Monday, February 17, 2014

John Morgan: How about Long Poems?

In our current literary culture there isn’t much demand for the long poem.  Magazines, with limited space, are looking for one or two pagers so they can include more contributors, and, hopefully, draw more readers. While poetic sequences do provide an opportunity to expand beyond the short lyric and explore a wider range of experience, what about the single poem extending over ten or twenty pages? Literary writing at that length seems to be dominated almost exclusively by short stories and creative non-fiction.  

Still, I’ve always felt that one of the pleasures of writing involved pushing yourself into unexplored territory and over the years I’ve written a number of longer poems. Two of them will appear in my collection, Archives of the Air, due out next fall from Salmon Poetry. One, based on personal experience, describes a family canoe trip on the Chena River, while the other is a dramatic monologue exploring a shocking episode of cannibalism in colonial Australia. Each of these poems runs about 10 or 12 pages, but my latest attempt at the long poem, just out from the University of Alaska Press with artwork by Kesler Woodward, chalks in at 58 pages, a different order of magnitude. 

How did that come about? As with many of my poems, in the beginning I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. The week-long raft trip the poem describes took place ten years ago and wasn’t on my mind when I started to write. I was simply free associating and accumulating lines—15 or 20 lines a day. I was also reading translations of the Indian mystic poet Kabir and I sensed that he would fit into the poem in some way. When I’d written a few hundred lines I sensed they were part of a single long poem, but it was also clear to me that I would have to find some other structuring element, a narrative line strong enough to carry the meditative and philosophical passages I’d already written. That’s when I remembered the raft trip and River of Light: A Conversation with Kabir found its shape.

In a prologue and ten sections, the poem wends its way down an unnamed wild river in south-central Alaska. It includes the sort of lyric reflections that such a float-trip encourages, but it also contains a bear attack, a life-threatening rapids run, and other quirks and surprises characteristic of such wilderness adventures. 

And in addition to the physical journey, River of Light becomes a spiritual journey as well. For this thread, Kabir serves as the narrator’s mentor. Of course this long-dead 15th century poet isn’t literally in the raft; rather the poem’s speaker (a sometimes fictionalized version of me) carries a volume of Kabir’s writings and engages in an internal dialogue with him. Kabir wrote with great wit and authority and he’s is not modest in his demands on his listeners: 

            Having slept for millions of years, he asks, isn’t it time to wake up?
            Just look around, Kabir says. See this world for what it is: a foolish bag of tricks.
Oh, friend, he observes, when you pack a loaded gun inside your brain, how can you ever find the peaceful path?

Kabir often speaks in riddles, but his core teaching is clear: organized religions are useless, and spiritual truth can only be found by looking inside yourself. His life comes to us mainly through legends. It is thought that he was raised a Moslem, though he knew the Hindu traditions as well. Both groups attacked him during his lifetime; however, at his death, Hindu and Moslem mobs are said to have quarreled over his body, debating whether he should be buried according to Moslem practice or cremated as a Hindu. But when the shroud was taken off his corpse, they found only flowers. These were divided between the two communities and each performed its own last rites. 

Kabir’s poems were composed orally and transmitted orally for a hundred years before they were written down. His role as a singer-philosopher might be compared to some musicians of our own day—think Bob Dylan—and although some of his ideas may seem foreign to us, there is a clear link between his teachings and a number of seminal American writers. Both Emerson and Thoreau considered him a forerunner of Transcendentalism and Thoreau refers to him admiringly in the Conclusion to Walden.
But the main story of  my poem is the raft trip itself, as the river’s waves and currents influence the shaping and pacing of its lines, and the wildlife and scenery provide frequent surprises for the travelers. The physical and spiritual journeys weave together and Kabir, who was a weaver by profession, is a welcome companion on the trip.

I’m deeply grateful to Peggy Shumaker and James Engelhardt of the University of Alaska Press for being willing to take the poem on, and especially to my friend Kes Woodward, who was on the original raft trip and appears in the poem. His wonderful  artwork illuminates the book and should help to make the experience a vivid one for the reader.

A long-time Fairbanksan, John Morgan has published five books of poetry and an essay collection.  His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, APR, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and many other journals.  A few years ago he served as the first writer-in-residence at Denali National Park.


Ela Harrison said...

I am so looking forward to reading this! How apt to have the river as grounding for a longer poem (many examples in early poetry), how lovely that your artist-collaborator appears inside the poem itself...and the conversation between poet and muse is something so dear to my heart.
Congratulations on bringing it forth.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ela. I hope you enjoy the poem. The book itself, with Kes's artwork, is gorgeous. John