The Long Poem / The Long Song: Serial Poems and
Other Long Forms in Light of Nathaniel Mackey’s Double Trio
Since Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Dickinson’s fascicles, American poets have relied on long forms to work through complicated social visions of American identity that involve both politics and spirituality. The publication of Nathaniel Mackey’s three-volume “box set,” Double Trio, is unquestionably a milestone in the ongoing tradition. Carrying forward his two intertwined serial poems, Song of the Andoumboulou and “Mu,” Double Trio is a monumental work of over a thousand pages in length. Mackey’s serial poems, along with such contemporary projects as Michael Palmer’s many series, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts and Joseph Donahue’s Terra Lucida, have come to be understood as crucial recent iterations of the American long poem. As developed by such figures as Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Jack Spicer, serial poems are an extension of open form poetics but are also distinct from modernist epic poems (The Cantos, Paterson, “A,” Maximus), lyric sequences (Trilogy, The Bridge, The Dream Songs), and more difficult to categorize visionary works such as James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets, Diane di Prima’s Loba and Ronald Johnson’s ARK.
In examining both modern and postmodern long poems in light of Mackey’s work, this seminar will engage in taxonomy, formal analysis, and what can broadly be termed cultural poetics. Participants will seek a deeper understanding of the relation of poetic form to the cultural work performed by these texts, which often occupy a ill-defined space between narrative and lyric. Seminar members are encouraged to have read at least some of Mackey’s work and may focus their remarks on Double Trio, but are also encouraged to choose other long poems with which they may be more familiar, in order for us to refine our understanding of where the long poem has been and where it may be going. Each participant will write and share a short position paper (no more than 5 double-spaced pages or 1500 words) due February 1, to be circulated to other seminar members.
Here are some questions which may be explored in seminar papers, in relation to Double Trio or using it as a jumping off point for consideration of other long poems:
Some poets and critics have argued that seriality as a structural device for the long poem marks a distinct break with lyric sequences, modernist and post-modernist epics, modern narrative poems, etc. Is this truly the case? How does this question about form and genre stand in relation to the thematic concerns of recent serial compositions?
Along the same lines, what appears to be the relationship of narrative to lyric in recent long poems, serial or otherwise? Given current versions of the long poem, what happens to the lyric impulse when it enters into such longer poetic structures?
Double Trio may be the most recent iteration of a poetic tradition that extends, perhaps, as far back as Dante, and in the Anglo-American tradition would include such poets as Blake, Shelley, Whitman, Pound, H.D., Crane, and Duncan (to name some prominent figures): the prophetic long poem engaged in visionary politics. Given our current political climate, what does it mean to write in such a tradition today?
Nathaniel Mackey’s work is as deeply influenced by music (especially jazz and various world music traditions) as it is by its literary precursors. How does engagement with the other arts shape the concept of seriality in contemporary long poems?
Please email seminar leader Norman Finkelstein at email@example.com with questions or to enroll. Participation is on a first-come, first-serve basis, capped at 12.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN is a poet, critic, and Emeritus Professor of English
at Xavier University. The author of thirteen books of poetry and six books of
literary criticism, he is widely published in the fields of modern poetry and Jewish
literature. Among his critical books are On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred In Contemporary American Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2010) and Like a Dark Rabbi: Modern Poetry & the Jewish Literary Imagination (Hebrew Union College Press, 2019). He writes and edits the poetry review blog Restless Messengers (www.poetryinreview.com).