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Serial Poems/Long Poems

Jane Munro Jane Munro
Jane Munro read from her wonderful ghazals in Pedlar Press’ Active Pass. She changed her reading line-up to follow from the Long Poem workshop that preceded her. She read some serial poem including p. 34, poem # 20 which has 7 couplets and ends with:

A year of patience, a friend called it. When exhausted,
do not start anything. No recriminations, no fixes.

A year in the compost bin. When mud floods you.
When your outlook’s cut to bits.

Some resonant sighs popped around the room from those lines. An arm-rub-of-goosebumps from myself and a person in another row.

From poem #19,

I develop a technique for unlocking doors one-handed.
Always carrying too much stuff.

A couple chuckles from around the room.

She gives a rich texture in her poems, not sticking to purely visual as is the lazy poet’s default and outer limit, but going into touch as well in this middle bit of poem #17

Mind like a pussy willow, texture of a catkin.
Yesterday, grey nubbins, engorged raindrops.

Swags of mist drifting in and out of the forest.
There were years when I couldn’t shower alone,

carried babies front and back. Now, I study stones –
how old they are! How sleek and round.

She mentioned the linkage to renga forms, the soft connections between lines in the ghazals. It’s exemplified well here with the forest mists becoming showering as a young mom. From roundness and youngness of babies to roundness and oldness of stones. It flows forward without an overly controlling hand of wanting to explain the points. Beautifully pointed gestures, not as with a spear but scalpel.

If you missed Jane Munro’s reading at Tree last night, there are the books but you can hear her in the voice as well. She has cut a CD called After the Fire. (At that link has audio samples and a youtube clip.)

Both she and Jay MillAR advised the potency of the word aloud.

In MillAR’s case the people who came for the Tree Seed Workshop (14 at the start, growing to 18 or 19 by the end of the hour) took turns reading from Sharon Thesen’s The New Long Poem Anthology and experiencing the long poem rather than talking around it. You could do it yourself by buying the book I suppose. I won’t be recreating with a 30-page blog post excerpt. (Besides, as Ron Silliman pointed out in his workshop, blog are optimal for medium-length thoughts.)

To appreciate the long poem in his long poem course, people read aloud as a group. The intro to that 30 hour TNSOW course is 3 hours and that evening we had 1.

round table

He called it more “an awareness workshop” to taste the variety in long poem directly. He gave a whirlwind overview of the Canadian history with the long poem, the players of the modern and post-modern generations. He recommended looking up a 1980s issue of Open Letter on Long-Liners Conference, a conference at York University where Dorothy Livesay was the keynote speaker, where modernist and post-modernists met.

In the issues Fred Wah looks at different writers methods in using the long line and long poem. What does it make room for and what estrangement is permitted?

Jay gave each person a slip with a quote from the Vancouver Poetry Conference to consider; Jack Spicer saying in 1965:

“And you have to go into the serial poem not knowing what the hell you’re doing. That’s the first thing. You have to be tricked into it. It has to be some path that you’ve never seen on a map before. I think all of my books as far as they are successful have just followed the bloody path to see where it goes, and sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere.”

Tree Seed Workshop

The long form can take its sweet time getting no where so seems akin to the slow food movement, rebelling against the spins coming at us all the time, pitches of plots and excitement spots. Marketing is geared against allowing boredom and slackness. This can be playing with a different set of rules. My peruse is small. Maybe some other practices use the form to different ends.

MillAR mentioned that Dorothy Livesay hoped the long form would bring in the people, to represent the voice of the people.

We read/heard Louis Dudek‘s At Lac au Coeur (“we have no time to hate or despair […] cover fear with laughter”) and Christopher Dewdney‘s The Cenozoic Asylum (“meditations[…] they come whole to the hand” as well as cut out remixed text from botany field guides and Penthouse).

Dudek, although known for wildly meandering all over the place in poems, did so in a sort of organized fashion, numbered stanzas and summing up stanza of his points. Dewdney’s excerpt from what would become a multi-book wander “The Natural History of South Western Ontario”, was over the top purple prose, a giant baroque piece of prose, supersaturated with details, a barrage of a list poem.

They are both meditations, in their way. Dudek by stepping back and looking and Dewdney as a meditation thru manstra-ing vocabulary.


There’s the long poem with long sections or short numbered serial thoughts. What would make the long poem poetry and not just literary non-fiction? There isn’t arc movement as some flash fiction, short stories or novels. Nothing need be tied with a bow. The canvas is large and aiming to not be reductionist to page-appropriate single simple sentiment. The movement is more lateral, sidewinder than nose to nose explaining of point unambiguously, if there is a point or points and not just talk. The lines between short-poem and long poem get blurry for me. Is a collection of fragments add to a word we call novel or poem? Mike Blouin, Chus Pato, Daphne Marlatt are playing in this sandbox as well. Does the label matter, except for where to look in a bookstore?

How would it relate to process poems? Is length just a description of the size of chunking? What about a theme book that writes the minimum necessary number of pages revolving around something that can get a sound bite for marketing? Is that distinct from a long poem? Is a long poem more a matter of compression in composition and must be allowed to expand in mulling over years. A lot of words expelled in a short time makes a lot of words and a long manuscript but not necessarily a long form? Is the long poem aiming to escape the grip of point of pith the short poem, not stray to process poems territory, but be engaged with that middle ground, neither point of departure nor destination?

The long form can explore more but can it express more or just take more time? Any form can have a comparable what or how. The outward is misleading somehow. The long poem can take longer loops and more loops thru to enjoy a walk instead of expressline to destination of aha or haha or oh.

It seems to fit in with Ron Silliman’s current post Why would a poet who writes 1,000-page poems read haiku? It’s “the questions of attention”. One can be present, or sloppy, at any scale, whether haiku or long poem. He says, “I can’t even imagine staying awake for the time it takes to slog through many a half-page text by Seamus Heaney. If he’s not fully present in his own poem, why should I be?”

For myself if a poem can’t hook me with each phrase, I’m mentally checking out. It doesn’t matter if the poem is a haiku or 40 lines or book-long. Once I start to predict what’s coming and skim to see if I’m right, and if I am, I’m gone.

Silliman says, “If you drift off in the long poem, you are apt to be gone for good. So the demand of the poem is to continually keep one’s attention present. Not the narrative present, which is something else altogether, but to the presentness of the text itself.”

At any length, the challenge is there, to not keep the reader who will love you whatever you do and support whoever they feel needs support, but to bring your genuineness of communication to someone else who wants to genuinely communicate as well.

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