The Long Poem


by John Wain
Viking, 50 pp., $3.50

Rivers and Mountains

by John Ashbery
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 63 pp., $3.50

The War of the Secret Agents, and Other Poems

by Henri Coulette
Scribners, 111 pp., $3.95

Nights and Days

by James Merrill
Atheneum, 56 pp., $1.95 (paper)

The critical argument against the long poem is easily given. The thing is a freak of nature, a contradiction in terms, a monster of disproportion, like the nurse’s breast in Brobdingnag. In the nature of things, it cannot be poetry much of the time: When it is not, it is absurd, pretentious, provincial. The argument has often been mounted with considerable force, but readers are never convinced. If the language of poetry is as resourceful as poets say, it should be possible to make a long poem as “well written” as a good novel and gain some further advantage from the fact that the language is poetic. It should be possible. And it has been possible on classic occasions from Homer to Milton. But the modern poet is not so fortunate, we say, listing his misfortunes.

We are left with the fact, however, that practically every important modern poet has tried to write a long poem and that the crucial poems in modern literature have been “poems of some length.” The Waste Land is not Paradise Lost. On a count of lines it is closer to Frost’s Desert Places. But on any other count it is closer to Paradise Lost: in the span of its implication, the assurance of an imperious vision. Like most long poems, it is doctrinal to its age. This also applies to Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, despite Stevens’s velvet surface: The poem secretes large ambitions. And Paterson is a humanist manifesto enacted in five Books, a grammar to help us to live. So the long poem, whatever else, is a work of moral ambition.

TECHNICALLY, THE SHARPEST problem is the unity of the poem. John Wain begins Wildtrack with a declaration of intent. “Engrave the snowflake,” he says; “But without hindering its downward dance.” So the poet will confront the natural configuration of things, but tactfully; and finally he will, as Hopkins says, “let be.” It is a charming aesthetic. Snowflakes are important in this poem, beginning with those seen by Alexander Blok on a January night and going on to Kerensky,

himself a snowflake
still winnowing down
an old man with memories.

The next section is a suite of meditations on “the man within,” the day self and the night-self. The first adventure of the day-self in the Age of the Machines is a set-piece on Henry Ford, followed by another on Stalin as the Henry Ford of Russia. The adventures of the night-self in the same Age are given mostly as a group of dramatic monologues, including a very handsome one attributed to the man possessed by devils, in St. Mark. The leading idea in this section is cure by miracle, the laying-on of hands: The ideal figure is “the secret dance/Of dream and reason, day and night.” Much of this material is based on eighteenth-century sources, the Spectator, Swift, and Johnson. The method is Williams’s in Paterson; to give the source, then animate it by meditation, making it news…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.