June 27, 2008

So You Want to Write a Long Poem

The Sonne Rising by John Donne

This entry looks at two long poems recently published: The Broken Word by Adam Foulds and For All We Know by Ciaran Carson. My thanks to Fiona Sampson for commissioning this review and to Poetry Review in which it first appeared. Part of this piece also generated a lot of comment in the previous entry about the Troubador Poetry Event. I have learned a good deal more about some longer poems I have missed out on, and I encourage you to send in more recommendations. Thanks, David.

Longer poetry was once as commonplace as tapestries. Taking Virgil as exemplar, poets honed early skill on the pastoral, lyric and dialogue poem before moving on to the pastures new of long poem and epic. Not Adam Foulds. Foulds stakes his very first poetic claim with this book-length narrative poem. It is an icily arresting debut; and stealthy in its composition in that it is spliced into ten poems of roughly consistent tone. The narrator is pitilessly observant while the protagonist, Tom, moves from being ultra-observant to ultra-pitiless. The pacing of these ten linked poems performs like fractured chaptering: this is what a novella might look and feel like when stripped to its essence.

The sequence records the fortunes of Tom as he moves from innocence to brutalisation during the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s – the broken word of the title is the oath made by members of the Kikuyu tribespeople, along with members of the Embu and Meru, to throw out the English colonial settlers. Between school and university, Tom visits his white settler parents in Kenya and gets caught up in the violent oppression of the Kikuyi people by English forces. As the violence escalates Tom’s involvement slides into individual and pack-like sadism; he becomes a predator freeze-framed in a feeding frenzy:

Tom saw the man look straight at him,

clownish with terror

as he pulled the trigger,

saw the bullet make a splash

in the man’s bare chest.

‘5: Night Fires’

Freeze-framing is a speciality of this kind of writing. The poet-critic David Wheatley has compared the ‘sticky intensity’ of Foulds’ writing to Keith Douglas’s desert poems, and there is something in that—a question of how we choose to observe horror. What we are invited to witness, as with Douglas, are men becoming stone through their collusion with horror and easy murder, while other men – sometimes the same men it should be said - are reduced to skin, blood and bone. As the narrator of the poem indicates:

Tom retaining ever less of himself.

He’d seen a hide prepared once on the farm,

the creamy, yellowish fat of the underside

corrugating in front of the strigil

then deftly slapped into a wooden bowl

for some other purpose.

‘7: Compound Nine’

The character of Tom is flayed into a kind of nothingness by the experience of atrocity and genocide, yet flays himself further as his brutalisation releases into Tom a monster-identity he did not realise he possessed; and - Foulds might be saying – an identity we are all capable of releasing into ourselves given the circumstances, or the rules.

Ciaran Carson prefaces his excellent book-length sequence For All We Know with a quotation from Glenn Gould’s So You Want to Write a Fugue: ‘Fugue must perform its frequently stealthy work with continuously shifting melodic fragments that remain, in the ‘tune’ sense, perpetually unfinished’. What are the qualities that make for a successful long poem or sequence? Are they sound, scene-making and tone? Are decisions over sound similar to those that guide longer musical composition?

To return to Adam Foulds for comparison: the writing in The Broken Word is eye-catching; there are moments of visionary imagery; but the narrative and character-voicing are the writer’s foremost priorities. Any good fiction writer – Foulds is a prize-winning novelist - depends on the dream or fantasy of scenes that are true to life or, at least, carry verisimilitude. In that respect, Adam Foulds’ book is truer – in terms of fiction - than Carson’s. But while Foulds moves his scenes steadily forward from A to Z (you can sense the hour-hand moving with the pen), Carson prefers a collage or a shaken kaleidoscope to carry verisimilitude. His is a poetry of rapid, filmic gestures, of flashbacks and lively jump-cuts. Carson is also the more confident technician of poetic sound over the long distance of his poem: For All We Know is a shifting beguiling racket, multi-voiced, exuberant and vituperative. Using Gould’s statement Carson’s work is certainly ‘in the ‘tune’ sense, perpetually unfinished’, and the unfinished nature of its soundscapes suits the subject matter of its sometimes interlocking, sometimes fractured, stories perfectly or, as he writes in the coda of the poem:

As you might hear every possible babble of language

in bells that rumble and peal to celebrate victory […]

as the fugue must reiterate its melodic fragments

in continuously unfinished tapestries of sound […]

as the words of the song when remembered each time around

remind us of other occasions at different times […]

so I return to the question of those staggered repeats

as my memories of you recede into the future.


The context for the composition of these two new long poems is important, not least because the last twenty years have shown how we have begun to establish a renewed tradition for the creation of a longer poetry that assimilates and melds both sound and scene. We have seen longer poems and sequences thrive under the hands, notably, of Anne Carson (Autobiography of Red), Les Murray (Fredy Neptune), Derek Walcott (Omeros), John Fuller (The Space of Joy), Gwyneth Lewis (Parables and Faxes), Alice Oswald (Dart) and Geoffrey Hill (almost everything since The Triumph of Love). Muldoon’s ‘Incantata’ showed us the prosodic possibilities of the long poem at top speed and full formal stretch; while recently Deryn Rees Jones’s fantastical noir long poem Quiver, Mario Petrucci’s Heavy Water and Fiona Sampson’s The Distance Between Us tested the way voicing and voices can be given life across the distance of a sequence and refracted through that notion of continuously shifting melodic fragments.

All these immaculate examples, along with the books under review, show us how narrative can be carried, looped, and fractured within the stretchable mesh-like force-field of longer poems. We might say the longer poem is back—who will write the new Fairie Queene? Not long ago in Britain the tyranny of the competition-size or colophon-sized poem sapped ambitions for long poems. In fact they never went away. We have simply begun to take fresh notice of their challenges, exactions and soundscapes and, since most readers of poetry are poets or aspiring poets, we are possibly less insecure about performing as readers over such a distance.

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