In the twenty‐first century, digital technologies have made it possible for writers and artists to create massively unreadable works through computational and collaborative composition, what the author has elsewhere called megatexts. The ubiquity of texts appearing across media that are quite literally too big to read—from experimental novels to television, film, and video games—signals that the megatext is an emergent form native to the era of neoliberalism. But what happens to other long forms, such as the twentieth‐century long poem, when written in an era of megatextuality? Rachel Blau DuPlessis's work, including Drafts (1987–2013) and Traces, with Days (2017–), readily suggests itself as a case study for thinking through a megatextual impulse in the twenty‐first‐century long poem. Though her work is plainly indebted to its modernist precursors (H.D., Pound, Williams, etc.) while disavowing at every level of its composition a patriarchal will toward totality, DuPlessis's various experiments in the long poem are also thoroughly contemporary and respond to the economic, military, political, and environmental transformations of the neoliberal era by drawing upon and producing fragmentary, megatextual debris. This essay positions DuPlessis's work amidst a larger twenty‐first‐century media ecology, which includes both the megatext and the big, ambitious novel, and argues that rather than simply (and futilely) resist the neoliberal cultural logic of accumulation without end, DuPlessis hypertrophically uses the megatext's phallogocentric form against itself in order to interrogate more broadly what it means—socially, culturally, economically—to write a long poem in the age of hyperarchival accumulation.
A feminist practice can only be negative, at odds with what already exists. . . .—Julia Kristeva, “Woman Can Never Be Defined”
But the rags, the refuse—these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
As late as 2009, despite decades of critical writing about the genre of the long novel, it was still necessary for Mark Greif (2009: 12) to argue, citing feelings of disapprobation toward the form, “that the ‘big, ambitious novel’ in the contemporary United States does possess a history” (emphasis mine). Critics of the modern long poem, on the other hand, have felt it firmly established as a category for some time, at least since Margaret Dickey codified the long poems of Hart Crane, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams as a recognizable genre with a distinct history in her 1986 book, On the Modernist Long Poem.1 There appears to be a similar time lag in scholarship devoted to contemporary long novels written by women. Twenty-three years before the appearance of this special issue of Genre on “Big, Ambitious Novels by Twenty-First-Century Women,” which you are currently reading, Women's Studies published a special issue on “American Women Poets and the Long Poem” (Crown 1998) and, the year before, Lynn Keller (1997) published her field-defining work on long poems published by US women in the 1980s and 1990s, Forms of Expansion (see also Tarlo 1999; Hinton and Hogue 2002). Is it possible that it has taken the big, ambitious novel twenty-three years—a generation—to receive critical attention similar to that paid its literary counterpart, the modern long poem?
Probably not, as such a coincidental parallel is obviously a bit of a convenient fiction that fails to accurately capture the multivalent landscape of US literary studies during the past thirty-five years.2 But I do feel that this curious anecdote highlights a visible critical divergence during this period and that considerations of the big, ambitious novel in the United States may have benefited from being in closer conversation with the significant transformations that were taking place in the study of contemporary poetry and poetics, particularly with regard to gender. For, even as late as 2009 (and from such a generally conscientious and nuanced critic), Greif (2009) begins his essay by invoking exclusively male writers—William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, William T. Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace (11)—incipiently perpetuating the familiar masculinist stereotype about the “big, ambitious novel,” and, over the twenty pages of the essay, he barely mentions gender except to ask (and fail to answer), “Why should women authors be absent from the list? Because there are fewer examples of the form written by women, or because their contributions are not recognized as examples?” (26).3 Greif concludes his essay by invoking the big, ambitious novel's “intensive, local expression . . . to allegorize total knowledge and hidden violence” (30) in the United States after the Second World War, but his exclusive focus on the novel is not the whole story. In terms of thinking about totalizing literary efforts, it seems like a mistake to ignore the modern long poem and its significant contributions to allegorizing knowledge and resisting the “capitalist world system's . . . exposed violence of its crime and wars” (Greif 2009: 30), particularly the ways that US women poets took up these efforts in a variety of encyclopedic literary projects during the post-1945 period. Perhaps a realization that the contemporaries of maximalist novelists should also include writers of long poems, for example, the writers Keller discusses in her book—Beverly Dahlen, Sharon Doubiago, Rita Dove, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Judy Grahn, Marilyn Hacker, Susan Howe, and Marie Osbey, a list to which one could easily add Gwendolyn Brooks, Carolyn Forché, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Bernadette Mayer, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, M. NourbeSe Philip, Adrienne Rich, Leslie Scalapino, Anne Waldman, and many others currently writing—maybe such intergenre attention might have produced a different, more expansive and inclusive history of postmodern literary ambition in the United States.4
So, what would a history of textual enormity in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries look like if we expand our field of inquiry beyond the novel and take a comparative approach to literary size and scale? Similar to the wall we often find in English departments between creative writing and literary study, over which it can be difficult to see or converse, sustained reading into scholarship on either the long poem or the long novel will reveal surprisingly little cross-pollination, to the detriment of both.5 Outlying chimeras exist, certainly, but their hybridity often condemns them to inattention from either camp.6 This essay attempts to do some of this comparative work between different genres and forms, not just by putting the big, ambitious novel and the long poem in conversation, but by also trying to understand the contemporary long poem as a participant in a larger twenty-first-century media ecology with a widespread propensity toward textual enormity.
As I argue elsewhere, in the last thirty-five years massive, unreadably large texts have increasingly appeared across media. Digital technologies have made it possible for artists and “creators” of all kinds to produce, through computational and collaborative composition, unprecedentedly mammoth cultural artifacts, what I call megatexts. Megatexts are “unreadably large yet concrete aesthetic and rhetorical objects, produced and conceived as singular works, and [which] depend upon digital technology and collaborative authorship for their production” (Fest 2017: 255). Such texts—texts that are, quite literally, too big to read—are ubiquitous in the contemporary media landscape. From experimental conceptual projects, such as Mark Leach's seventeen-million-word novel, Marienbad My Love (2013), Michael Mandiberg's printing of Wikipedia in 2015, and the 857-hour film, Logistics (2012), to popular forms, such as immense video game worlds and transmedia corporate intellectual property (e.g., the Star Wars Expanded Universe [1977 – 2014]), megatexts abound in the twenty-first century and their presence in both avant-garde and corporate cultural production signals, I claim, that the megatext is an emergent form native to the neoliberal era. Megatexts are also beginning to inflect the work done in novels, poems, and other dominant and residual forms in a variety of ways.
The appearance of megatexts raises a number of questions regarding textual accumulation, epistemology, mimesis, limitation, history, totality, and ambition, questions that long poems such as H.D.’s Trilogy (1944 – 46) and Helen in Egypt (1961), Charles Olson's Maximus Poems (1953 – 75), Pound's Cantos (1925 – 70), Williams's Paterson (1946 – 58), and Louis Zukofsky's “A” (1940 – 78) already anticipated. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis—regardless of era, one of the most significant US practitioners and theorists of the long poem—asks with regard to her own long poem, Drafts (1987 – 2013),
As I have made clear, Drafts is a large-scale project with several of the monumental works of modernism haunting the author—a work that might . . . be described, in Pound's words, as a “big long, endless poem.” This raises the unsolved—perhaps insoluble—problem of representation and extent: for Williams, “the whole knowable world.” Knowing and unknowing clash interestingly in these two citations, as do termination and the interminable. Both speak of a decisive yearning to produce an encyclopedic work of grounding that explores sociopolitical and spiritual forces with collage, heteroglossia, citation, accumulation. No one could now claim anything resembling this ambition innocently, yet the question is still fresh after eighty years or more. What to do about the long poem? (DuPlessis 2006: 216)7
Though DuPlessis asks a rather large number of questions with this simple yet abstract question, she is clearly and self-reflexively concerned with putting front and center in her poetics the conflict between the long poem's encyclopedic ambition to know and represent the totality of the modern world—an ambition she shares, if critically (for she is interested in exploring the relations in “the whole unknowable world” [2006: 240; emphasis mine])—and the patriarchal, monumental, exclusionary will toward authoritarian mastery and totality—that is, the dangerous problem of extent—visible in the teleological projects of Pound and others. In the era of megatextuality, the questions presented by the long poem about the limits of mimesis and epistemology, about the knowability of history and totality persist, not only because the megatext exponentially reproduces the long poem's contradictions and multiplies its noninnocent ambitions toward total knowledge, but because the facticity of the megatext self-reflexively doubles these questions back upon its own form: How can one know and represent a text that is too big to read? How does one read and discuss a form that, though limited, terminal, and procedural, in accumulating toward total inclusion and endlessness becomes, like the world, unpresentable, interminable, and unknowable in its totality? What to do about (reading) megatexts?
That the questions modernists confronted continue to beset writers and critics of the long poem and easily map upon emerging encyclopedic forms should encourage in us greater catholicity regarding what we include in our canons of textual enormity and more abundant curiosity regarding the possibilities for exploring intertextual networks. The emergence of megatexts should also alert critics of big, ambitious novels and long poems alike to the need for expanding our conversations even further to include film and television, conceptual art, comics and graphic novels, video games, and emergent digital, hybrid, and transmedia forms; to understand textual enormity in the twenty-first century requires that we let these different forms and genres speak to each other, and restricting ourselves to any single genre may actually prevent us from seeing its salient features. To start answering questions about megatexts also requires that we continue to ask DuPlessis's question: “What to do about the long poem?” The long poem is not only an important formal precursor to the megatext, and so can give critics and scholars tools for beginning to think about and study massively unreadable contemporary texts as a set of interconnected phenomena; its persistence and efflorescence in the era of megatextuality also provides a compelling and productive site around which to better pursue intergenre investigations of literary enormity.
One of the peculiar things uniting discussions of the long poem, the big, ambitious novel, and the megatext is the challenge critics face when they try to create definitions and taxonomies on the basis of scale (Fest 2019). What makes any particular poem or novel long or big rather than short? Longer than “normal” or conventional? In terms of the long poem, Joseph M. Conte's study of postmodern poetry, Unending Design (1991), remains hugely useful in understanding poetry's transformations after 1945 and for providing critics with a productive definitional foundation from which to theorize the long poem. When proposing his taxonomy of postmodern poetry, Conte finds two dominant formal attributes: serial and procedural. The serial poem is an open form; it “articulates . . . indeterminacy and . . . discontinuity”; it “is a combinative form whose arrangements admit a variegated set of materials” (1991: 19, 21; see also Eco 1989; Hejinian 2000). Procedural poems, on the other hand, are closed forms that set “predetermined and arbitrary constraints . . . to generate the context and direction of the poem during composition” (3). DuPlessis has written a number of essays during and after the composition of Drafts theorizing the long poem, often drawing upon yet frequently departing from Conte. In “After the Long Poem” (2017a: 6), she distinguishes between two kinds of long poem: “one kind is book-length, generally ending, taking months or a few years to complete, relatively contained. . . . The second kind [which is what I am interested in here] takes decades to write, has multiple-book construction, possibly does not end, and is often excessive: a life's work” (see also Silliman 2005; Middleton 2010). DuPlessis outlines additional (and quite useful) taxonomies of the long poem in her essay “Considering the Long Poem” (2009), but also acknowledges, drawing upon Jacques Derrida's (1980) theorization of genre, the impossibility of doing so. Ultimately, what distinguishes the long poem from other forms is activity: that “is the fundamental term. . . . Length is simply a way of wagering/waging against and inside time” (DuPlessis 2009).8 When locating the defining features of the long poem, DuPlessis emphasizes its unique modes of making, the temporal processes involved in producing textual excess, rather than focusing on the object that emerges from this activity.
And in terms of sheer activity, Rachel Blau DuPlessis's ongoing work—which is both serial and procedural, closed and open, book-, multivolume-, and life-length—readily suggests itself as a case study for thinking about the long poem's transformation in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and its relationship to other huge contemporary forms. Since the completion of Drafts in 2012, DuPlessis has embarked on a second project: a series of interstitial works that serve as a bridge to Traces, with Days (2017 – ), a long poem that is simultaneously several (at least two) poems. Together, Tabula Rosa (1987), which contains the first two poems from Drafts and the portal poem, “Writing” (1985), the five volumes of Drafts, her interstitial works—Interstices (2014), Poesis (2016; see Milutis 2019), and the visual collage-poems “Churning the Ocean of Milk” (2014), Graphic Novella (2015a; a portal poem to Traces, with Days), and NUMBERS (2018)—and the published, alternating volumes of Traces, with Days—Days and Works (2017), Late Work (2020), and Around the Day in 80 Worlds (2018)—these books collectively constitute what DuPlessis (2015b) calls “a triptych of works,” an immense yet provisional, bounded, discretely realized, and antiteleological lifetime exercise in textual enormity, in variations on the long poem form, which surpasses in scope and accomplishment the work of even the most ambitious modernist and postmodernist poets (though “an endless series is a difficult poetics / because you will die / before you can finish it” [DuPlessis 2018: 24]).9 In a press release no longer online (because the press folded), DuPlessis frames the publication of Days and Works as part of this lifetime exploration of long poetic forms: “Finished and unfinished have nothing to do with this. The operable terms for the long poem are activity (praxis or poesis—the practice of making) and desire. . . . Fundamentally, the long poems, the serial poems, the book length works show a desire or drive to be endlessly making something ‘all about everything,’ inside poesis itself” (quoted in Tabios 2017; emphasis mine). For DuPlessis, the act of writing poetry involves an impulse toward endless textual production; inside poiesis itself is a kernel, a desire, a drive to manifest length and excess, to produce long poems.
And I cannot overstate DuPlessis's achievements in the form. Ron Silliman has said that “Drafts is proving to be one of the major poetic achievements of our time” (DuPlessis 2004a: back cover), and in 2011, on the occasion of DuPlessis's retirement from Temple University, Bob Perelman (2011) suggested that the completion of Drafts “will . . . mark a major fact in anglophone poetic history.” Without hyperbole, DuPlessis's work in revising, rewriting, and reclaiming the ground of the modernist long poem for ethically resistant contemporary ends might be understood as a culminating event in the history of the long poem beyond which it will be difficult to go. DuPlessis's work responds, through both serialization and proceduralism, to the epistemological and mimetic aporias presented by the “endless dialogue between closed and open” (DuPlessis 2013b: 1), between trying to capture the whole world and leaving the work open for the unknown and unknowable, the emergent and the possible. That DuPlessis's works are also digitally inflected, collaborative, and massive yet bounded long poems drawing upon the huge variety of information available to contemporary subjects means, if they are not a megatext proper (they are readable, after all), then her oeuvre is something very close, approaching (yet resisting) megatextuality, a work with a palpable if always oppositional megatextual impulse.10 DuPlessis's struggle with and against the accumulatory logics of the neoliberal present also animates her work in the long poem in a fashion similar to how she suggests H.D.’s career is animated by a struggle for authority (DuPlessis 1986). If we consider DuPlessis's work not only in terms of the postmodern long poem and its navigation of the form's conflicts and contradictions, but also understand it as part of a corpus of twenty-first-century cultural artifacts whose principal form is similarly accumulatory, hyperarchival, megatextual, then it offers a striking number of resources for maneuvering among and struggling against the accumulatory logics of the present.
DuPlessis's activity in the long poem over the past thirty-five years highlights how the form might inhabit and address the neoliberal era, the era of big data and financialization, globalization, climate crisis, the forever war, and the ongoing immiserations of late capitalism. Though Drafts, Traces, with Days, and her interstitial work are plainly and often agonistically indebted to their precursors while disavowing at every level of composition a patriarchal will toward totality, and all of her work displays an ethics of witnessing, returning again and again to the atrocities of history and the various intersections, complicities, and potentials for transformation that history shares with modern poetry, DuPlessis's work is also thoroughly contemporary, responding in various ways to the economic, military, political, social, and environmental upheavals of the twenty-first century by drawing upon and producing fragmentary, megatextual debris. Rather than simply (and futilely) resist the neoliberal cultural logic of accumulation without end—the kind of horizonless accumulation visible in everything from superhero films and reality television to Jonathan Basile's Library of Babel (2015)—DuPlessis hypertrophically uses the megatext's phallogocentric form against itself in order to interrogate more broadly what it means—socially, culturally, economically—to write a long poem in the age of hyperarchival accumulation. In DuPlessis's hands, the long poem becomes a mode for enacting a documentary, provisional, self-reflexive, nonteleological, and megatextual ethics of salvage, for continually reactivating the ongoing feminist project of cultural transformation.
Drafts as Megatextual Debris
Begun in 1986 and completed in 2012, DuPlessis's Drafts spans the era of ascendant neoliberalism (see Harvey 2005; Mirowski 2013; Brown 2015). Consisting of 114/115 serial poems collected in five volumes that run to over one thousand pages (including notes), Drafts is a poem of the archive and of crisis, of negativity and presentist reinterpretation that collects the debris of modernity in order to work “with the visceral surges and material densities of language . . . with excess, to excess” (DuPlessis 2006: 209). Throughout, DuPlessis is conspicuously concerned with the past, with memory and loss, with the traumas of the twentieth century, what she calls in one interview “a century of enormity” (DuPlessis 2004b: 407). Exploring how “the Holocaust actively shapes the formal presentation of DuPlessis's long poem,” Walter Kalaidjian argues that “for DuPlessis[,] the task of bearing ‘witness / after the eclipse of witness’ poses the urgent, post-Auschwitz question of the ethics of poetic form” (Kalaidjian 2006: 87, 89). The poems in Drafts begin and then begin again with the ongoing horrors of modernity through formal involvement with the long poems of H.D., Olson, Pound, Williams, Zukofsky, and many others. Rather than try to “represent” atrocity—DuPlessis frequently claims that her work is antimimetic—she secularizes the Talmudic method of commentary known as midrash, a mode of endless scriptural interpretation, in order to read and reread, write and rewrite the historical archive and the modernist long poem, along with her own work, in “continuous chains of interpretation,” “doubled and redoubled commentary, poetry with its own gloss built in . . . ‘otherness inside otherness’ ” (DuPlessis 1990: 162; 2006: 210). As she says in The Pink Guitar (1990): “The practice of writing is already a reading, of the writing already written, of the saturated page” (173), and the aim of DuPlessis's reading and rewriting is nothing less than cultural transformation.
It is this latter point that has so far been somewhat obscured by the nonetheless important critical attention paid to DuPlessis's work and its relationship to history. For example, in her important early reading in Forms of Expansion, Keller paves the way for many subsequent critics by primarily focusing on the ways that Drafts draws upon the tradition of the modernist long poem. Kalaidjian admirably discusses DuPlessis's work of mourning in relationship to historical trauma but fails to connect Drafts to its explicit contemporary concerns. And though Paul Jaussen's (2012: 121) excellent essay on Drafts’ poetics of midrash observes that “DuPlessis's . . . historical sensibility is shaped by the present moment,” rather than pursue this insight at greater length, he too primarily focuses on her indebtedness: to the work of George Oppen and how she responds to Theodor Adorno's (in)famous declaration about poetry after Auschwitz. This critical focus on DuPlessis's midrashic encounter with the archive is commendable and makes sense as a way to begin discussing a challenging and densely woven text that assiduously documents the sources upon which it draws. But such a focus does tend to gloss over DuPlessis's considerable ambitions as a contemporary poet, scholar, and essayist speaking to her present world.11
Discussing the ongoing project of feminist criticism, DuPlessis (2006: 31) writes: “I have felt that feminist re-vision would necessitate the multiple, forceful, and polyvocal invention of a completely new culture and the critical destabilizing, indeed the replacement, of the old”; and elsewhere: “I realized . . . that out of feminism, all culture would have to be changed” (DuPlessis 2004b: 417).12 (Susan Stanford Friedman [1986a: 49]: “First deconstruct, then reconstruct the world of letters.”) DuPlessis says that Drafts’ very “ ‘form’ is ambition” (2006: 217), and this ambition consists in nothing less than feminist cultural transformation. Drafts rereads and rewrites the past to change the present, to step away from the violent trajectory of modernity toward something else, to explore how, referring to the events of September 11, 2001 and the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, “One's building used as a weapon / leaves a mark,” and so we must find some way to “begin again . . . / to back away from / where this had been” (DuPlessis 2007: 2, 3), “this” being, as so often happens in DuPlessis's poetry, so much. She writes in 2012: “in this difficult historical period of writing. . . . I feel, as Theodor Adorno once said, ‘migrated into’ by our current realities, infused in every cell by an on-going world crisis of global plunder, ecological shocks, economic depredation, gender wrongs, and national malfeasance. The political world infuses everything we are. I express it continuously . . . here, now,” this, “that” (DuPlessis 2013b: 17; 2007: 44 – 47). The immiserating realities of the twenty-first century are multiple and overwhelming, and as these various crises inflect all planetary activities, DuPlessis explicitly sees her poetry, including her midrashic encounter with the archive, as a way of navigating this sense of overwhelmedness and demonstrating how much we need to remake our world. To fully understand DuPlessis's achievement then, we should position her antimonumental “ ‘Gesamtnichtwerk’ ” (DuPlessis 2001: 29) not only amongst the “Black megaliths of memory” (DuPlessis 2004a: 194) to which it certainly belongs, the work of Paul Celan, Robert Duncan, Edmond Jabès, Gertrude Stein, and so many other writers who inscribe the catastrophes of the twentieth century into their poetry, but also emphasize its feminist resistance to the hyperarchival impulse of contemporaneity and the ongoingness of atrocity in the twenty-first century.
In the opening pages of “Draft 1: It” (1987), DuPlessis's (2001: 7) ambiguous speaker asks, “There's no way to read it?” This question hangs emblematically over the entire project. Though Drafts and the serial poems that influence it are difficult, open, untranslatable, and flirt with a sense that, in the absence of human finitude, they would go on endlessly, far beyond the point of readability, none of these texts is literally unreadable; many people have read every word in them in a semireasonable amount of time. Though Drafts, like any text, might resist acts of hermeneutic totalization, we can read it, at least from the first page of Drafts 1 – 38, Toll (2001) to the last page of Surge: Drafts 96 – 114 (2013). Nonetheless, Drafts is self-consciously aware that, in some ways, it is too big to read: “There's no way to read it?”—is there?
Perhaps not, for the “it” the question refers to is ambiguous and multiplicitous. “It” is, of course, Drafts itself, and the speaker is “Inside the it of it” (DuPlessis 2004a: 68), but “it / is it” (2001: 9): that is, “it” is nothing more than the letters “i” and “t” on the page, the word it. “It” is, importantly, also “Dahlen's A Reading . . . an ‘it,’ a space half-entered” (DuPlessis 1990: 112), a text that already “points to [(another?)] ‘it,’ ‘it’ [that] takes the place of the ‘infinitely small,’ pointing to the enigmatic self-similarity of the real, which is . . . impossible to represent in language” (Dahlen 1989: 218).13 And, of course, “It is [also] the / ‘it’ characteristic of everything” (DuPlessis 2001: 8), the deictic capacity of the word it to signify, because syntagmatically indeterminate (in this case), anything, any entity whatsoever. It is
“It” is also, according to the first of Drafts’ forty-three pages of notes, the work of David Hannah, Celan, Marcel Duchamp, Stein, H.D., Oppen, Stephane Mallarmé, Paul Auster, Regina Schwartz, Mary Jacobus, Luce Irigaray, Anselm Kiefer, Sharon Friedler, Annette B. Weiner, Kurt Schwitters, Emily Dickinson, Remedios Varo, the Audubon Society, and James Scully (DuPlessis 2001: 269). “It” is the whole hyperarchive of culture DuPlessis draws upon, the enormity of the dictionary, and everything to which the words found therein refer. The poem, in beginning with “it,” admits the poet's own textual oversaturation and projects the largest totality possible—all things that “it” might refer to, that is: everything: “the universe, the earth, our history and politics, the sense of the past, and the more febrile sense of the future: in short, plethora, hyper-stimulation, an overwhelmedness to which one responds” (quoted in Tabios 2017).
DuPlessis responds to plethora with plethora, with an unbound encyclopedic poiesis of assemblage and emergence, multiplying the connections between constellations of diverse if often unknowable material that she then reassembles in new ways, creating something else. In this, Drafts participates in what I have elsewhere called the hyperarchival impulse of contemporaneity, which I define as the drive to gather together as many documents, texts, artifacts, and data as possible, regardless of content or purpose (Fest 2018). Such hyperarchivalism is concomitant with the economic, ideological, and technological regime of neoliberalism, a regime that depends for its perpetuation upon an informatic and algorithmic global impulse toward “big data” accumulation in order to prop up its insistence that the market's drive for individual profit makes it a kind of supercomputer for organizing all aspects of human life amidst the unknowable transfinite enormity of connections that make up our world. The National Security Agency's mass collection of US citizens’ metadata, the extractivism producing a climate crisis that endangers all life on earth, and the obscene accumulation of wealth by the one percent all display the hyperarchive fever of contemporaneity. We live in hyperarchival times, and Drafts is an explicitly hyperarchival poem.
But for DuPlessis (2006: 247), importantly, the experience of hyperarchivalism, the “position of being swamped with too many stimuli,” is explicitly “feminine.” She desires to “write a lot of women's words” and notes how Dorothy Richardson, Stein, “Notley and . . . Howe have also indicated the need for a cultural responsibility to women by creating large and encompassing structures with a female signature” (DuPlessis 2004b: 403, 404; see also DuPlessis 2005a). Length, excess, size—in DuPlessis's work, literary magnitude is not a mark of masculinity, of a phallic preoccupation with bulk. Rather, the size and hyperarchivalism of Drafts stand as resistant bulwarks to hegemonic, patriarchal power. DuPlessis has been vocal about her ambivalent relation to the lyric (2006: 221 – 23; 2013a; 2005b). And so her long poem, in contrast to shorter, lyrical forms, is a productive act of negativity, feminist revision, and critical resistance to the modernist long poem through rewriting, reinterpretation, destruction, appropriation, and, ultimately, “a way of starting poetry all over again, differently” (DuPlessis 2013a: 47).
So, is there any way to read it, to read Drafts? DuPlessis's project is an exercise in an ethics of salvage, an “ethics of debris” (DuPlessis 2019a: 106), reading and writing hyperarchivally not in order to produce some phallic, masculinist totality, but instead to “See also debris” (DuPlessis 2001: 70; see also Golding 2018; Williams 2011). To quote at length in the spirit of further active midrashic recombination: Drafts is littered with debris, with a “house . . . built on a dump” (DuPlessis 2001: 37), “junk subdued, junk exaggerated” (2001: 68) “in broken, unrecoverable objects” (2001: 80) “even erasure is erased” (2001:81); it assembles “particles. shards” (2004a: 25), “ash and flake” (2004a: 65), “data or dada . . . compulsions of rubble” (2004a: 81), “nomadic pieces in the workshop of abyss” (2004a: 138), “blackened, barred-out lines” (2004a: 148)—“ ‘All culture, / after Auschwitz, including its urgent critique, / is garbage’ ” (2004a: 153)—“refuse, shit” (2004a: 153), “scraps re-collected / in tranquiddity” (2004a: 178), “the piles of / pleading bones and rotting bodies” (2004a: 2019), “a sludge-filled ditch” (2007: 40), “fractal fragments firm” (2007: 82), “gleaning” (2007: 83), “people smashed into pieces” (2007: 115), “luminosity and ruin” (2007: 120), “this random pile of stuff” (2007: 129), “the typos of excess as loss” (2010b: 87), “monumentality / broken and scattered” (2010b: 92), “ ‘stony rubbish’?” (2013: 101), “that is a fragment. Like everything else” (2007: 47), “a theory of debris” (2007: 133): “How can time be made demonstrable except by its debris?” (2001: 73).
With Drafts’ assemblage of historical and contemporary debris, DuPlessis tries to make demonstrable the enormity of the twentieth century and the political situation of the twenty-first, to make a new analytic, temporal, and poetic constellation form. Writing in 2003, she directly addresses the US invasion of Iraq: “It is a terrible moment, a fearsome moment, in which poetry may question itself, testing its complicity with a world turning very bad, very damaging” (2006: 238). Against the neoliberal realities and desolations of US empire, Drafts offers no redemptive vision of organic wholeness. DuPlessis's working with excess, then, differs from the modernist long poem in an important way. Though Paterson or “A” projects endlessness, they do not take the archive of the long poem as their starting point. Drafts is a latecomer; it begins with hyperarchivalism, struggling with and against megatextual debris. The modernist long poem in DuPlessis's hands, though a genre of textual enormity and accumulation, is a scrap, a shard of a catastrophic century. By hyperarchivally assembling the debris of the long poem en masse through midrashic accumulation, Drafts seeks to transform the long poem and its history, to turn from a century of enormity toward an ethics of salvage and cultural reconfiguration that can address and attempt to halt the ongoingness of catastrophe in contemporaneity. Drafts’ palimpsestic multiplicity, which layers and folds in upon itself again and again, seeks to undo and overwhelm by accumulation the work of the Eliots and Pounds of the world, to raze monuments of patriarchal, racist, misogynist, fascist totality, pick through their rubble, and reuse whatever small speck it might find for rather different ends.
Drafts is thus a postmodern inheritor of the modernist long poem and a work that participates in a speculative twenty-first-century megatextuality, for DuPlessis's “actual text” consists of material well beyond Drafts’ five volumes: it spreads connections collaboratively throughout the literary archive, projecting as its provisional, antiteleological, folded, and multiplied horizon the absolutely unreadable hyperarchive of twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry and poetics: “The whole archive is an argument” (2007: 52; see Jewell 2011). DuPlessis importantly resists, however, the sense that the magnitude of a long form is a mark of its quality. DuPlessis's project is
DuPlessis is clear: everything from Drafts except a piece of debris might be destroyed, lost, forgotten, ignored in history's burning archive, but if one shard of it remains, and if there is someone around to dialogically cocreate that scrap in the aftermath, the writing has been worthwhile. Drafts positions itself as a bulwark against the destructive realities of history. The bigger something is, the likelier a piece of it will survive, and so DuPlessis also paradoxically uses Drafts’ size as a way of eventually (inevitably) returning to smallness, partiality, debris.15Drafts is a very long poem, but it does not have to be: it can do its work of potential futurity in fragments, in miniature, and its value both arises from and resides in any small detail it might assemble—in a yod: “I figure this dot, imagined as the smallest Hebrew letter, ‘yod,’ as a pinhole through which ‘it’ all enters” (DuPlessis 2010a: 211). Rewriting and revisiting the modernist long poem allows DuPlessis to interrogate what it means to make massive texts today and what it means to read them and participate in their cocreative, midrashic dialogue for tomorrow. Which means that Drafts takes on, struggles with, hypertrophically works through, and, by instantiating an ethical poiesis of activity and salvage, offers a mode of resisting the megatextuality and hyperarchivalism that are defining features of the neoliberal era. “There's no way to read it?” Yes, there is, but only if we continue actively transforming what it is and what it might be.
“Is an Archive Enough?”: Traces, with Days
Since the publication of Drafts’ final volume, DuPlessis has not ceased transforming what it is and might be. In “Draft 98: Canzone” (2012), the poem's speaker speculates:
Afterward, I could perhaps write interstitial poem after interstitial poem, filling gaps that have opened and that exist (have in fact always existed) between every single word, obliterating the work until it is one over-written, unreadable, but theoretically conceptual and thus critically consumable textual object whose laws and rules have, over time, become superstructure. Or I could refuse to. Afterward, I could begin again backwards, moving from the end to the beginning. (DuPlessis 2013b: 36)
Just as Drafts ends but does not end, completes its work by turning toward something else—its final line: “Volta! Volta!” (160)—DuPlessis's subsequent work begins (and continues) by exploring Drafts’ interstices while simultaneously unworking it to “unbegin / ungain,” “an undoing as a doing” (DuPlessis 2014: 2; 2020: 50).
Drafts is most immediately followed in 2014 by Interstices, which, like DuPlessis's other post-Drafts books, midrashically revisits many of Drafts’ key terms and concepts: debris, indeterminate deixis (“it”), folds, turns, “illegible dots,” and much else: “the light of syntax, which is condensed here. // The whole language / . . . compressed in this bundle” (2014: 44, 78). But Interstices’ speaker also asserts their revisionary antagonism to Drafts in the book's opening lines: “So / I dismantled it,” declaring, “It has been ‘finished’ / but has barely begun. / It has been collected / but then has disappeared” (1, 3). In DuPlessis's (2015a: 6) next book, Graphic Novella, again the poem's speaker declares a “ ‘Rerouting, rewiring, rewriting.’ . . . re as ‘again’ or re as ‘new’ ” while simultaneously asking its readers to speculate about the obliteration of (the generic taxonomies of) modern literature: “drop the modern, / drop the novel, / drop the poetry. / What's left?” (67). DuPlessis's poetics of practice and action, along with the career-long scope and multivolume outline of her different long poem projects, are continually revised, refreshed, and rearticulated through the dialectical play between interstitial midrashic revision and creative unraveling and unmaking, between the gaps still to be explored in the long poem and the pressing need for cultural revision at odds with what exists, between the open and the closed, the long and short, the serial and procedural. Rather than writing a single gigantic long poem with a coherent title (e.g., The Maximus Poems or even Drafts), DuPlessis's poetic oeuvre is a multiply realized albeit unified exploration of the long poem as a form that can be divided further into innumerable smaller units, with “contradictions, fissures, openings that don't fit” (DuPlessis, pers. comm., July 7, 2020), with no ultimate, teleological aim, no vision of completion, closure, or totality—endless midrashic accumulation and revision: inside poiesis itself, a life's discretely enacted and assembled (self-)reflexive emergent processes. For DuPlessis, the ontology of a long poem is not located solely in its final destination as a text or artifact or object; it is a practice, a process, an exercise in ongoingness, and, importantly, an activity that is increasingly digital.
At the end of his own discussion of the long poem, Silliman (2005) concludes that “in an age that could coin the phrase ‘internet time,’ the longpoem stands both as an intervention and an investigation.” Jaussen (2011), meditating on DuPlessis's The Collage Poems of Drafts (2011), notes that “DuPlessis's work has evolved alongside the digital revolution” and argues that Drafts should be understood as a digital life poem that embraces a new “textual ontology” of “multiple languages, infinite signs, and global networks.” In Drafts, and then quite explicitly in her work from the 2010s, a digital presence in DuPlessis's poetry becomes progressively more visible. Her recent poems reflect in a variety of ways on their material instantiation through word processing. Her collages and collage poems, though stubbornly analog in terms of their materials, visibly depend on the existence of digital images for their scanning, reproduction, reprinting, and (online) distribution. And though her poetry maintains a dedication to the materiality of print, in Days and Works, DuPlessis (2017b: 10, 30) frequently invokes how drastically digital technology has transformed consciousness and knowledge in the twenty-first century: “hypertext externalizes the cultural brain. . . . Then someone usefully thought to use the cloud beyond the brain to store the collective—but still selective brain. The brain of the world, indicating its abundance with the numerology of googol, and then, in addition, with its re-spelled brand name.”
DuPlessis's most recent collection, ironically titled Late Work and published in April 2020 amidst the global pandemic resulting from the spread of COVID-19, reflects throughout on the multiplying accumulation of overabundant digital information and asks, in a poem titled “Everyday Life” (2012), “is an archive enough?” (DuPlessis 2020: 53). In Late Work, as in Drafts, the archive of twentieth-century atrocity haunts the present's poiesis: “On August 7, 2014, the day I read on BBC News of the conviction of two Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity, one day after the anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bomb dropped on populations, and three days after one hundred years from the beginning of World War I, I made this sentence” (47). The speaker of Late Work knows that their “everyday” writing, the incremental unit of inhabiting and recording a day, inescapably connects them to the violent enormity of the twentieth century, and they appear to increasingly question their midrashic endeavor, concerned that poetic activity may be complicit with and perpetuate the violence of a history in which they are inextricably caught. For these and other questions, Walter Benjamin's work is an important touchstone for DuPlessis. In “On the Concept of History” (1950), he famously writes: “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is never free of barbarism, so barbarism taints the manner in which it was transmitted from one hand to another” (Benjamin 2006: 392). In Late Work, the present's poiesis, depending as it does in DuPlessis's poetics on reassembling and rewriting the archive, is acknowledged throughout as a site of potential and transforming danger. The archive's existence rests upon racism, white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchalism, and homophobia, and “Summer Poem” (2017), for example, acknowledges that the horrors inscribed into its preservation and transmission continue apace with “failed justice and political deaths. . . . Failed justice / and murderous deaths” (DuPlessis 2020: 99; referring to the ongoing police brutality in the United States). The speaker of Late Work, in asking “is an archive enough?” acknowledges that perhaps it is not, that it might be missing something, that it lacks a utopian kernel and offers insufficient tools for the task of “brush[ing] history against the grain” (Benjamin 2006: 392): “I'd gone down / that path / and couldn't stop without destruction” (DuPlessis 2020: 106).
In “Angelus Novus” (2019), a remarkable meditation on Benjamin's famous angel of history after a career gleaning from and reassembling modernity's debris, DuPlessis reflects again on the impasse of contemporary witness amid the overabundance of the archive.16 The poem begins by imagining “A Strange Angel! / A NEW & improved angel!” (DuPlessis 2020: 88), a commodified, rebranded digital angel, a hyperarchival angel of internet time—the brain of the world. After reimagining this angelofhistory2.0 as a chimeric twenty-first-century hybrid in uncharacteristically rhymed lines—a kind of formal debris—in the second section of the poem DuPlessis quotes in full the passage from “On the Concept of History” in which the angel “sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” (Benjamin 2006: 392). The poem then turns toward Benjamin's distinction between what we see and what the angel sees—“We project narrative linkage. It perceives ‘catastrophe’ ”—only to transform the angel once more: “ripped from its root . . . deep flung across the place once home. . . . It got worn, raggedy and frightened, / and so it looked / like us”; it becomes us, “Angel-Us. / Yes, / spell / it / out” (DuPlessis 2020: 91, 96). If it perhaps once required imagining some privileged angelic position outside of (a progressive sense of) history from which to see the violent reality of the past, history's advancing debris, the catastrophe of capitalist modernity, such a perspective is available to everyone in DuPlessis's collective vision of contemporaneity. To inhabit the digital hyperarchive of the twenty-first-century is to “live among quotations”: “We stare at the plethora of texts” and “We live amid documents / a new batch every day” (97, 98, 95). Hyperarchivalism is one of the fundamental conditions undergirding our present historical existence and so it is this condition—the struggle of “the trace”—that poetry must confront: “not to read disvalidates whatever the mark might give” (97). Even though there is so much, this, that, all of it, nonetheless, it is
In “Angelus Novus,” DuPlessis is explicit in her Objectivist poetics: even in the face of the avalanche of data and information produced by hyperarchivalism, poetry's role is to document the world differently, to be a conduit for the small moments in which “the past can be seized . . . as an image that flashes up”—a “caesura in the movement of thought” (Benjamin 2006: 390; 1999: 475)—and that work is vital for understanding and navigating the present. (Benjamin [1999: 461]: “to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components. Indeed, to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event.”) If her poetic mentor, George Oppen, once famously retreated from poetry to do the work of politics, DuPlessis perceives in documentation a poetics and a politics.
Written between 2013 and 2016 and revised in 2018, “Angelus Novus” confronts the darkening tunnel of the twenty-first century: a world of climate change—“Ecologies fucked. / Or ‘challenged’ to breaking” (98)—resurgent authoritarianism and white supremacy in the United States and abroad, and now a global pandemic which, as of this writing, has killed over half a million people with cases still increasing in the United States and globally. In the face of the catastrophe of the status quo, DuPlessis takes the risk of recommitting to poetry, to vow to write the now, to understand and realize the poet—along with the rest of us!—as secular angels with nothing for power other than an ability to bear witness, to document, and then, maybe, to gather up and exercise as a force this nothingness, the force of our reassembling, making, poiesis. To both the question, “is an archive enough?” and the question, “What is the form of my search?” DuPlessis's answer is the same: “The overflowing of the poem” (52, 53). An archive is enough, research is enough, and documentation is enough if they then turn into the activity of poetry, into the ongoing practice of overflowing writing, the process of reading, writing, making, rewriting, rereading, remaking, again: this, that, it.
DuPlessis's work demonstrates again and again that a hyperarchival culture requires a hyperarchival poetics and, just as the masculinist long poem striving for totality requires resistant, provisional work in the long poem, so too does the emergent neoliberal form of the megatext require a resistant, critical megatextuality. This is not easy work. To participate in textual enormity without perpetuating the sense of totality concomitant with patriarchal late capitalist modernity, to drive toward poetic excess while simultaneously resisting a “monothetic . . . structure of feeling” (DuPlessis, pers. comm., July 7, 2020), requires of DuPlessis a vigilant ethics of debris, a poetics of documentation, and an unwavering lifelong commitment to theorizing her own poetry, to understanding, exploring, and (re)activating the immense nexus of interconnected nodes constellating that life's work—questioning those texts, challenging their perpetuation, and midrashically, democratically reading and writing again and again. Further, Drafts and DuPlessis's subsequent work indicate that when the long poem comes into contact with digital media, its encyclopedic impulse to include everything quite easily becomes megatextual. (I might even go so far as to say that the long poem's transformations in the twenty-first century speculatively suggest that the form was simply waiting for computers so that it could fully realize its [perhaps still] latent megatextuality.) DuPlessis's work also reveals, however, that when the long poem (and, by proxy, the novel) enters the twenty-first century, it does not need to become just another huge patriarchal monument, but that we would do well to understand the long poem's resistant, ethical horizon as megatextual process, as a site for struggling with and against the neoliberal logics of contemporaneity. Rather than view the emergence of massive texts across media as monumental artifacts requiring the unquestioning supplication of the fanatic, what if we approached twenty-first-century textual enormity as DuPlessis does the long poem? The statues and monuments of the West's racist, colonialist, slave-holding past have been toppling every day I have been writing this essay. People across the world are right now imagining what might result from resisting the entwined totality of monumentality and the violence of systemic racism. When artists, readers, and critics treat megatextuality as a process, as it is in DuPlessis's poetics, rather than an object, a process of ongoingness and a site of active struggle rather than a teleological, already established and foreclosed goal, a text to cocreate rather than an icon to bow down before, the overflowing of poetry can stretch out from the archive toward new formations, new possibilities, difference, change—toppling the past and holding open the question, at least for today, what it to put in its place.
I presented an early version of this essay at the 2019 American Literature Association Conference. Thanks to Schuyler Chapman and Racheal Fest for their comments on earlier drafts, participants in the keyword seminar on length at the 2018 Society for Novel Studies Conference, Joe Milutis for his help, Rachel Blau DuPlessis for providing some difficult-to-find material, for answering questions about her work, and for her suggestions, the anonymous reviewer for their helpful and generous comments, and Hartwick College's interlibrary loan librarian, Dawn Baker, whose efforts were essential for the composition of this essay during a global pandemic. This work was supported in part through the Hartwick College Faculty Research Grants Program and the Winifred D. Wandersee Scholar-in-Residence Program.
Though Dickie (1986: 148) claims that “the modernist long poem is not a genre but an aspiration to form,” her work did much to establish the twentieth-century long poem as a genre for subsequent critics. Four years later, Susan Stanford Friedman ( 1997: 13) writes: “[the long poem] certainly has ‘currency’ as a new generic category—new, that is, in critical discourse and not, of course, in poetic praxis.” The long poem is now a firmly established genre: see Keller 1993; Dewey 2015.
Until feminist critics challenged its phallocentrism, the long poem had also typically been framed as a masculinist genre: “Rooted in epic tradition, the twentieth-century ‘long poem’ is an overdetermined discourse whose size, scope, and authority to define history, metaphysics, religion, and aesthetics still erects a wall to keep women outside” (Friedman  1997: 16).
On the ongoing institutional inequities women poets face, see Spahr and Young 2007.
There are, of course, numerous exceptions to this statement. Friedman's work on the long poem with regard to other genres is particularly notable. She argues that, in the long poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and H.D., “the novel and the lyric as genres played central parts in their reconstitution of the epic, roles reflecting not only a general hybridization of genres common to the nineteenth century, but also gender-specific responses to the genre” (Friedman 1986b: 206). See also Friedman 1994.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis would be one scholar whose insights into the novel have found resonance in her attention to poetry and poetics. See her discussion of narrative closure in Writing beyond the Ending (1985) and its relevance for her antiteleological poetics. Other prominent critics such as Joseph M. Conte and Brian McHale have studied both the long poem and the long novel, but generally not in the same volume: see Conte 1991, 2002; McHale 1987, 1992, 2004.
Ron Silliman (2011) raises this question similarly: “The problem of the longpoem [his term] is precisely one of finding/defining boundaries. Where is the end of the continent, the ocean, of space or time?” For further discussion of modernism's persistence, see Perelman 2017; North 2019. On DuPlessis's relationship to Pound specifically and modernism more generally, see DuPlessis 2006: 236 – 51; Golding 2011; DuPlessis 2012.
DuPlessis's (1990: 172) emphasis on writing as an activity, a practice, can be seen as early as 1990: “Writing not as personality, writing as praxis. For writing is a practice—a practice in which the author disappears into a process, into a community, into discontinuities, into a desire for discovery.”
In email correspondence, DuPlessis described to me some of the (provisional) structure of her post-Drafts work (to which I owe some of the above description) and emphasized that “once any serious bunch of poems and texts gets large, becoming a life's work, it's all oeuvre, but I have no need now to declare a super-whole, an over-arching mega-poem (to use your terms) or total poem out of what I have done” (pers. comm., July 7, 2020). Other texts that are part of DuPlessis's second ongoing project but have yet to see full publication include Eurydics, Life in Handkerchiefs, Poetic Realism, and Storyboard.
DuPlessis stated unequivocally to me: “I deliberately did NOT make [Drafts] a megatext. This was a conscious decision. Almost, but not” (pers. comm., June 8, 2020).
Notable recent exceptions to my generalization about historical approaches to Drafts are: Rifkin 2010; Tarlo 2011. For other approaches to Drafts, see Hatlen 2000; Tarlo 2002; Pritchett 2011; Carberry 2019.
Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1970: 22) has been particularly important for DuPlessis's thinking: “unless we eliminate the most pernicious of our systems of oppression, unless we go to the very center of the sexual politic and its sick delirium of power and violence, all our efforts at liberation will only land us again in the same primordial stews.”
Though I do not have the space for it here, the influence of Dahlen's work on DuPlessis, particularly her ongoing long poem, A Reading (1980 – 2006), is considerable and deserves further attention, including the way Dahlen has explicitly said that she wants to “postpone, or defer, conclusions or closure perhaps forever” (2013: 61). On Dahlen, see Keller 1997: 253 – 75; Friedlander 2004: 217 – 23; Jaussen 2010. For an important discussion of deixis and indeterminacy, see Perloff 1999: 3 – 44.
As Keller (1997: 292 – 301) has pointed out, this list contains many of the materials included in the sculpture of the anonymous outsider artist dubbed the “Philadelphia Wireman,” whose sculptures appear on the cover of Pledge, the second volume of Drafts.
I owe this insight to Racheal Fest (pers. comm., July 2, 2020).
Benjamin's essay on history is a frequent touchstone for DuPlessis. For example, the notes to Toll (2001: 274) tell us that both “Draft 24: Gap” (1995) and “Draft 12: Diasporas” (1991) cite Benjamin's “On the Concept of History.” For further discussion of Benjamin, including of the epigraph to this essay, see Damon and DuPlessis 2013; DuPlessis 2019b. For another important recent reappraisal of Benjamin and the angel of history that appeared after the composition of this essay, see Bové 2021.