Auckland 2012 Symposium, part three

All poems take time to write §

  John Tranter (and many others)

  University of Auckland Symposium
  March 2012, part three of three

  Short Takes on Long Poems

Part Six: Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Practice, practise, praxis

…being remarks invented by Rachel Blau DuPlessis on March 29, 2012 in Auckland, NZ for delivery on March 30 as a quasi summary, but not really, of the conference Short Takes on the Long Poem

[Some of these notes may not correspond 100% to what is on the recording. I also extemporized, adding remarks that alluded to QUESTIONS that it is possible to ask in a long poem study. These are in an appendix at the end of this paper. — RBDp]

Adrienne Rich, photo by Colleen McKay.
Adrienne Rich, photo by Colleen McKay.

I’d like to begin this quick note in meditative response with a tribute to the US feminist and lesbian poet Adrienne Rich who died at age 82 on March 27, 2012. She was certainly someone for whom practice and practise (the noun and the verb) were central, even if praxis was less emphasized in her poetics, as opposed to her politics. We have all learned a great deal from her example in the lyric allegorical poem and in her fervent poetics. I certainly feel indebted to the essay which was among a handful of explorations by Rich and others that jump-started feminist criticism, “When We dead Awaken: Writing as Revision.”

Rich was fervent about the unspoken and the semi-spoken. In talking about women and lesbians, she maintained an attitude common to early feminist analysis: the reversal to the “other side.” In contrast, my attitude could be better summed up by a remark by one of the participants here: “I’m just full of viewpoints.” (Jessica Wilkinson).

“A brief Description of the Whole World” (cited from poet Leicester Kyle)

An essay called practice, practise, praxis might well want to begin with a dictionary definition of these 3 terms, etc. But I’d like to skip that stage, mainly because it is a distinction that you Commonwealth-ers all have, but we US (and sort of Canadian) spellers don’t. The noun and the verb distinction that begins this title are common in British and British derived English, but, into efficiency, we just use practice with a “c” for both. Thus the Yiddish inflected joke, Tourist: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall.” Local New Yorker “Practice, practice, practice.”

However, in many ways praxis — the claims for the ongoing activity of poesis, the act of making, have been keenly central to the poetry I know the best. The heuristic casting yourself off into making as a kind of action event has to be quite tempered with knowledge — of self and of other practitioners. How do you know what you have done if you can’t place yourself — knowing what you have read. Anyway praxis is a serious word — whether in the guise of Gertrude Stein’s note that “everything is the composition,” or of William Carlos Williams interest in a post-genre urgency of pulse that he called “writing,” or in the guise of Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” (draining off the masculinism for general human consumption), or in George Oppen’s observation that the image is encountered not found (that is, it is existentially necessary, not a simile-based trouvaille), or in the guise of Frank O’Hara’s useful adage. You don’t rest on your laurels, you don’t tell the guy trying to rob you that you were a track star for Mineoloa Prep (that a nice touch) — you just RUN, and “go on your nerve.”

Or to get a properly impressive reminder of the stakes — here’s Wikipedia on praxis: It is actually a movingly interesting definition.

Praxis is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, practiced, embodied, or realised. “Praxis” may also refer to the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realising, or practising ideas. This has been a recurrent topic in the field of philosophy, discussed in the writings of [Wikipedia links:] Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Paulo Freire, and many others. It has meaning in political, educational, and spiritual realms.

Olive. Photo by John Tranter.
Olive. Photo by John Tranter.

Unlike John Tranter, I am not going to skibble thru the centuries, and much as I would like to evoke key animals and the long poem, I won’t, though we can all be grateful to Olive [Michele Leggott’s guide dog, palpably present during the conference] — that is, basically to sheep dogs, as well as to sheep [Tranter’s trope on the originary site and authorship of long poem composition — really bored shepherds in their fields]. So I can just pretend I know what all those important philosophers said, and pass along to poetry.

"Sheep Stamp"
“Sheep Stamp”

Poetry is the enactment of an attitude in poetics (the theory, even when it is unarticulated and implicit), and coupled with constant choice and making — as intense, demanding, driven activities (praxis). This is an utterly dialectical relationship, and praxis (the thing made) also is in a feedback with its theory, modifying it, testing it, even critiquing it. Actually, in my view, there is no unattended “theory” — which is why I prefer to say “theorizing practices.” Anyway, I am more in favor of bricolage and tendencies than system. Which is where, actually I began to veer from Rich back in the day.

In this long poem conference, there has been a lot of fluidity about several terms.

One is of course


I broached that in the lecture I gave here and in Otago, and also in Sydney (to come), mentioning Peter Middleton’s parallel question

          how long is long?

… but pretty much settling into John Tranter’s trenchant “Long Poems are Longer than Short Poems.” [stated at this conference, somewhat waggishly]

So the first term is long poem:

For many at this conference that seems to mean long (or longish) hybrid art product evoking many genres and media. For whatever reasons, this seems to be the operable definition from this conference, since the bulk of the papers yesterday centered in this area. Here is a list: the surrealist spin of the novel of manners that Cilla McQueen has done, the collaboration by Hazel Smith, by Jill Jones, the visual/poetic work by Toby Fitch, the Lisa Samuels / Tim Page collaboration, the Pam Brown-Jan McKemmish collaboration that Ann Vickery foregrounded, and the funny scrapbook work that Sam Moginie and Andy Carruthers foregrounded (by Jas. H. Duke) — all these might encourage the definition that emphasizes hybridity and mixed media. This would mean that the long poem has passed from the print-based page into a potentially hypertextual paradise, coexisting with and being enhanced with many other media, whether the charmingly dated visuals of Jas. Duke or the filmic pulses of the post-industrial age as in Hazel Smith’s collaboration. Perhaps like a kind of opera or even a Gesammtkunstwerk  — a total art work is still an ideal for the long poem. Even for one that is mainly in writing, this “total art work” is its ghostly angel. This all seems a distinct modulation of the notion to a long poem being “on the page” but not one unidiomatic to contemporary realities nor to internet presence and potential.

This kind of work evokes textual materials whose point of origin is not the single author, but collaborative subjectivities (still not fully theorized even if obviously active — in friendship, partnership relationships, political alliances, romance and other, like stealing, copying, alluding to the work of others). There is also or collaboration of a single subjectivity with Google, as did Ya-Wen Ho in her associative flarfy splicing. It was particularly interesting and important to me that her work centered itself in a stream of clichés and cultural detritus and morphemic switcheroos that centered on the female of the species: “I have trouble with the trivialization of female knowledge.” The long poem can help to rectify this.

Australian poet Jill Jones.
Australian poet Jill Jones.

The formal and structural implications of some of Jill Jones’s remarks interested me a great deal too — her observation about modular form, and how extent is flexible — might vary given the situation and the setting. Recyclying and repetition are a tool for extending: “length can be prolonged” was her striking formulation. This is a lot like epic behaviors with its tellers and griots — modifications and versions are the central point. Text might be a conglomerate.

So inside this hybrid mode, one would want not to evoke, but to problematize narratives that we know — whether these are romance, death, alienation, isolation, and try not to reinscribe or reinstate the old wine in new bottles. Sam and Andy said “writing beyond the edge” — my phrase was “writing beyond the ending” — a specific critique of narratives of romance and death. It would be depressing if all this hypertext intelligence and fancy new media uses reinscribed the same narrative materials and conventions that have already depressed us in the past, gender domination, romance idealizations, unanalyzed alienation, quests and trials where satisfactions come too unexplained. To say this differently, each art form within a hybrid work (music, film, visual art, language) brings legible conventions and allusions and histories of practices to the table. Each art form works individually and in relation to the other. This fact surely complicates acts of judgment in a long work (long poem-like object) constructed from amalgamating individual media in one praxis. [David Howard spoke of trying to deal with variables.]

I recognize the problem here — how does the reader know how to READ (experience, view, hear, absorb) if set afloat in a new set of conventions? Are fully new conventions possible or even plausible? How can a work do the work of poetics — that is teaching the terms of the new work — while also offering readerly pleasure and structural lifelines? It is a very large dilemma.

To go back to “long poem” as a central term reveals there is still some serious disagreement about the central term — length. Would the category of long poem include sonnet sequences as Bernadette Hall and Dinah Hawked implicitly argued? Does long poem mean works of 20 pages, serial works of 11 pages — like Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” that Susan Schultz did such interesting social experiment with? How about a book, like the Kevin Davies book that Pam Brown analyzed and responded to that is heavily interrogative and critical along with being mightily allusive — a notebook of critique. The way the term long has been used here — as “longish” or as anything beyond the one page lyric raises some questions as yet unsolved, with no agreement here.

One might see this kind of work on a spectrum (borrowing from Rich here) of long-ish, but unless this work is “epic scale” in its cultural work (or cultural ambition), can it be a long poem simply because it is longish in length? This is a really serious question — and not one I can solve critically here. I have voted with my feet in my own work with long being really long, and involving a large investment of time and cultural critique, but it might be useful to be critically eclectic and catholic and see where this gets us in terms of remixing our insights. [See questions 8, 13, and 12 in appendix]

"Greek head"
“Greek head”

Yet if one reinstantiates epic (a term I have repeatedly refused — as too limited for what we find in mod-con or even romantic poets), gender issues are not long in arriving with that genre. This is why John [Tranter] so exactingly contrasted epic and epyllion (little epic — often with “softer” subjects of romance). This is the brilliance of the answer to epic constructed in HD’s “epyllion” Helen in Egypt. For in seizing epic scope or epic ambition –one doesn’t want to end up like Olson’s Maximus — a poem virtually without historical women to match up with the historical men of Glouchester. [see questions 1 & 2, in appendix]

So — How long is long? Does long also have to be wide, deep and heavy — here I am evoking Jacob Edmond’s fascinating intervention — but “straight” no ‘pataphysical tongue in cheek? or does a work just hit a certain number of pages? Or, picking up only on the title of what Stephanie Christie and Alex Taylor presented: is a “long poem” “too big to be settled or said”? But still it can be discussed: see questions 3, 4, 5, 7 — in appendix. Or does it have to engage a certain amount of elapsed time as well as space? All poems take time to write, but with long poem, can we start evoking decades rather than simply a few years? That is a self-serving remark.

There is also the pesky question of what is a poem and whether anyone wants to hold onto that particular medium or mechanism. For me, a poem is writing in lines (in segments). Craig Dworkin notwithstanding, prose has sentences not linebreaks. New Sentence “theorists” like Ron Silliman propose using the interesting torque or disjunct of prose LIKE linebreak, but the impact differs. Prose may have page space that works interestingly but linebreaks are, for me, another matter.

Flarf Blender
Flarf Blender

The new encyclopedic multi-media and somewhat hypertextual poem (or its flarf spinoffs) are thoroughly dependent on the WWWeb and on Google and on the internet for a vast ocean of flotsam and jetsam — really of LOTSum that can be channeled and arranged variously beyond the individual speaking “lens” — So Google is a real and should be an acknowledged collaborator. This is a support system for encyclopedism: for genres like field notes, scrapbook, walking notebook. The issue why a POET needs the long poem — see questions 7 and 11, in appendix.

Scale of some sort thus becomes another keyword in the long poem lexicon. Ambition — the ambition of the cultural project (I don’t mean personal ambition), the weirdness of it, the distance it covers either temporally or intellectually, or emotionally becomes important to my sense of the genre. This is the fascination of Philip Mead’s work presenting John Kinsella’s ambitious Dante poem and of Ella O’Keefe’s talking about the bi-cultural potential in John Anderson’s myth-eco notebook localism. See the quite explicit argument in Tranter’s presentation that one does “inhabit” the work of another writer in some way, the work of the past — carefully chosen for the cultural interventions and meanings your gesture brings in and to the present. Writing a long poem is a culturally chosen, quite self-conscious loin-girding, sublime action in which sequence, both small scale and large construct argument. And in which every detail, every word, every smallest bit must be “right.” Despite its length, there is no poetry by the yard in a long poem. That’s what writing a long poem entails: every detail must be through-composed (see question 10).


in fact derived from courses I have taught.

Questions on the long poem that I will refer to in the course of this talk (any or all can be taken up at any one time) are:

1) definitional and modal — genre types of long poems (sequence, serial, epic, ode, life’s work, etc.), how this “type” works with theme and poetics in each specific case; other genre issues

2) a particular work’s use of time and space

3) syntax, line use and page space (poetry as organized segmentivities); diction, imagery, and their social meanings; “part/whole relationships” ; negotiation of overload

4) questions of beginning and of telos or ending or” stopping”; attitudes toward “accumulation” and “completeness” (Silliman’s terms)

5) authorial subjectivity in its social locations (including gender, class, ethnicity, national location, religious culture, and others); what impact do these have on the production and construction of the text; is authorial subjectivity constructed in particular affiliative group formations?

6) reader’s subjectivity in its social locations (including gender, class, ethnicity, religious culture and others); what impact do these have on the reception or consumption of the text? is reader subjectivity constructed in particular affiliative group formations?

7) the history of composition, if relevant; biographical insights brought to bear on the text; the question of “entrance” or portal poems; the issue of “recognition” that one is writing a long poem (and why); does poet’s idea for the poem change over time?

"Hamlet with Skull"
“Hamlet with Skull”

8) the poetics of the work as enunciated by the poet, as articulated by authorial decision or by accident, and/or extrapolated by the reader

9) reading experience: “the phenomenological experience of the reader” (Silliman); Steve McCaffery’s “how to operate this book” is another approach to the same issue

10) the particulars of a text scrutinized by a close reading; the “textual surface”; part/whole relationships

11) bibliographic and textual history of this work, where particularly relevant; publishing history, textual history, posthumous editing, what is visible in textual variants (should these exist), versions, modular modifications of text

12) the nature and functions of the cultural allusions or socio-historical materials incorporated. History, subjectivity, and the scene of writing.

13) the social or cultural work of this text; the assumptions it proposed, the knowledge it claims to offer.


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