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Poem Sampler

Beyond Perfect

Eight long, complex poem-cycles that anthologies always miss.

I seldom use anthologies when I teach. Instead I hand out long poems that reflect my preoccupations. Though these are rarely included in anthologies because of their length, I think there are other reasons, too. The highly polished individual poem has become the goal for many writers in contemporary workshops. Prizing the perfected lyric has led to an emphasis upon closure (the strong and memorable ending), to revision as most often a practice of deleting, and to the poem as a self-referential and closed system.

For me, though, the vitality of much modern and postmodern poetry is most often expressed in the sequence, an extended form in which disparate realities—personal experience, cultural threads, or texts—can intersect and flux and ebb across formal boundaries. To include such works in the canon shifts our gaze to poetry as an intimate and ongoing process, a life work as well as an art work. It’s very difficult to argue that any sequence is perfect, but in their rawness, their dangling threads, their knots and sprawl, many sequences resemble a living and particular body, imperfect but loved—as it is. These works provoke and engage me; their limitations, interruptions, failures, and birthmarks indicate the hour and place of their origins, and I love their complexities, depths of feeling, and linguistic and formal beauty.

1. Migraciones/Migrations by Gloria Gervitz
In Gloria Gervitz’s book-length poem Migraciones/Migrations, the speaker addresses a “you” whose identity is amorphous: “To whom does one speak before dying? Where are you? / Where within me can I invent you?” Sometimes a lover, the speaker’s mother, the familial dead, or the other within oneself, the “you” is various and changing: “The froth in the dazzle of the wing. / The color and season of bougainvilleas are for you. The pollen stuck to my fingers.” Written over a period of 27 years, the dialogue between the “I” and the “you” creates a continuity that weaves the physical and sensuous detail, building a kind of home throughout the migrations and losses within a life, “there in that well / in that mirror of the flesh / on the edges where I lie in my aloneness.”

2. The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley
In The Descent of Alette, Alice Notley reimagines the Babylonian redemptive journey of Inanna into the underworld. In Notley’s first-person version, a woman descends into a subway through various metamorphic encounters. Notley uses double quotation marks to set off phrases, disarming and interrupting the reader’s expectation. For example, she breaks sentences into phrases: “One day, I awoke” “& found myself on” “A mother” “& a child” “were both on fire, continuously.” As readers struggle with the form, they may have less energy to resist the strangeness of an owl with a human face that speaks, or a subway with walls made of flesh. Strangeness becomes normalized, as if in a dream.

3. Calamus by Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman’s Calamus sequence of 12 short poems (or, as it is also known, Live Oak, with Moss) presents a poet who is more private than the Whitman we know from Leaves of Grass:

I am indifferent to my own songs—I am to go with him I love,
     and he is to go with me,
It is to be enough for each of us that we are together—We
     never separate again.—

The sequence begins with resistance—“Not the heat flames up and consumes, / Not the sea-waves hurry in and out”—and then gives way to erotic, passionate feeling:

Not these—O none of these, more than the flames of me,
     consuming, burning for his love whom I love—

In contrast to his more well-known erotic poems, in which he sometimes tries too hard to express the glories of heterosexuality in long-winded physical descriptions, here Whitman uses a much shorter line to evoke an entanglement of feeling. The sequence moves from eros to pathos: “Hours when I am forgotten,” “Sullen and suffering hours, “I am ashamed— / but it is useless.” Yet these expressions of doubt and suffering are paired with moments of poise and certainty of feeling:

O you whom I often and silently come where you are, that I
     may be with you,
As I walk by your side, or sit near, or remain in the same
     room with you,
Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is
     playing within me.—

4. “The Fascicles of Emily Dickinson” by Emily Dickinson
“Fascicle,” derived from the Latin term for a bundle of sticks, is also the word for Emily Dickinson’s practice of organizing and binding together a group of her poems. Including Dickinson in the canon has thus far meant tearing the fascicles apart and presenting individual poems, which makes Dickinson’s work seem more quaint, coy, and preoccupied with death. The poems that evince these qualities (often the most anthologized) are changed considerably when in their native company, becoming refractions of a complex experience rather than a single eccentric lens.

The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Auger and the Carpenter—

5. Book of Nightmares by Galway Kinnell
Reading Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares is like wandering through a dreamscape because of its “deep images”—concrete images, such as “stone,” used to express a complex emotional state, much in the way that objects resonate in dreams. Divided into seven sections, each containing ten poems, the book is preoccupied with the speaker’s existence as it intersects in a dreamlike way with other realities: the birth of his daughter, the Vietnam War, a love relationship, the hunting of a bear. Kinnell combines these various elements to mythologize his life.

At its time of publication, the book was critically well-received and influential. Not long afterward, however, critics wrote articles about the “death of the ‘deep image’ poem.” The book is, in a sense, the culmination and the end of a particular style of poetry; images and detail more grounded in daily reality became the scaffolding of Kinnell’s subsequent work. Still, from time to time I go back to this one, in which a nightmarish intensity of feeling can earn such lines as these:

I see myself given, and all this ruin
is for no other misfortune, no other reason
than loving you, and only loving you.

6. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red combines the vernacular and idiomatic with classical diction and a mythical setting. A Canadian poet and classicist, Carson retells the myth of the red-skinned and winged Geryon, a monster who was killed by Herakles. The story is told as Geryon’s autobiography from the age of five: after escaping an abusive home, Geryon grows up to become a photographer and falls in unrequited love with Herakles; the encounter inspires Geryon’s art. Fittingly, the autobiography of the strange Geryon—so fleshy and yet so imagined—is given a form that is also an improbable creature: described as a novel in verse, Autobiography of Redis also part memoir, part novel, part prose poem, and part poem.

. . . He saw the doorway
the house the night the world and
on the other side of the world somewhere Herakles laughing drinking getting
into a car and Geryon’s
whole body formed one arch of a cry—upcast to that custom, the human custom
of wrong love.

7. The Great Zoo by Nicolás Guillen
The bestiary is something of a Latin American tradition, though it takes different forms, such as in Neruda’s The Art of Birds, or the contemporary Mexican poet Carmen Boullosa’s Elysian Garden. Cuban poets seem to have a particular fondness for them. Recently, while translating Nicolás Guillen’s The Great Zoo,I was struck by Guillen’s very direct, ironic tone, as if a know-it-all zoo director were talking to us. In the displays he describes, unexpected and larger realities are exhibited: the Caribbean and a pair of tropical storms in “Winds”:

Not until this morning were they brought back, bound,
lingering lovers,
caught by surprise
when they wandered pensively
near a field of dahlias.

(Over there, on the right,
asleep in their boxes.)

8. The Heights of Macchu Picchu by Pablo Neruda
Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu is a monumental book, a sort of mountain of poems that evokes the voices of many. In 30-plus pages, Neruda writes of the sacred city of the Inca, evoking its beauty, its lost people, and their history, but also connecting the past to the present city. Neruda is preferred by English readers as a lush romantic poet (he is most popular as the author of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair), but in The Heights of Macchu Picchu,his social sense (“Arise and birth with me, my brother”) is richly expressed:

And the air came in with orange-blossom fingers
over all the sleepers:
a thousand years of air, months, weeks of air,
of blue wind and iron mountains,
as if soft hurricanes of running feet
were polishing the solitary enclosure of the stone.


  • Poet, translator, and editor Rebecca Seiferle earned a BA from SUNY and an MFA from Warren Wilson College. Her collections of poetry include The Ripped-Out Seam (1993), which was a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize; The Music We Dance To (1999), winner of the Cecil Hemley Award from the...

Poem Sampler

Beyond Perfect

Eight long, complex poem-cycles that anthologies always miss.


  • Poet, translator, and editor Rebecca Seiferle earned a BA from SUNY and an MFA from Warren Wilson College. Her collections of poetry include The Ripped-Out Seam (1993), which was a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize; The Music We Dance To (1999), winner of the Cecil Hemley Award from the...

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