In The Continuity of American Poetry (1961), Roy Harvey Pearce argues that the publication of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass created a new twentieth century American epic, which was more a 'process than a form.' Since Whitman, Ezra Pound's The Cantos, Hart Crane's The Bridge, William Carlos Williams' Paterson, Charles Olson's The Maximus Poems, John Berryman's The Dream Songs and Robert Lowell's Notebook sequence have all been regarded as belonging to the American 'process poem' genre.
However, in recent years there has been critical debate on how these poems have been organized and published by editors into a 'definitive' edition. In 2005, Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, the editors of the Walt Whitman Archive, explained that 'our electronic archive is steadily making available an increasing number of poetry manuscripts.'iii The editors seem to suggest a drastic movement away from the New Critical idea of the 'well wrought urn' of past editions to a more inclusive digital edition of the poem that includes various drafts and manuscripts. This idea seems to have taken hold - Mark Byron is currently assembling the digital variorum edition of Ezra Pound's Cantos.
Just how committed the poets themselves were to the idea of 'process' needs to be investigated, however, as there is a considerable weight of evidence - both within the poems themselves, and in the notes, manuscripts, letters and interviews that surround them - that suggests a common desire for artistic coherence and closure. My paper seeks to come to a better understanding of the American long poem in the new digital age by exploring the tension between these two contradictory imperatives.
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