On Long Poems

Four recent books make length a virtue

Stephanie Burt
Abstract ornamental pattern
Pierre Boucquet, Cosses de pois Ornament, 1634. Courtesy Rijksmuseum.

WHAT HOLDS A BOOK OF POETRY together? When can—when should—we read it as one work, rather than as three poems, or ten, or twenty-nine? These days books that raise such questions—book-length poems and longer sequences—seem to be everywhere. Ten years ago, the poet Dorothea Lasky published a pamphlet complaining that “Poetry Is Not a Project”; last year, another poet and critic, Ange Mlinko, suggested that ours is the age of “the Project Book.” A project book (and it’s a term familiar to anyone who’s spent time in an MFA program recently) comprises a set of poems, or else just one long poem, organized around one problem or theme, often a politically urgent one, with quotations and documents and journalism folded in. Such books include Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Anne Carson’s Nox, Alice Oswald’s Memorial and Dart, and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. At their best, like Citizen, they do what no mere collection of short poems—and no book-length narrative—could do, bringing a variety of approaches to a dilemma too big to ignore. At less than their best, they can be like the rock concept albums of the 1970s, whose laborious techniques and references strove for a whole weightier than the sum of its parts. (The last thing I want to read, in 2020, is another book-length erasure.)

And yet the lens of the project book—the book with a clear, consistent connection to some single issue or site or source—might not be the best lens for all of today’s best long poems. Four such books were among my favorite poetry books in 2019—Fred Moten’s All That Beauty, Emmalea Russo’s Wave Archive, Rosalie Moffet’s Nervous System, and Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems. None feels like a methodically rigorous Project. And none feels like a collection of stand-alone poems, either. Rather, they use length as an aesthetic device: their continuity, their ongoingness, shows how the people, things, feelings they depict remain intertwined, open-ended, hard to resolve. Because they can take the time to show you how to read them, they depend less than brief lyric poems do on conventions you’re likely to understand coming in. They have room to digress: they have space to double back, and even to string you along. Taken together, these books show how disparate strategies for writing a long poem—or creating collections made of long poems—can preserve a sense of surprise in the middle, yet hold a book together, beginning to end.

to enter the world not as someone who wants to control and to understand it, but as someone who sets out to improvise, to collaborate, to play? How would we know when a poem could end? As with most of Fred Moten’s earlier volumes, All That Beauty comprises sequences, in a roller-coaster of prose and occasionally verse, incorporating quotations, riffs, echoes, and bits of literary and cultural theory in (to use Moten’s own terms) a Black Radical tradition. Moten usually jettisons such familiar standards of prose (and of pre-modernist verse) as consecutive argument, concrete reference, and consistency of voice. Instead, he has style, distinctive sounds, and a way of being—Moten might say a “resistance”—that goes along with them. “Hearing saves the place it makes by changing”; “Rumination wanders, a resuscitative essay on the run, but you never get there”: you just keep going, and—if you are the right reader for all these riffs—the sound leads you into its “unfinished unfinishing,” its “knotted openness.” These are poems—or are they one poem?—that want to work on their readers, on their listeners, in a way that unsettles consecutive thought, even as it satisfies the ear, posing questions such as: what if all our expectations have been built on white supremacy, on habit, on a string of settler-colonial lies? What if “this idea that thinking comes first…is a problem of settlement, of the settler that brings the center with him?”

Moten unsettles boundaries among artists and art forms, too. Some of the poems, which slide in and out of prose, appear to incorporate quotations from the brace of authors thanked in small-print italics below the poems. Certainly these poems pay homage in both their words and their forms to funk, soul, and pop songs, to earlier writers, to gallery artists: “George Clinton and Doug Kearney’n’em”; the singer Solange; the novelist Gayl Jones; Zoe Leonard, whose “photography is an instrument for making findings in loss,” “a sequential hum that breaks because it’s broken”; the sculptor Harry Dodge, for whom “making work means making a mess in celebration of mass.”

This sense of not-quite-chaos, of destinationless motion, puts a great deal of pressure on Moten’s sound patterns. If we don’t know where we’re going or how to get there, we had better enjoy the ride. If you like it, it’s Pindaric, this “celebration of the mess / in mass displacement,” “copula all / out of place.” Nothing good, Moten implies, ought to feel self-sufficient, isolated, consistent, complete: better to

be making something all
the time so you can use it
to be making something with somebody
all the time.

Because fluent prose poetry is Moten’s norm, the passages in verse can feel like broken-up, special-purpose exceptions, as in “fifty little springs,” quinzains designed as a gift for a beloved friend:

the archive of archives in your pocketbook
the wind curls tapestries on tour corner, too
the echo of it hisses vertically in the music in
the mess you make with a collage of delicacies
the unending way we be all up in your way

No wonder Moten prefers series and sequences to stand-alone one-page works and wholly unified books: “those of us who are out of sync can’t help but be committed to sequence. This promise takes the form of constant rupture,” like an “airborne repetition underground.”

brush of open switchblades,” Moten quips. “Show me how to do like you.” The “you” here—as with so much else within Moten’s oeuvre—seems specifically Black; Moten builds on self-consciously Black traditions, from post-Coltrane jazz to post-Black Arts Movement thinkers to Frank Wilderson’s and Jared Sexton’s Afro-pessimism, whose arguments underpin Moten’s “Black Op” (his term) of black optimism, lived outside or beyond the white supremacist categories of modern social life. (That said, nonblack artists and thinkers feature in All That Beauty too. Leonard, for example, and the Polish philosopher Roman Ingarden.) “You can be human by yourself but black don’t go it alone. It’s a social dance, unruliness counterpoised between riot and choir.… We study staying unburied in the common underground.” Those sentences from an essay (“Amuse Bouche”) that Moten published in a book of prose come very close to the aims and sounds here. For “the body” in Moten is a collective body, beyond any poet’s singular self. Beyond, however, does not mean separated from: Moten’s idea, Moten’s goals, and Moten’s style can make this book itself feel uncommonly singular, uncommonly alive—more than a project, less than a single story.

Such sensuous embodiment is everywhere implicit in the musical thought and “long black sentences” of Moten’s All that Beauty. Emmalea Russo’s terrific Wave Archive takes the poet’s own body as the explicit theme of its clusters of prose and verse and occasional images. That body, and its brain, have been shaped by Russo’s epilepsy, with its “auratic prodromes” and “tonic-clonic seizures”:

The body is rigid.
The body is the whole grid.
The body is good riddance.
The body is rid
and not under
your control

and will fall

has fallen

in fact

to the ground.

Russo calls her epilepsy “my greatest school and teacher,” and the book arranges into art the things she has learned, along many axes of puns, triple meanings, incorporated photographs, quotations from scientific and medical literature (describing epilepsy in clinical terms), and original aphorisms. Expository where Moten is mimetic and exemplary, yet no less concerned with how to chart a way—if not a narrative—through the world, Wave Archive explains what seizures are and what they do to the brain; some sections are indexes (a device also used, inter alia, by Ander Monson and Rebecca Lindenberg). “You like to read via the index,” Russo comments, “because it’s neither hierarchical nor chronological / and this feels better in your body.” The same might be said of the book’s internal cross-references, which turn out to offer another way of unifying a book-length poem. Such devices trade not merely on stylistic continuity, but on the habits of an attentive reader, who can’t wait to turn back to page 12 from page 40, only to find that page 12 points ahead to page 113.

Wave Archive also depicts, and explains, Russo’s own work as a visual and performance artist (she also practices astrology, writing a column for Cosmopolitan: yet another creatively fertile, intuitive way to understand the elements and the skies). Several passages show Russo sculpting a pillow, boxing it up, then setting it out to sea:

You would like to number your feelings… The emotional
      archive is your only boat.

Now that you’re in the ocean, looking at the compartment
      from the other side, you’re confused.

Epilepsy is like being put in a box and cast on a turbulent ocean, whose waves are brainwaves. Adrift on the sea of herself, Russo must figure out how to stay afloat, and whether she can get back to terra firma. Complicating matters further is that, unlike a real sea voyager, an epileptic may find herself transported at any time:

you go lustrous on the train you’re all skin and bones
folded on the floor specked with silver flakes absent

from anything

ocean ready land and sea shh shh
your pretty mood you are a thimble of this curious land

Passages such as this one enact the all but alchemical process by which epilepsy’s “Aura” (personified by Russo in a way that puns on Latin aurum, “gold”) transfigures self and world into something “lustrous” and “silver” and back again. But the book as a whole is hardly a mystic grimoire. At times it feels more like a medical memoir. Wave Archive, like other recent prose writings in what we might call the autobiographical medical humanities, from Esme Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias to Anne Boyer’s The Undying, also incorporates cogent prose, telling us how epilepsy feels before she shows us (and also after): “The electricity of a seize gives your body the gift of being too worn out to move, while your mind has the luxury of swimming—free from worry, sorry, past-future concerns.” That experience sounds lovely, but of course it’s also a threat and a terror: “If it could be bled out, you’d certainly let them incise you. You often end up tired, diluted, finished. Just be finished with me. Just be finished. I’m done.”

Few long poems have so completely fit Auden’s description of a successful short one: a clear expression for mixed feelings. With its terse lists, visual and typographical play, half-erased words, and one-word metaphors, Russo’s poem lives up to her description of her psyche as an “oversized book, a city block, mathematics, blue and black scarf // Earth’s eccentricity, spiral jetty, a campsite, craters on Mercury.” You could call Wave Archive a project book, if you like, but you could equally well call it a deconstructed memoir, or a set of sketches towards unwritten essays in verse. Mixed genres have rarely sounded so good, or described an idiosyncratic life so well.

Rosalie Moffett’s Nervous System
resembles Wave Archive in that it is a book about a chronic, debilitating brain condition. Yet Moffett’s poem feels like the opposite of Russo’s. Russo’s wish to honor the baffling sublimity of her own epilepsy places her work somewhere between a memoir and an ode. Moffett writes about the dementia that afflicts her mother; she seeks to lament, understand, and somehow contain that condition, which may be a genetic inheritance or the delayed result of a fall sustained while her mother was researching “snails / on a bit-spit of land in the ocean. Bright midday / she hit her head, battered it to a black pool // of wordlessness.” Moffett embraces the formal consistency that Russo and Moten go out of their way to avoid: everything comes in the same anxious, finely controlled, concise three-line stanzas (the kind you might recognize from Linda Gregerson). It’s a book that works hard to hold itself together, rather than risk coming apart: to read it alongside Russo’s is to see not only how different they feel, but also how important feeling is and ought to be, above and apart from concepts, topics, methods, in any description of poetry that does justice to the art.

Like Russo’s, Moffett’s poem follows extended metaphors, as if to master the metaphor were to understand the underlying brain disorder. Her favorite figures themselves suggest protection and controls: snails, spiderwebs, spiders (arachnophobes beware). She’s averse to mysticism, preferring scientific analogies and secular puns (the maters—“mothers”—are membranes that evolved to protect the brain):

                                Post trauma,
blood collects between the dura and arachnoid
                  maters, memory

goes: the past is what gets flooded from you
                  when blood comes
between the spider mother and the mother

                  that lasts, the durable one.

Like networks of cerebral cells, spiderwebs are astonishingly elaborate, all too easy to disrupt: Moffett envisions “spider threads / ensheathed in nerve cells, new suspension bridges // between the word flood and the rush / of rising seawater.” Moten and Russo, for all their differences, both pay homage to an irrational music, a way of being more than anyone can understand. For Moffett, though, human beings may be all too comprehensible, too akin to machines. Life is “a contraption, indefinitely // reparable,” and its

                  lesson is not to care
                                    for an object,
but to practice being made into one,

                  to meditate long on the turnstile,
the vending machine, the fancy coffeemaker
                  that grinds its own beans.

Like machines, we get in trouble when we begin to learn how to replicate ourselves, and maybe human self-replication is a mistake: “the real thing to reduce your carbon footprint / is to never have children.” More life means more caretaking, and more pain, especially once you learn, as Moffett has, to see your mother not as a life-bringer but as “the mother // who hit her head or who suffers / from something that’ll come for me.”

Like the girl-Moffett who grew up in rural isolation, Moffett the adult daughter of a sick mother may learn to “pass the time, / pleasantly, with the apparatus // of my body…like a girl with a doll.” “Pleasantly”: she damns all of life with this faint praise, and in the mood induced by extended mourning, by extended caregiving for her mother (whose condition may someday be her own) she cannot help feeling as she does. Nervous System is never hard to paraphrase, but it can become hard to read, in the same way that life can be hard to live—it feels better to “look… All day online at painless ways to move / through the world.”

All writers end up (whatever else they do) representing their historical moment. That said, some writers make The Way We Live Right Now—what sets their moment apart—into their obvious subject.

Moffett’s book looks even stronger set beside Moten’s and Russo’s, though the reverse is also true: they illuminate one another’s strengths, because Moffett’s sense of how to hold a book together—or a personality, or a life—feels so dramatically opposed to both of theirs: rationality, logical understanding of what’s connected to what and why, which are for Moten a great Western limit, are for Moffett a delicate, even a lifesaving achievement. “The spider’s touch, how exquisitely fine / Feels at each thread, and lives along the line.” Like that great craftsman Alexander Pope (who wrote that poems and friends helped him endure “that long disease, my life”), Moffett looks for some consolation in the lines and webs and weaving (“textiles,” as in texts, as in poems, made things) created by various spiders: “spiders are good / at survival…they sense so well what wants / to come for them.” Moffett writes because she cannot save her mother, and cannot save herself from becoming responsible for that mother; she also fears becoming the mother she cannot protect. As she writes, in lines whose plainness, pace, and sculptor’s cuts recall Louise Glück:

I started out looking
              like her; she cut
my hair like hers; my face was like hers.

                  And then I underwent
a phase where I appeared as someone else.

That phase was temporary, too, as is the memory of teenage sociability, the bus-ride game in which

                                    the key was never
to be tricked into giving an answer; the trick
                  was to parry with questions.

E.g. Who do you have a crush on? To which,
                  Why do you care? And then,
Are you worried we’ll laugh?

Such bonds, such games, pass the time and draw peers together. It is loss that sets them apart, as loss measures and curtails and renders exact Moffett’s cadence, andante or adagio, staccato or marcato, never allegro. Yet that cadence takes us somewhere: it brings in more raw information, and asks for more of our time, than a paragraph, a lyric poem, a song:

I was taught the lyric is a song
              outside of time.
In narrative, there is consequence:

              A leads to B. Before
she hit her head she’d been watching
              the snails heal themselves.

Nervous System—as these excerpts suggests—is by far the most unified of the long poems, or the books of long poems, here: its single verse form feels (to quote Marianne Moore) “like a bulwark” against the incomprehension, the confusion, that for Moffett can prevent us from healing each other, or ourselves.

won’t read us, will mine us for contexts if it ever does. All writers end up (whatever else they do) representing their historical moment. That said, some writers make The Way We Live Right Now—what sets their moment apart—into their obvious subject. Some authors get (rightly or wrongly) celebrated for doing so, especially if the protagonists doing the Living are young, white, well-educated, nondisabled, and urban, so that their experience can be falsely presented as typical, or Universal.

Hannah Sullivan has become such an author. Her wryly titled Three Poems—wry in that its beauty stems, in part, from how much it feels like one poem—became in 2019 the third first collection in five years to win the T. S. Eliot Prize, for the best book of poems published in Britain (the US edition hit bookstores in early 2020). The first of the poems in the book, “You, Very Young in New York,” records a quarter-life crisis replete with proper nouns, brand names, sexual information, and youthful ennui. Its lengthy sentences and (sometimes) clean couplets know exactly what they’re doing as they connect one young woman’s ennui to the world financial system, her privilege to “the thousand glassy eyes of these giants of the mere market” and the surveillance state, always looking out for your student loans:

Evening comes without seeing light again. Between you and
      a window:
The beige Lego-maze of offices, people whose names you
      don’t know.

You should be addressing inefficiencies in online processes,
Mastering multichannel, getting serious about small business,

You have created a spreadsheet with thirteen tabs,
The manager is giving you hell, ordering sushi,
      cancelling cabs…

Chronicles of This Moment, in verse or prose, tend to be chronicles of the young—because no prior moments shaped them first, and because, as Sullivan puts it, “the thing about being very young…is the permeability / Of one person to another,” especially in the age of social media:

                                      you check Facebook on your iPhone:
Kate is photographing durians in Shanghai, Zena was born
      this morning,
Claire is drying homemade pasta, Elina wishes she could
      play guitar,
Arlo is flying LHR-SFO, upgraded out of H to J, and your
      mother asks
To be your friend again, but the request just hangs in the sidebar.

Earlier Sullivan has been a good deal more intimate, and a good deal more dramatic. Like many members of her generation (and for that matter like me), Sullivan looks up to role models who combined fluidity with self-expression, a sense of authenticity with the ability to strike a pose:

You are listening to Bowie in bed, thinking about the hollows
Of his eyes, his lunatic little hand jigs, longing for Berlin in
      the seventies.
You are thinking of masturbating but the vibrator’s batteries
      are low
And the plasticine-pink stick rotates leisurely in your palm,
Casting its space-age glow into the winter shadows.

It’s like a deleted scene from the first season of Girls, and (to adopt Sullivan’s own second person) you may want to hate it, but you can’t, or at least I can’t.

And yet if this matter feels contemporary, the manner is wonderfully alert to the literary longue durée. Sullivan’s way of proceeding, her own net of sound and syntax, feels equally suited to pastoral as to urban scenes: “the river is different without the nesting moorhens, / And magpies hovering by their uncracked eggs.” The passage of time and the seasons dominates the less topical simultaneities of “Repeat Until Time: The Heraclitus Poem,” which carves a broad channel through the middle of Three Poems. In doing so, it also makes space for Sullivan’s meditations on the care and feeding of long works, on their imperfections and extensions: “Failed form is hectic with loveliness, and compels us longer.” “True form is often seen only in retrospect, too late. / Sometimes streams peter out; sometimes a grand Niagara lies in wait.”

Sullivan—who is also a Henry James scholar—arranges for the river of her single book, or of her three long poems, to flow around and through public history: Henry James in 1914, anticipating the Great War; Percy Bysshe Shelley, writing “Epipsychidion,” giving polyamory an undeservedly bad rep; “July 16, 1945,” the birth of the atomic bomb. “Historic moments are as tiresome as first nights… The meaning eroded by gabbling in rehearsal.” That kind of history doesn’t make sense, and repeats itself until we’re all blown up, or flooded. Family history, on the other hand, organizes itself as tragicomedy, one generation exiting, with difficulty, as the next comes in: that’s the burden of Sullivan’s third poem, “The Sandpit After Rain,” at once an elegy for her father and a poem of welcome for her own child. Hospitals show this normally fluent and self-assured poet strained, coming apart:

he lay with his hands like that…

it feels to staunch a neck with your thumb,
poking the gristle back in, how tricky it is;
how small hospital gloves are

he waited all night for the cornflakes and ice cubes
or had pleasure in anything

how the foetus lolls in the womb

Compared to the drawn-out death of Sullivan’s father, her surgically assisted childbirth seems disconcertingly boring: “It wasn’t even like cancer. It was more like adenoids… The anaesthetist had something of the hockey team about her. / There was a cannula and they poked my legs.” Though it is a mundane that can also make space for the odd and comic: “The baby did not look like my father at all, / But there was a resemblance: / Our slight awkwardness with each other… And then there was our mutual Englishness.”

Hers is—to use her own national term—a very English diffidence; a comfort with the idea that we are not the first, and probably not the last, to feel sad in approximately this way. Individuals die; life goes on, and the point for a poet like Sullivan, in a book like Three Poems, is not to improve it but to say what it’s like, how it feels as it continues all around you. That sense of continuity, of onward flow, is also what holds her book together, what makes her Three Poems (like John Ashbery’s Three Poems before it) feel almost, almost, like one poem.

Continuity is as much her subject as epilepsy—and its discontinuities—are Russo’s. And continuity, as a subject, makes sense as long as everyday life seems bearable, survivable, even pleasurable, without grave existential risks. It’s not compatible with Moten’s Black Op, or with a radical opposition to prose sense, or with the grand mal experience of a dangerous other world. Yet these other worldviews also come with precursors. Moten sounds like no one else, but he draws on, and names, a raft of allies. Russo, for all her idiosyncrasy, writes a by now familiar kind of memoir-essay-poem hybrid. If those poets, like foxes, have many models, Sullivan is a hedgehog and has one: Three Poems draws (its title aside) most constantly and fitfully on that masterpiece of the digressive, chatty, autobiographical How We Live Now book, Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal (1939). MacNeice, too, stretched his long lines paratactically across a great field of urban and suburban privilege, while public life collapsed and conflict loomed. In the poem’s much-quoted opening,

Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
          Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-
                        clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
              And the spyglasses hung in the hall and the prayer-
                        books ready in the pew
And August going out to the tin trumpets of nasturtiums—

The large cast of characters, the “and” and “and” and “and,” the snapshots of moments, the juxtaposed gardens and pavements and births and deaths, were MacNeice’s before they were Sullivan’s. Even her invocation of Heraclitus looks back to MacNeice’s lines:

It is this we learn after so many failures:
            The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,
That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
            That no river is a river which does not flow.

Sullivan’s debts to MacNeice are no failure but rather a condition of her success. MacNeice never gave birth (or hooked up with men in New York); Sullivan isn’t seeing anti-aircraft gun emplacements go up around London. His apocalyptic fears of 1939 involved malevolent genocidal “leaders” like Hitler; hers involve climate change, which requires no leader at all. And neither MacNeice nor Sullivan is one of the ancient Greeks whose poetry and history the classically trained MacNeice taught:

They plotted out their life with truism and humor
Between the jealous heaven and the callous sea.
And Pindar sang the garland of wild olive
And Alcibiades lived from hand to mouth
Double-crossing Athens, Persia, Sparta,
And many died in the city of plague, and many of drouth.

These Greeks had their long poems, and their whole volumes, too, whether unified books, collections of fragments (like Sappho’s), or multi-author anthologies. (They even collected them, after the fact, as in the Library of Alexandria.) When we go to them today, we might look for evidence of what Greeks thought on the whole, or we might look for conventions that held together a genre. But we might also wonder what it was like to read one poem, and then another, and then another, from a single source. What holds a book of poems together? What makes it feel like something more than, something other than, a gathering, a stack, a heap, a mere collocation? We might equally ask: what holds together a life?

Stephanie Burt is the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English at Harvard. Her books include the poetry collection We Are Mermaids, After Callimachus, and Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems.
Originally published:
April 1, 2020


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