“The Long Long Poem” by Tim Lilburn

Often people who are not poets, and even some poets, think of poetry as entirely a short form—one page and you are done. Then there is another page. And another.

Poetry can be this. But I would like to explore the way poetry may present itself as poetry “systems” spreading themselves, drifting through a number of books, a multifaceted focus that unfolds over decades of a writer’s life. Many of us write out of central preoccupations or lasting, persistent loyalties or yearnings that may precede one’s vocation as a writer, like a desire for justice or a compulsion to tell the truth about some community trauma; a need to include a blocked other in literature (I think of the work of Lorna Crozier and of Esi Edugyen here); a desire to place a forgotten time or a forgotten place (Andrew Suknaski, Louise Halfe, Jan Zwicky) on the literary map.

In recent poetry, there are a few examples of such a career shape—Louise Halfe’s Blue Marrow and The Crooked Good in which she works out the stories of her family and her ancestors, especially her women ancestors; the projects of Sylvia Legris (the inner lives of apparently non-sentient things, plants, nervous systems); the preoccupation of Kevin Paul (Taking the Names Down from the Hill and Little Hunger) to introduce pre-contact W̱SÁNEĆ to the page; Kim Hyesoon’s multi-book retrieval of the oral tradition of Korean shamanism where women played a central role.

People who work within the weather of poetry systems, writers like Legris, Halfe, Suknaski, Paul, may think they are repeating themselves, but in fact, they are building worlds, expanding worlds, and these worlds have theurgic—that is healing, liberating, stretching-one-open, inaugurating new lives—effect. These writers, following their persistent absorptions, following their gripping, possibly half-comprehended commitments, encounter similar material in ascending spirals, encounter this material at further points of evolution, encounter it in another-side-showing states, as they pursue what transfixes them. The practice I am describing may sound like the “saturation method,” take a big topic and soak it in, of Charles Olson (Mayan civilization), Clayton Eshleman (Upper Paleolithic art) and Christopher Dewdney (the natural history of southwestern Ontario), and it’s true that the levels of insistence in Olson may sound like what is going on in Legris and the others, but I also hear a crucial difference. One focus builds out of an interest, a cultural curiosity, whereas the other tumbles from the rivering-out of a personal eros. The poems and books, for these poets, are an incremental archive of one’s reaching desire, one’s questing to know or redeem. I’d immodestly put myself in this class of poet, too. Over the last thirty or so years I’ve been tracking a couple of things that have tendrils going into one another: the first transfixity, beginning with Moosewood Sandhills and moving through the next two books, was with autochthonicity, the problem of learning how to come from one’s ground. More recently what’s drawn me has been the character of Honoré Jaxon, Louis Riel’s last secretary, and his engagement with Riel’s metaphysics. Jaxon was trying to learn how to be in the world, in a spiritual and political sense, and his enthusiasms have stood at the centre of two masques, Assiniboia and The House of Charlemagne.

This sort of writing, the composition of poetry systems, theurgic worlds, has four characteristics. The perduring theme, again, isn’t repetition but an ever-renewed coming at a broad, single confusion, beauty or sadness from multiple angles and through multiple musics. First, the gesture is, or can be, encyclopedic, drawing material from dream journals, lectio journals, research, everything stirred in. Secondly, it may play as spectacle-like: imagine a large Tang Dynasty canvas unscrolling in readers’ heads. Thirdly, it is tolerant of much formal diversity, prose going with litany, going with theatre or masque, going with novel-like narratives. Lastly, such writing may be in a way exegetical, a reading or retrieval of the past, a saving, a serving the past, a saying-again of the past.

A writer starting a new project or someone embarking on the writer’s life might ask themselves certain elemental questions. What is nagging me now? What are the roots of this matter that will not go away? What am I fiddling with, mourning, deeply puzzled by? What won’t let me go? What shapes me? In questions like these lie clues to the roots of one’s essence as a writer.

This is what the long long poem looks like on the inside: it is sweeping; it is encyclopedic, omnivorous; it is a drawing in of the past; it can feel like repetition. What does it look like on the outside? I’ve already suggested it can look like transformative power, a large story —visionary recital—of many parts that pulls readers in and stretches them. It may look like an audacious failure that nevertheless carries claiming energy. Think of Leaves of Grass. The work can lift and turn. Here is where poetry is a sort activism. And it arises from a writer yielding to a personal eros.

Let’s suppose you’ve answered a couple of those earlier questions around foundational preoccupation. Now I invite you to imagine this base material as coming toward you as a turning spiral: it comes into you at a different angle each time; you, also a spiral, add something new to it each time it passes through you. Imagine this attentiveness spreading out, taking up as much space as it wants. What other thing, powers, would come to it if it spread grandly in this way on the page? Place or places may come into play; characters; histories; new modes of performance. Hold these images, these possibilities, in mind. Savour them in the mouth of the heart, ore cordis. You are on your way.


This is an excerpt from the talk Tim gave at Writing North 2020.

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