Introduction by Michael R. Collings


Long-form poetry has played a significant role in human cultures for as long as written records—and in many cases oral traditions—exist. Be they intended as religious ritual, as genealogies of beginnings, as heroic histories, as narratives of shared struggles, as scientific treatises, or as fantastic adventures devised to entertain or unite the tribe, long poems functioned as a means of public discourse that no other literary form provided. In their length, they provided a scope for storytelling that could extend to hours—sometimes days—and hold audiences spellbound, even at times participatory.

By virtue of their structures, they provided ways for the speakers, whether the original poets or later performers, to remember complex passages and recite them again and again. The fundamental elements of verse, including repetition of sounds (assonance, consonance, alliteration, and most effective of all, rhyme), coupled with predetermined rhythms and formulaic stock phrases allowed a performance to proceed without undue lapses and for the poem as a whole to be passed down from generation to generation.

Homer by J.W. CookWriting greatly enhanced the possibilities for poetry. From the Epic of Gilgamesh (roughly 2000 B.C.), to the Enūma Eliš (c. 2100 B.C.), to the twin epics attributed to the legendary Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey (late 8th century B.C.), long-form poetry flourished in the form of epics, histories, and dramas. Through refinement by Virgil, Ovid, and others, through the often sterile-seeming Middle Ages and their wealth of metrical romances, through the linguistic iconoclasm of Dante Alighieri, through the beginnings of classical renewal with the Renaissance in the 15th century, long-form poetry proliferated. Indeed, by the time such names as Ludovico Ariosto, Luís Vaz de Camões, and Torquato Tasso became household names among the educated, it had become almost imperative, in Western cultures at least, that each nation have its own long narrative poem—its epic—detailing the heroism of its founders, the scope of its influence, the singular strengths and beauties of its language.

Spencer by J.W. CookFor English speakers and writers, perhaps the apex of long-form verse arrived with poets as diverse as Edmund Spenser, with his attempts to conserve an already archaic language in The Shepheardes Calender and The Fairie Queene; William Shakespeare, whose narratives unfolded in stanzaic verses extending over a thousand lines, in an extended sonnet sequence limning a tempestuous relationship, and in dramas that, whether ostensibly in verse or prose, are essentially poetic; and John Milton, whose Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained pushed the boundaries of language to the extent that the most successful subsequent long-form verse took the form of mock-epic, as with Alexander Pope.

By the mid-18th century, while long-form poems persisted, a new approach to extended narrative developed that in many ways eclipsed them: the prose novel. For the next century and a half the novel grew in popularity while long-form verse diminished. With the rise of free verse and its disavowal of rhyme, meter, and self-consciously poetic diction in the early 20th century, short-form verse became the standard. By the late 20th century, it was not uncommon for editors of poetry journals to specify two requirements for submissions: first, no metered or rhymed verses; and second, no submissions over 25 lines.

Still, there is an attraction to long forms. They provide a wide canvas for word portraits, for explorations of self and personal identity, for examinations of society and cultures, and, of course, for extended narratives. They allow poets to examine what was from new directions, to understand and interpret what is, and to imagine what may be—all while employing poetic devices that make their excursions memorable and compelling.

The eight poets represented here demonstrate the range of possibilities for long poetry while dividing neatly into two distinct approaches. The first four have each created forms and structures that enhance their themes. Makoto Hunter exploits varying line length in her study of Emma Smith’s internal and external states as she contemplates her husband’s martyrdom and the ramifications for her, for her son, and for the Church Joseph helped establish. Steven L. Peck’s finely crafted couplets—painfully sparse, at times cryptic, lacking in formal punctuation—reflect the world he posits. Mark D. Bennion uses a different physical typography, working in eight ten-line blocks, sonnet-like in their impact, to represent the passage of time in the title. And J.S. Absher’s anatomization and dramatization of a key moment in the Book of Mormon depend upon the full scope of modern poetics to transport readers into a scene that is at once past and present, thematically locked in time and linguistically timeless.

The remaining four take a different tack. Here, readers can trace centuries of long-form traditions as the poets pay homage to powerful voices from the past. James Goldberg envisions a new wasteland, overtly modeled on one of the most influential long poems of the 20th century, T.S. Eliot’s 1922 The Waste Land. Daniel Cooper moves back in time to capture the tone and texture of Dante’s 14,000-line Divine Comedy, applying the earlier poet’s rhyme, meter, and stanza form to a poem uniquely suited to the contemporary audience of Irreantum. Theric Jepson approaches long-form tradition and poetic homage from a different direction, transforming the theme of the medieval chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight while retaining the 14th-century poem’s distinctive alliteration and stanzaic structures. In the final poem represented here, Bruce T. Forbes takes on arguably the most challenging of long-poem forms, Miltonic blank verse—challenging because it is at once easy to imitate and difficult to master and wield as one’s own.

Each of these poets demonstrates inherent strengths in long-form verse…and each faces the same difficulties. In a culture immersed in the quick and the transitory, long poems depend upon what Milton, speaking as the narrator of Paradise Lost in the introductory lines to Book 7, referred to as “fit audience…, though few.” Long poems demand much of readers, foremost being the ability to focus, to concentrate on visions that extend from the intensely personal to the cosmically encyclopedic in scope and depth. There are moments when the most successful long poems flag; as the Roman writer Horace noted (borrowing Dryden’s translation), even “honest Homer nods.” And rather than being satisfied with a moment, an image, an emotion transcribed into words, readers must be willing to be willingly overwhelmed by worlds of ideas and possibilities that might simultaneously verify beliefs and challenge assumptions.

Michael R. Collings, professor emeritus in English from Pepperdine University and past Director of Creative Writing for Seaver College, is a three-time Bram Stoker Award® finalist, and was recognized at the 2016 World Horror Convention as a Grand Master of Horror. He is an internationally known educator, literary scholar and critic, poet, novelist, essayist, columnist, reviewer, and editor whose work over four decades—more than one hundred books and chapbooks and thousands of chapters, essays, reviews, and poems—has concentrated on science fiction, fantasy, and horror, emphasizing the works of Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, C.S. Lewis, and others. In addition, he has published two discussions of writing, The Art and Craft of Poetry: Twenty Exercises toward Mastery (2009) and Chain of Evil: The JournalStone Guide to Writing Horror (2014).

His credits include more than two dozen collections of poetry ranging from religious to mainstream to science fiction/fantasy and horror, including:

In 2011, he published the final version of The Nephiad: An Epic Poem in XII Books, the 6,500-line final version of a project begun 37 years earlier. And ten years later, he completed I, Taliesin: The Joseph Smith/King Arthur Sonets—A Brief Epic (2014, revised and expanded 2021), a complex intertwining of the history of Joseph Smith and the LDS Church, elements of the Arthurian mythos, traditional and experimental sonnets (including the brief sonette), and the continuous narrative of epic. The latter was named an AML Award finalist in poetry collections.

19.3 Table of Contents

by Michael R. Collings

Emma’s Crown
by Makoto Hunter

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?
by Steven L. Peck

Eight Days
by Mark D. Bennion

Nephi on the Tower
by J.S. Absher

Song of the Salt Sea
by James Goldberg

Talking to Dante in the Spirit World
by Daniel Cooper

The Deacon and the Dragon
by Theric Jepson

The Tree of God’s Own Love: A Poetic Retelling of the Vision of the Tree of Life
by Bruce T. Forbes


A note on the visual elements in this issue:

The colorful swirls you see in the banner and elsewhere are the endpapers from a 1904 edition of Orson F. Whitney’s long poem Elias: An Epic for the Ages. This particular copy is owned by the University of California who has scanned it and made it available at At least seven copies of Elias are available thereat. Whitney’s ambitious volume is included among The AML 100, announced at last summer’s AML conference. A citation will be online soon, but the full list may be read now.

The portraits of Homer and Spencer are among twenty engraved by the artist J.W. Cook in 1825.