By Tyler Cain Lacy
The long poem is a way to get back at the poetry world. In MFA programs at least, poetry has become a commodity insofar as it is a product that has a value reducible to quantities of human labor, but gets no real mention of that labor or the process of production—what we’re really interested in is the final product.
Furthermore, the typical MFA workshop generally isolates poems from any/all literary history and traditions, in addition to its maker’s labor. This, then, means we place the product of the “now” at the center of the poetry world, further disregarding labor put in both past and present that brought us here.
In MFA workshops, we so often fall in line to produce way too many (mediocre) poems and call it part of the process—that is, “practice makes perfect,” or, “we’re here to write all the time.” The problem, really, is that, in these settings, poems begin to take on an intrinsic value based on the poems surrounding it, and a common currency begins to take shape by which we place value on the works. So after hearing so often that “This title could do more work,” or, “I don’t get this white space,” what am I to do but (not only question my own intentions and practices) fall in line? I’m not saying my writing and aesthetics are above others’ critiques—not at all—but I am critiquing the common MFA workshop format. As it stands, there are very few ways we know how to determine poems’ values, or their deficits, in workshop classes: form, line-breaks, “music,” narrative, or, in the event that it’s not narrative, its “Stein-ian” factor, or “language-y” vibe (even if the poem has nothing really to do with either Stein or the Language Poets—these are default terms given in the face of the otherwise inexplicable, un-valuable poems). These tokens of critique become not only what we look for and talk about in a poem, but inevitably what we write toward, as well. And, even worse, this currency is, for the most part, exchanged only for a short timeframe for critiquing/workshopping the piece. We need new language to talk about poems.
Every MFA-er should be required to read and write long poems at least once in their program’s duration in order to question their own process of making. I think we’ve all come to believe that poems come in neatly packaged, single-page boxes that are easily identified and given value within a 10-minute timeframe of workshopping. And the long poem is wonderful (for me) in that it defies those criteria. It’s messy, containing what some may call boring dailiness—grocery lists, the weather, other kinds of listing, etc.—and/or an unstable narrative or pattern, a wide range of forms, diction, and speakers, and any other eccentricity that doesn’t fit the frame of the New Yorker half-page, safe poem.
My professor recently said to me, “I feel like my life is one long poem,” and I wonder if that’s how a poem should be—ups, downs, boring, exciting, loose, tight, etc. Maybe a reader’s loss of attention, an embrace of the wandering eye and mind in a poem can, indeed, be a good thing. Maybe bewilderment should be valued as currency.
In the long poem, we find—or at least have to spend more time searching for—a new way of critiquing poems that overlooks the minutiae of individual words, lines, even sections, which illuminates the labor of writing. And while we may still approach a long poem with certain tools, i.e. a narrative arc throughout, metaphors, form, etc., one cannot evade the labor—both in reading and writing—of a longer piece. Practicing the long poem allows us to explore the boundaries of our poetic processes—what makes up a poem, how much labor must we put into a poem to get “meaning” out of it, etc.—and a way to re-evaluate the common currency floating around the classroom, making way for the conversation we should always be having when we talk about poetry—the process of creating, rather than the product.