Sunday, May 13, 2012

Haniel Long

Long (R), with Witter Bynner (L), 1920s

Though fairly obscure now, Haniel Long (1888-1956) was a well-known and well-regarded poet who published in literary journals and anthologies alongside many of the major modernist figures of the day. For instance, Long appeared in Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse (1920), edited by Alfred Kreymborg, which also included such poets as William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Mina Loy, Marianne Moore, Carl Sandburg, and Lola Ridge. He contributed to multiple issues of Poetry magazine, and, to list another example, his poem “Sand Storm” was published in the second issue of A Year Magazine (1933), which also featured an essay that Williams offered as part of “A Symposium: The Status of Radical Writing.” The critic Kenneth Burke characterized Long’s Pittsburgh Memoranda (Writers’ Editions, 1935) as “unquestionably suggest[ing] the magnitude and the quality of the psychological issues arising from the confused ways in which late capitalism both stimulates and frustrates ambition,” while Stanley Burnshaw in his joint review of Pittsburgh Memoranda and Wallace Stevens’s Ideas of Order devoted the bulk of the piece to Long.

His poetry collections are Poems (1920), Atlantides (1933), Pittsburgh Memoranda (1935), and The Grist Mill (1945).  In my opinion, by far his best is Pittsburgh Memoranda. Long’s most formally compelling offering, it is a pastiche of poetry, prose-poetry, and prose (the latter culled from a variety of sources including biography, journalism, historical accounts, correspondence, and personal conversation) — in this sense, it anticipates the method of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson. Denise Levertov, for one, considered the two works to be in the same category. Discussing the composition of her own long poem To Stay Alive (1971) in a 1972 interview, she stated that she sought “the elbowroom of a diary form, incorporating prose passages as Williams had done in Paterson . . . and as Haniel Long had done in Pittsburgh Memorandum [sic].”

A first edition of Pittsburgh Memoranda (1935), dust jacket (L) and book itself (R)

In a 1986 interview, the poet Ed Dorn remarked of Long, “He’s one of those minor, unknown, unread writers that can do more for you than anybody else,” and I have to agree. There is a sheer strength to his work, which, though it may defy easy categorization, is worthy of critical reconsideration now more than ever. And, as the United States appears to be going through economic upheavals not very unlike those of the 1930s (Long’s heyday), and as contemporary writers search for new ways to situate their own work in an ensuing social or political context, Long — particularly in Pittsburgh Memoranda — offers a potential way forward. Of course, Long could be said to be part of the broader zeitgeist of documentary art in the 1930s (to note a couple other examples, the first volume of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony appeared in 1934, and Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead” was published in 1938), but Long’s critique through poetry of corporate America is eerily relevant in our own era of Occupy Wall St. To me, Pittsburgh Memoranda is as fresh as the day it was published and stands on its own as — I’ll say it — a masterpiece, a shockingly overlooked masterpiece.

Most of Long’s books are out of print, but the University of Pittsburgh Press republished Pittsburgh Memoranda in 1990 (ISBN: 9780790917184), so it is fairly widely available from sellers online. Also, this site provides free PDF versions of the poetry collections Pittsburgh Memoranda and Atlantides, as well as the prose works Interlinear to Cabeza de Vaca (1936) and Malinche (1939). Further, it has his Walt Whitman & the Springs of Courage (1938), which is not only a critical work on Whitman but also Long’s broader poetic, political, and philosophic manifesto. All of these are well worth taking a look at.

A further thought: Some publisher ought to do a volume of Long's collected poems.

Page 1 of Pittsburgh Memoranda


viles said...

Thank you for your comments on my Godfather.
Best wishes,
Haniel Peterson

Mike Begnal said...

Thanks for your comment!