How long is a poem?

The previous posting on short poems has, naturally, started me thinking about longer poems, and poem lengths generally. I’ve read a couple of verse novels, and I have to admit, Gentle Reader, that I do not like the form. I mean, what’s wrong with the prose novel? The verse novel seems such an artificial thing to attempt, and I’ve no idea what the writers’ motivations might be.

The ‘long poem’ sensu lato, however, has its adherents, and I definitely do see the attraction in writing the pamphlet/chapbook length poem. Not that I’ve written one myself, I have to say. I have written poem sequences though, one of which, the title sequence from Thirteen Ways of Looking At the Highlands, was around 28 pages of typescript. As I envisaged it, it was going to be a sequence of thirteen linked poems, each of which was around two pages long, with a Prologue and an Epilogue to introduce and to summarise. I wrote it on retreat at Moniack Mhor, and I couldn’t have completed it without the isolation and concentration of the retreat. I’ve also written a six-page botanical poem, The Flowers of Scotland, which was an anniversary present to the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, and first published in its newsletter, and later as a poem-card.

But it has to be said that the long poem, or the long poem sequence, isn’t something I regularly set out to write. Most of mine come out under the 40-line length which, as it happens, is also the line length which fits well on many magazine editors’ pages. Not that I write them to fit magazines – it just works out that way. And some editors have larger pages which will take 50 or so lines, or will happily run poems over onto two pages. As far as webzines go, my personal feeling is that you exceed a screenfull at the risk of losing your scroller’s interest. And that too is around the 40-line mark.

Actually, my all-time favourite poem length is the 14-line sonnet. There’s something very satisfying about writing sonnets, rhymed or free – it seems such a natural form.


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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9 Responses to How long is a poem?

  1. Rachel Fox says:

    After having written heaps of short poems I have been thinking about tackling a longer one this very week! And now the schools are back I might even get some time to try it (that retreat suddenly sounds very appealing…).

    I suppose for a long poem to hold a reader/listener it needs a strong subject or story or just a very strong sense that it needs to be that long, that it isn't just long for the hell of it (although there would be readers and listeners, however few, who would still enjoy length for length's sake).

    And are you blogging on holiday? Time for bloggers anonymous?

  2. Rik says:

    C'mon Colin. You're beginning to sound like Ron Silliman – he's keeps banging on about the idea that prose novels have made the idea of verse novels redundant.

    Yet prose writing (as found in novels) and poetry are very different registers. People are happy to write prose poems and flash fiction which attempt to combine the strengths of both into a short piece of writing. Why the bemusement when someone decides to mix the two in a work that takes more than half an hour to read?

  3. Jim Murdoch says:

    My question is: When is it a long poem and when is it a collection of shorter pieces masquerading as a long poem? William Carlos Williams' 5-volume Paterson has always struck me as a collage work. Yes, it has a unifying theme, the city as man, but it's a very broad one.

    I also favour short poems, in fact I've never written anything since I was a teenager that couldn't fit on a page. The poem I'm working on at the moment has seventeen lines and I consider that a long poem. Eight to ten lines is what I'm most comfortable with. In musical terms I've always looked at a poem as a chamber piece; novels are symphonies.

    When Larkin was asked about had he ever considered writing a long poem he answered: "A long poem for me would be a novel. In that sense, A Girl in Winter is a poem." I feel much the same. Not sure where that leave the short story in the grand scheme of things.

  4. Colin Will says:

    Rachel: At the moment I'm squeezing in a quick blog catch-up while my better half is watching Cinderella with our grandchildren. It's true the lng poem has to be planned. More often with me it's matter of following a line in my head and seeing where it takes me.

    Rik: It's a matter of taste for me. I've read narrative verse novels by Craig Raine and Les Murray – poets I admire – and although I enjoyed the stories in both cases (especially Les Murray), the form just turned me off.

    Jim: I think you're right about Paterson, but the thing that would define the difference between a long poem and a poem sequence for me would be that the long poem is linear, but the sequence can contain branches, side-chains, offshoots. You can read parts of Paterson independently of the whole.

  5. Tommaso Gervasutti says:

    Dear Colin, I agree with you almost completely, a verse novel is very hard to read and the form turns off. But as in everything I think about some exceptions: I have read twice Omeros by Derek Walcott…what about then strong works like these that would never have been written in prose? The Seamus Heaney of "Station Island"? And going back, some major Eliot's works are not short and there's narration in them…

  6. BarbaraS says:

    Totally with you on the sonnet – I just love the way they can resolve themselves so well in the form.

    I've tried long poems, but they are so, so time consuming. Unless you get the chance to work on them over a concentrated time, as you suggest, or if it's something that you can come back to over, say, a daily period.

  7. deemikay says:

    I'm a fan of long poems. The Iliad, The Odessey, Sir Gawain, blah, blah… I like these stories in verse and I'd like more of them (we have Omeros and Fredy Neptune to keep me occupied). I'd especially like more good ones.

    Do they do something that prose fiction doesn't? Well, yes… they've got poetry in them. Yes, some prose has poetry in it. But novels are most often less interested in how they sound and more interested in what they say. Long poems have to listen to themselves.

    The longest I've ever written is a couple of hundred lines. But in my head there are a few much, much bigger things. And as I can't write prose fiction I've really only got verse to rely on to realise them.

  8. deemikay says:

    oops… "Odyssey"

  9. Titus says:

    I'm with deemikay, who forgot the Anglo-Saxon treasures and Chaucer.
    I write long poems too!

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