Often teachers tell poets to hone, edit and show not tell, or use language more sparingly, but what if we want to rage and roam, and embrace the mental rollercoaster ride which is the long poem?
Writing a long poem can be a chance to immerse yourself in the subconscious and surprise yourself with the results. It’s about the big themes and investing yourself in mining for the difficult and hard to reach epiphanies – and writing intuitively. Getting the first draft of a long poem can be quite different from writing in shorter forms as it requires a degree of trusting yourself and going with the flow – seeing where the poem can take you and writing freely and often expansively. Another aspect is editing the monster you’ve created, taming and shaping something unruly.
One long poem which I come back to time and again is Marina Tsvetaeva’s Poem of The End which evokes the painful drawing to a close of a relationship and is as powerful and universal today as it ever was. It begins simply and starkly:
‘A single post, a point of rusting
tin in the sky
marks the fated place we
move to, he and I…’
The poem then runs through a variety of scenes or poses in fourteen parts which are charged with an immediacy and a pressured longing for satiety or relief.
Barry MacSweeney’s long poem, ‘Daddy Wants To Murder Me’ is in part a deeply confessional poem and an homage to Sylvia Plath’s famous poem, ‘Daddy’. I’m interested in how these two poets take a theme and use it in entirely original and complex ways – there is what is described and what is evoked, there is sadness, rage and raw emotion, and in MacSweeney’s poem, a broad and compassionate narrative style, and in Sylvia’s poem, a more tightly wrought though ultimately staggering incarnation of patriarchal image.
My upcoming course – Long Poems & Invocations: Making The Measure Work For You – is a little different from other courses as it’s set out over a longer period of time to give students chance to really embrace the writing tasks and the form. Writing a long poem requires stamina, so we’ll look at how to take on big themes and see them through to a conclusion; themes like mysticism and the metaphysical, love and heartache, the personal and the political, and our formative relationships and early experiences. I will encourage poets to be inquisitive, to try to find original and striking images, use longer lines and revel in language.
The long poem is enjoying something of a revival, and on the course we will study a number of excellent contemporary poets, including Lucie Brock-Broido, Toby Martinez de las Rivas and Patricia Lockwood, all who write without limits and boundaries and follow their original line of thought to mesmeric and startling conclusions.
I’ll also be looking at how to introduce the personal into work and mix it up with political or philosophical ideas or broader concerns, and how to create layers within a poem. I think students who are particularly interested in confessional poetry who want to write from their own point of view in new ways, or who have a keen interest in contemporary poetry and want to find new modes of creatively engaging with new challenges and techniques will thoroughly enjoy the challenges of the form.
The long poem is uncompromising, with little room to hide, but one that delivers huge pay-offs that shorter work cannot. Students will have to push themselves to get the most out of the writing assignments, but it is absolutely worth it. And I can’t wait to see the results.
Why stop at 14 lines? Why stop at 40? Extend your work on my new course, Long Poems & Invocations: Making the Measure Work for You. Book online or ring The Poetry School on 0207 582 1679.