cover of book

A Long Essay on the Long Poem: Modern and Contemporary Poetics and Practices
by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
University of Alabama Press, 2023
Paper: 978-0-8173-6068-9 | eISBN: 978-0-8173-9444-8
Library of Congress Classification PN1136.D87 2023
Dewey Decimal Classification 809.1

A masterful meditation on our most mercurial and abiding of poetic forms—the long poem
For decades, Rachel Blau DuPlessis has shown readers how genres, forms, and the literal acts of writing and reception can be understood as sites of struggle. In her own words, “writing is . . . a praxis . . . in which the author disappears into a process, into a community, into discontinuities, and into a desire for discovery.” It is cause for celebration, then, that we have another work of warm, incisive, exploratory writing from DuPlessis in A Long Essay on the Long Poem.

Long poems, DuPlessis notes, are elusive, particularly in the slippery forms that have emerged in the postmodern mode. She cites both Nathaniel Mackey and Anne Waldman in thinking of the poem as a “box,” both in the sense of a vessel that contains and as a machine that processes, an instrument on which language is played. This study’s central attention is on the long poem as a sociocultural Book, distinctively envisioned by a range of authors.

To reckon with these shifting and evolving forms, DuPlessis works in a polyvalent mode, a hybrid of critical analysis and speculative essay. She divides the long poem and the long poets into three genres: epics, quests, and a composite she terms “assemblages.” The poets she surveys include T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, H.D., Louis Zukofsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, Charles Olson, Alice Notley, Nathaniel Mackey, Ron Silliman, Robert Duncan, Kamau Brathwaite, and, finally, Mallarmé and Dante. Instead of a traditional lineage, she deliberately seeks intersecting patterns of connection between poems and projects, a nexus rather than a family tree. In doing so she navigates both some challenges of long poems and her own attempt to “essay” them. The result is a fascinating and generous work that defies categorization as anything other than essential.

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