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.