note: Given the innumerable problems I had with the third version of The Long Poem Anthology, I'd been thinking about the project for nearly a decade when, in February, 2007, Talonbooks editor/publisher Karl Siegler told me to go ahead and put together a rudimentary manuscript to consider. Sitting at more than three hundred pages (including visuals), it was something I worked to build not as a replacement of previous volumes, but as an extension (presuming all previous are available more now than they would have been, say, twenty years ago, given things as ABE, etc), and using not the 1960s as my base, but, instead, 1985. After years of queries, it doesn't seem as though this project will ever see the light of day, so here is my introduction.
In love-making, in writing the long poem – delay is both – delay is both technique and content. Narrative has an elaborate grammar of delay. The poets of the 20th century, in moving away from narrative, abandoned (some willingly, some reluctantly) their inherited grammar. Poets, like lovers, were driven back to the moment of creation; the question, then: not how to end, but how to begin. Not the quest for ending, but the dwelling at and in the beginning itself.
- Robert Kroetsch
What do we call this new exploration of form, that encapsulates the ongoing field, the closed and the open form, the long(er) poem? Even The Waste Land was composed with an ending in mind. Are we okay with a poem that has an ending without lyric closure? Is this in itself contradictory? Does the reader, the writer or critic much care?
Here we fall into an argument of definition. Jack Spicer termed “serial poem”as a joke, and see what happened, back in the middle of the previous century. A poem that moves from room to succeeding room. Dorothy Livesay talked about the “documentary poem” and George Bowering invented a semi-annual journal that lasted a decade, Imago, for the publication of long poems. Somehow, along the way, Michael Ondaatje worked his late 1970s project, The Long Poem Anthology, with the definition that the poems included would be life-long, open-ended, unfinished. What happens to a long poem with not an ending but a place where it purposefully closes? Are these no longer long poems?
As early as the Long-Liners conference at York University in 1984, poet and critic Eli Mandel was announcing the death of the long poem. All the old definitions fall away. Are we to re-tern “the Canadian long poem” out of the definition Ondaatje worked, and push it further? Into that same opening of the field, Bowering subtitled his George, Vancouver (1970) “a discovery poem.”
The long poem, as it has been presented in three different and distinct long poem anthologies by Michael Ondaatje and Sharon Thesen, exist in the incomplete, the open form, projects that could never be or were never complelted, including Blaser’s The Holy Forest. This is not the fourth iteration of the long poem anthology, a book exploring the open as opposed to the closed form. Extended, and otherwise long, a quote taken from Jack Spicer and borrowed by Stephanie Bolster for a recent student publication she oversaw, from a creative writing “long poem” course she taught at Montreal’s Concordia University. The conversation remains, and the work continues, but where has the argument gone?
In his infamous essay on the long poem, “For Play and Entrance: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem,” Robert Kroetsch talks about the form of “the long poem” in a number of ways, including tantric, writing the end as far away from the beginning, writing “delay, delay, delay.” How can one have an open-ended, unfinished delay? Even he wrote about the long poem as potentially having an ending, a creation. The money shot.
So where does the form move now? Not as a watered-down version, but a new form, that includes the two sides, from the open-ended, life-long poem, unfinished or simply abandoned to the closed form, as long as long can be, but written with an eventual ending. This is the difference between such projects as bpNichol’s The Martyrology, Robert Kroetsch’s Completed Field Notes, John Thompson’s Stilt jack, Fred Wah’s Music at the Heart of Thinking, Andrew Suknaski’s Diving West, Rob Allen’s The Encantadas, Barry McKinnon’s “sex at 31” and Gil McElroy’s “Julian Days” to poems such as Daphne Marlatt’s Steveston, George Bowering’s “Do Sink” and “Kerrisdale Elegies” and Lynn Crosbie’s “Alphabet City.” Is one any more or less a “long poem”?
Even a coin has three distinct sides, not only the obvious two. Where else does this creature previously known as “the Canadian long poem” go? Do the arguments of the open-ended, life-long work still exist, or have they become obsolete? There are many poems that exist that are called long poems but, according to previous distinctions, are certainly not. Does this lessen the works, poems with ending? Can everything Dennis Cooley has written be considered part of a single, open-ended and unfinishable project? Has the definition expanded so far that it’s become impossible?
As the “Epi(pro)longue” to the Long Liners conference, Barbara Godard writes that “The fundamental assumptions of this discursive order made it possible to hold such a conference as Long-liners, devoted to the classification of a specific category of literary order, the ‘long poem.’” An ending that works to open up into something further. She says this, but she doesn’t explain what this category entails. Are they made only of poems that are simply “long”?
Since 1979, when Coach House Press published the first Canadian long poem anthology and Michael Ondaatje in his introduction was perplexed by the lack of recognition accorded the long poem ― "the most interesting writing being done by poets today" ― the form has become so well-established that to include even a sample of the best long poems written in the last decade would require many more volumes. So I begin by stating that this anthology is not meant as an encyclopedia of the Canadian long poem but rather as a continuation of Ondaatje's work in 1979 and a record of my own pleasure in reading poems that in many different ways, occasions and structures are "long."
- Sharon Thesen, The New Long Poem Anthology (1992)
Not to have the last word, but perhaps, the second last word; the long poem in Canadian poetry has become so prevalent over the past twenty years that it simply might not be possible to have an anthology like this as a follow-up, unless working in the multiple volume. I would presume that's the same reason some brave editor hasn’t taken up the mantle of what may never follow in the steps of the McClelland & Stewart "generational" series behind Dennis Lee's Poets of Contemporary Canada 1970-1985 (1985) and Eli Mandel's Poets of Contemporary Canada 1960-1970 (1972), etcetera. For those who might not already know, The Penultimate Long Poem Anthology follows very much in the footsteps of three earlier collections starting with Michael Ondaatje's The Long Poem Anthology (1979), and continuing with the two edited by Sharon Thesen, from The New Long Poem Anthology (1992) to The New Long Poem Anthology, Second Edition (2001). This collection, hopefully, is not meant to sum up or replace what the previous books have already accomplished, but to see the process further: what and where else has the long poem been, since the previous editors made their selections? Where else has it still to go? What early threads might they have missed?
Part of the process of selection becomes a consideration of availability, as previous works included in the series by Christopher Dewdney, Robert Kroetsch, Robin Blaser, Steve McCaffery, Barry McKinnon and Roy Kiyooka have been reissued in larger single-author collections, with (in order) one by ECW Press, a collected/selected through University of Alberta Press, another by the University of California Press, a two-volume collected by Coach House Books and the remaining two by Talonbooks (all of which I would recommend picking up). There could have been one of a number of pieces by the late Toronto poet bpNichol as well, and not just from his life-long poem The Martyrology, and earlier versions could easily have included Gerry Gilbert's Moby Jane (1978; 2004), John Thompson's Stiltjack (1977) and dozens of other book-length works. This collection, then, becomes not a dictionary of what remains, but an exploration of but a fragment where the long poem has furthered since the previous collections. What I focused on as editor, specifically, was the previous two decades from where I am currently; libraries and the used book market can provide any interested reader with what occurred in the first three anthologies; I shouldn’t have to repeat them. I felt little need to replicate their editorial choices, but instead to continue them with different and/or more recent examples. Certainly the works by George Bowering ("A, You're Adorable," from Vermeer's Light), Barry McKinnon (in the millennium), Victor Coleman (letter drop 2) and Dennis Cooley (Irene and The Bentleys), existing inside of larger and more projects, continue the aesthetic presented in previous books and their own previous works, while extending the range of what they do just that much further. On the other hand, the operatic work by Jill Hartman, A Painted Elephant (2003), or Peter Jaeger's Power Lawn (), unfortunately left out for the sake of length, present us with lovely book-length self-contained works that exist as both narrative and lyric fragment, and the examples from Phil Hall, Erin Mouré and Susan Clark, weaving together both the long poem and the critical essay into realms that push the poem further. Andy Weaver's "were the bees" series provides a magnificent movement ahead of American poet Robert Duncan through George Bowering and Robert Hogg, and using Duncan's own words to do it; and could any of them have ever been able to see works like Christian Bok's Eunoia coming, working the long poem through linguistic constraint out of the Oulipo, completely outside of the realm of traditional long poem narrative, documentary and place, or the visual pieces that make up derek beaulieu's "calcite gours"? Through the persistence of such kinds of structures as those of Robertson, McCaffery, Bok and beaulieu, the past twenty years have seen a particular shimmer and shift in the question of "placing" into "replacing," writing less about a particular kind of geographical or representative placement and into such things that include what Jon Paul Fiorentino termed, for his own geographies, "post-prairie." This is the writing that comes after writing.
Still, books of this kind are known as much for their absences as for what they include, and there are numerous works not included, whether for the sake of length or overlap, including Birk Sproxton's Headframe: (1985) and Headframe: 2 (2006), Steve Ross Smith's four-volume fluttertongue, Bruce Whiteman's six-book The Invisible World Is In Decline (2006), any of Ken Norris' Report at the End of the Twentieth Century, Judith Fitzgerald's Trillium award-nominated The River (1995) or four volume adagios, Stephen Cain and Jay MillAr's collaborative Double Helix (2006), Darren Wershler-Henry's Nicholodeon (1997) or the tapeworm foundry (2000) and various other pieces by Lissa Wolsak, etcetera. But what constitutes long? Not just a poem of length but a poem of breadth, whether sequence or series or suite or ongoing or maybe just simply long (but never so simply). Writing, like just about anything (one could argue), is about a series of patterns; how they exist alongside other patterns, and how they move.
Here in Canada, in the late twentieth century, anyway, the major form of poetry is just about invisible. So why do I keep writing long poems? Well, Barrie did. Bob does. Nicole does. This is how we talk to each other. We are so lonely otherwise. This is how we say our final important stuff to each other.
- George Bowering, The New Long Poem Anthology (1992)
What is the long poem doing in Canada and how has that changed? We've had more than a few conferences asking that question, most of the time answering questions brought up at the previous, including the University of Ottawa Conference on the Canadian long poem in 1996, to the Long-liners Conference at York University in Toronto in 1984; is this a question for every decade? In the question itself are the variants, from 'what is a long poem' to 'what is a Canadian long poem,' bringing in all of the considerations of what our National Literature is compared to other national literatures, aside from the argument of whether or not any such thing can be defined. As Thesen writes in the introduction to the first of her two anthologies:
Long poems belong by practice and definition to what Ezra Pound called the "prose tradition" in poetry; that is, their tendency to a narrative sense of the passage of time drives them by and into history beyond the capacities and preoccupations of the lyric. The long poem in Canada is often a way of handling that distrust of the "poetic" associated with the lyric voice, seen as a falseness, a colonizing wish overlaid upon the real[…].
Even though there were examples going back to the beginning of writing in Canada, the long poem, or as Spicer called the "serial poem," came into Canadian fashion during the small press explosion of the 1960s and into the 70s; whatever else had happened before, and what else might have been happening, pretty much every second poet in Canada was working to "open the field," behind foreign models and counterparts such as Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, HD, Eliot, Duncan and even Robin Blaser, who moved north to Vancouver and Simon Fraser University to teach during the same period. In his statement in Thesen's first anthology, contributor George Bowering started with:
Sometimes I agree with Edgar Allan Poe in his famous pronouncement that there is no such thing as a long poem. He said that even Paradise Lost is a number of short poems separated by prose passages.
Sometimes I think that in every long poem there is a short poem, trying to get out. Once in a while I think it goes the other way round.
In the early 1960s, I started a magazine expressly for long poems and shorter poems, because at that time there weren't (m)any magazines that printed long poems. This is part of poetic history.
In her book On the Edge of Genre: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem (1991), critic Smaro Kamboureli writes:
[…] how the contemporary long poem, while belonging to the genus of poetry, cannot be fully identified with one of its eidoi. By being both outside and inside the established poetic genres, the long poem participates in the category of poetry while defying its limits, the generic laws of its species. This ambivalent positioning marks the deconstructive activity of the long poem. By challenging the monism of the traditional conception of genre, the long poem invites the reader to rethink its laws. One might even go so far as to consider the contemporary long poem as a mutant form bearing only traces of the genres it derives from, a potentially new species or at least a species engendered by generic shifts. The contemporary long poem deliberately departs from the tradition of readily defined generic categories by positing itself as a multi-encoded text that does not adhere to a single set of conventions; its genericity depends less on a given set of generic codes than on the interrelationships of various embedded genres. (pp 48-9)
After the Long-liners Conference at York University in 1984, collected as an issue of Open Letter (Sixth Series, Nos. 2-3, Summer-Fall 1985), the resulting papers were divided into five categories of discussion on the Canadian long poem: documentary, autobiography, alternatives to narrative, poetics and locality. How do you grow a long poem?
Kroetsch, accurately I think, delineates the ideological intent behind the writing practice of the long poem, but his poetics of failure introduces a deceptive process. Indeed, he defines failure by ironically adopting the values of the cultural system he deconstructs; he also seems to define it, as Davey points out, from a male point of view. The overriding metaphor in his essay is that of a desire held back, desire not quite sublimating itself. 'In love-making, in writing the long poem – delay is both – delay is both technique and content' (117). The poet not so much as lover but as a subject resisting his falling into love, onto the body of otherness; the long poem not as love-making but rather as a machine of desire, an object in perpetual ecstasy – a condition few long poems, not even Kroetsch's own, reflect. (p 100)
As much as George Bowering's little magazine Imago (1964-1974) helped make the long poem not only a form more prevalent in Canada generally, but west coast specifically, poets such as Robert Kroetsch and Eli Mandel, with help from subsequent poets and critics including Dennis Cooley, Barry McKinnon and Jon Paul Fiorentino, have helped establish a whole other sub-strata of the Canadian long poem in the Canadian prairies.
i have read seed catalogue and the wind is our enemy and fielding and still
i will fail to present you with this prairie long poem because if anything
they have taught me to write against this form and to be discursive and
elusive and most of all they have taught me to desire each other and so
to perpetuate an incestuous notion of poetry which is discretely referred
to as intertextuality.
write fragments. not full sentences. but most of all disobey all
instructions toward poetry.
- Jon Paul Fiorentino, prairie long poem, Transcona Fragments
With more recent attempts to subsume even that by Fiorentino, talking his post-prairie, he moved to take place out of place by co-editing Post Prairie: an anthology of new poetry (2005); co-edited with Kroetsch himself, it passed the torch from one generation squarely to the next. But one could even ask: why is so much of the prairie poem lost to the previous editions?
The long poem, I am suggesting, is a necessary formal presence to the radical open-endedness imposed on perception by both presence—the living body, reading and graphing itself in language and space—and by absence—the living body, in contact with the physical and psychic pain of loss, grieving the absent one who simultaneously cannot be reached and cannot be escaped. And its disjunctures re-enact that mapping on another body: the reader, as s/he enters and animates the text, allows the open-endedness to explode in other directions altogether. The reader acts as free radical, as the unknown in an unknowable algebra of the configured self as it emerges from contact with language.
- Charlene Diehl-Jones
How does one attempt to pick through the entirety of the Canadian long poem over the past two decades or so to get a sense of where we've been, where we are now, and potentially where it is we're going? It's a difficult task; the prairie long poem being only a single strand, with earlier points including Robert Kroetsch, Aritha van Herk and Dennis Cooley, spreading out into so many other writers. A number of the poems in this collection have echoes from ones that came before, whether Carla Milo's "A Medical History of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan" taking echoes of Aritha van Herk's "Calgary, this growing graveyard," Jay MillAr's "Sporadic Growth: being a third season of 26 fungal threads" taking echoes from Vancouver poet Gerry Gilbert, or just how much Douglas Barbour's "Fragmenting Body" sequence owes to the work of the late Toronto poet bpNichol. There are the series of prairie long poem groupings that would include Jon Paul Fiorentino, Rob Budde, nicole markotíc and Méira Cook out of the prairie poetic of Dennis Cooley, the more Calgary-based aesthetic that would include Harman, Julia Williams, Jonathan Wilcke, Fred Wah, derek beaulieu and Ian Samuels, or more of the "language" writers exploring long works, whether Suzanne Zelazo, nathalie stephens, Sina Queyras, Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry (in their magnificent Apostrophe), and again, Rob Budde. When language and pre-existing forms are worked in more of a so-called "Canadian tradition," we come through poems as those by Stephen Brockwell and Peter Norman, George Elliott Clarke, the late Rob Allen (in his The Encantadas) or Dionne Brand, working through the more conservative forms into something that they never were, in other hands. Or what of the more stand-alone examples, such as Stan Rogal, Phil Hall, Judith Fitzgerald, Sylvia Legris, Erin Mouré and Christian Bök that appear to be working alone in the field, but who each come out of traditions that go back decades, if not hundreds of years. That doesn’t even begin to talk about the late American expatriate John Thompson, bringing the English-language ghazal into Canadian poetry in the early 1970s with his posthumous collection Stilt jack (1976), and influencing each in their own way the poetries of Joe Blades, Di Brandt and Andy Weaver. Writing comes from other writing, and Weaver's own piece, "were the bees," takes directly not only from the ghazal and the cut-up method, but directly from an interview that Robert Hogg and George Bowering did with the American poet Robert Duncan. Even my own piece, riffing off a number of old Canadian standards, but predominantly the "sex at 31" series started in Prince George, British Columbia in the 1970s by Barry McKinnon and Brian Fawcett. Where else can the long poem go?How does the form become so prevalent? How does a book such as this not become so massive as to collapse underneath its own weight? As Michael Ondaatje quoted Jack Spicer in the first version of the long poem anthology, the poems can no better live by themselves than we can.
Bowering, George. statement, The New Long Poem Anthology. Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1992.
Davey, Frank and Ann Munton (guest eds.). Open Letter, Sixth Series, Nos. 2-3, Summer-Fall 1985.
Diehl-Jones, Charlene. "Fred Wah and the Radical Long Poem," Bolder Flights: Essays on the Canadian Long Poem. Ottawa ON: University of Ottawa Press, 1998.
Fiorentino, Jon Paul and Robert Kroetsch, Eds. Post Prairie: an anthology of new poetry. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2005.
________. Transcona Fragments. Winnipeg MB: Cyclops Press, 2002.
Kamboureli, Smaro. On the Edge of Genre: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem. Toronto ON: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Ondaatje, Michael. The Long Poem Anthology. Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1979.
Thesen, Sharon. The New Long Poem Anthology. Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1992.
________. The New Long Poem Anthology, Second Edition. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2001.
TABLE OF CONTENTS (draft, unfinished)
Douglas Barbour, Fragmenting Body
derek beaulieu, calcite gours 1-19
Christian Bök, from Eunoia
Joe Blades, casemate poems
Di Brandt, Dog days in Maribor
Stephen Brockwell and Peter Norman, Wild Honey and the Beehive
Méira Cook, Blue Lines
Margaret Christakos, ________
Lynn Crosbie, Alphabet City
Erin Mouré, ________
Phil Hall, An Oak Hunch: Essay On Purdy
Robert Kroetsch, REVISIONS OF LETTERS ALREADY SENT
Dennis Lee, from yesno
Gil McElroy, Some Julian Days
rob mclennan, sex at thirty-eight: letters to unfinished g.
Jay MillAr, Sporadic Growth: being a third season of 26 fungal threads
Carla Milo, A Medical History of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Sina Queyras, Still and Otherwise
Lisa Robertson, The Men
Stan Rogal, _______
Andy Weaver, were the bees