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?


21 thoughts on “On “Formalism”

  1. Well said, Doc. One thing, though, I wish you’d use real dashes instead of hyphens, or failing that, two hyphens in a row.

  2. Quincy, you know very well what lies behind this imbecility – yes, the brave new academy, with its moronic trashing of everything “traditional”.

    For over twenty years now this pathetic bilge has been pumping through the pipes of academe, and it percolated through our culture and has influenced editors as much as government policy. And of course metrical poetry is nothing but tradition – evoking all the associated horrors of colonialism, sexism, racism, etc. Anything written since the early decades of last century is hopelessly tarred with the brush of “tradition”.

    If you write in meter, you are by that fact implicitly reactionary towards social betterment. If you were a true supporter of progress, you would abandon the techniques of the oppressive past.

    That so many apparently bright minds can follow the infantile wish-fulfilment theories of the Marxist-feminist-pomo academy, with its anti-hierarchical, anti-beauty, universal levelling of all art, is proof to me that it is entirely futile to try and write poetry in this age. That so much great literature has been trashed and reviled by these morons who also happen to be intellectuals, together with the fact that no reaction or viable resistance to this madness has come from any quarter, suggests to me that this plague of soullessness is culture-wide, and will only change when the culture changes.

    Till that happens, expect the same old resistance to anything which evokes the poisoned past.

  3. Reviews are a substitute for advertising. Very few reviewers command an audience of believers. They are part of the fashion industry and what most of them are doing is protecting their own reputations. They can’t afford to seem far from the cutting edge. Their own dullness often frightens the public away from experiences they would otherwise take to happily like ducks to water.

  4. Well, Rose, those hyphens start their lives as em-dashes.

    Mark–the sheer number of hyphens in some of your formulations is a sign for some concern, and I’d be less sweeping (and less accepting of “progressive” credentials), but a more general anti-metrical prejudice clearly either still exists or is believed to exist. And it is usually tied to an excessively historicist line of argument, yes.

    Paul–If SCR ran reviews, I would happily link to it.

  5. Quincy, all the strutting in high places and flaunting of Latin and Greek freeze the blood of young people who face the world in its present condition. Metrical, rhymed poetry has associations with effete, privileged, expensively educated academics who try to outshine each other in esoteric knowledge. Robert Burns wouldn’t get a look in. It’s a combination of fashion, fear of seeming like the people I have just described, and loss of touch with the metrical poetry that really kicks ass. We here know that metrical poetry can be anything it wants to be. It has such a genteel PR face. No wonder kids faced with global warming and nuclear weapons don’t give it the time of day.

  6. I certainly agree that this is the case–reviews of “formal” work do get weirdly stuck on the fact that poems rhyme. But maybe it is the nature of the omnibus review–you can’t say very much about any one book, but at least you can make some sweeping comment. Often, too, as I’ve noted elsewhere, the reviewers themselves dabble in form, and it is a chance to distance themselves from that distasteful label known as “New Formalism,” with which no one, it seems, wants to be aligned. Keep up with the blogging!

  7. Alicia–

    I think you’re on to something there. One usually gets three paragraphs–max–in a given review. And one is trying to get in some quick synthesis pronto–or to set the books apart or against one another similarly quickly. (I’ve only written one semi-“omnibus” review myself–of two history books–and was at least given 450 words apiece for them.) And, I suppose, deadlines and children and head colds and jobs and hangovers being what they are, it gives one the opportunity to say something, even on a superficial read. And I think that’s a lot of it. Maybe not exactly laziness, but something that looks like more than it is.


    Thing is, I don’t think it necessarily has to do with subject matter or elegance. I thought the Greco-Roman myths were AWESOME when I was a kid. They had giants and battles and pretty girls and thunderbolts and scads of groovy stuff. So it isn’t that, per se.

    Nor do I think it’s meter and rhyme per se. Every time that I was at an antiwar demo in the lead-up to the Iraq catastophe, there would sooner or later be a performance by some slam poet who’d realized that if “ation” is your rhyme sound, the possibility of an AAAAAA… rhyme scheme is realistic. And it seemed to go down reasonably well, as a rule.

    And the attacks on metrical verse that you mention are one aspect of it. But I think there’s another one–that poems in ballad meter or sonnets or what have you are written by people of… ahem… advanced years to their petunias or their favorite book in English 344 at Iowa State in 1962, in other words, by a bunch of non-academic ignoramuses who decided the Cantos were too hard in undergrad and decided to ignore the twentieth century. And yes, if one scans the workshop boards, one can see examples of such, though it’s not ubiquitous at all, and, indeed, something of the exception. Even among those of… ahem… advanced years.

    No, I increasingly suspect that what makes so much poetry boring is that it either tells the cogniscenti what they already know or tells those who may or may not already know what they don’t care about. And yes, flaccid language and deflated delivery are parts of that, but they aren’t the whole thing.

    When I was at the shops earlier today, I was thinking about this whole matter. Would I have been interested in much of what’s out there when I was, say, seventeen years old? Most of what I like, yes, I think. As for what I like less, it probably would have been a more extreme version of my reaction to the bulk of what I see published now. And that goes for free and metrical verse alike.

  8. Me again, with another superficial comment. Can you change the color of the comment text? Right now it’s not only tiny, but it’s gray on a slightly darker gray background, which isn’t very readable.

  9. Quincy,
    Granted much of what you say is correct. Old people can’t stop writing and thinking just to please young people, nor should they. It’s the association with institutions that is killing poetry in the eyes of the young. In Australia Patrick White could fill Sydney town hall with young people when he was very advanced in years because his thoughts were in tune with their concerns. It’s the aura of respectability and institutions and a “more knowledgeable than thou” aura among those who gather to talk about formal poetry. I’m all for knowledge, including knowledge of form and I’ve lived in historical forms to earn my living. I’m not advocating ignorance.
    It could be that present reality can only be expressed through clenched teeth. Minimalism may be the only bearable poetry.

  10. Damn, Mark — right on!

    You’d think, Quincy, that with 3 paragraphs they could focus on something more than “hey, this poem rhymes” but, in truth, I’ve seen that all too much in advice and workshops. I remember going to a poetry reading once and after this fairly awful poet read her sad little couplets, one of the lords of the manor suggested she not have poems that rhyme. I thought it was bad advice then and I think it’s bad advice now — he should have told her to work on making her rhymes better.

    I think, though, that these reviewers are so amazed/creeped-out/terrified by the prospect of technically proficient poetry that they feel the need to make it seem as unimportant as possible.


  11. Just for the record, why is it formalists wrongly believe that metrical poetry is the ONLY form that is somehow “technically proficient poetry.” It isn’t.

  12. Jack–

    The Sheehan collection reviewed immediately below is a free verse collection. You’re right, of course, that metrical verse does not equal competent verse or that good free verse lacks formal proficiency. But aside from a few fundamentalists, most “formalists” wouldn’t argue that, either.

  13. I was simply responding to G. M. Palmer’s comments. Not trying to start a fight. Simply wish to point out the proficiency of such intricate structures as haiku’s for instance.

    I know you teach (history I think) so you hopefully will aprreciate the notion that often I have students both at the college and the university who spend an inordinante amout of time of learning the structure but have very little to say. Perhaps that is just youth, however it becomes cumbersome, at least teaching, when students think form is more importnce than funciton/substance. Just my humble opinion. No harm no foul.

  14. In regard to the ever-changing face of poetry, I would advocate for James Tate, especially the new direction he is trying to take poetry in the form of conversation. Much like John Ashbery but far more accessible.

    As far as formalist poetry goes, I think, and I am merely expressing my personal opinion, that often many readers of verse find the form a bit too sing-songy. Obviously, it is a difficlt form to master and takes a great deal of painstaking effort, still, the end product seems hickory-dickory-dock to many readers.

    I am not a big fan of contemporary formalist poetry although I do enjoy Jennifer Reeser’s work. Actually, I included her in my Lit syllabus in with Millay and others.

    And surprizingly, at least to myself, I love, love, love Shakespeare’s sonnets, probably because of the way he breaks the rules more so than how he stays contained within them.

    I would recommend the Cambridge edition that covers his sonnets. What a great book for personal reasons and for anyone interested in teaching the sonnets.

  15. Hi Jack, I know you already know this, and what you said earlier just didn’t come out right, but I feel a need to reiterate. You asked why “formalists” think meter is the be-all and end-all of technical proficiency. Mr. Palmer is entitled to his opinion, of course, but he speaks for himself, not for “formalists.”

    I’m reading “Elephant Rocks” by Kay Ryan now. She’s an interesting in-between case – not a formalist, but she uses a lot of internal rhyme and stuff that appeals to formalists. Just from a practical point of view, that’s the kind of thing that’s going to help the US get past this silly either/or mentality.

  16. Yes, thank God for Kay Ryan. Let her leave both camps dumbfounded.

    Not that I can tether my balloon to her wagon so tenuously, but it drives me mad (as someone who writes both formal and so-called “free” verse) to be boxed in by those of either who know not the other. If one more formalist deigns to condescend as to the non-traditional stuff, I’ll flatten the tenor of his vehicle. And if one more coffeehouse open-mic dilettante introduces me as “a formal academic poet,” I’ll bust a verbal cap in his slam. Violence! That’s the solution!

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