This is an exhibition by Ben Field of several large poems, including pieces about the M1 motorway, Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins, and Orchard Side — Cowper’s home in Olney.
Each of these large poems is an experiment in form, and is accompanied by illustrations. ‘As far as the Blue Boar’, the M1 poem, is written in six lanes, with junctions and verges; ‘Magnificent Desolation’, the Mike Collins poem, uses an expansive line to depict the epic view from his command module window; and ‘Orchard Side’, like The Task, strolls gently around the life, thoughts, and home of William Cowper.
Formal effects often proceed from the play of rhythm against metre, sound against sense, and line against syntax. Across a larger sequence (especially of fixed stanza form), like Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the alignment and syncopation of smaller features on the order of syllable, word, phrase, sentence, line, and so on, is extended to include the larger scale of stanza itself.
Looking to the examples available we find no limit on the size of a poem according to the number of its lines, only on the length ofit lines. There are various experiments in hexameters in the nineteenth century; then the more variable, often longer lines of other metrical adventurers like Whitman and, a little later and by very different method, Hopkins. Learning from Whitman and encouraged by twentieth century free verse excitement, Ginsberg’s Howlhas dizzy run-on lines many times longer we usually see in poetry. Beyond convention and the sensible cap on line length established by human breath, there is also a question of page size. The most enduring forms have developed in close parallel with the needs of the listener or reader — units that are comfortable for lung and memory, eye and hand.
The verse paragraphs of Howl(1956) or Mercian Hymns(1971) preserve some sense of line breaks, but by their appearance on the page they begin to resemble prose poetry in spite of indentation and its helpful reminders. In order to present long lines accurately, it is necessary for the page to grow.B