fine lyric, with its wit, economy and elegance; but I also love the variety, inclusiveness and drama of poetic narrative. When I sit down to write, I always feel two dominant impulses competing for attention, the attraction of story and the attraction of song. Material and mood dictate on which side the scales will tip. For me, the ideal is to marry these dominant impulses. Or, as an ancient Chinese poet once said: “Sing as if narrating, narrate as if singing.”

Here are American poet Robinson Jeffers’ thoughts about the ‘new poetics’ as he walked through the countryside and pondered his future:

But now, as I smelled the wild honey midway the trestle and meditated on the direction of modern poetry, my discouragement blackened. It seemed to me that Mallarmé and his followers, renouncing intelligibility in order to concentrate the music of poetry, had turned off the road into a narrowing lane. Their successors could only make further renunciations; ideas had gone, now meter had gone, imagery would have to go; then recognizable emotions would have to go; perhaps at last even words might have to go or give up their meaning, nothing be left but musical syllables. Every advance required the elimination of some aspect of reality, and what could it profit me to know the direction of modern poetry if I did not like the direction? It was too much like putting out your eyes to cultivate the sense of hearing, or cutting off the right hand to develop the left. These austerities were not for me; originality by amputation was too painful for me.

Poetry was once a feast for the ear, eye, and mind; it was a source of story, character, history, ideas, anything from the sacking of cities to the seduction of innocence, from divine thoughts to obscene gestures. As Dryden once said of Chaucer: “Here is God’s plenty.” The subjectivity and minimalism—what might be called a poetics of exclusion—that characterizes so much of twentieth-century poetry is no longer adequate. Why should the poet to be content with a verbal snapshot, when he or she can aim for a verbal approximation of the wondrous sweep and illusion of the motion picture or the range and intensity of the symphony. It’s time we stopped perpetrating the notion that poetry must be stripped to the bone, to a few faint scratches on the page or a few clever adjustments of the computer as proof of life.

Just as a first-rate lyric contains narrative fragments, hints and clues of story—what is it, for example, that depends on the red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water?—so too the contemporary long poem contains many flashes of lyric intensity, usually occurring at highly dramatic moments. Like Jeffers, I don’t like rules and set forms. I like to see where the material will take me, always grateful if it involves a longer ride.

Gary Geddes’s recent selected is called What Does A House Want? (Red Hen Press). He will be one of the featured instructors at this fall’s Tutka Bay Writer’s Retreat.

The Tutka Bay Retreat is half full. Click here for details and registration.

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