The Long Poem Migration

Photograph by Tea Gerbeza

The long poem can be challenging to define as a genre. In “Pushing the Limits of Genre and Gender,” Lynn Keller makes a “partial list” of the form’s varieties, including: “narrative poems, verse novels, sonnet sequences, irregular lyric medleys or cycles, collage long poems, meditative sequences, extended dramatic monologues, prose long poems, serial poems, [and] heroic epics” (3). Despite its broad categorization, however, the long poem has, from its inception, been a vehicle for mapping the journeys of specific peoples and histories. From The Odyssey’s ten-year-long homecoming to The Divine Comedy’s pilgrimage, long poems provide the space and time to depict transformative trajectories. A long poem’s journey need not be geographical or even physical—Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s book of six long poems, Heavenly Questions, follows the path the bereaved embark upon when at the bedside of their dying loved one. Additionally, the voyage need not be linear or arrive at a conclusive “home.” Grappling with his worsening mental illness, the speaker of Stuart MacKinnon’s The Intervals admits that he is “an uncontrolled wanderer in [his own] body” (49). For MacKinnon, the long poem was the form best suited to wending along the path of a roving mind. But the long poem does not only depict migration; it is itself a migration.

            By enacting the idea of migration on the page, the long poem becomes a corridor that moves both readers and writers “from room to succeeding room” of ideas (McLennan). In an interview for The Paris Review, Anne Carson describes the poem as “an action of the mind captured on a page,” suggesting that the reader enters into that action through the process of reading and that “by the time [they] get to the end, [they’re] different than [they] were at the beginning” (Aitken 203). The long poem links these actions of the mind, increasing the depth and breadth of the possible journey through excess and digression, documentary and accumulation. My own work in the form became a process of gathering in and spreading out, even as I returned again and again—more deeply, with greater concentration, or from new angles—to a central idea. Tim Lilburn names this central idea a poet’s “preoccupation or lasting, persistent loyalty or yearning” and suggests that the long poem “can look like transformative power, a large story—visionary recital—of many parts that pulls readers in and stretches them” (“The Long Long Poem”). The long poem traces the poet’s pursual of a lifelong preoccupation over the course of an extended and ongoing transformation, and it carries readers along the same path.

            The two major anthologies of Canadian long poems, The Long Poem Anthology and The New Long Poem Anthology, include statements from their authors, and many discuss the long poem in relation to movement, or as a demonstration of passage and process. According to Michael Ondaatje, long poems “show a process of knowledge, of discovery during the actual writing of the poem” (13). Robert Kroetsch suggests that this process depicts the passage of “the self returning from the self” (312). Both writers imply here that the experience of engaging with the long poem, as reader or writer, is frenetic and ongoing—“not the having written, but the writing” (311). To Don McKay, “the long poem is an imaginative space… a time for meditation, travel, metamorphosis, loitering” (321), while Daphne Marlatt describes the form as “a movement around, based in return” (317). The emphasis these poets place on the long poem’s peripatetic nature solidifies the ways in which the long poem can invite readers into a metamorphic process or migratory journey. 

            While the long poem’s journey does not always resolve with an ultimate destination, migration does raise the question of home. The homeplace is certainly a focus for seminal Canadian long poems such as StevestonSeed Catalogue, and Long Sault, in which Daphne Marlatt, Robert Kroetsch, and Don McKay parody the idea of the traditional, heroic epic (Brandt 250), while simultaneously asserting that B.C. fishing villages, rural Albertan farms, and small towns along the St. Lawrence Seaway are each worthy of a long and epic attention. These and other Canadian long poems function as myth-making texts, impacting readers’ understanding of Canada as a homeplace and “form[ing] our consciousness of the past” (McMahon 74). As such, these texts can hold significant cultural weight and can persuasively support aspects of pervading societal thought. 

            At the same time, in offering multiple, fragmented, and contradictory historical accounts from an array of voices, the long poem form can also work to undermine and resist systems of power. Susan Stanford Friedman draws attention to the exclusionary politics at work in the genre, writing that “big-long-important poems have assumed the authority of the dominant cultural discourses” (10). By taking this “big-long-important” form into their own hands, marginalized writers have radically challenged and re-centred Canadian discourse on history and place. Louise Halfe’s Blue Marrow, for example, rewrites the “Lord’s Prayer,” translating the religious words of the colonizer into Cree and invoking the voices of her grandmothers. In Debbie: An Epic, Lisa Robertson upends expectations of the heroic subject, “dispers[ing] the tropes of the traditional epic so that the ancient male politics of Virgil’s Aeneid undergo a female subversion” (MacEachern). In a similar vein, Sue Goyette retells The Odyssey from Penelope’s grieving and rage-filled perspective in Penelope in First Person. With its wide scope and “long look” (Ondaatje 12), a long poem can both document particular places as well as challenge dominant understandings of those places.

            The act of reading or writing a long poem is an act of migration, and through the process of departure and return, the long poem transforms, unearthing and discarding and cultivating ideas of home. Barry McKinnon writes that the poem “helps us build up ‘new little habitats’ in the detritus and helps us live because it also contains our affirmation, hope, and joy” (368). The roaming spirit that runs through a long poem constructs, along the way, hopeful little habitats, which are found and lost, left and returned to over the course of the poem’s migratory route. The long poem extends, embarks, but always returns to the question of home. 

Works Cited:

Aitken, Will. “Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry No. 88.” The Paris Review, no. 171, 2004, pp. 191-226.

Brandt, Di. “The Multi-genre Multimedia Disjunctive Poetic Narrative Dream Text: ‘New Epic’ Attentions in Contemporary Canadian Experimental Writing.” Green Matters: Ecocultural Functions of Literature, edited by Maria Löschnigg and Melanie Braunecker. Brill: Leiden, 2019.  

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “When a ‘long’ poem is a ‘big’ poem: Self-authorizing strategies in women’s twentieth-century ‘long poems’.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, vol. 2, no. 1, 1990, pp. 9-25. 

Goyette, Sue. Penelope in First Person. Gaspereau Press Limited, 2017.

Halfe, Louise. Blue Marrow. McClelland & Stewart, 1998.

Keller, Lynn. Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women. University of Chicago Press, 1997. 

Kroetsch, Robert. Seed Catalogue. Turnstone Press, 1979.

—. “Statement.” The Long Poem Anthology, Michael Ondaatje, ed. The Coach House Press, 1979.

Lilburn, Tim. “The Long Long Poem.” Writing North 10: Turn West, 25 January 2020, St. 

Andrew’s College, Saskatoon, SK. Session Presentation. 

MacEachern, Jessi. “On Lisa Robertson’s ‘She Has Smoothed Her Pants to No End.’” Lemonhound, 2011, http://www.lemonhoundcom.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/jessi-maceachern-on-lisa-robertsons-she-has-smoothed-her-pants-to-no-end/.

MacKinnon, Stuart. “The Intervals.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

Marlatt, Daphne. “Statement.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

—. “Steveston.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

McKay, Don. “Long Sault.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

—. “Statement.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

McKinnon, Barry. “Statement.” The New Long Poem Anthology, edited by Sharon Thesen. Talonbooks, 1999.

McLennan, Rob. “The Penultimate Long Poem Anthology.” Rob McLennan’s Blog, http://www.robmclennan.blogspot.com/2011/10/penultimate-long-poem-  anthology-edited.html.

McMahon, Fiona. “Robert Kroetsch and Archival Culture in the Canadian Long Poem.” Études canadiennes / Canadian Studies, vol 74, 2013, pp. 73-85.

Ondaatje, Michael. “Introduction.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

Robertson, Lisa. Debbie: An Epic. New Star Books, 1997.

Schnackenberg, Gjertrud. Heavenly Questions. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

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Essay by Sarah Ens, writer and editor based in Treaty 1 territory (Winnipeg, MB). Her poetry has appeared in Prairie FireArc Poetry MagazineContemporary Verse 2Poetry Is DeadRoom Magazine, and SAD Mag. In 2019, she won The New Quarterly‘s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest and placed 2nd in Contemporary Verse 2‘s 2-Day Poem Contest. She also won 1st place in Room Magazine‘s 2018 Short Forms Contest. Her debut collection of poetry, The World Is Mostly Sky, launched Spring 2020 with Turnstone Press.

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