Poem Sampler

From the Archive: Long Poems

A selection of long poems from a special double issue of Poetry magazine.

Poetry staff 1956, editor Henry Rago



In October-November of 1963 editor Henry Rago published a special double-issue of Poetry featuring lengthy work that the magazine otherwise would have had trouble accommodating. Rago's foreword began: "It seems a good idea to have in one issue of Poetry a number of longer poems, excerpts from work in progress, sequences, a few works of translation now being quarried, some poems concerned with the larger statement whatever their length, and one or two groups of poems that suggested to us, particularly in this context, some perspectives into the work their authors were doing at the moment."

Rago was interested in harvesting what was current — poetry as a "going thing, in its motion here and now." From the beginning, Ezra Pound had conceived of Poetry as an "active anthology" that tapped into work done and being done, rather than highlighting "achieved success." Rago linked the impetus for a double-issue to that pioneering vision. The crimson-covered double-issue showcased sections from long poems like John Berryman's "Dream Songs" and Louis Zukofsky's "A"; a Joao Cabral de Melo Neto translation by Elizabeth Bishop; work from long-formalists including Robert Duncan, Randall Jarrell, Ronald Johnson, Robert Lowell and Charles Olson; and shorter pieces by Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, and Charles Tomlinson.

In April-May of 1965, Rago released a second double-issue featuring many of the above poets, as well as work from Kenneth Koch, Gael Turnbull, Philip Whalen, Adrienne Rich, and Anne Sexton. Robert Duncan, who appeared in both issues, wrote a glowing letter to Rago on May 19, 1965. "Dear Henry, It is a proud issue," read his opening. He had seen parts of Levertov's "Olga Poems" before their appearance in Poetry, but had not recognized their power until experiencing them in that forum. In particular, "Olga Poems" and Turnbull's "Twenty Words: Twenty Days" struck him as "more than their best, as lifted up into something that becomes ours beyond theirs." Rago's stated intention for the special issues seems to have been to create that kind of vibration for readers. He was not interested in describing a movement or "literary situation," but hoped that if " . . . enough poets are seen in one place, at one time, each minding his own business, some larger impressions just might be possible."

 

Originally Published: April 1, 2008

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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