Writing a Long Poem for a Very Long Time
I'm writing this essay now that I've been told that Report: 16-22, the last installment of the multi-book long poem, Report On The Second Half Of The Twentieth Century,is off to the printer. When the book arrives in a few weeks as a finished object, it will bring to a close a poetic journey that started twenty-eight years ago. What in the world ever made me decide to compose a multi-book long poem that would take me twenty-eight years to complete?
I don't really remember. Maybe it was a young poet's overreaching ambition. Maybe it was the result of reading too much Ezra Pound. Maybe it was Louis Dudek's fault.
Twenty-eight years ago I was twenty-six years old, living in Montreal, studying for a Ph.D. at McGill, and writing generally goofy poetry. I was writing love poems about vegetables and observational poems about bus drivers who lost it at rush hour. To some, my work seemed to be plagued by a general lack of seriousness.
There's a foreword in the first installment, Report On The Second Half Of The Twentieth Century: Books 1-4, that details how Dudek challenged me to write about the contemporary world. He'd already told me that I wasn't going to get very far writing poems about vegetables. My peer poets in Montreal and New York seemed to enjoy what I was up to in my work at that time, but Dudek and other older poets I was corresponding with (like Frank Scott and Earle Birney) were all encouraging me to drop the Pop Art gestures and get serious.
So what I did was continue to write what I was writing, but I also started writing
something else. Suddenly, in my poetry, there was a this and a that. The "this" was lyric poetry, which I continued to collect in books and chapbooks. The “that" was the long poem, the serial poem, the collage poem, the first example being the chapbook, Report On The Second Half Of The Twentieth Century, which was published in 1977. It was my third book.
When I wrote Report I thought of it as an individual, freestanding text. Little did I realize that it was Book One in an on-going series. As other texts that weren't lyric poetry started to arrive, it became clear to me that I'd casually opened a rather imposing door.
Twenty-eight years later, Report On The Second Half Of The Twentieth Century, as a complete work, is over 700 pages long and organized into twenty-two books. As long poems go, it is a pretty long poem. Of course, Edgar Allan Poe said that there is no such thing as a long poem. From time to time I feel inclined to agree with him. Nevertheless, I spent close to three decades working on something Poe says cannot exist.
In the process of writing this text that is (mostly) not lyric poetry, I came up against a number of problems, adventures, challenges--call them what you will. It seems to me that the last stage of divorcing myself from what I've written is to write about what I found myself confronting, engaging, obsessing over, as I tried to get from page one to page seven hundred and twenty-three. In other words, what were the poetic concerns in writing a "report" about the second half of the twentieth century?
I don't remember exactly when I decided that there were to be twenty-two books in Report. Perhaps I was already three or four books into it. The texts were piling up, they seemed to have something to do with one another, but that didn't seem to be enough of an organizing principle. I felt the need to pull it together somehow. That's when I went back to my Order Of The Golden Dawn training.
There are twenty-two greater trumps in the Tarot pack. They are associated with twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. There would be twenty-two books in Report, and each book would have some affiliation with one of the greater trumps. Collectively, they would tell the story of the Fool's journey. That was as much as I had. That was as much as I ever had, in terms of overarching structure. The structuring of individual books was another matter. That tended to be much more organic and improvisational.
If I was telling a story I didn't know what the story was. So better that I should tell it in smaller units called books. At least there would be useful, coherent information along the way, even if the whole did not cohere (Pound's anxiety becoming my anxiety of influence). What was the "report" on the first half of the twentieth century? Perhaps Pound's Cantos. Perhaps Eliot's The Waste Land. You decide.
If the epic, or the long poem, is "a poem including history" then how do you represent history, and what do you have to say about it?
It seems to me that most of the time my approach to history was atmospheric. I had no Achilles or Don Juan to present. I didn't want to spend a lot of time talking about ancient China, fiscal policy and American presidents. In his Cantos, Pound was doing a lot of historical/cultural excavation. It was sometimes interesting, but really not me. In The Waste Land Eliot managed to write the textbook on how to make a music video. His cut-up technique led to a future of throwing everything into the cultural blender. This was also interesting, and sometimes useful.
But mostly I was interested in putting history in what I considered to be its proper place: in the background. I wanted it demoted; I wanted Anne Frank to matter far morethan Adolf Hitler. Life writing versus history. In later books, when history was acting up, I often likened it to a thug intent on brutalizing the human spirit. I can't help but notice the postmodern shift in respect. I was including history, but hardly ever was I praising it.
3. SCOPE AND GEOGRAPHY
When I started writing Report I was living in Montreal. Montreal is, in my opinion, one of the great cities of the world, but it isn't the world. Very early on this long poem told me that I would have to travel, if what I wrote was going to be meaningful at all.
I could say that I wanted the poem to have scope, but I think it would be more accurate to say that the poem insisted that it have scope. Luckily, I like to travel. So I took the poem, or the poem took me, to the South Seas, to Latin America, to the Caribbean, to Europe, to North Africa, to Asia.
Different site locations don't necessarily increase the scope of a work. But they don't hurt it either. Exposure to cultures other than my own was really what I was looking for.
Although I was working from the vantage point of a Canadian, what I was often striving for was a world vision, a worldly envisioning.
A poem entitled Report On The Second Half Of The Twentieth Century can't help but be aware of its moment in time. It is time-bound and time-located. Its "now" is already in thepast. Its news had better be poetry (Pound: "Poetry is news that stays news").
It was probably 1979 when I realized I was in a position to commit myself to the writing of a long poem that was going to take some time. "Well, it's only another twenty-one years," I undoubtedly mused. I was getting off light: the project had a termination date. When the century ended I could stop writing the poem. I'd discovered the twenty-something year long poem.
As opposed to lifelong works like Pound's Cantos, Nichol's The Martyrology, the possibility for that with Dudek's Continuation (which stayed open and continuous for around thirty-three years. Dudek "finished" it about a year before he died). I was a guy with commitment issues, but I could commit to a long poem that would take only twenty-five years. Just about all of the books had dates assigned to them. Perhaps all of them do. Those are the dates of composition, when the poems took place in time. Louis Dudek and I had some discussion about the poem's termination date. Did it end on December 31, 1999 or December 31, 2000? I voted for 1999, but in the end wound up completing the poem in January of 2000. Running overtime. In the later books I started jumping around in time. It's an old Modernist trick that I have always liked.
It is one thing to say that you will devote twenty-five years of your life to writing a long poem; it is another thing to actually do it. There were times when I just wanted out. Often, I would return to the writing of lyric poems, glad that I had not put all of my eggs into the long poem basket.
It helped that other poets I respected, like bpNichol and Louis Dudek, had made similar kinds of commitments – even larger ones really. Conversations with bp and Louis reallyhelped when the going got rough, or weariness with the project felt like it was setting in.
Anyone charting the composition dates of the books of Report will notice that there are often significant periods of time between the completion of one book and the start of another. During those periods of time I would often do other kinds of writing. But I kept coming back to the long poem.
My original, unusual idea was to publish all twenty-two books of Report separately. I wanted a reader to have to go out and round them up. Initially, I published the first three books separately, in 1977, 1979 and 1983. It was Antonio D'Alfonso, the publisher of Guernica Editions, who suggested that I might not want to make life so difficult for readers, and package the books into comprehensible units. He published the first four books in one volume in 1988. Books 8-22 have been published by The Muses' Company in three separate volumes. Books 5-7 are still somewhat difficult for readers to get their hands on, given that they were published as separate books. One of them (Islands) is out of print. As of today, Coach House Books still has 19 copies of The Better Part of Heaven in their warehouse. Book 6 was only ever available as a limited edition. Perhaps, over time, Books 5-7 will become more readily available. These days my ideas about publication are less eccentric.
7. CONTEXT OR TRADITION
Writing a long poem, I was aware of the significant precedents: Wordsworth's The Prelude, Whitman's Song Of Myself, Pound's Cantos, Crane's The Bridge. In Canada,the most important precedents for me were Dudek's long poems (Europe, En Mexico, Atlantis, Continuation) and, of course, bpNichol's The Martyrology. Anyone reading Report will find quite consistent references to Europe, Atlantis, and The Martyrology.
These were works with which I chose to conduct something of a poetic(s) dialogue.
Other multi-book long poems were happening as I was writing Report: Dewdney's The Natural History, Bruce Whiteman's The Invisible World Is In Decline, Robert Kroetsch's Field Notes. Although I admired these projects, I felt less of an affinity with them. Still, we were all embarked upon the same kind of esoteric work.
8. THE WAR WITH PROSE
I have often referred to Report as the long poem that ate four novels. I don't know if that is necessarily true, but had I not been writing this long poem I might have used that time to write fiction, or certainly to finish the two novels I started during that time.
But I don't really have any regrets in this area. Mostly because I do not have much innate respect for most prose fiction. Most novels being written these days aren't novel. They are television shows in prose. Anyone with time on their hands and a high school education can write a passable novel. The truly great novels are few and far between.
In the twentieth century, poetry lost a lot of ground to the novel. I think one of the projects of works like Atlantis, The Martyrology and, yes, Report, is to regain some of that ground. I certainly think that there is more novelty in The Martyrology than you can find in one hundred contemporary novels combined. What I learned from Dudek and Nichol was to absolutely avoid any paint-by-numbers approach to writing.
Which does not mean that I do not find any merit in contemporary prose writing, fiction or non-fiction. It's just that I find more merit in poetry. I think that Atlantis and The Martyrology are two of the noblest works in Canadian literature.
9. THE CATEGORIES OF POETRY
They will always tell you that there are three kinds of poetry: narrative, dramatic and lyric. The general thrust of the long poem, when it heads in the direction of the epic, is narrative (i.e. Pratt's Towards The Last Spike). On the other hand, the serial poem tends to fall back upon the resources of the lyric poem. The really big poems, like Pound's Cantos and Nichol's The Martyrology, blur the distinctions and bring together the resources of all of the categories.
That is certainly something I intended in Report. Three of the books of Report can, in fact, be read as collections of lyrics. But they are floating around in the company of narrative long poems, non-narrative long poems and serial poems.
My one regret is that I couldn't get the verse play that was intended for Book 15 to work out. So I replaced it with the somewhat dramatic The Concertos, which could, if one wanted to, be read as dramatic monologues.
10. THIS AND THAT (AND THE OTHER)
As I mentioned earlier, once I started writing the books of Report, there was a this and a that in my poetry: a lyric tendency and a long poem tendency. Anyone going through my notebooks from 1980-2000 would discover lyric poems and parts of long poems being composed at the same time, often existing on the same notebook pages. Going through the notebooks as I prepared manuscripts, I was always having to decide where something belonged.
This became more difficult in the last five year of writing Report; there was now a this and a that and the other in my work. Besides writing lyrics poems and long poems, I'd begun writing linked-lyric travel poem texts that were taking my work in yet another direction. At first, I thought these texts were a continuation and an expansion of the Report sequence. With time I realized they represented a new line of work that was emerging. But, for a while, this caused more than a bit of confusion.
There are a few instances in which poems have appeared in multiple contexts. But this has not happened as often as it might have.
I have often been encouraged by various writers of my acquaintance to write prose fiction. It always seemed to me that what they were saying is that the important work of an author is to narrate. And prose fiction is the most natural place to narrate.
Anyone who lived through the Canadian long poem boom of the 1970s and early 1980s will remember that that all seemed to be about narration too. There were all of these important stories to be told in poetic form.
I don't think that you can write a 700 page poem that doesn't tell a story, or stories. I think there are stories in Report. But I think they are stories that are often off to the side. I was more interested in a poem that didn't tell a story, or didn't tell its stories in ways that stories should be told. Fundamentally, I reject the supposed importance of narrative.
I find myself somewhat troubled to be living in a society that seems to have an obsessive need to be told stories. I'm suspicious of the need, and often suspicious about the motives of narrators. I worry about "the story" as a form of distraction.
Poetry has instructed me in joy, in lyric revelation, and it's in those realms that I tend to place my trust. Not necessarily even in the reverie of language, but the places you get to beyond language. Viewed from this vantage point, there appears to be something fake and illusory about narrative. I often admire the skill of narrators while not believing in their mission.
12. ESOTERIC RESEARCH
I've been fortunate enough to have some of my lyric poems widely anthologized. Some of those anthologies (particularly the educational ones) are printed in fairly large print runs, and one can entertain the notion that large numbers of high school students in, say, Ontario, are being tortured with the prospect of having to discern the meaning of one of these poems.
Just two days ago I received an email from a student in China who had read one of my poems in Chinese, and wanted to tell me how much they liked it. I didn't even know I had any poems translated into Chinese.
So it goes with lyric poems. With long poems it's a different matter entirely. Particularly with very long poems. How many people have actually read all of Paradise Lost? All of The Prelude? Here, in Canada, all of The Martyrology? I think the answer would be: not many. It seems to me that the authors of long poems are embarked upon some fairly esoteric research that will be delved into only by a small number of people. Many more people have heard of Paradise Lost than have ever actually read it. Ditto for The Martyrology.
So I have never thought of Report On The Second Half Of The Twentieth Century as a work that will ever be read by anything approaching a mass audience. I always figured it might be read by a small group of lunatics with an interest in esoteric human research.
Because they themselves are involved in esoteric research, and need to consult the work that has been done in the field in order to do their own work.
These are some of the concerns I was engaged with during the twenty-eight years I was working on Report. Now it's finished, and I don't have to write it anymore or worry about this stuff. It was an interesting thing to do – once. A number of friends and publishers are under strict orders to shoot me if I ever express an interest in writing another long poem.
But, for all that, the poem now exists. If you feel inclined towards esoteric research you could even read it.
March 11, 2005
Ken Norris was born in New York City in 1951. He emigrated to Canada in the early seventies and quickly became one of Montreal’s infamous Véhicule Poets. He is the author of two dozen books and chapbooks of poetry, and he is the editor of eight anthologies of poetry and poetics. His work has also been widely anthologized in Canada and in the English-speaking world, as well as published in translation in France, Belgium and Israel. Norris now teaches Canadian literature and creative writing at the University of Maine and divides his time among the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean.