Seriality and the Contemporary Long Poem

Professor Joseph Conte

Sagetrieb 11 (Spring & Fall 1992): 35-45.

Copyright Joseph M. Conte 1992. All Rights Reserved.

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:

                    take 'real' life
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
(PM 56)

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:

                              Pound said,
'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
to another
           the effort is moral--how
are you?
                                 you can take it and
build the rock
(the origin of the word unknown)
                                                       you'll wobble
unless you're the crust
                                                                of it
intimacy is the loveliest
                        part of thought
(PM 15-16)

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
(F 1)

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 culture.

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
(F 55)

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

the men
on the street who'd
died--in the weather--who're bums
observing it, that instance
of where they are--not my
seeing that

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
--but young--with
the new wave dyed blonde
hair--seeming to
wait at the bus stop, but
always outside of the
hair salon

the bums--the men--having
the weather--though their
doing that, seeing things from their view when
they were alive
(W 51-53)

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:

women--not in
the immediate
--putting the
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

having put
lily pad in
encouraging the man
come inside
(W 65-67)

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