The long poem traces its origins to the ancient epics, such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. In English, Beowulf, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Edmund Spenser's (The Faerie Queene), are among the first important long poems. The long poem thrived and gained new vitality in the hands of experimental Modernists in the early 1900’s and has continued to evolve through the 21st century.
The long poem has evolved into an umbrella term, encompassing many subgenres, including epic, verse novel, verse narrative, lyric sequence, lyric series, and collage/montage. In contemporary poetry, the long poem has become a space for the emergent voices of underprivileged writers including women, post-colonial subjects, the gay and lesbian community, and racially/ethnically oppressed persons, who seek the definitive communal voice connoted by early long poems.
Though the term "long poem" may be elusive to define, the term is now finally getting the attention it deserves. The genre has gained importance both as a literary form, and as a means of collective expression. Lynn Keller solidifies the genre's importance in her essay, "Pushing the Limits," by stating that the long poem will always be recognized as a notable genre of importance in early twentieth-century American literature.
In Modern and Contemporary long poems the "tale of the tribe" has frequently been retold by culturally, economically, and socially marginalized persons. Thus, pseudo-epic narratives, such as Derek Walcott's "Omeros," have emerged to occupy voids where post colonial persons, racially oppressed persons, women, and other people who have been ignored by classic epics, and denied a voice in the prestigious genre.
Long poem authors sometimes find great difficulty in making the entire poem coherent and/or deciding on a way to end it or wrap it up. Fear of failure is also a common concern, that perhaps the poem will not have as great as impact as intended. Since many long poems take the author's lifetime to complete, this concern is especially troubling to anyone who attempts the long poem. Ezra Pound is an example of this dilemma, with his poem Cantos. As the long poem's roots lie in the epic, authors of the long poem often feel an intense pressure to make their long poems the defining literature of the national identity or the shared identity of a large group of people. The American long poem is under pressure from its European predecessors, revealing a special variety of this anxiety. Walt Whitman tried to achieve this idea of characterizing the American identity in Song of Myself. Thus, when the author feels that his or her works fails to reach such a caliber or catalyze a change within the intended audience, he or she might consider the poem a failure as a whole.
Poets attempting to write a long poem often struggle to find the right form or combination of forms to use. Since the long poem itself cannot be strictly defined by one certain form, a challenge lies in choosing the most effective form.
Long poem has been considered a problematic genre for women writers. Its roots in epic make the genre appear to be non-inclusive of female writers. This is due to the epic's long history of being primarily a realm of writing for men.
Some critics, most emphatically Edgar Allan Poe, consider poetry as a whole to be more closely tied to the lyric. They complain that the emotional intensity involved within a lyric is impossible to maintain in the length of the long poem, thus rendering the long poem impossible or inherently a failure.
In his article "The long poem: sequence or consequence?" Ted Weiss quotes a passage from M. L. Rozenthal and Sally M. Gall's "The Modern Poetic Sequence" inspired by Poe's sentiments, "What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones.... It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such, only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating, the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal-necessity, brief. For this reason, at least one half of the Paradise Lost is essentially prose -- a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably,with corresponding depressions -- the whole being deprived, through the extremities of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity, of effect. In short, a poem to be truly a poem should not exceed a half hour's reading. In any case, no unified long poem is possible.
One genre theory claims that once a poem takes on multiple voices, it becomes a novel. Many long poems do make use of multiple voices, while still maintaining all the element of a poem, and therefore cause even more confusion when trying to define their genre.
Naming and subgenres
Critic Lynn Keller also expresses concerns about the genre in her essay, "Pushing the Limits." Keller states that due to the debate over and prevalence of subgenres and forms within the overarching genre of long poem, critics and readers tend to choose one subgenre, typically the epic form, as being the "authentic" representative form of the genre. Therefore, this causes the other, equally important subgenres, to be subject to criticism for not adhering to the more "authentic" form of long poem. Other critics of the long poem sometimes hold the belief that with long poems, there is no "middle ground." They view long poems as ultimately being either epics or lyrics.
Many critics refer to the long poem by various adjective-filled sub-genre names that often are comprised of various components found within the poem. These can lead to confusion about what a long poem is exactly. Below you will find a list describing the most common (and agreed upon) sub-genre categories.
Additional benefits of the long poem:
Critic Lynn Keller voices the concerns of long poems by women in her essay, "Pushing the Limits." In this article, she discusses the long poem in regards to its female contributors, a group often forgotten or marginalized in favor of the more privileged white male authorship. Not only does Keller discuss women and their place in the authorship of the long poem, but she also talks about the tendency of the genre to not only forget about female authors but also any authors who are not white and male, therefore leaving out minority writers, foreign writers, and writers of different sexual orientation.
Keller explains the long poem as being a "generic hybrid. By this, Keller means that the form, due in large part to its indefinable nature, gives authors creative leeway to mold and form the genre of long poem to fit their creative needs. The long poem's flexibility should not only be open to include women and minority writers, but should be a haven in which these writers can use their writing to voice their identity, a primary topic for the long poem genre.
As stated above in "Concerns and Controversies," many female writers have felt that they have no place with the long poem genre due to its epic roots. The epic is a historically masculine genre and has not welcomed female writers or other authors who are not male and white. The long poem is often understood as the epic reborn, making it seem like a genre inaccessible to women. Women who did participate within the long poem and epic forms were often highly criticized or over-looked until recently, as there has been increasing interest in such authors as H.D.
Keller also discusses a primary critic of the long poem, Kamboureli, in her essay. Kamboureli's stance is that long poem's readers and contributors should not preference one form of long poem over another. To extend this idea, it is also equally important to say that one type of author within this genre should not be privileged over another. The textual "betweeness," an idea coined by Kamboureli and discussed in Keller's essay, provides a place where writers can create their art in a genre that is by its nature less-restrictive than other poetic forms. This lack of restriction should be the very reason that the genre should be open to all. Its hybridisms and variety will only be enhanced by the presence of women and other writers.
Keller states that this new perspective on long poem and reexamination of forgotten long poems has revived the form as a realm of possibilities for upcoming female writers. Female writers are seeing the long poem as a genre that should not only be open and inclusive to them, but also as a genre that theoretically could benefit the female writer as much if not more than the male writers the form previously favored. Women writers are now able to combat the "dominant traditions" at play within the long poem genre to mold the genre into their own creating what critic Susan Friedman terms a "re-vision"of the form.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the first female authors to attempt an epic poem. In her article "Written in blood: the art of mothering epic in the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning." Olivia Gatti Taylor explores Browning's attempt to write an authentically feminine epic poem, titled Aurora Leigh. Taylor posits that Browning began this process with the structure of her poem, "While earlier epics like the Aeneid and Paradise Lost have twelve books, Aurora Leigh was conceived as a nine-book epic; thus, the very structure of the work reveals its gestational nature. According to Sandra Donaldson, Barrett Browning's own experience at age forty-three of "giving birth and nurturing a child" greatly influenced her poetry "for the better," deepening her "sensitivity."
The most important "parent genre" to the long poem is the epic. As stated on the page of the main article on the epic, "An epic is a lengthy, revered narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation." The term "long poem" includes all the generic expectations of epic and the reactions against those expectations. Many long poem sub-genres share characteristics with the epic, including: telling the tale of a tribe or a nation, quests, history (either recitation or re-telling in order to learn from the past), a hero figure, or prophecies.
Other sub-genres of the long poem include lyric sequence, series, collage, and verse-novel. What unites each of these subgenres under the heading of long poem is that their length has importance in their meaning. Each subgenre, however, is unique in its style, manner of composition, voice, narration, and proximity to outside genres.
Sequence poetry uses the chronological linking of poems to construct meaning, as each lyric builds on the poems previous to it. Examples include Louise Glück's The Wild Iris, and older sonnet cycles, such as Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella or Dante's Vita Nuova. Serial lyrics similarly depend on the juxtaposition and dialogue between individual lyrics to build a greater depth of meaning. Narrative poems rely heavily on the tradition of narrative voice found within genres such as the novel and drama.
Often, these subgenres are blended, blurred or overlapped to create second-generation subgenres. The blurring between the lines of the subgenres is what makes the long poem so hard to define, but it also marks the growing creativity in the use of the form.
Critic Joseph Conte describes the epic as a long poem that "has to have grand voice and purpose... it has to say something big. Lynn Keller describes one of the epic's aspects as including a "quasi-circular quest-journey structure" that she says is present in the long poem Song of Myself by Whitman. Yet that long poem, Keller notes, does not have a "specified end toward which the poem or speaker is directed," unlike a more traditional long poem. Though long poems do have roots in the epic form, that does not mean long poems that are epic-like are completely epic. A second example of long poems distancing themselves from the traditional epic form is seen in Helen In Egypt by H.D. Though traditional epics feature physical quests or journeys, Helen In Egypt is about the psychological journey of Helen.
Other characteristics of the epic include a hero figure, myths, and quests for the characters. Many such characteristics are seen in various long poems, but with some changes. For example, Helen In Egypt brings mythic revision, or revisionary mythopoesis, into play. Even though it includes the myth from the epic, the revised telling of the myth makes the long poem stand out as its own form. Additionally, one cannot look at the epic as a single, unified form of inspiration for long poems. As Keller points out, certain long poems can have roots in very specific epics instead of the overall epic category.
The long poem Omeros by Derek Walcott has drawn mixed criticism on whether it should or should not be tied to the traditional epic form. Those against that idea say that the poem's story is not as important as those found in traditional epics. Omeros tells the tale of fishermen in the Caribbean fighting over and lusting after a waitress instead of a typically heroic tale of battles and quests. On the other side of the argument lies the point that it is important to keep in mind that Omeros has ties to the epic genre, if only as a contrast. By putting more simple characters in the forefront as opposed to warriors, Walcott revises the traditional epic form, which these critics say is something to notice as opposed to cutting off Omeros from any ties to the epic whatsoever. Furthermore, these critics say that one cannot ignore the epic influence on the poem since its characters' names are taken from Homer. In Omeros there are distinct epic elements such as a trip to the underworld, talk of a muse, etc, so those are also obviously influenced by traditional epics.
In interviews, Walcott has both affirmed and denied that Omeros is tied to the epic form. In one interview he stated that is was a type of epic poem, but in another interview he said the opposite, stating as part of his evidence that there are no epic-like battles in his poem. In Omeros Walcott implies that he has never read Homer, which is probably untrue based on the character names derived from Homer. Walcott's denial of his poem being tied too heavily to the epic form may stem from his concern that people might only think of it as being an epic-influenced poem instead of trancending the epic genre.
Based on this criticism of Omeros it is clear that the generic identity of a long poem greatly contributes to its meaning. Because long poems are influenced by many more strictly defined genres, a long poem revising strict generic rules creates striking contrast with epic-genre expectations.
Keller also notes that she agrees with critic Susan Friedman when Friedman expresses her concern that the long poem associated with the epic has been "the quintessential male territory whose boundaries enforce women's staus as outsiders on the landscape of poetry." considering that there are many long poem authors that are women, one cannot fully associte the long poem with the epic genre.
However, the typical exclusion of women in the epic tradition is for many female authors what makes the long poem an appealing form for laying cultural claim to the epic.
Control of or at least inclusion in the creation of a cultural epic is important because the traditional epic poem like The Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid is, at its core, a written history. Written history defines the good and the bad of a culture, the winners and losers, and the author of that history controls the very future by manipulating the knowledge of later generations. For Friedman to deny epic associations to the long poem because they are sometimes written by women is to counter the efforts of many female long poets.
If the long poem is considered an epic or invokes an epic in its length as many critics and readers aver then breeching its traditional exclusivity by using the epic to tell the story of marginalized peoples such as women rather than the victors is essentially an opportunity for the poet to rewrite history. Walcott’s Omeros is an excellent example of a long poem recording the untold history of a marginalized people.
Likewise H.D.’s revision of the story of Helen of Troy in Helen is an attempt to exonerate women from the blame of the Trojan War. In this sense, form inexorably serves the function and meaning of the poem by indicating to the reader that the poem is, if not an epic, epic-like and therefore a history. For some female authors using the well known form of an epic is a way to legitimize their stories, but by slightly altering the epic tradition they also indicate that the traditional way is unacceptable and insufficient for their purposes. Embodying the modernist dilemma, the long poem as epic often contains the seeming belief in the futility of tradition and history paired with the obvious dependence on them.
A lyric sequence a sub-genre of the long poem. A lyric sequence is a collection of shorter lyric poems that intereact to create a coherent, larger meaning. The lyric sequence often includes poems unified by theme. A defining characteristic of this subgenre is that each lyric enhances the meaning of the other lyrics in the work, creating an enhanced collective metaphor, and opens the lyric sequence to unique adaptations of dialogue, and other narrative/theatrical characteristics. Critic Lynn Keller lends some insight to the lyric sequence by placing in opposition to the epic: “At the opposite end of the critical spectrum are the treatments of the long poem that do not consider issues of quest, hero, community, nation, history and the like, and instead regard the form as essentially lyric. Seen through this lens, the long poem explores largely private (though possibly representative) sensibility and emotion, usually through focused moments of autobiography.“
Deborah Sinnreich-Levi and Ian Laurie examine the work of Oton de Grandson in the lyric series, or "ballad series" form. Grandson wrote several sets of short love lyrics, using the series form for narrative coherence and thematic construction, as well as to examine different aspects of a single narrative. George Oppen's Discrete Series relates its poetic seriality to the mathematic concept of a discrete series. Langston Hughes' Montage of a Dream Deferred qualifies as a serial lyric as well as a montage.
"Eliot gradually created a more modernist poem, one which resembles a cubist collage: satiric narratives were abandoned in favor of first of dramatic poetry and then of a bold amalgamation of genres. The speakers shifted from omniscient narrators to a variety of separate-person voices and then to different voices of one shadowy character."
The collage combines seemingly disparate parts or "fragments" of different voices, pieces of mythology, popular song, speeches, and other utterances in an attempt to create a somewhat cohesive whole.
A montage is similar to a collage in that it consists of many voices, most famously portrayed in Langston Hughes' Montage of a Dream Deferred. The poet provides a comprehensive portrait of 20th century Harlem through the use of numerous different voices, and thus creates a cohesive whole through this fragmentary lens.
What is perhaps the most debatable characteristic of this collage/montage form is the question of what is added to the message or content of the poem by using a more fragmented view. This debate is clearly visible within Langston Hughes' Montage in the question of who the primary voice belongs to and what is added by having Harlem shown through multiple people, as opposed to Hughes simply speaking from his own understanding of what makes Harlem.
A verse narrative, as one might expect, is simply a narrative poem, a poem that tells a story. What is interesting about this subgenre is that due to its place in the flexible category of long poem, the verse-narrative may have disrupted convention by telling its story in both poem and narrative. This combination broadens the scope of both genres, lending the poem's depth that may be lacking in the other sub-genres, yet also a lyrical voice that defines it as poetry. For an example of this, one might turn Gilgamesh, which encompasses both the sub-genres Epic and Verse-Narrative.
As one of the main sub-genres, Verse-Narrative gets the least attention because it so effortlessly overlaps the other sub-genres. It doesn't necessarily have the components of an Epic, nor the lyricism and shifting scope of a Lyric Sequence or a Lyric Series, nor the close relation to narrative of Verse Novel. It exists for critics generally as an accepted part of the long poem Tradition.
The critic Lilach Lachman describes the Romantic long poem as one that, "questioned the coherence of the conventional epic's plot, its logic of time and space, and its laws of interconnecting the narrative through action." Examples of the Romantic long poem is Keats' long poem Hyperion: A Fragment (1820), William Wordsworth's Recluse (Including the Prelude (1850), and The Excursion), and Percy Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.
The Romance long poem contains many of the same components of the Romance Lyric. Michael O'Neil suggests that "much romantic poetry is torn out of its own despair" and, in fact, can exist as the tremulous fusion between "self-trust and self-doubt."
Meditations are reflective thought poems. Like the Montage and the Series subgenres Meditations can be somewhat fragmented, yet their connectivity is what makes the long poem a coherent and cohesive idea. This subgenre is based in meditations (or thoughts) which, Wallace Stevens believes, as do other writes in this genre, do not rely on the use of multiple voices.
In her essay "The Twentieth Century long poem," Lynn Keller states that a more philosophical influence on these meditative long poems deals with relating imagination to reality, specifically in long poems by Wallace Stevens. Keller notes, "Uninterested in American landscape, American history, modern mechanical triumphs, or the urban scene, his process-oriented long poems are speculative philosophical works exploring the relation of imagination to reality and the imagination's role in compensating for the loss of religious belief."