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The Long Poem

Issue 4, Spring 2017
Issue Editors:
Uri S. Cohen, Michael Golston, Vered K. Shemtov

This meditation by a practitioner made after writing a “life-poem” covers such topics as defining the long poem and its processes; ending the long poem, or not; gender and genre (epic, lyric); the counterpoem; the poem as research; and issues around reading. The essay incorporates comments on poetics by other practitioners.

What is the function of length in contemporary poetry and how can readers habituated to the short lyric poem tradition read—indeed, “interpret”—long sequences that seem recalcitrant to analysis? This essay tackles these questions by exploring Aharon Shabtai’s long-poem poetics. Following various stages in his writing, I focus on his turn to the long poem in the 1970s, historicizing his rejection of the lyrical “I,” which gradually led him to write book-long sequences of numbered fragments. Length becomes an emblem of extended temporality, allowing Shabtai to develop a poetics of contradictions whereby each statement is undercut by a  subsequent one. For him, the long poem is an antipoetic text whose semantic stability is always-already betrayed.

Many late modernist long poems are notoriously challenging to read. In this essay I ask whether difficulty is an integral feature of the long poem and discuss accounts and instances of poetic opacity in essays and poems by Édouard Glissant, Ann Lauterbach, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, Caroline Bergvall, Keston Sutherland, and others. I claim that poetic illegibility in these long poems is an instance of a widespread late modernist aesthetic of difficulty. This aesthetic works through embodied concepts of the fraught relations between known and unknown. 

In this essay ​I develop the notion of “poetic historiography” on the basis of Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting (2004) and by examining three mutations of Israeli poet Avot Yeshurun’s (1904-1992) long poems. In each of these hybrid forms, “poetry” is subordinated to testimony and to meta-historical communication, but at the same time, the long poem evolves as a mnemonic-poetic tool in which language changes its functions.

I offer a reading of the long poems of two Expressionist Yiddish poets, Peretz Markish and Uri Tsevi Greenberg, according to which the long poem was used as a community-generating practice. Although this aspect of the long poem is recognized by scholars, it is rarely at the center of analysis. I draw attention to the Expressionist aesthetics of the long poem and demonstrate how Markish and Greenberg, through their use of shocking imagery and linguistic violence, created a model of a political community that served as a safe discursive space for the members of the lost generation of Yiddish modernism.

This essay argues that NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! and Caroline Bergvall’s Drift—two complex, multipart long poems written, performed, and published in the last decade—can be read as poetic essays on the topic of precarity. They function as essays because they set out to test generally accepted forms of cognition; they are poetic because they do so through a structuration and destructuration of sound fundamental to poetry and especially salient in the long poem. The technique they use is a rich, dense, and sustained attentiveness to sound that might be called forensic listening.

This essay explores the connection between war and the length of poems, reading the Anglo-American poetry of the twentieth century in the context of the world wars. The essay traces the changes in poetic length in Italian and Hebrew poetry, focusing on the long poems of Yehuda Amichai and finding a tendency to express war experiences in short verse. In Anglo-American poetry after World War I, Pound and Eliot form an influential poetic bloc defining length from The Waste Land and The Cantos. This Pound/Eliot complex comes undone as World War II ends, allowing for a regeneration of the long poem in the works of H.D., Zukofsky, Williams, Olson, Ginsberg, and others.

Read the poem inside and watch Bob Perelman reads it here. You may also watch an entire reading panel with Perelman, Craig Dworkin and Michael Golston held at Columbia University here.

DEF starts from the seed of a sentence by Gottlob Frege: “On the introduction of a name for something simple, a definition is not possible; there is nothing for it but to lead the reader or hearer, by means of hints, to understand the words as is intended.” I replaced each word in Frege’s sentence with its dictionary definition. I then replaced each of the words in that new sentence with its dictionary definition, and so on. This procedure is an extended example of a proposal that Raymond Queneau called “definitional literature.” With a precedent in Stefan Themerson’s “semantic literature,” the form has previously been most fully exploited by Georges Perec and Marcel Bénabou. The excerpt published here is drawn from the fifth iteration of the process, using the Oxford English Dictionary. That entire fifth sentence is over forty-four thousand words long and—theoretically, if parsed in apposition—­grammatically correct.

Read the poem inside and watch Craig Dworkin reads it here. You may also watch an entire reading panel with Dworkin, Bob Perelman and Michael Golston held at Columbia University here.

 Avot Yeshurun’s (1904–92) “ha-bayeet” (the house) is a textured polyglot long-poem that moves between multiple idiolectal slangs and inflections across Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, and Aramaic registers, in a haunting chronicle of Zionist urban renewal. Yeshurun’s poetic thinking enacts an ongoing translational event in this work, perpetually in the midst of code-switching as a mode of sociolinguistic and aesthetic rupture. “home tongue / earthquake,” he writes, in the final section of the poem, “sometimes the voice / it’s a / garbage can / & sometimes a / delicate presence.” Language acquisition for Yeshurun, like urban renewal, is somewhere halfway between production and destruction—between the newly built and the already (or soon to be) demolished. The translingual poetics of “ha-bayeet” serves, in these terms, as a (po)ethical imperative to give voice to this destruction, as “an instance of the re- / novated house, that’s still / in mourning holes.” 

Dibur is a peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to comparative literature.

Editorial Board

Vered Karti Shemtov, Dibur Editor-in-Chief
Yotam Popliker, Dibur Executive Editor
Chen Bar-Itzhak, Dibur Editor
Chen Edelsburg, Dibur Curated Editor


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Dibur is made possible by grants from:

  • Stuart R. Epstein, California
  • The Taube Center for Jewish Studies
  • Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Religious Studies
  • Jewish Community Federation's Newhouse Fund
  • The School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University