Reading and Writing Long Poems

Once I get inside a long poem, said Ron Padgett, I never want to get out. That’s what happened to me when I started reading Anne Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay‘ on her birthday, earlier this week. I didn’t know the poem would be 7877 words long, which turned out to be a good thing.

I tend to start but never finish long poems: they are intimidating. Carson’s novel-in-verse ‘Autobiography of Red’ served as a model for Indrapramit Das’s debut novel. My review of ‘The Devourers’ is forthcoming on Strange Horizons, but I’m yet to complete the Autobiography.

This time I read the first sections of ‘The Glass Essay’ aloud, walking, and then grabbed a chair, sat down to finish it quietly. I haven’t been able to get out of the long poem yet; it has stayed with me like a good story. ‘The Glass Essay’ is in fact a long story, or stories, which made me curious about the scale and ambition of a long poet. Why write a long poem? What are the pleasures and challenges of writing longer poems?

Anne Waldman, Toi Derricotte, and Ron Padgett have answered these questions and some more in this excellent series hosted by The Academy of American Poets:

“If you haven’t written a long poem, give it a shot. It’s like going to the moon.”