The tensions in the "contemporary long poem" begin
with the descriptive phrase itself: it tries overmuch not to offend
the interested parties, but in doing so, suits virtually no one.
The difficulty lies in the apprehension that the term "long
poem" refers only to volume, and says nothing about the form
or the content of the work. In using this term the speaker seeks
to suppress for the sake of polite conversation a great number
of structural or generic expectations. I confess to being somewhat
uncouth, and so I intend to draw out in public the irresolvable
conflict between the ambitions of the modern epic and its closest
rival, the serial poem. Because of its illustrious genealogy,
the epic may be unaware that it has competition in the field of
contemporary poetics. And the serial poem, because it is unique
to postmodernism, may suffer from a lack of formal recognition.
But, I assure you, the structural difference between these two
types of the long form in poetry is profound.
The primary characteristic of the modern epic is its comprehensiveness.
The epic must express a complete world view, a breadth of intellectual
concerns, or mental capaciousness. Whether one regards the non-narrative
collage of historical and cultural documents in The Maximus
Poems of Charles Olson or the dramatic structure of James
Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover as the more illustrious
conveyance of the epic into the late twentieth century, the epic
form still demands a complete portrait of the culture (not an
excerpt), or a whole system of belief (not a single idea). The
stylistic and structural contrasts between Olson's and Merrill's
poems make for a fascinating study. One pictures the always disheveled
Olson with a day's growth of beard, drinking Johnny Walker Black
straight from the bottle and jabbing at an enormous topographical
map of Gloucester tacked to his study wall. His rambling monologue
on the arcane details of the early settlement of Massachusetts
perplexes his visitors. The urbane and wealthy Merrill hosts a
seance for the amusement of a small party of friends in the sumptuous
dining room of his mansion at Stonington, Connecticut. His guests
are amazed by what reveals itself on the ouija board, under the
guise of entertainment.
Despite these fundamental contrasts of style and substance,
both poets are obsessed with cosmology, the creation and evolution
of the world. Olson summons this theme of the origin of the world
by incorporating substantial portions of Hesiod's Theogony
and relating its mythology directly to the New World locale that
provides the principal landscape and sensibility of the epic.
In "Maximus, From Dogtown-I," Olson reworks Hesiod's
tale of Gaia and encircling Okeanos in juxtaposition with his
own account of the local lore of Dogtown, the "WATERED ROCK"
(i). Merrill, for his part, proposes to tell
an "old, exalted" story, the "incarnation and withdrawal
of / A god" (ii). In his masque-like
poem, Merrill introduces his own pantheon; in place of Greek deities,
we meet the God Biology and his twin Nature, who doubles as Chaos.
Both Olson and Merrill aspire to create a world inside their poems;
with map or ouija board, they chart the dimensions of the epic
as universal statement.
The epic demands-even if it does not always achieve-a coherent
synthesis of its socio-economic, anthropological, or cosmological
materials. In keeping with what used to be called the "argument"
of the poem, the modern epic retains a hierarchical superstructure,
even if only the pro-forma one of the traditional twenty-four
books. In making his own distinctions between a long poem
and a serial poem, Sherman Paul employs "long
to cover poems of length that have a structure that encloses them,
frames them, guides them." An external framework of accepted
ideas "both encloses and closes the poem: the long
poem, as I define it, is a closed poem" (iii).
The epic poem strives always to be complete. So Charles Olson,
nearing the end of his life, felt compelled to designate to his
literary executor the final poem of Maximus (iv).
Even if the manuscript lacked the kind of cohesion to which Olson
aspired, it would most certainly have closure.
The serial form in contemporary poetry, however, represents
a radical alternative to the epic model. The series describes
the complicated and often desultory manner in which one thing
follows another. Its modular form--in which individual elements
are both discontinuous and capable of recombination--distinguishes
it from the thematic development or narrative progression that
characterize other types of the long poem. The series resists
a systematic or determinate ordering of its materials, preferring
constant change and even accident, a protean shape and an aleatory
method. The epic is capable of creating a world through the gravitational
attraction that melds diverse materials into a unified whole.
But the series describes an expanding and heterodox universe whose
centrifugal force encourages dispersal. The epic goal has always
been encompassment, summation; but the series is an ongoing process
of accumulation. In contrast to the epic demand for completion,
the series remains essentially and deliberately incomplete.
In Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry I
argue that George Oppen's Discrete Series, Robert Duncan's
Passages, Robert Creeley's Pieces, Jack Spicer's
Language, and other poems are serial forms that provide
postmodern poetry with an innovative contribution to the long
form. On this occasion I would like to illustrate my definition
of serial form by turning to three book-length poems, all published
in 1988: Robin Blaser's Pell Mell, Robert Kelly's flowers
of unceasing coincidence, and Leslie Scalapino's Way.
Robin Blaser's participation in the "Berkeley Renaissance" that began in the late 1940s and carried through the 1950s led to his collaboration with Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer on the definition and practice of the serial poem. In the letters and poems exchanged among these poets, they speak to their displeasure with the isolated perfection and closure of the well-made lyric that was filling the academic journals and anthologies of the time. In his essay, "The Fire," Blaser points out that "the beauty of the idea that you can write a single poem" is "a lie" (v). He recounts how he and Spicer agreed that the serial poem would instead offer "a narrative which refuses to adopt an imposed story line, and completes itself only in the sequence of poems, if, in fact, a reader insists upon a definition of completion which is separate from the activity of the poems themselves [ ]. I like to describe this in Ovidian terms, as a carmen perpetuum, a continuous song in which the fragmented subject matter is only apparently disconnected" (vi). Blaser proposes an infinite form that resists the imposition of narrative development and poetic closure. Ovid's declaration of a "continuous song" occurs in the prologue to his Metamorphoses, and thus it suggests the protean shape and fluid dynamics of an ongoing poem. Equally important to Blaser is the precedent set by the Metamorphoses as a long poem without the narrative telos of the epic. It is also significant that Blaser alludes to the "continuous / carmen" once again in his elegy to Robert Duncan that closes Pell Mell, placing Duncan, Spicer, Olson and other departed poets in an elysian field of the eternal poem (vii).
Blaser's preface to Pell Mell speaks to the essential
characteristics of the serial form. He tells us that "these
poems follow a principle of randonnée-the random
and the given of the hunt, the game, the tour." Blaser chooses
the role of the hound over that of the fox; he would prefer to
pursue rather than to lead. The aleatory nature of the series
thus suggests that it is an-archic-not that it resorts to total
riot, but that it refuses to impose an external order on its subject
matter. It is Blaser's conviction, however, that the random and
fragmented materials of the continuous song will eventually reveal
their sublime connections. One might contrast Blaser's hopeful
pursuit to the despair of Ezra Pound when he found that he could
not make his epic poem cohere.
Blaser is by no means conceding his poem to a slovenly disorder.
In his preface to Pell Mell he points out that "these
poems are also a further movement in one long work that I call
The Holy Forest," and that "poems called Image-Nations
come and go throughout, never to become a complete nation."
The interconnectedness of the serial poems testifies to their
modular form as they continue without completion through each
volume of his work. The same can be said for Robert Duncan's sporadic
placement of his "Passages" poems throughout Bending
the Bow and the Ground Work books, as well as his interweaving
of the "Passages" and "Structure of Rime"
series. In "Image-Nation 19 (the wand," Blaser refers
to Leibnitz's De Arte Combinatoria, and in fact the art
of combinations, the chain or network, provides the poetic method
of the work. Quoting only a short passage of this poem nevertheless
provides a sense of its paratactic, combinatorial method:
and store it in the cupboards,
the shoe-strings and decorations
of natural trees--whisper and
whistle of missing leaves--it's
winter--or summer or some
other time in the great ritual
of plenitude and enchainment
It's impossible to preserve the whole of life, and thus the
poet turns to its seemingly inconsequential parts. Placed side
by side these fragments nevertheless suggest something of the
"plenitude" of the whole. And in their interchangeable
compartments, these poems project a vaster network of meaning,
an infinite "enchainment."
"Image-Nation 18 (an apple" illustrates how Blaser's
concern with a pervasive interconnectedness extends beyond questions
of the written word to the larger sphere of existence:
'you have to find it'--
the structure--of life--
which means--no longer
can philosophy find it, the
mental thing about it
so we've gone from one thing
the effort is moral--how
you can take it and
build the rock
(the origin of the word unknown)
unless you're the crust
LOVE is FORM
intimacy is the loveliest
part of thought
Any consideration of seriality addresses the complexity of how we go from one thing to another, but Blaser reminds us that "the effort is moral." His attention cannot be solely a measure of literary technique or facility, but must be addressed as a fundamental inquiry--"how are you?"--into the quality of our existence. For Blaser, and for his compatriots Duncan and Spicer, seriality expresses not only the connection of the poem to the book, but also of the book to life. In "The Fire," Blaser reinforces this sentiment when he says, "The processional aspect of the world has to be caught in the language also. The body hears the world, and the power of the earth over the body, the city over the body, is in terms of rhythms, meters, phrasing, picked up-the body's own rhythms compose those or it would shake to pieces" (viii). The seriality of the poem is thus an enactment of that greater processional aspect of existence, enabling the poet to exclaim that the structure of life is intrinsic, never imposed, and that ultimately love is form.
Among his nearly 50 published works, Robert Kelly has written several long poems; his prolific abilities seem to demand the scope and space that the long form provides. If we look to The Loom (1975), we find that Kelly employs the continuous internal monologue that is most familiar to us from the Pisan Cantos. The mind of the poet, reflecting, remembering, reacting to phenomena in the world or to the stimulus of other texts, serves as the unifying figure of the poem-weaving the various strands together. The modernist ethos of the centering consciousness is considerably less pronounced, if not abandoned altogether, in the flowers of unceasing coincidence. Here Kelly arranges 672 partial statements-some as short as a single word, none longer than fifteen lines-into a text that is postmodern by virtue of its willingness to retain a strong sense of dispersion. Some of the sections are indeed fragments, such as number 255: "for they cooperate / as language is" (ix). Virtually all of the sections end without punctuation, lending them a provisional, only momentarily sufficient quality. The discontinuity between sections of the serial poem implies that no one section relies upon the information contained in the others for its meaning, even though each section contributes to the comprehension of the whole. The title of the poem suggests an infinite form, "unceasing," and a method dedicated to chance occurrence, "coincidence." But the meaning of the text nevertheless "flowers" as a result of the constant process by which one thing falls into place with another.
Kelly employs a number of recurrent motifs that contribute
to a sense of interconnectedness over the course of the entire
poem despite the sometimes abrupt leaps from one section to the
next. The poem was begun while Kelly was returning from India
in 1983, and so the sequential element of the travelogue (with
its movement from one place to the next) contends with the desultory
aspect of the series (with its variously directed attention).
The transit through and confrontation with other cultures becomes
a prominent motif. This analysis of cultural identity (which has
been a preoccupation of epic poetry since Homer's Odyssey)
pronounces itself clearly in the fourth section:
what is more subtle than difference
give me wide open
why don't you come and
little in Nepali gimme
her western hand
The syntactical construction here is either incomplete or telescoped.
But the verbal ambiguity serves to underscore the subtle meaning
of the open, outstretched hand: the gesture could be one of greeting,
exchange, pleading, or begging. But it may be impossible to construe--as
any traveler or diplomat knows--the exact meaning of a sign in
Another motif is attention paid to the difficulties inherent
in language itself, a topic that any traveler confronts immediately.
How does one establish a communicative link when the codes are
so complicated and so disparate? Kelly simulates this problem
for the reader in English by employing a remarkable variety of
obscure words whose unusual contexts are not normally compatible.
In effect, he attempts to defamiliarize the reader from the language
in which he or she possesses the greatest fluency. For example,
Kelly repeatedly inserts the word "chlamys," a short
greco-roman cloak that fastens at the shoulder. Each language
has the ability to absorb vocabulary from other languages, establishing
cultural connections. The author has absorbed some of the diction
of the Asian and Mediterranean regions through which he travels.
In one instance, however, "chlamys" appears near the
phrase "fractals of typography," meaning perhaps a chaos
theory of letterpress (F 62-63). What muse is there who accounts
for such disparate attentions? How does one simultaneously accommodate
the contexts of classical dress and nonlinear printing? Yet these
disparities are aspects of the poet's experience that must reconciled
within the text.
In section 286, Kelly urges:
I wish people would use long unusual words
since these at least are almost free and do not much aid
capitalist hegemony or the rest of samsara--
hasten to the apothecary and bid him exhibit
electuaries for the malandain zenana
His diction illustrates the culture clash between western authority,
"hegemony," and the eternal cycle of Hindu religion,
"samsara." Kelly abruptly contrasts the cultural values
that the rectilinear Greek and the curvilinear Sanskrit represent.
Rather than adhere to an itinerary that takes him from Katmandu
to Athens to New York, and refusing a narrative structure that
would be exclusive of "irrelevant" detail, Kelly adopts
the serial form which permits such free play of language and revelatory
juxtaposition in which no details are extraneous. The desultory
nature of the serial poem allows Kelly the luxury of this congregation
of diverse and difficult material which then flower into meaning.
Leslie Scalapino considers her book Way to be one poem composed of "Later floating series" (in four sections) and "Way" (in two sections). In defining the formal method of the book, Scalapino adapts concepts found in contemporary physics. In an epigraph, she provides an extended excerpt from David Bohm's Causality and Chance in Modern Physics. Here we learn that every entity, no matter how fundamental, is far from being immutable, and that a "complete and eternally applicable definition of any given thing is not possible" (x). Each entity experiences an interconnected, or reciprocal, relationship with its environment. Scalapino takes this "qualitative infinity" of nature as the formal principle of the poem. Repetition with subtle variation thus becomes her hallmark technique: each part or entity in the series is subject to infinite qualification against its background.
In "bum series" and "Delay series," that
background consists of the distress of contemporary urban life,
including crime, disease, and homelessness. The "bum series"
in particular portrays American society--and not the vagrant--as
adrift, without compassion or understanding:
the men--when I'd
been out in the cold weather--were
found lying on the street, having
died--from the weather; though
usually being there when it's warmer
on the street who'd
died--in the weather--who're bums
observing it, that instance
of where they are--not my
cranes are on the
skyline--which are accustomed
to lift the containers to or from
the freighters--as the new
wave attire of the man
though not muscular
the new wave dyed blonde
wait at the bus stop, but
always outside of the
the bums--the men--having
the weather--though their
doing that, seeing things from their view when
they were alive
These strophes, which begin the series, exist in both a permutational
and contrapuntal relation with themselves and those that follow.
The "bums" who have died of exposure are repeatedly
described throughout the series, but the perspective in which
they are seen gradually shifts. At first they are overlooked,
their humanity neglected, as we turn away from what we find repugnant.
But then we are encouraged to see things "from their view,"
and their experience assumes an entirely different cast. In contrapuntal
relation to the bums is the style-conscious young man in "new
wave attire," a poseur who sets appearance above all. And
of course there is the crane, loading or unloading freight, in
a capitalist economy that is antagonistic to the plight of the
homeless. The loose parataxis of the strophes actually facilitates
an examination of their relation to one another, making the reader
actively responsible for the sociopolitical judgment that the
text implies. In addition, the reader must continually evaluate
the shifting qualities of each recurring element in the series--an
acknowledgment that no social reality is ever static.
In her aptly titled section, "The floating series,"
Scalapino addresses erotic fantasy from a woman's perspective:
lily pads or
bud of it
a man entering
come on her--that
the memory of putting
the lily pad or the
bud of it first,
made her come
lily pad in
encouraging the man
In these strophes (and the many that follow) the sexual acts--like
water lilies--appear to float free of a determinate course of
events. The causality of orgasm becomes entangled in the various
permutations of the acts, the memory, or the fantasy of sex. The
modular form of the poem may be ideally suited to an innovative
description of sexuality in which the act of intercourse is repeated
with almost infinite variation and yet resists an absolute definition.
The permutation and mutability of Scalapino's serial form argues
for a feminist revision of the hierarchical control and heroic
narrative of the epic. Remember that Odysseus overcomes the pharmacological
and erotic charms of Circe by waving a sprig of moly, thus reasserting
a masculine hegemony. With its water lily, Scalapino's "floating
series" casts a new spell over the long poem, providing both
a subject and a compositional method that make the form amenable
to the woman writer.
The serial poems of Blaser, Kelly, and Scalapino point to a radically different and defiantly postmodern understanding of the long poem. The practice of these poets in the random, modular, and infinite form of the series provides a distinct alternative to the overburdened tradition and the claptrap of epic poetry. Not obligated to a backward glance over traveled roads, the series becomes an enactment or performance of much that is compelling in contemporary thought and experience.
i) Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems, ed. George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 172. See also the extensive treatment of Hesiod in "Maximus, From Dogtown-IV," pp. 333-42.
ii) James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover (New York: Atheneum, 1983), p. 3.
iii) Sherman Paul, "Serial Poems from Canada," in Hewing to Experience (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989), pp. 37-38.
iv) See George F. Butterick, A Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), p. 751.
v) Robin Blaser, "The Fire," in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, ed. Donald Allen and Warren Tallman (New York: Grove Press, 1973), p. 236. As early as 1958, Jack Spicer writes in a letter to Blaser included in Admonitions, "The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us-not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem. . . . There is really no single poem." The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, ed. Robin Blaser (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975), p. 61.
vi) Blaser, "The Fire," pp. 237-38.
vii) Blaser, Pell Mell (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1988), p. 110. Subsequently cited as PM.
viii) Blaser, "The Fire," p. 236.
ix) Robert Kelly, the flowers of unceasing coincidence (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1988), p. 48. Subsequently cited as F.
x) David Bohm, Causality and Chance in Modern Physics (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957), as cited by Leslie Scalapino in Way (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988). Way is subsequently cited as W.
16 June 1992
Last Revised on Wednesday, February23, 2000