A list has a pleasingly predictable form. It names things, and arranges these things on the page in a way that’s helpful. Words have their own space, can be ranked from first to last, from least important to important; there can be groupings and trajectories or no particular order. Lists contain what’s essential, often without the framework of grammar. They can be ticked, crossed off, thrown away. I found the one pictured on the street. It is functional but it could point to a story or many stories. Or not. It satisfies in its simplicity and in the simple connection it creates between writer and reader.
Within poems, lists of gorgeous words or lists of synonyms can be problematic. Each word needs to earn its place and if it doesn’t, the writer can be accused of indulgence, simply grandstanding a knowledge of synonyms or exuding a love of words themselves, for their own sakes but for little else but done well, lists generate their own energy with a forward movement which can be exhilarating for the reader.
The master of the poetic list is Walt Whitman. The whole of 'Leaves of Grass' is just one great list made of lots of little lists. It’s easy to suspect him of indulgence. You can feel that there are too many words. But then, that’s part of his point, and anyway it’s not the list itself but how the list of lists resolves that matters most:
The lists in the first two lines here create momentum and the resolution is a journey into outer space. The “circled and circled” indicates that you’re heading somewhere else; that odd “we two have” reaches too far, is drawn back to “We have” and the rest that follows heads at speed into the unknown. What does “voided” mean here? Who knows, but it’s the vehicle that’s takes us somewhere beyond where we might have thought we were heading.
A rush, an exuberance, a surfeit is part of the list poem. If you don’t like feeling overwhelmed, don’t read it, because once you’ve committed, you know you’re in for a certain kind of ride. You know the formal territory - the form brings along its good friend repetition, which, if handled well, can be soothing or exciting. But there’s also tension from the beginning: what does the writer have to say which requires a list, which implies a lot of something? Can the writer sustain it? Will the list get bogged down in its own sameness or will the weight of the list help the poem to take off? How much of it can you take? How will it end? A functional list, say a shopping list, doesn’t have a conclusion but a poem which is a list is racing towards revelation. It wants to be going somewhere, to a certain ending. The end of a list poem can be its best feature and the rest of it, the run up, needs to be carefully paced. And it doesn’t need to have, like Whitman’s lists, the noise of an engine. Madeleine Wurzberger’s 'The Keeping' takes us back to the Middle Ages and moves towards it’s ending with the grace of a gliding bird:
The movement here is a forward motion that folds back on itself, the last line an extension of all that came before but also a tucking in. The endings of list poems need to be conclusive but the ending isn’t everything. Linda France, in 'A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place', uses the “ways of” form, (notably employed by William Carlos Williams in his 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird'), to interrogate a single idea from a number of different, and formally different, angles. Here the voices of Victorian women echo through Ridley Hall in Northumberland, each entry shining a light on a different facet of the conventions and constraints of womanhood at a particular moment:
Lists make for good testimonies. Both Kai Miller and Terrance Hayes use lists of names as different kinds of roll call. Miller honours the dead found “in nearby bushes”:
Hayes lists the names of people among an alphabet of things that “kill me” (this phrase used both negatively and positively):
In all of these poems I like the balance of repetition and variation, within the line and from line to line, the sudden trip or skip or burst of surprise when you don’t expect it, usually when you’ve been lulled, and the ending, which in each is like that moment when the wheels of a plane lift from the runway and you know that something seemingly too heavy for flight has been so carefully constructed that it can defy gravity.
I wrote 'Summon the Object', a list poem, as an exercise in looking while walking through the street market in Deptford one Saturday morning. I wanted to really look, and to name everything I saw in plain language, without embellishment. On one level, it’s a straightforward things-you-see-in-a-market poem. I’m not sure it takes flight under its own volition – maybe a few attempts to head skyward in the sense that God keeps interjecting as the ordinary gets on with itself.
But this turned out to be the last Saturday before lockdown and there’s a sense of impending change, which I don’t think I consciously wrote in, it was just there, in the looking. And if the poem does achieve any kind of transcendence, I think this might be delivered by the context, some of which is in the poem, though presented, at the time, as no more important than anything else.
It began as a straightforward one-line-after-the-other list poem, then I put it in prose-poetry-like stanzas, then it settled into this final form, which I think I stole from my reading of either Ocean Vuong or Mary Jean Chan. Which is a reminder that if you don’t really know what you’re doing, it can help to look over the shoulder of someone who does.
Walt Whitman, 'You and I …', reprinted in What is the Grass, Walt Whitman in My Life, Mark Doty, Jonathan Cape 2020
Madeleine Wurzberger, 'The Keeping' from Only a Few Are Looking at the Sky at the Right Moment, Agnes Kirk Press, 2019
Linda France, 'A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place', The Knucklebone Floor, Hareshaw Press, 2020
Kei Miller, 'Here Where Once Lay the Bodies', in nearby bushes, Carcanet, 2019
Terrance Hayes, 'Aryans, Betty Crocker, Bettye LaVette', American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,
Kate Ling and Jon Nicholls, 'Sumkon the Object', All of It, Agnes Kirk Press, 2020