Birkbeck, University of London Readings webjournal

Considering the long poem: genre problems

- Rachel Blau DuPlessis

[This excerpt is taken from a longer paper, prepared for a conference on the long poem
University of Sussex, Brighton, held May 16-17, 2008.]

for Ron Silliman

Writing a long poem has an interwoven private and public temporality. 1 Because of the number of variables set in play, one has (as a producer) deeply to desire that kind of activity in time. It’s a kind of erotic charge as well as an ambition—both expressing excess and desire—a longing and a sense of a vow. That is, long poems are a passionate activity, working inside time, constituted to engage various personal and historical necessities via poesis. It isn’t so much making a big Thing, but entering into a continuing situation of responsiveness, a compact with that desire. 2 It is a literary desire—and something larger. I take long poems—it is virtually an unarguable assumption--to concern things that are too large in relation to things that are too small—it is a work about scale far beyond any humanist tempering. By too large I mean the universe, the earth, our history and politics, the sense of the past, and the more febrile sense of the future: in short, plethora, hyper-stimulation, an overwhelmedness to which one responds. Thus “the long poem is a work of mastery in which you submit to your own powerlessness” (citing myself in Blue Studios 240). The tension between control and out of control is a condition of one’s  employment. It is solved for by the praxes of the long poem (not ever resolved) in a variety of ways. For me this was signaled by the title Drafts whose generative provisionality and open-ended ethos allowed me to begin and then to continue. In arguing that other long poems are similarly constituted by an engagement with an ongoing activity in time, I seem to be applying to all these poems my sense of seriality’s vectored, oblique argument and modular construction posited as the central mode of modern, late modern and contemporary practice. Seriality accounts for itself by a heuristic sense of event-in-language that becomes a rhythm of thought, accountability via accumulation. This paper, then, expresses a modulation from the Poundean mytho-informational model as the master genre of long poems to a Creeleyesque or, better, Oppenesque notational, social and secular proposal.

Ron Silliman’s quasi-autobiographical, pragmatic narrative from 1992 called  “I wanted to write sentences: Decision Making in the American Longpoem” parallels my finding here by its emphasis on activity. 3 Writing a long poem for Silliman is not a decision about length; it is a way of solving certain problems. The length is “extraneous.” Working out a problem (“sentences” for Silliman) is the trigger; some length is needed to make the point. Thus length is a simple measure of and statement of ambition in relation to a problem. To treat the length of the long poem as epiphenomenal or a side product is a counter-intuitive finding. I do not mean to gainsay length—in many ways it is the biggest thing one sees and experiences as a reader. But length may simply be an effect of activity for the writer, a choice first of activity, then of its sustaining. It is activity that is the fundamental term; length is a result of producing continuous (or continuities of—interrupted continuities of) intervention by commentary into one’s culture as constituted, in one’s time as given. Length is simply a way of wagering/ waging against and inside time. 4

Part I.

If the tension between control and out of control is solved for, the solutions have been genres, or subgenres. Just for starters, I want to suggest a taxonomy of twentieth century Long Poems—or broaden Joseph Conte’s, starting implicitly with Pound, Williams, Moore, Stein, Eliot, and H.D. 5 To say most of these modern long poems are hetero-discursive and hetero-generic is hardly to scratch the surface—literally anything can be found in them: shifting voices, including the polyvocal and multilingual, analytic claims, exorbitant intertextual citation (from other poems but also from treatises, scrapbooks, archives, documents), para-textual apparatuses (notes, doubled narratives, glosses). In that zone, any textual mark, glyph or sign—even white space—may be a plausible, serious event. Often these poems point to paradigm-shattering critical interpretations of one’s culture, both in the socio-historical and in the literary sense; they seek accountability, analysis, resistance, even transformation. They might be mythopoetic, of world-vast spiritual scope, an excoriation or a satiric resistance to culture and society, a critique by accumulation of evidence. Sometimes they manifest a thaumaturgic function for the poem and its central subjectivity—the speaker claims some power of naming, curing, envisioning a future, reinterpreting, mourning. Often such a text reorganizes the library; it is a poem that deliberately, nobly, even maliciously absorbs and transposes Great Works of the past while adding its own reading list, including itself. 6

[In the “genre identification” line of thinking, there are now the following categories. Most readers ought to be able to fill in appropriate names. 1. Narrative/ Musical/ Mythic Works. 2.  Hyperspace Encyclopedic “Epics”  3. Works of Seriality 4. Odic Logbooks of  Continuance 5. New Realist Procedurals 6. Long Poem as Essay or Conceptual Text. After several pages of definition with examples, I go on:]

If this or any taxonomy is good for nothing else, it makes enormously clear how much work there is to discuss under the rubric of the modern and contemporary Anglophone long poem. The more interesting question is whether this taxonomy can possibly be plausible even if it is a little inexact. The answer?—maybe, but only as a pedagogic instrument. The poems, angry as revenants, contestatory and explosive, are already crawling, creeping, rising, and popping out of my box-like, over-generalized categories, arguing and fulminating, offering alternative ideas of what they are doing. (Some of the poets, also, are still alive.) 7 For example, where does one “put” Flow Chart? The solemn critical rectitude of some division like this, the modal and generic definitions that keep poems in category cannot ignore the facts that some works disturb this taxonomy, and if anyone thinks too hard (which you are undoubtedly doing right now), the whole schemata goes up in smoke. Or the works are so richly pluralized that neither the genre rubrics inside “the long poem” nor “long poem” itself can be pinned down, even as a heuristic critical act. Is this really such a bad thing?

Part II.

I’m not straining to be Derridean here, but the essay (1979/ 1980; rev. 1986) called “The Law of Genre” does shed a pulsing strobe light on our proceedings, and quite dizzyingly. If we believe Jacques Derrida, this attempt to define the long poem can have only one finding. If ever there were a genre of the “modern and contemporary long poem” as a “law,” that law of genre has been mooted—as is true of any genre, according to the slidy sort of “law” illegally handed down in Derrida’s essay. Any genre can only be self-different, contaminated and parasitic (terms from Acts 227).  Derrida: “I submit for your consideration the following hypothesis: a text would not belong to any genre. Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text, there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging” (Acts 230).  This both giveth and taketh away—it postulates genre and displaces its solidity at once by evoking mobility (as well as, curiously, the agency of the text….). And all this still in the eyes of the beholder, herself beholden to tacit genre definitions that are also being undone and surpassed even as they are postulated. Thus a given genre has no borders as such, and the fact that no classificatory boundary represents anything but an oversimplified but porous bit of fencing or hedging (puns intended) is illustrated by my taxonomic paragraphs above. But even in a more cunning universe, to use a genre—the long poem—or a historical entity “the 20th and 21st century long poem”—as a rubric with any hopes of achieving a genre definition is a doomed undertaking, doomed to be undermined by plethora simultaneous with inadequacy. (The problem of control/out of control is here transferred to reception from production.) A network of genre relationships overcomes, even clogs any text, so all literature becomes one extensive textual landscape, while the individual text, if it has borders at all, is always just a feature in that larger intertextual landscape. Or perhaps the text is always mobile, in no one “place” in this landscape. These slides between individual text and intertextuality are fundamental to the literary act; the long poem may be the best symptom.

Neither a long poem nor any other genre of any artwork can ever belong to some pure version of genre, but only is able to be articulated congruent with (not within) a genre because it loops itself (slitheringly) into genre relationships with other long poems. The only “genre” is then literature, or writing, which is constantly in motion. That is, long poems gyre and gambol in the wabe (along with everything else). Just as Stein might be said always to have multiple subplots without there ever being “plot,” so the long poem may be said to have multiple genres without having a single genre. What long modes do claim is the space-time to register and elaborate multiple generic activities.

This statement by Derrida is a bit like what Smaro Kamboureli has said in a necessarily more specific study: that the long poem is a generic hybrid—it has (these are her terms) epic, lyric, quest, documentary and conceptual elements in it. Well—why stop? (She stopped only because she was doing a taxonomy of the Canadian long poem at a certain era; it remains a very suggestive and pertinent book.) So there are as many generic traces in a long poem as there are genres one might consider. But if this is true of any genre, this finding, though quite suggestive for the contemporary long poem, cannot distinguish our genre particularly, except perhaps by more intense hybridity because of length. If all genres are, in Bakhtin’s terms, heteroglossic and heterogeneric, in Derrida’s “heterogeneous” and “hybrid,” we still don’t have a definition. 8 Except to say these texts are long, they long for themselves and have generally taken a lot of time to do, even a lifetime, and a good deal of activity.

Should we still want a genre definition?

Maybe we can have a taxonomy but no final definition; this endless putting in and taking out of category mimics the endless cultural acts of the long poem itself: creolized, inclusive, errant, omnivorous, palimpsestic, and over-written with more writing.

So to return to this fools-rush-in analysis of Derrida, it is not so much hybridity and the heterogeneric that are particularly striking—we already know this “law of genre.” The modern long poem helped to invent that law as did the modern novel. Indeed, in his analysis of the novel, Bakhtin tried vainly for a binarist solidity, working to keep poetry in the monologic place and failing—in some measure precisely because the resurgence of the long poem in modernism outran his categories.

The more striking postulate in Derrida’s essay is that any genre can only be constituted by existing alongside the shadow of its opposite, only by presenting phantom alternatives, only by articulating the markable presence of a “counter-law,” or alternatives never totally swallowed up by any crude majoritarian presentation of how long poem might be defined (Acts 225). It’s to Derrida’s second point, what I am taking to be traces of its opposite, to which we might now turn. By one calculus, this simply re-multiplies the notion of generic plurality and is another way of stating this point. Yet this statement is very peculiar and suggestive as Derrida turns to a gender encounter to illustrate it. Genres mix the way the two genders mix—in a kind of “odd couple” or an “odd marriage” nonetheless heterosexual (Acts 224, 245). So the rigid—and mocked--law (genres don’t mix) and the counter-law (genres definitely mix) are mapped on gender difference (Acts 245); the result is a peculiar proof that law itself is a kind of madness. I will stop before I drive off the edge of this.

In this odd genre-marriage, of course there will be male and female. That’s female as omnivorously a world, inclusive, satiric of all reasonable taxonomies, her boundary-lessness facilitating a conception of total plethora and plurality (Acts 252). We have seen this kind of female figure before. It is the generative Magna Mater in which everything, through which everything, a law beyond law—wayward, imperious, moody, quixotic, insatiable and demanding. In short—a female/feminine force—not a female person, but a “female element” or Platonic idea nonetheless appointed with all the embonpoint of 6000 years of patriarchal use (Acts 247). This powerful female force mockingly plays with any male author by letting “herself be cited by him” although she always exceeds him in “disseminal polysemy” (Acts 249), itself an androgynous phrase in English.

Female authorship being undiscussed, we do not know about its relationship to this allegorized female force. I and my fellow female citizens are driving with neither map nor the compass of theory—yet again. Ah well. Either we have been erased or freed totally. What is the “look” of the erased and liberated? It is the blankest of double absences. Perhaps I shouldn’t say another word. Just white space.

No such luck. The startling evocation of gender in the middle of “The Law of Genre” is peculiar in its trace of binarist thought, no matter what Derrida does in queering and critiquing. The pun in French on genre makes the “genders/genres pass into each other,” a generative “mixing of genders” and genres apparently answering the “madness” of polarized genders (and rigidly distinct genres)—extreme “sexual difference” and presumably immobile literary kinds (Acts 245). Yet at the same time that he tries really to float in the ocean of permanent negativity, in uncertainty, in situational shifts, Derrida does half-hold onto the life jacket of conventional gender notions. After all, plethora is only gendered because Blanchot (in the récit that Derrida glosses, one “satirically practicing all genres” [252]) and the French language both gender it. It’s a situational argument. But is it strategic?

Why should concepts of the female get mixed up in the business of defining something (genre) that is, in the main, gender neutral? 9 If one wants enfolding—and I do—why go through binary genders and (mostly) heterosexuality to get it? (fold in Acts 235). However, with the Big Female hovering even as imported from Blanchot, it’s as if this essay has it both ways.  [“Even though I have launched an appeal against this law of genre, it was she who turned my appeal into a confirmation of her own glory” (Acts 250). It’s all her fault. hmmm.] It is true that laws of genre seduce even when one resists their blandishments.  It’s true that the “subversion” of any text “needs the law in order to take place” (Acts 240). However, this fact might lead to an argument for activities: writing, propulsion and claim, but not for “law… in the feminine” (Acts 247), even if that phrase is dissolved (deconstructed) until it means no law at all.

For really, it does appear as if Derrida is talking here (and just about everywhere else in his oeuvre) about desire, passionate activity, and enfolding of the kind that I was trying to articulate; yet because of other ideological tugs, this magnetism gets imagined as female-y or feminine in a heterosexual economy. By the end of the essay, one does separate desire from the more scelerotic, if important, sex-gender ideas that undergird it, but to me, at any rate, the tinge of commonplace binaries remains.

 If, conversely, we believe Edgar Allen Poe, this question of defining the long poem can only have another finding. A long poem is impossible. “It does not exist” (Poe 88). It is "simply a flat contradiction in terms" (88). It can’t be a poem if it’s long. The intensity of poetry as a yearning artifact seems to be at odds with the scale of the long poem. This is logical in its own obsessive terms; Poe bases himself on a sense of how much excitement a reader can stand; this leads to many scientistic rules and assumptions about readership and poetry, rules couched universally, but that nonetheless offer amusing data for the historical reconstruction of reader behavior. A poem should be (rule) consumed in one sitting, and the exact budget (rule) of soul-elevating emotion and visceral intensity cannot be sustained (rule) for more than—he is wonderfully exact about attention span—(rule) one half hour. So the situation of poetry conceptually deliquesces into the longish lyric as the master genre. The impossibility of the long poem was based on a particularly rigid sense of what attention meant. It was like Aristotle on drama—anything too long disobeyed the unities of time/place (one sitting to consume) and of intention or focus (one impact, no change-ups, just greater intensity to climax). So a poem was reasonably short, focused, to be read in one sitting, emotionally, viscerally intense. 10

And for Poe, like Derrida (via Blanchot), the female figure (a slightly different female figure) has a good deal of motivating status, since, all mixed in with his sense of genre, Poe offers, in a related essay, a triumphalist analysis of poetry’s most crucial topos. Which goes something like this—you know where I am going—since melancholy sublimity is the keenest emotion, and death occasions it, since a poem’s goal is to embody beauty, and women exemplify the beautiful, it follows arithmetically that “the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” (Poe 144). 11 One must then have enough dead women to go around; I suppose they can’t really be reused. While I believe writing often does come from a pre-dead yet posthumous voice, and while I believe, to modify Wallace Stevens, that death is the mother of vinegar (that oozy, gelatinous blob at the bottom of the bottle), while sometimes I can believe in the beautiful, still no matter how I slice it, the thought that your/ or male poetic culture depends on my death is unpalatable in the extreme. 12 It certainly makes one want to give up poetry—if that is what a “poetical topic” is!

Between Derrida and Poe, the inspiration is either an allegory of Law in the feminine so intense and seductive (and powerful) that it makes the man give up his own theoretical point, to gain in compensation the role of her worshipper. Or inspiration is a female figure so immobilized and exciting (and powerful, because dead) that it makes a man sustain his career as her worshipper.

Turning back to the question under discussion, between Derrida and Poe, the long poem is squeezed from both sides—made differently problematic; in one case from sheer plethora of all genres diffusing any sense of a particular genre, in the other case as a category mistake; if it’s not intense, it’s not poetry.

Yet a key counter-law plays a forensic role for both. From Derrida one might mark the presence of the short poem as the main counter-law among a plurality of hybrid and multiple genre allusions for the long poem. Poe simply erases the long poem in favor of the exacting temporality of lyric/short poem. So what shall we do with this mixed-up idea? We could reject it, along with its monstrous female motivators. Or we could acknowledge it, and see where it takes us. We could throw away the gender surround, and take the meat, praying that the meat of this nut is not organically and ideologically related to this lurid encasing shell of gender materials. (This double gesture is a familiar one in the feminist repertoire.) So we could say that the lyric/short poem haunts the long poem even as the long poem surrounds it, trumps it, smashes it, and envelops it. Even when it is made to disappear, or to become untenable, perhaps the ghost of lyric/shortness does variously haunt the long poem. I wouldn’t have expected me to say this—I have sometimes considered the long poem with a particular—self-enabling—tendentiousness only as it resists “lyric,” and precisely for my own lurid gender reasons, although I also have stated this trumping/enveloping notion. 13 But suppose one saw not so much a rejection or resistance, but a digestive absorption of the lyric/short poem into a further Otherness. So let’s see what happens with this possibility….


Bibliography, Critical works cited.

Alderman, Nigel, Introduction. Pocket Epics: British Poetry after Modernism. Ed. Nigel Alderman and C.D. Blanton. The Yale Journal of Criticism 13.1 (Spring 2000): 1-2.

Bakhtin, M.M.  from The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. ed Michael Holquist, trans Caryl Emerson and Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. The section called “Discourse in Poetry and discourse in the Novel.” 275-300.

Baker, Peter. Obdurate Brilliance: Exteriority and the Modern Long Poem. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991.

Conte, Joseph. Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

-----.  "Seriality and the Contemporary Long Poem."  Sagetrieb 11.1-2 (1992): 35-45.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Law of Genre” (1979, trans. 1980).  Acts of Literature, edited by Derek Attridge. NY: Routledge, 1992.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.

Kamboureli, Smaro. On the Edge of Genre: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem.

Poe. Edgar Allan. Poems and Essays on Poetry. Ed. C.H. Sisson. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Silliman, Ron.  "I Wanted to Write Sentences: Decision Making in the American Longpoem."  Sagetrieb 11.1-2 (1992): 11-20.

-----. “’As to Violin Music’: Time in the Longpoem.” (April 2005).  Accessed May 3, 2008.



1 What people might say about writing one could seriously differ depending on what stage of the process one is in, a fact that should indicate that at least part of the writing is invested in an activity that continues over time, The more one has of that poem, the more it seems as if your poem is your mission in life. So somehow, it appears a person doesn’t begin one without some intuition that this might be so.

2 Silliman curiously and interestingly argues that length is almost a side product of other forces (“I Wanted to Write…”).

3 The Williams line “I wanted to…”  both in “Suite,” and as the title of a book of interviews. Silliman, incidentally, loses the space between the adjective long and the word poem as his generic marker—it has the effect of holding the concepts together as a noun, almost making this another genre term.

4 See Silliman on time in the longpoem.

5 This must be noted as related to Joseph Conte’s Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry, mainly by agreeing with its emphasis on the serial and the procedural, but expanding (and renaming) some of his categories. Of course, there are genres that I won’t even mention, suggestive categories like epyllion (mini-epic—but with more love interest—could this be Helen in Egypt, could this be Song of the Andoumboulou?) or what Nigel Armstrong has called “pocket epic”—something saturated in locale and materials of local culture—he is interested in some category for British poems and I will be discretely silent on that point only to remark that Dell Olsen’s riotous satiric/serious sacking of Charles Olson that begins “I mini Mouse” is a recent version of this interest.

6 Not only a text that needs a library, indeed, it is a text that is a library—a text itself indebted to, synthetic of, and burrowing through a pile of archival and literary materials, often ones self-declared as vital. This is as true of Eliot’s The Waste Land and Zukofsky’s “A” as it is of later works like Gwendolyn Brooks’ Annie Allen and Susan Howe’s The Liberties. As I have found with Drafts, the creation of intertextual networks of relationships with other poems, sets challenges, bites down on culture as given, and enjoys culture coming back to bite back. A very engorging literary eroticism, I might add, with a good dollop of aggression.

7 Given that most of my examples come from “the dark side” of the force (post-avant), and don’t mention e.g. James Merrill or Sharon Doubiago—if nothing else the necessity of this Sussex conference is patent if only to try to get a handle on some of this. One feature, any individual long poem, and modern/contemporary long poems as a group show changeablity—even by one person, the poem over time reveals a multiplicity of modes and generic aims. Particularly over the course of the writing of a long poem, one genre can grow in importance (like pastoral for WCW in Paterson, elegy for Pound in the Pisan Cantos). Given that some of the generic markers could be modally contradictory—e.g. domesticated ode; realist sublime, any rubric that points to a hetero-generic quality is better than another rubric. Some of these rubrics for and about the long poem might be anthology, encyclopedia, archive, notes, collage, and the word “Book” as a quasi-mystical term.

8 Everything is mixed, a “necessary heterogeneity or hybridity, ‘a principle of contamination, a law of impurity…’” (62 and Derrida, Acts 227 )

9 To review, Derrida modulates to male and female because of something particular: genre in his language does not just mean literary kind, nor only artistic style or manner, but also gender, grammatical and human gender. This complex creates a suggestive arena for the question of the long poem, despite the fact that gender and genre are simply etymologically related in English and are not, as in French, the same word.  Thereupon Derrida proposes a very queer turn, which is that genders/genres pass into each other—and this is his answer to the “madness of sexual difference” which I take to mean the madness of polarized, legally uneven, and more powerful vs. less powerful genders. (Acts 245) But he accomplishes this via his deconstructive explication of a récit by Blanchot which figures the feminine, the female as indicating the law—back to a kind of polarizing us-vs-them, and one counterintuitive at that. And even though Derrida states that “it would be folly to draw any sort of general conclusion here,”  (and thank goodness for that) (Acts 252), there is something fascinating about his coat-tailing on Blanchot’s insistence on a particular female figure in a text who is the law, yet escapes the law.

10 The opposite situation exists too; there can be a poem too short, too slight and epigrammatic (Poe 90).  Poe might have sounded as if he were laying down the law for all time, but Poe makes a principle from his own "fancy" for "some few of those minor English or American poems which best suit my own taste"  (88). Poe’s proud refusal of the possibility of the long seems based in a literary historical debate with the flaccid nationalist epics of his time. Like most rules, it’s part of a historical situation, impermanent, situated, and not a norm like a fixed star. One sympathizes, given what he is responding to in the way of American poems: the early 19th century epic is nationalist, aggrandizing, didactic, and a bit historically faked, a Potemkin village of epic poetry. Poe claimed no alternative to this mode in poetry other than the lyric (yet he actually invented another alternative—the prose poem—what is UP with him?). Curiously, Poe’s very interest in intense effect could lead to something like Mallarmé’s Book. Or at the very least the use of that term (itself idealizing and evanescent) as the genre, rather than epic, breaks the question of length open, by offering series, long poem, book-length works, as well as epic as some appropriate genre terms.

11 The gentlemen of the jury should, however, be informed that these comments come from two different essays by Poe: “The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition.”

12 I think it was Meret Oppenheim who has a photo of herself---she was a dish—as a dish. On a platter, covered with fruits and veggies, I believe, served up to be eaten. As a satire on culture, this goes pretty far. Perhaps, however, she should have been more clearly indicated as dead.

13 In that—although not because of Peter Baker—one might say I was stating what he said in Obdurate Brilliance about the long poem—opposing its “exteriority” to the lyric’s “interiority”; he argues that a resistance to the lyric is expressed in long poems by denial or rejection of interiority or the lyric subject, itself postulated as unified and in contrast is based on “split subjectivity.” 

Rachel Blau DuPlessis


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Date printed: 31/03/2020