The poetics of complexity and the modern long poem
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This study examines several long poems from 1850 to the present to demonstrate why they are properly long poems as opposed to verse narratives or lyric sequences, the two most common characterizations of texts composed of many lines of verse. This study redirects attention to the form of the long poem as well as to several under-read examples of it, which are widely regarded as their authors’ masterpieces despite their apparent obscurity. The primary texts are: Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, Derek Walcott’s Omeros, and Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. One of the hallmarks of the form is its incompleteness in excerpt; as a result, modern long poems are seldom included in discussions of poetry, which instead focus on lyric sequences or collections as the primary examples of long forms since they can be vii addressed in small pieces. At the same time, a prevailing interest in narrative effectively places any attention given to extensive poetry on their plots and characters; and since many modern long poems do not succeed as literature solely because of their narrative content, they are not well understood when they are read at all. To assist readers in making sense of these texts, this study describes a poetics based on the insights offered by complexity theory. Among the strengths of complexity theory is its focus on the paradoxes of form as they appear in communicating systems, which for the purposes of this study means: readers. Through a critical analysis of the recursive paradoxes inherent in the study’s primary texts, this study shows how readers can and do make sense of them as poetic.