Sunday, March 9, 2008

New Formalism: A Misnomer

There’s a review in the Sunday Times Book Review today of Mary Jo Salter’s new and selected poems (A Phone Call to the Future), written by James Longenbach. The review is titled “Formalities,” and Longenbach does what reviewers always do when dealing with this poet. Once again he brings up the tired issue of the so-called “New Formalism,” as somehow being the key issue where Salter’s poetry is concerned. It’s not a tack anyone takes when discussing the work, for example, of Paul Muldoon, who has used meter, rhyme, and verseform almost from the beginning of his career. Anyway, Salter was not one of the original group (Mark Jarman, Robert McDowell, Dana Gioia, Charles Martin, and R.S. Gwynn) who launched a campaign in the early 80s to revive the use of meter and rhyme in American poetry. Nor did the group call themselves the “New Formalists.” The term was devised by Ariel Dawson in an article unfavorable to the movement, published in 1984 in the AWP Newsletter. Anyone who now uses meter and rhyme, whether or not included in any anthologies put together by members of this movement, is likely to be called “a New Formalist” or at least a “formalist.”

The term is inaccurate on several counts. Begin with the “New.” The adjective suggests that no poet used meter and rhyme between the years 1922, say, when The Waste Land was published, and 1982,when the movement began. To believe that you have to ignore post-1922 Thomas Hardy, W.B. Yeats, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elinor Wylie, Dorothy Parker, Langston Hughes, John Crowe Ransom, W.H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan, Richard Wilbur, Weldon Kees, Gwendolyn Brooks, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Thom Gunn, John Hollander, James Merrill, Josephine Jacobsen, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Hayden Carruth, Jane Cooper, James Wright, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, Marie Ponsot, Marilyn Hacker, and Grace Schulman. There was never a decade in the 20th century when meter and rhyme were not used and used well. So how can you call it “New”?

Now for “Formalism.” The term was first used by Roman Jakobson around 1915 to describe a critical method devised to apply to Russian poetry of the time. The method placed little or no emphasis on content; its main concern was form—sound, rhythm, diction, syntax, and tone. Literary language was viewed as having a purely literary purpose, not with communicating psychological, social or philosophical truth. So why use the term “Formalist” to describe some poets merely because their resources include meter and rhyme? I do not believe any 20th century American poet writing metrical poems was indifferent to content or used it merely as a convenience designed to achieve literariness. Look at the above list. Meanwhile, every poem has formal qualities; free verse poems have form, sometimes termed “organic form.” If you’re not interested in form, you write prose. And even prose has a species of form. Why does no one refer to poets writing in organic form as “formalist”? It’s superfluous, since all poetry has form. Nor do I hear anyone call Keats or Dickinson “formalists,” and they always used meter. The only reason to call a poet or poem “formalist” is to summon pejorative connotations. “Formal” quickly bleeds into “formality” (see the title of the Salter review above). It suggests “formal dress”—black tie, floor-length gowns, polite discourse, etiquette, pomp and circumstance. (Not that all these things don’t exert a powerful draw on a large segment of the population. I once watched the Country Music Awards show, and what were the participants all wearing? Black tie, formal gowns, jewels. Also, more and more weddings nowadays are formal affairs, held at night, where the groom even wears tails and the bride—well, you know.)

All of which suggests elitism and conservatism. But there’s no intrinsic connection (as is sometimes claimed) between traditional prosody and right-wing politics, witness Bertolt Brecht, Auden, Rukeyser, Brooks, Lowell, Walcott, Heaney, Hacker, Rafael Campo, and Reginald Shepherd. It was Pound, the free verse promoter, who was Fascist. As for elitism, go to the Ford Motor factory during coffee-break and read the assembly-line people a rhymed poem by Frost; then read them a poem by, say, Ron Silliman. Ask them which one they like better. It’s going to be Frost every time. Meter and rhyme are what the salt of the earth prefer. Pop music has it, rap artists have it, comic poetry has it. It ain’t elitist. To appreciate all the current experimental poetries, you need quite a fancy education. Which doesn’t make them invalid, it just narrows their readership to an elite, one that ought to be acknowledged as such. Face facts: prosody doesn’t belong to any particular demographic, it cuts across all classes.

Using it, though, is no guarantee of artistic success. Some of the poets associated with so-called New Formalism are howlingly bad. But then so are hundreds and hundreds of free verse poets. Maybe it’s a little easier to tell when a poem using traditional prosody is a dud. Any poet who lacks extraordinary verbal, rhythmic, and syntactic skills should completely avoid meter and rhyme. It’s easier to hide behind free verse; failure will be less cruelly exposed.

In discussing artworks, I’m a great proponent of the continuum approach, the “sliding scale.” As one person who left a comment on an earlier post pointed out, all texts, including memoirs, are “fictions.” Yes, in a sense. But some are more fictional than others. If I say, in a memoir or poem, that I was born in Sarajevo in 1914, I’m being wildly fictional—too fictional to be trusted, in fact. If I say I drove across the United States in the summer of 1969, the statement is, to a degree, fiction: I actually took the bus. There’s a sliding scale of measurement. In the same way, some poems are more traditionally prosodic than others. Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” though shaped by standard prosodic practice, doesn’t follow the rules strictly. It’s on a continuum between strictness and ad hoc decision-making about line and rhyme. And it certainly has edgy progressive and psychological content. Lowell is only one of many who use a degree of traditional prosody in the composition of their poems. Salter is another.

(Full disclosure: Probably about half of the poems I’ve published use meter, and maybe ten percent rhyme. I’ve also published a study of prosody, The Poem’s Heartbeat. It has gone out of print, and, if you try to get a used copy on Amazon, the price may spike to $75 or $100. But a new edition of the book will be available again in October, published by Copper Canyon Press.)

Those who do use prosody should be praised as risk-takers, considering how chancy success in this mode is. The apprenticeship is long and arduous. Oh, your bumper sticker says, “I’d Rather Be Sailing”? Maybe you should be. Come to think of it, though, the art of sailing isn’t, itself, so easy to master. Or running the marathon. Or performing the tango. Or ski-jumping. Or scat singing. Or mountain-climbing. Or playing the guitar. The fascination with what’s difficult is one of the things that makes us human.


Mark Jarman said...

Dear Alfred,

Neither Robert McDowell nor I was arguing the New Formalist line in the early 1980's. In the magazine we edited, The Reaper, we argued for narrative and published poems in all sorts of modes and styles.

Mark Jarman

Alfred Corn said...

My mistake, then. And thank you for the correction.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Hi Alfred,

Thanks for the mention in this post (and in your new one); I'm honored to be named in such company.

I completely agree with you that the idea of a "new" formalism is ridiculous, since poets have never stopped writing in traditional meters and/or rhyme, including Pound and Eliot. I also think that an ear informed by traditional prosody is also better equipped to write good free verse, because of the heightened rhythmical sense one acquires.

Along these lines, I find the idea of "formal" verse a litle problematic, since no good poem can be without form, whether a received form (which any good poet always makes his or her own) or an invented form. I think of Eliot's conclusion to "Reflections on Verse Libre:

"as for vers libre, we conclude that it is not defined by absence of pattern or absence of rhyme, for other verse is without these; that it is not defined by non-existence of meter, since even the worst verse can be scanned; and we conclude that the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos."

This is an overstatement, but it is seconded in more particular terms by Yvor Winters in explaining his transition from writing free verse to writing in traditional rhyme and meter:

"My shift from the methods of these early poems to the methods of my later was not a shift from formlessness to form; it was a shift from certain kinds of form to others" ("Introduction," The Early Poems of Yvor Winters, 1920-1928.

Take good care, and thanks for these fascinating and thought-provoking posts.

all best,


R S Gwynn said...

Alfred, I don't think I was arguing for this in the early 80s either, though I stand guilty of having practiced it then!

All that I ever thought the "new" referred to was a generational thing. Most of us writing in forms that are mentioned are roughly of the generation young enough to have been children of "older" formalists like Wilbur, Hecht, et al. I never thought there was much that was "new" (re. innovative) about it except perhaps a wider use of pop culture.

The label has for years given critics some kind of stick to measure/beat us with. I think Mary Jo's poems could profitably be reviewed and admired without such a labored effort to "place" her among her contemporaries.

Sam Gwynn

Joseph Duemer said...

All very well, including the comments, but the so-called New Formalism was, if only for a moment, a rejection of Modernism and its progeny. It was also culturally, if not always politically, conservative. Paul Lake's essays provide a good place to start in thinking about the New Formalism as an anti-modern movement. And most of the poets who objected to Gioia's gang were not anti-form--they just didn't accept such a narrow definition of it. Longanbach, rightly, I think, relegates the movement to the history of taste rather than the history of art.

R S Gwynn said...

Joe, I don't think that Paul Lake, with all due respect to him, is any kind of "starting place" for these matters. Paul came to these discussions rather late; his assessments (as astute as they may be) are belated, after the fact, and a reflection of his own politics (whatever they may presently be).

Those who were often named as the earliest in this so-called movement rarely, if ever, brought politics into the discussion. I defy anyone to produce any poem from the 1980s or 1990s by this group that was overtly political. Were there any "Odes to Reagan" or such? Please produce them. I don't think it would be hard to locate many poems of this era that announced a political view that was somewhat different in their perspective.

I do not think that the phrase "culturally conservative" has anything whatsoever to do with "politically conservative." It is entirely possible--as I am sure you will agree, Joe--that a poet may in fact revile the recent direction of this nation's foreign policy while retaining his or her desire to express that dismay in rhyme and meter. This is, after all, the traditional mode of poetic satire, which has never drawn party lines.

Joseph Duemer said...

Sam, points taken, though let's note for the record that the leader of the NF group has gone on to become the head of the NEA under President Bush. That said, I think that "culturally conservative" is the key term here: I agree that it's possible to be culturally conservative and a registered Democrat, for instance; when I use the term in reference to the NFs, however, I'm indicating a cluster of attitudes surrounding the making of poems. These include a rejection of Modernism (thus my mentioning Paul Lake), an appeal to a golden age of American poetry when "everybody read poems in the newspapers" (though the editors & poets remained firmly in charge of taste), and a kind of populism that has never stuck me as completely honest or self-critical--what's the latest rap album you think Dana Gioia has put in the CD player on his way to work? Yet he praises rap (as Alfred Corn does above) because it has rhyme. As for the claims of popular favor "on the factory floor" that Mr. Corn makes above, I don't know . . . Sure, the average guy or gal would choose Frost's "Stopping By Woods" over a passage from Silliman's "Tjanting," but how about Frost's "The Wood Pile" compared to, say, Robert Creeley's "I Knew a Man"? Or any number of things by Gary Snyder? As an aside, I see that Mark Jarman separates himself from the NF in his comment to this post. What he says is true, but both the NF & the New Narrative came down hard on contemporary modes of verse--I remember especially a moking essay in The Reaper on Charles Simic. The New Narrative was not the New Formalism, but many of its cultural impulses were the same. Finally, the NF tended to take an anti-academic, if not always anti-intellectual, cultural position. I'm sure you remember all those articles decrying the pernicious effects of MFA programs. (God knows, some of the programs were -- and are -- awful, though many others were allowing for a particular kind of study that hasn't done anybody any harm, as far as I can tell.)

Hmmm. . . I didn't mean to write so much. I don't really want to re-fight old wars & in fact I find most "experimental" poetry I've come across pretty unreadable. A lot of my animus is, perhaps, personal. When I asked my old teacher Don Justice why he had allowed himself to become an icon of NF, he replied, "It's nice to have disciples." Of course, making Don into an icon required critics like Gioia and Bruce Bawer to excise much of Justice's best, most innovative work -- because it was in free verse! (There is a particularly nasty little essay by Bawer I could probably dig up, though I can't remember now where it appeared.)

Steve Fellner said...

r.s gwynn,

i thought you were a signficant writer, but i wasn't sure how significant, because i have a limited memory, so when i googled you, i realized that you were realy significant, not just signifcant, and now feel the need to respond to your post, because i like to talk to famous people, because it makes me feel good about myself, because i will never matter, but at the same time we all have dreams, and i am no different than anyone else.

i feel lik ei should put mr. before your name, because i am so little, but i must ask, i don't understnad why you seem to feel threatrened by james longenbach desire to "place" the poet he reviewed...

the funny thing is i went and read the review and i thought it was one of the more thoughtful reviews i've read especially considering based ont he stuff longenbach usually reviews he was actually kindly, deliberately prasing for the most part a poet from a different camp..he seems like a nice guy from what i saw in the review...

are you threatened by hum placing the poet because that means that its not the total norm, but even on the margins? even though that poet is the sort of poet who has so much of the power and importnat posts and books from significant presses??

i mean from my persepctive you and alfred and mark jarman etc etc still hold most of the power

i also think of someone like ae stalling which a lot of people love and get a lot of things and im always so bored by th work, the rhymes are nice and safe and the content is stuff that could have been written 40 years ago (and may have been the poems dont seem like theyve changed a lot) and even though i like the blog entries stallings writers the poems do seem to me aesthetically conservative and politically conservative (im tired of everytoen recycling old stories from long ago; who gives a shit anymore, theres plenty of new stories: just turn on the news)

maybe my disappointment that stalling never really change the poety they write is because i was a bad student even though i did graduate magna cum lauda a long time ago im old now from the university of illinois but i took easy classes

im just so suspicious of all this fear of placing and would like to be reassured that you're not just threatened by the fact that theres so many different kind of poems and stuff out there that these people will be vying for your awards, posts, positions, that you're sort of secretly angry in your souls so you trot out some ostensibly minor carps against a critic like longenback who i think displayed a really balanced thoughtful review which is rare...

you sound a little grumpy which is ok im old too and i understnad how some days can be


Ryan said...

Hi Alfred,

Thanks for this post. I think you make a lot of lucid and necessary points about form and current aesthetic trends. I'm also excited to hear The Poem's Heartbeat is coming back into print: I haven't come across a copy but it was highly recommended to me recently by MJS. I'm looking forward to reading it and more posts here on the blog.


TWM said...

Dear all,

Rehashing decades-old turf wars is a stupendous waste of time. It's also the kind of posturing that keeps me from jumping into the MFA trap.

I have unfortunately come to the conclusion that "Sheperds" of verse are the ones responsible for marginalizing poets like Weldon Kees and Robinson Jeffers.

As a poet who sometimes uses meter and rhyme to address the political decimation of language, I am increasingly frustrated with ALL the little bubbles of America's "poetry scene."

I believe as poets we must understand that before a government can physically damage it's own citizens with false flag "terrorist" attacks on the "homeland", it must first damage the language by which its citizens define such atrocities.

What should we do when we hear the word "shoah" used to describe what Palestine can expect from their Israeli "neighbors"?

It's amazing. The world is going to hell, and we're talking about New Formalism, when we should be getting our communities ready to survive the crash.

Thank you for your time. I know it's precious.

Mark Jarman said...

It is tedious to have to respond to Joseph Duemer, but I suppose I must. I did not distance myself from the New Formalism in my response to Alfred's post. I was simply trying to set the record straight on where Robert McDowell and I stood during the early 1980's, since Alfred said we were advocates for the New Formalism at that time. By the way, the dirty secret of Modernism, which Duemer seems to regard as an ultimate good, was and is fascism. For some the New Formalism was, indeed, a response to Modernism, but not necessarily a conservative one, either culturally or politically. It was a response to the sort of monolithic attitude that Duemer seems to have appointed himself to enforce.

Mark Jarman

equivocal said...

What exactly is monolithic about Joe Duemer's comments? They don't seem monolithic to me. All he is arguing against, as far as I can tell, is a "narrow definition" of form, and, I think, of an approach that would seek to equate strict forms with something called tradition (the nostalgic, unchanging use of that word, I'm assuming). As is Alfred Corn. As far as I can see, it all comes down to the anthology, Rebel Angels, whose name no one here has dared to utter. Why is no one here speaking directly of this anthology and the arguments it makes as an anthology? What is it that the editors were rebelling against? Wikipedia certainly seems to present Rebel Angels as a defense of "traditional" verse, though I'm not sure if the editors themselves used that giveaway word. At the very least the frame of the anthology does seem to divide poetry neatly into formal and free verse; and that, as Alfred Corn points out here, is an error. If I remember correctly, there was even a silly little index of poems by form at the back of the book...?

One knows very well that writers like Marilyn Hacker are anything but conservative, and that the equation of conservatism with strict forms is absurdly wrong (that's a parallel, and dangerous, error by the opposite, self-appointedly progressive camp). But throwing together formally innovative poets like Marilyn Hacker and terrible, plodding, tone-deaf poets like Dana Gioia together into an anthology just because they both happen to rhyme is equally absurd, not so?

I wonder if Duemer's point is merely that we forget just how pervasive and compelling both these misguided positions (for or against something called "tradition", let's say) were during the culture wars of the 80s, a context it's easy to forget about now.

None of this is to take away from the clarity of Alfred Corn's important post here. A HUGE omission from all of these lists is Kenneth Koch, whose inclusion would pretty much blow the whole thing up and seal AC's argument.

Troy Camplin said...

You talk about the New Formalist, but what about the Expansionists? That's another name used for essentially the same group of people. It does seem to me to be a larger ideology -- opposing Modernism and Postmodernism and moving beyond them, not going back to anything per se -- is at work than a mere quibble over rhyme and meter. At least, that's how I think of my own poetry, anyway.

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