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 that stays news. In later sections the day-self contemplates the defeat of time, the night-self contemplates the arrival of consciousness. There is a Poundian bit called “A Mural of Beggars.” The poem ends with a long parody-meditation on the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib and a shorter section called “The Night-Self Sees All Women in One Woman.”
Presumably the relevant theory of the long poem is that one part supports the other parts by enlarging the context, establishing a magnetic field of reference and implication. The short poem has no context, unless it comes upon a reader of inveterate goodwill, ready with forbearance. Normally, the short poem has to compete with cruder things, and the odds are against it. So it has no resources beyond itself. In the long poem, one plus one plus one should add up to four or five, if the context is strong enough. In Wildtrack this occasionally happens: The section on Johnson’s childhood illness is more moving here than it would be as an isolated short poem, because one malady calls to another. This applies in detail. In a song-section Mr. Wain says:
An ancient dogged grace still lives
In faith that flowers out of pain.
This is ordinary, but it is enlivened in its context, it has been dramatically proved. But there are limits. The section on Henry Ford is poor poetry, whatever the context: It is not at all as impressive as the Ford episode in Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Indeed, I recall an essay by Frank Marquart in Dissent magazine which was more vivid in the plainest prose than Mr. Wain’s verse. It is not that the verse is pretentious. “Verse is dressed up that has nowhere to go,” Mr. Wain told us in an early poem from Weep Before God, reciting a lesson he knows by instinct. No: The trouble with the Ford section is that it is flat and slack; on this theme Mr. Wain has nothing new to say, and the lines are weary. The memorable things in Wildtrack occur when Mr. Wain commits himself to his own vision, his own way of seeing snowflakes and acknowledging their “eager dance”; then the phrases shine.
MR. WAIN HOLDS the pieces of his poem together easily enough by enforcing a few related themes and a controlling concern. John Ashbery is more daring. His long poem, “The Skaters,” begins with the scene itself, the lines on the ice, the wind, snow-flakes. The lines suggest the mysteries of perspective, and the moral implications begin to suggest themselves. In theory, it would be possible to spin a very elaborate meditation from these materials, the resources of analogy being what they are. But Mr. Ashbery does not do this. There are several passages which have nothing to do with the skaters except that the poet’s mind harbors them all. We hear of a voyage, a broken love-affair, a tiresome old man, and hundreds of fragments which could only be derived from the skating scene by manic perseverance. There are a few pervading themes, a desire for renewal, redemption, at least change. But the unity of the poem is a matter of prescription: It is ordained by the poet’s sensibility, which holds these materials in common. Wallace Stevens said that the image must be of the nature of its creator, its energy reflexive, its propriety subjective. This means: anything goes. The only unity I can find among Mr. Ashbery’s materials is that the same recognizable voice presents them. Perhaps this is enough. Let be. Yeats said that a mind is only as rich as the images it contains, but the problem is: Which images should go into the poem? Mr. Ashbery tends to put everything in, but he knows that this is a counsel of despair:
Isn’t this a death-trap, wanting to put too much in
So the floor sags, as under the weight of a piano.
His method is to moralize the landscape by a series of “repeated jumps, from/abstract into positive and back to a slightly less/diluted abstract.” But even this is problematic. Mr. Ashbery wants to command variety, plenitude, assortment, the snowflakes dancing freely, but he is always impatient to get to the morality, and the landscape suffers. Sometimes he tires of the whole method:
For I am condemned to drum my fingers
On the closed lid of this piano, this tedious planet, earth
As it winks to you through the aspiring, growing distances,
A last spark before the night.
And there is a passage in which he speaks of the “evidence of the visual” being replaced “by the great shadow of trees falling over life.” Much of “The Skaters” is written from this shadow, so that the memorable lines flash beyond prediction from a context which is often as murky as words can be. Some of this reads like the soliloquy of a punch-drunk philosopher:
Their colors on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia, and hips
Prod out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way as to contrast funnily with the unexpectedness
And somehow push us all into perdition.
I suppose it’s a sentence, and might even be parsed, but I cannot praise it. I assume that Mr. Ashbery’s concern is to give the process of the mind as it moves through these reflections, not merely the results of reflection. It is an extreme version of the common distinction between “a mind speaking” and “what is being said.” But it is a dangerous aesthetic, an inescapable temptation to bad work. When the dark is light enough, Mr. Ashbery writes with remarkable delicacy and ease, the meditation a lovely “wooing both ways” between landscape and mind. There is a magnificent passage beginning, “Old heavens, you used to tweak above us.” But the price is high, the subjective mode exorbitant.
“THE WAR OF THE SECRET AGENTS” is a curious affair, a long poem based on Jean Overton Fuller’s book, Double Webs, which Mr. Coulette considers “remarkable.” At one point Jane Alabaster, “a scholar who is writing a history of secret agents in France in World War II,” writes a verse letter to T. S. Eliot, beginning, “Dearest Possum.” The poem consists of seventeen short sections, most of them monologues ascribed to one or another of the secret agents and written in a style precariously thin. The last section is a letter from the author to the reader in which Jane tells Reader, who “will be known henceforth by that name,” that the whole thing has no meaning or purpose: “only the codes.” And as if to prove it, Section XI is called “Orphan Annie: The Broken Code” and consists of six lines of numbers, the first being “8-9-12-1-9-18-5-16-5.” I suppose it may be possible to crack the code the easy way by consulting Double Webs, but I have not yet done so: Meanwhile Section XI has me stumped.
THE MOST SUCCESSFUL of these long poems is “From the Cupola,” in James Merrill’s new collection. In his shorter pieces Mr. Merrill tends to derive his poem from an incident which is itself a conceit; so that the strangeness is a quality of the poem almost before it begins, and it persists even when the glosses are made as lucidly as the occasion allows. In “From the Cupola” Mr. Merrill maintains this technique: The occasion is love; invoked in love letters by a resplendent voice and a vivid rhetoric, both called Psyche. In an earlier short poem Mr. Merrill writes:
Arriving then at something not unlike
Meaning relieved of sense,
To plant a flag there on that needle peak
Whose diamond grates in the revolving silence.
And in “From the Cupola” there is a passage in which the senses complain that they are treated like children; presumably because so much of the love has happened in wish and dream. Meaning relieved of sense is the lover’s desire, and it accounts for much of the poignancy of the story. The story itself guarantees the unity of the poem: There is no need to invoke a fancy aesthetic to keep these pieces together. The unity of the fable is probably the best unity, when all is said: If, in addition, there is unity of voice, unity of feeling, all the better. In Nights and Days Mr. Merrill speaks of the affirmation of form, and even if he hedges that bet with a certain irony, there is reason to think that he would settle for it. It seems to live congenially with the fable of the long poem, which is also an affirmation.
So Mr. Merrill’s credentials are in happy order, and it is splendid to see him living up to them in this long poem. There are stanzas here which would be beautiful wherever encountered, if only we had the time to look at them. In the long poem we are coaxed to make the time: One page persuades us to another. The complaint of the senses is one of the loveliest passages, revealing a propriety of cadence already audible in The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, but it is peculiarly moving when it comes and we are ready for it, a few pages after this:
The mouths behind our faces kiss
Kindlings of truth
Risen from the dawn mist
some wriggling silver in a tern’s beak scrawls
joyous memoranda onto things.
Mr. Ashbery speaks of the human mind “with its tray of images,” another version of Yeats’s aphorism. It seems that the long poem needs an opulent tray of images from which the poet chooses according to a principle known perhaps only to himself. Mr. Merrill’s principle is clear enough and his tray is richly endowed.
April 14, 1966