The long and short of it

I’m learning a lot this national poetry month. I didn’t know until this morning, for example, that the long poem is a specific literary genre.

According to Lynn Keller, professor of poetry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women (University of Chicago Press, 1997), the long poem is an umbrella term that encompasses many subgenres, including epic, verse novel, verse narrative, lyric sequence, lyric series, and collage/montage.

Keller also seems to have authored the Wikipedia entry about long poems. She writes:

In contemporary poetry, the long poem has become a space for the emergent voices of historically under-represented 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.

I knew none of this, but Keller has piqued my curiosity, especially about the women poets she reviews in her book. I’m interested in Sharon Doubiago’s epic poem Hard Country and Judy Grahn’s nine-part A Woman is Talking to Death. The latter, according to Grahn’s website, “pre-cogged the film Crash by 32 years.”

Keller also reveals how nerve-wracking it can be to write long poems:

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 an 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.

That’s a lot of pressure!

The longest poem ever written is probably the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic of ancient India. Containing 1.8 million words, the Mahabharata is roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined.

It’s certainly not the poem I’ll choose to memorize to celebrate national poetry month. Have you chosen yours?

Luckily for us, the Academy of American Poets commissioned John Hollander to compile Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize (Books & Co./Turtle Point, 1996). The anthology presents 100 “classic, celebrated poems which emphasize the pleasure of memorization and recitation.”

The list proves Lynn Keller’s point that being celebrated as a poet is easiest for straight white men. Of 100 poems, only 6 were written by women, all of them white. Unless I’m mistaken, only two were written by black men. I won’t speculate on the poets’ sexual orientation. If you’re interested in reading poetry from other perspectives, this list of LGBT poets contains 343 names.

But I digress.

We all learned in school that if you want to memorize something, including a poem, mnemonics can help., the memory techniques forum and community, offers 6 techniques for memorizing a poem:

  • Create an image for every single word and use the loci method
  • Divide the poem into “beats” (like in method acting)
  • Extract keywords and then chain them into a story
  • Extract keywords and then place the images in loci
  • Copy the poem by writing it onto another sheet of paper
  • Use the line-repeat method

I’m sure any of these techniques could be applied to Ezra Pound’s Cantos or Sharon Doubiago’s Hard Country. Keeners can go ahead and try it with the Mahabharata. But life is short and my bucket list is long, so I’ve chosen a shorter poem to memorize.

I’m going with this one by Margaret Atwood.

You Fit Into Me

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye


2 Responses to “The long and short of it”

  1. Judy Jaarsma

    I am not going to memorize any more poems. I have a hard enough time remembering the ones that I memorized in past years, such as…
    I’ve never seen a purple cow,
    I never hope to see one.
    But I can tell you anyhow
    I’d rather see than be one!


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