On “Formalism”

This entry probably delivers less than it promises, as it’s not really my take on New Formalism, New Narrative, Expansivism, and the various closely related movements that seem damn near indistinguishable for those of us who were children in the 1980s. Rather, it’s about this stupid fucking tendency of so many reviewers to make a big goddamn deal out of “formalism” every time that a book that deploys meter and rhyme is under review. (This is especially true in the United States–the Irish are generally saner.) While the decision as to whether or not to use meter, rhyme, and all the rest is, of course, an important one–and prosody should be on the table when reviewing–one too often gets the sense that each book of American metrical poetry that comes out is somehow a barometer on the use of meter in poetry in general. Which is a bit odd, as metered poetry has been in the norm in Indo-European poetry, at least, for almost three millenia, whereas free verse has come into its current prominence within the last century, which would seem to me to indicate that metrical poetry can be successfully pulled off in multiple epochs.

But even still, one finds, in way too many reviews, an apparently almost unstoppable need to waffle on about the efficacy of “traditional” prosody–from whatever perspective. This blog takes the position that making too big a goddamn deal out of prosody qua prosody shortchanges the poets. There are technically brilliant collections that are boring as hell, though I have yet to read a prosodically impoverished collection that was any good. (There’s a lot of prosody in good free verse.) If a collection is filled with sonnets, yes, the reviewer should note the fact, as well as evaluate if the author knows what he/she is doing with the sonnet. But we’ve had enough referendums on the sonnet to be spared another one.

Fair enough?


Review of Eileen Sheehan’s Down the Sunlit Hall

Eileen Sheehan is, at the moment, perhaps one of Ireland’s most underrated poets.* Sure, she’s appeared in all the right journals, has a lovely blurb on the back of her book from Nuala Ni Dhomhnail (a leading Irish-language poet, for those who don’t know), and was recently a reader at some boffo Irish Studies conference or other in the U.S. But unfortunately, hers are not the books that tend to be reviewed in Ireland’s little magazines (those that even do reviews), much less in the Irish Times. This is a shame, because Sheehan’s publisher, the Tralee-based Doghouse, has published a list that, though uneven (a few of the offerings straying into the frankly godawful), includes fine poets such as John W. Sexton and Liam Aungier, as well as newcomers worth watching like Barbara Smith and Catherine Ann Cullen.

Sheehan’s second collection (Down the Sunlit Hall, Doghouse 2008 ) confirms her skill as a poet and her capacity to write seductively. These aren’t poems that give you a hard-on, exactly, but are rather the sort of poems that draw you from the enticements of other books clamoring for your attention. Sheehan can be funny, as in the opening of “upended to someplace”:

“Barefoot by lamplight, by curtained midnight. Slipped
in a puddle of dog piss. Landed straight
into the arse-end of tomorrow. Can happen
like that, revelations, things of that nature.”

Or solemn, as in the close to “Threat of Rain:

“we step back
at the sound of earth on wood
back to notice the living

back into our own
diminished lives.”

Or, in poems like “Needing to Be,” Sheehan is both at once. She is not a poet of a single mood, tempo, or, indeed, song. He poems, at times whimsical, but rooted in particulars of time, place, and personality, have distinct formal characteristics but are always distinctly hers.

One wishes that one could say the the same about more contemporary Irish poetry, which suffers from many of the same weaknesses of much contemporary American poetry–the rather bland anecdote rendered in lineated prose and thankfully generally over rather quickly. Sheehan’s free verse still feels like verse rather than a dullish paragraph hacked up with a berserk “Enter” key. She is a poet of the proper kind.

*Personal disclosure–I know the author and think she’s pretty nifty.

Review of Catherine Ann Cullen’s A Bone In My Throat

Catherine Ann Cullen, A Bone In My Throat (Doghouse, 2007)

It is rare enough nowadays in Ireland to see a first collection centred on metrical work published, but A Bone In My Throat by Catherine Ann Cullen (Doghouse, 2007) is such a collection. The first section of the book, titled “Taboo,” is based on a series of sonnets revolving around a series of mythological tales—Adam and Eve, Bluebeard (which is, properly speaking, a seventeenth-century fairy tale), Fionn mac Cumhaill, Finnegas, and the Salmon of Knowledge, Oisin and Niamh, and Pandora. The sonnets generally take the structure of dramatic monologues, with different characters giving their own versions of the events in the source stories.

Sometimes, these work, as in “Brother-in-Law” (from the Bluebeard poems):


His eyes were mouths that swallowed women whole
Those oyster-cool, those lovely, bone-white girls
Slipped down the dark, embittering his soul
He always tasted fish, expected pearls
Rumours like soot showered from a servant’s flue
Said childbirth wasn’t what had killed his wives
His hands were spotless, hearth and chimneys, too
Were scrubbed within a half-inch of their lives
He ate with relish, gave restraint no quarter
Fattened his pretty white geese for the slaughter
Not what you’d wish your sister or your daughter
We killed him, and our women’s tongues were freed
They dug for the truffle of his darkest need
And wolfed it down, as though they shared his greed

Although there are some metrical infelicities here (most notably, though the sonnet is in somewhat loose iambic pentameter, lines ten and eleven resolutely have four stresses), the vivid imagery and psychological acuity largely make up for this.

However, at other times, the material feels shoehorned into the sonnet form. Take, for example, this strophe from “Salmon”:

Those held no promise for Finnegas
(He thought you gift, but you were magus)
Unless there is a secret place
That’s reached by not achieving grace

The problems here are manifold. The tetrameter, interrupted only by a soft caesura and rhymed in couplets gives a thumpalong effect that’s less Andrew Marvell than schoolyard chant. And then there’s the word “magus”—as in the magi, Zoroastrian priests who famously visited Jesus—throws a whole different set of mythological resonances into a poem with a pagan Irish setting… to no particular purpose.

And these poems often feel like an exercise, an at times fluent, often pretty exercise, but an exercise nonetheless. (And indeed, as Cullen herself notes, they were the result of a classroom project at Trinity College Dublin.) And while Cullen’s work is unusual in the Irish context, for those of us who have some familiarity with the American New Formalist scene—where the sonnet monologue from the mouth of some canonical figure or other has been done ad nauseam—the first part of A Bone In My Throat has a “been there, done that” feel.

The second part of the book (called simply “Part Two”) feels like the collection Cullen should have published. There are still a lot of sonnets, but the lack of a set requirement to work in the form means that the sonnets feel more organic, like they need to be sonnets. One in particular, “Thaw,” kicks the snot out of anything in the book’s mythological first section. Other poems show Cullen as a capable writer of free verse, and “Meeting at the Chester Beatty” is a genuinely affecting love poem.

The book closes with “The Children of Lir Quintet,” based on the canonical legend. Though the poems here do not repeat the all-sonnet shtick of the opening section, they nonetheless suffer from some of the same problems. The loose villanelle “Aoife” feels rhyme-driven (a common problem with the repetend-heavy form), and with the exception of the lovely final poem, “Winter Solstice,” the poems don’t quite pass the “so what?” test. Part of the problem, perhaps, is that they hew so closely to the source material that they fail to really rise above it, but rather tell the readers a story that they may or may not already know—in verse, true, but without really adding anything.

Though this is an uneven collection, it is nevertheless an intriguing one for contemporary Irish poetry, and we can look forward to seeing Catherine Ann Cullen’s distinctive voice rising, as it does at times in A Bone in My Throat, above the din of the sometimes overwhelming canonical tones that too often overwhelm and distort it. Cullen’s work shows promise, and if she can more organically match form to subject, as well as engage more imaginatively with her subject matter and trust her own voice, she will be a poet of real significance.