This is in response to a request made on the last blog post for me to expand on some ideas I've had about the structure and composition of long poems, largely with reference to a piece of scrap paper on which I scribbled a few notes the other week. So, as you can imagine, there may need to be a little creative 'filling in' of the blanks if I'm to construct a coherent argument from my scrap.
I'm not sure if T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets can be categorised as an 'epic' poem, but I'm going to consider it as such for the purposes of this post. The other two long poems under discussion here are Alice Oswald's Dart and Christopher Logue's War Music.
Each of the highlighted links above will take you to a site where you can read an extract from the work in question; in T.S. Eliot's case, you can listen to a recording as well. The Dart link also gives some interesting information on the genesis and researching of the poem.
Back to my scrap of paper. Basically, I am in the process of writing a long poem on Warwick Castle, and although I've actually begun writing it in 'note form', I am still not sure how the finished piece will be constructed. Though each day that passes brings me nearer to deciding that.
One day, I began wondering how other poets had gone about constructing their long poems, and naturally enough reached for the nearest scrap of paper so I could begin making some notes.
My apologies to any academics who have come to this blog hoping for erudite insights into the construction of epics, but my mind works in a fairly haphazard and approximate manner when thinking about poetry. Such inaccuracies are vital, of course, because they allow me room to breathe, creatively speaking.
Here is what I wrote:
continuous structure (i.e. one discrete poem)
fluid interweaving of times, places & historical periods
many voices: rarely the poet's own; marginal notes to indicate change of speaker
similar rhythms & line lengths throughout, with occasional shifts for light and shade, and to develop 'characters'; extended lyric approaching the fluidity of music - or water
divided into books or sections, based on the original (but one poem thematically)
straight linear narrative, with asides
'authorial voice' - not the poet's own. Also reported speech and dramatised mini-scenes/sequences
alternating rhythms, loose pentameter, close to speech patterns, exclamatory, staggered lines, more like dramatic verse than extended lyric
4 poems in 5 sections each
interweaving of times and places, historical events
poet's own voice, also instances of reported speech or allusions to other poets and writings
stable base rhythm & line length with serial departures; free verse skirting iambics and dactylics, alternating movements to achieve balance, short with long, an attempt at music
What I drew from the loose threads and observations above - not looking at the actual poems behind them but recollecting them as best I could, so I apologise for any mistakes - was a far stronger sense of what it entails to write long. It also allowed me to see, if not how I should go about it, at least how I shouldn't.
For instance, I had originally thought of emulating the very clear-cut structure of Four Quartets. But in the process of exploring these other options, I realised how unsuited that would be to my own poem, and perhaps to my personality. Such a defined form would eventually feel like a straitjacket. I was also aware that the publishing history behind these four poems didn't fit my vision for the Warwick Castle poem, which will be considerably shorter and less suited to being written in 'sections'.
Similarly, while the dynamic power and dramatic range of War Music were very tempting, Logue's style wasn't quite right for me. The publishing in 'sections' business was out, and I love a broad canvas, but perhaps not that broad.
So the short straw fell to Dart, in the end. However, there were still doubts. Was this more fluid, all-of-a-piece, poem really the way to go? What if I began that way and found I couldn't sustain the poem without a more defined narrative structure to hang my poetry on?
In my frustration, I began wondering whether it might not be simpler just to combine the best elements of all three, but couldn't see how to do that without creating a sort of Frankenstein's monster of a poem.
Perhaps a long poem was simply beyond my scope, anyway; I might end up writing the first fifty lines and run out of bottle.
I wasn't really sure which way I was going to swing until the other day when I started looking again at notes taken during an interview at the Aldeburgh Festival, where Alice Oswald - an inveterate country walker, especially at night - had advocated the use of 'field notes'. Which was, I suddenly realised, precisely what I'd been doing as I began to write my own long poem.
Almost by instinct, I hadn't launched in there with a definite form or structure or even voice in mind, but had come at it sideways, employing a more fluid and ad hoc approach ... that of taking 'field notes' towards the eventual poem. And perhaps the poem will end up being the field notes, nothing more.
NB. POSTSCRIPT to this entry available here.