The New Formalism

The revival of metered and rhymed poetry in the 1980s among a group of younger poets constituted the third generational wave of formal verse in the twentieth century. Adopting the somewhat pretentious title the "New Formalism," poets disaffected by the unstructured free verse of the "workshop" lyric (the dominant style in university creative-writing programs during the 1970s and 1980s) sought to reinvigorate the practice of American poetry in traditional forms and meters. Depending on where one stood within the verse culture of the period, these New Formalists (or neo-formalists) were either reactionaries attempting to turn back the clock to the days ofthe New Critics, poetic revolutionaries seeking to counter the tide ofvapid free verse, or a small and ultimately negligible thorn in the side of mainstream poetry.

The New Formalists, though relatively few in number compared with practitioners offree verse, were a vocal and articulate minority. Members of a generation born in the 1940s and 1950s, many of them were professors, critics, translators, and editors as well as poets, and they were connected with periodicals such as The Hudson Review, The New Criterion, and The New England Review. In 1985, Philip Dacey and David Jauss edited Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms, the first significant anthology of formal poetry to be published in the United States since the early 1960s. This was followed by a book of essays on the New Formalism, Expansive Poetry, edited by Frederick Feirstein in 1989. Finally, in 1996, the publication of Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism, solidified the "canon" of New Formalist poets. Rebel Angels brought together the best-known New Formalists - Dana Gioia, Brad Leithauser, Molly Peacock, Mary Jo Salter, and Timothy Steele - along with formalists like Marilyn Hacker and Rafael Campo who had not previously been included under the banner of the New Formalism.

The work of the New Formalists ranges from the fairly traditional use of fixed forms to a more innovative use of formal techniques and structures. An example of the latter would be Brad Leithauser's sonnet "Post-Coitum Tristesse," written entirely in monosyllable lines. Another strategy is to create tension between traditional forms and more challenging content. Molly Peacock's sixteen line "exploded" sonnet "Those Paperweights with Snow Inside" plays a narrative of domestic violence against the apparent solidity of the sonnet form. Hacker's "Cancer Winter" describes in a series of Italian sonnets the poet's battle with breast cancer. R. S. Gwynn's three-sonnet sequence "Body Bags" tells tragic stories in miniature. The sestet of the second poem is particularly brutal in its use of rhyming iambic meter:

I saw him one last time. He'd added weight

Around the neck, used words like "grunt" and "slope,"

And said he'd swap his Harley and his dope

And both balls for a 4-F knee like mine.

This happened in the spring of '68.

He hanged himself in 1969.

Here the form is used with ironic intent. When read aloud, the final line comes out in perfect iambic pentameter; yet the shortness of the line makes it appear to be visually cut off, just as the young man's life was prematurely ended by his suicide.

Unfortunately, not all the poems by the New Formalists are this successful or innovative in their use ofform. In fact, many ofthe poems in Rebel Angels seem to substitute the requirement of formal consistency for any originality of poetic voice or vision. As a fairly typical example, I quote two stanzas from Elizabeth Alexander's "Who I Think You Are":

Baba's home is different from my daddy's: the sofa arms are draped with quiet lace, Does he fix fish with cardamon and mace? Coupons in a cookie tin. Meat patties,

Steaming Cream of Wheat and ripe banana, juice cups with the little paper hats the guava jelly jars on plastic mats. We are your children and receive your manna.

Technically, these lines are competent: they rhyme in a neat abba pattern, they sustain a regular though not overly insistent iambic pentameter, and they use caesura to vary the rhythmic effect within the stanzas. But one might well ask what the New Critics would have made of such poetry. There is little ofthe complexity - on the level ofdiction, imagery, figurative language, wordplay, argument, or voice - that formal verse at its best makes possible. Even in terms of what Ransom would call the poem's "texture," there is nothing striking in terms of the manipulation of form. The closest the stanzas come to any kind of ironic tension is in the witty rhyme of "banana" with "manna," but even here it is not clear whether any irony is intended.

The New Formalism can be usefully contrasted with the other most visible poetic movement of the 1980s: the Language Poetry. Both the New Formalists and the Language Poets rejected mainstream free-verse lyric as it was practiced in writing workshops across the country. But while the Language Poets were participants in a poetic avant garde that sought to revitalize the linguistic and formal procedures ofAmerican poetry (see chapter 10), the New Formalists seemed curiously retrogressive in their attempt to resurrect the practices of a half century or more ago. The argument of the New Formalists for a greater attention to poetic form, and more specifically to traditional metrical forms, no longer seems as convincing as did the argument made by the New Critics of the 1930s and 1940s for a more rigorous attention to form. The critical methods developed by the New Critics were an important advance on the dominant critical practice ofthe time, and their poetry can be seen primarily as a logical extension of their critical practice rather than vice versa. In the case of the New Formalism, on the other hand -which seems to have evolved as an aesthetically conservative reflex against what was perceived as the "laxity" of the 1960s and 1970s - the poetry has developed no new critical or theoretical apparatus to support it. The claims by the movement's advocates that it represents a "revolution" in the practice of American poetry seem at best hyperbolic and at worst demagogic. First of all, there is nothing revolutionary about writing in sonnets and quatrains. And secondly, there has been no "fundamental change" in the writing of American poetry, since the vast majority of published poetry continues to be in free verse.

All this is not to question whether traditional forms have a place in American poetry (clearly they do), but rather to ask whether consecrating a "movement" to the writing of formal verse - far from being an act of revolutionary potential - is merely to perpetuate the notion that "real" poetry must include such elements as rhyme, regular meter, and stanzaic form. Over the course of the century, the strongest American poets have shown that poetic language emerges out of the poet's confrontation with the texture and meanings of individual words rather than as a result of the insertion of these words into prefabricated forms. If, as Robert Creeley put it, "form is never more than an extension of content," then the decisions poets make about what forms to write in are ultimately of less importance than the things they have to say.

Chapter 8

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