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Why No One Wants to be a New Formalist

By A.E. Stallings

TieKnotMain.jpg
Some of the lively discussion at Harriet has alerted me to the fact that people debate over who gets to be in the church of the Avant Garde—who gets to be among the Elect, who gets to be in the Canon Outside the Canon. It is clearly a privilege, a badge of honor. (Maybe humans can’t even join—maybe you have to be a machine!) The rules are necessarily arcane and known only to a few. Odi profanum vulgus et arceo!
Well, New Formalism is exactly the opposite. Anybody can join—you just have to write a sonnet or three, and the rules for that are easier to get off the Internet than directions for making a fertilizer bomb. (No one says the sonnet has to be good.) The club which anyone can join though is the club of which no one wants to be a member. Nobody but nobody wants to be known as a New—or even worse–Neo- Formalist.


People come up with other terms: Expansive poet, poet-who-happens-to-write-in-form (and I write free verse too, they hastily exclaim), formalista. In fact, when I started blogging, I realized to my horror that my bio at Harriet—not one I wrote myself—identified me as one of the prominent voices of the next generation of (flattering so far)… New Formalism! Noooo! Kiss of death! Immediately I wrote Emily and had her change my bio, in which all mention of formalism (why -ism, which suggests some kind of dogmatic agenda? Is there an innovation-ism?) is now expunged.
If I have to be labeled, I myself prefer the term “retro-formalist”, which at least sounds vaguely cool, like wearing vintage clothing and listening to vinyl, something so square it’s hip.
So what is NF? Just who ARE these embarrassing people? British poets who work in form and meter are apparently just being… British (that Modernism stuff was all very American and Continental after all), i.e., old formalists. New Formalists have to be American for some reason. Is it people who have studied with Yvor Winters? People who returned to form and painfully relearned prosody from manuals after an apostasy in free verse? People who write screeds against a Modernism that was actually better grounded in craft and tradition than most working poets today? People who write exclusively in form? People who capitalize their lines? People who have published in a formal journal or attended West Chester, a craft-focused conference in Pennsylvania (where, yes, I have had the opportunity of both taking and teaching classes)?
Glibness aside, though, do I feel belligerent against free verse? No, I admire good free verse, I wish I wrote it better. Tennis without a net has its own beauties and choreography. But I write best (as more than one editor has pointed out to me when I tried to sneak in some free verse in a submission) when I write against the constraint and pressures of form–any constraint, really, be it syllabic, repetend, stanzaic, metrical, rhyme-schemed. I write… freer that way.
Do free verse poets (see how absurd the term sounds on the other foot, to mix a metaphor) feel somehow responsible or embarrassed about all bad free verse? Should I feel I have to excuse plodding prosody?
What do you do, then, if you are a youngish poet who sometimes writes in form but doesn’t want to be classed as a New Formalist? Well, one method is to distance yourself. You could write a review of a book in form and use it as a springboard to discuss the problems of New Formalism generally.
Heck, it sounds like something I would do myself. (And, yes, I think reviews ARE places to talk about broader poetic issues pegged on this or that slender volume of verses.)
And, well, OK, maybe I am thinking of some reviews of my own book… that is after all one of the things mentioned in the David Mason article Major is blogging. Mind you, I am always glad to get reviewed at all, much less in a magazine people actually read. The review even ends on a positive note–I personally can’t complain–(hey—at least I am not a muggle!), but it does use my book as a general launch against New Formalism, which is teeming with the magic-impaired: “With the so-called ‘New Formalists’ still hanging on, managing their own journals, their own conferences [plural, sic], and presses, there will always be readers who reward poems for falling into rhyme and meter, since such poems contribute to their silly polemic against Modernism.” There is much to respond to in this sentence…
I don’t mean to pick on Peter Campion (having recently had the chance to meet him in Chicago, I can vouch that he isn’t a muggle either), an astute critic I enjoy reading–er, when not being astute about me–but I find it interesting that Campion himself occasionally writes in form and does it very well, in supple couplets, nimble rhymes, the odd sonnet (is Unsplendid one of their journals?). Why, then, isn’t Campion a New Formalist? Do you have to attend the West Chester conference to be co-opted? (Someone invite him!) People who write in form well or creatively are apparently not New Formalists. So is a New Formalist just, well, a Bad Formalist?
Who knows. No one will admit to being one. No one will come forward to tell us.

Comments (51)

  • On November 29, 2007 at 9:54 am Cuitlamiztli Carter wrote:

    Do free verse poets (see how absurd the term sounds on the other foot, to mix a metaphor) feel somehow responsible or embarassed about all bad free verse? Should I feel I have to excuse plodding prosody?
    This raises a good point. Bad rhyming poetry makes one wince and is the butt of many jokes, but by and large folks I know seem more forgiving of listless, repetitive free verse. Why? Because it feels more artsy without being stiff?
    One of the concerns for “formal” work may be that it does not seem to speak to our culture in terms of format. Our popular song lyricists still rhyme, but it’s generally simplistic aabb format. Our newer religious songs – meaning the “majority religion” of Protestant/evanglical Christianity whose trappings are increasingly irrelevant to the world at large anyway – don’t reinforce a sense of formal diction, the result of an increasing informality in our culture at large. We don’t present poems as invocations to start public ceremonies. Modern art is built on irreverence and attempted innovation, not structure.
    As a result, formality in poetry may feel like a throwback to the average reader. We don’t “think” in sonnet form or other structures. However, I think these forms will gain some new interest precisely because they are “disconnected” from the general expectations. Look at the gradual revival H.P. Lovecraft has been receiving – the weird fiction author openly aspired to use archaic words in his dense prose that was out-of-step with the pulp magazines of his day. However, because of the depth of his imagination and the uniqueness of his philosophy, his work is more and more visible in its impact.
    In terms of quality, there are many Formalist-leaning poets who write relevant work in “less contemporary” forms. I think of William Logan’s “The Other Place,” or your own “Extinction of Silence.” The poems are formal and structured, but the language of both poems is accessible to a modern audience.

  • On November 29, 2007 at 10:32 am Steve Mackin wrote:

    On Frost’s comment, tennis without a net, I always wanted to respond to him, I like to play it without a net or a racket or a ball, and in slow motion against an imaginary oponent, with John Fahey playing in the background.

  • On November 29, 2007 at 10:35 am ange wrote:

    “Do free verse poets … feel somehow responsible or embarassed about all bad free verse?”
    Pretty much. There’s nothing worse than mediocre free verse.
    In A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, Mary Kinzie borrows a term from music — “recession of technique” — to describe a tactic we free-versifiers use to put pressure on the form: we tend to exaggerate another feature of the poem (tone, texture, etc.). If I don’t sense something like this in the use of the language, I take personal offense; on the other hand, I easily forgive badly executed trad forms. An attempt at pattern is more intelligent than a blithe indulgence in broken prose by someone who couldn’t even write good prose in the first place!

  • On November 29, 2007 at 1:09 pm Javier Huerta wrote:

    For the newest thing in formalism check out this sonnet.
    http://pistolamag.org/Javier_O._Huerta_.html
    It is absolutely hideous.

  • On November 29, 2007 at 3:06 pm Steve wrote:

    The people who started throwing around the term in the 1980s (Robert Richman, maybe) presumably didn’t mind being called New Formalists.
    One problem with the term– one reason so many people want to run from it– is that you can apply it to anyone who writes in rhyme or metre after a certain date (1980, perhaps). By contrast, there was a magazine called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E; if you never published in it, and never published in the smalll 1970s litmags run by the people who did publish in it, you’re pretty clearly not a Language Poet, though you might still be an avant–gardiste.
    Another is that its most vigorous proponents are also, sometimes, proponents of a naive populism about what these poems in rhyme and metre can say and do: throwbacks to the antimodernism of the Saturday Review, rather than to the rhyme and metre and sophisticated of (say) Merrill.
    A last problem– and a last reason why people who might be called New Formalists don’t want to be, while at least some people who might be called avant-garde (hi, Christian!) want to be called avant-garde: if you subscribe to the idea of a lyric tradition that changes only gradually, whose older forms and goals remain valid today, then you’re going to be uneasy about being called a New Anything At All, because you’re likely to think that New This Or That movement obscure more than they reveal about the traditions, and the smaller-scale novelties, at work in individual poems.

  • On November 29, 2007 at 3:47 pm Susan McLean wrote:

    Hi, my name is Susan and I am a formalist. Yes, it sounds like a confession of addiction, and it is. I am addicted to the esoteric pleasures of rhyme and meter, and I don’t even try to deny it or camouflage it with slant rhymes. Why am I willing to admit this? Because my job doesn’t depend on getting published in any particular journals. Because I don’t think loving rhyme and meter is anything to be ashamed of. Because I don’t subscribe to the idea that use of form prevents me from saying anything I want to say or ties me to any political agenda. Because “formalist” is still a smear word in certain circles (like “feminist” and, yes, I am that, too) and I think the only way to rehabilitate the term is to stand up and claim it.
    I am comfortable with being called a New Formalist because I tried to write in form during the ’60s and ’70s and received such universal condemnation for it from teachers and editors that I abandoned poetry writing for nineteen years. So the gradual loosening of the taboo in the ’80s and ’90s was a very welcome development for me, very clearly a revival of something that had been dormant for a while. Ultimately, it’s all about the poetry, and these tags are more about turf protection than about what moves readers. If the current state of poetry shows us anything, clearly it is that many different styles of poetry can exist at the same time and all find readers. Who needs a beauty contest to tell us what is beautiful? Not me.

  • On November 30, 2007 at 7:12 am Major wrote:

    Great post Susan and thank you Alicia for both blog and visuals. The step by step bow-tie instructions are rad. It is interesting that such exacting poets such as Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott (in America during the 80s and 90s) were not labeled New Formalists. The movement’s distinctive American flair seemed outside the bounds of our international brethren.

  • On November 30, 2007 at 7:53 am Henry Gould wrote:

    I agree with Steve’s comments, above. Here’s another reason (aside form general aversion to group labelling) why I wouldn’t want to call myself either a formalist or an experimentalist :
    because something very old and traditional in poetry and art is lost when writers indulge in excessive, explicit, public shop talk. These matters of craft and workshop and technique. . . Americans are obsessed with celebrity and gadgetry. Moreover it ends up being just another in-house jargon, a form of po-biz, another screen between the artist, the audience, and an authentic aesthetic experience.
    In the old (medieval) days, a craft was called a “mystery”. One can spin this guild tradition as just another form of predatory exclusion, pure economic self-interest (if you keep the art of wagon-making a secret, you protect your patent, so to speak). But another way of thinking about “techne” is more philosophical (Aristotelian) : every art has its unique telos or end, its own form of perfection – and the approach to this end is to be accomplished with great prudence and respect.
    The fine arts add another layer to this mystery : the telos or end of a work of art is not simply useful or practical, it’s spiritual and intellectual – effecting emotional and intellectual responses on the most refined and complex levels of human consciousness. Everything the artist does works toward this end; in the process the presence of the maker disappears or is transmuted into the work itself. Shakespeare hides behind the curtain of his anonymity.
    Craft and technique, in a sense, have to be transcended, they have to be surpassed if the artist wants to reach this higher order of complexity. The public bandying-about of the secrets of artistic labor is, essentially, a diversion. We don’t need or want to know about all the mechanics involved in an aesthetic experience, because the whole is meant to be greater than its parts. There is no beauty without simplicity and wholeness.
    Poets should spend more time in their own secret workshop, and less time in the “workshop” mode, which panders to mediocrity and pawns off second-rate & third-rate art – the sophisticated mechanical products of highly-intelligent arty folks – as if it were the real thing.

  • On November 30, 2007 at 10:25 am jane wrote:

    This is not a defense of free verse and doing what you feel and — yawn. It’s an attempt to have a context for thinking about the virtue of form (in which I include the various poetics that might be filed under “free verse”).
    I wonder if one thing that unites many of the commenters here, even when they seem to be on different sides of what Alicia poses as a conflict, is the belief that a way of writing simply has (or fails to have) inherent virtues that can be measured against consistent standards — as is suggested by Frost’s quote, and the conjoined concept of “rules.”
    I would suggest this is a very curious belief for anyone to hold. Unlike the rules of tennis, which intend to stay the same, and to which a winning tennis game must conform, winning poems (and here I think the ambiguity of the term “winning” is useful for drawing out the distinction between games and arts) are played against history (again, the ambiguity of “against” helps — for the sense of “on a background of…” is entirely relevent). And history changes. “Form” as a category (which includes kenning and quasidah, sonnet and field composition) doesn’t change because it gets used up like toothpaste, or because new flavors are inherently exciting. It changes because the conditions of our lives, which form was always trying to make visible, or intensify or clarify or complicate or celebrate…the conditions change. Poetics is the reaching after a form adequate to the history in which we live.
    For example, Baudelaire’s rhymed alexandrines in Fleurs du mal aren’t an infinite and universal value, the alexandrine, love it or leave it. Those six stresses and end rhymes aren’t Frost’s abstract “net.” They communicate something specific. And as it happens, they communicate something way different from Racine’s alexandrines two centuries earlier. One of the things they communicate is, of course, the persistence of that old style. But by the 19th century, they pose this style not as “of the moment” but as already antique — against a changing, new life of cities and alienation and modernity and all that other good Baudelairean stuff. The alexandrines communicate a form of aristocratic orderliness and control, both restrictive and courteous, that is clinging but fading away in post-Revolutionary Europe.
    And then it does fade away. And people pretty much stop writing in rhymed alexandrines. Whaddya know, it wasn’t tennis at all. It was the life in the world that was making the measure of the poem.
    This goes, one must assume, for any form: the sonnet, pentameter, aubades, poesie concrete. They make a personal sense; that person lives in a shifting social world; we call that shifting social world “history”; and at some point it shifts enough that other forms will come in handy to make an account of oneself in a poem.
    Two last oddities. “Language writing” is itself historical. I think it’s fair to suspect that it had its impact and force and credibility because it did a pretty good job of making an account of something about life, something about being a person at that time. If it didn’t, no one woulda cared. But it too must pass, not because it’s inherently good or bad, used up, mistaken, pretty or ugly — but because the world of which it sought to make account is passing. Lang gets to go into the storehouse of poetic strategies that were of their time, just down the shelf from the alexandrine.
    But the last oddity is the neo-formalist fascination with certain forms and not others; why does nobody associate neo-formalism with the dróttkvætt stanza, the cinquain, the basic Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse + medial caesura, or the chant royal? The “forms” that predominate in neo-formalism are themselves not universal, not always-good, not inherent: they’re a very specific set of forms from a specific historical period with its own historical particularities. The fixation on them is not the discovery of some universal rule; it resembles more the mere preference for one certain historical moment over another. It’s not poetic virtue, it’s a time-travel fantasy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  • On November 30, 2007 at 11:03 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    Beautifully said, Henry. I was thinking along the lines of jargon, too. But then I thought of literary criticism, in which it helps to label and categorize. Doesn’t it?

  • On November 30, 2007 at 11:46 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Thanks, Mary. Yes, I agree completely about criticism. I probably win the prize for reading more dusty lit-crit phd. monographs (here in the library where I work) than anyone alive (or seemingly alive).
    Nor do I want to throw a wet caesura on anyone’s enthusiasm for the intricacies of form & technique.
    I just think we often miss the forest for the trees, and the finished work for the glib & wishful chatter.
    For the sake of the aethetic encounter itself, I say let there be some mysterious exotic distance maintained between the poem, the poet & everything else. Hush saith the Librarian.

  • On November 30, 2007 at 1:52 pm Steve Mackin wrote:

    Actually, the librarian says (and I know, having been at it for thirty), after he’s shelved his 500,000th book, “I’ve never met a book I didn’t want to burn.”

  • On November 30, 2007 at 3:14 pm Don Share wrote:

    I don’t buy Jane’s notion of a neo-formalist “time-travel fantasy.” I have to imagine that when poets write in form their aim is to be reinvigorating something – making it new, keeping it alive – not yearning for the days when Swinburne sang. Leaving aside the whole point of this thread, which is that nobody even wants to be known as a neo-formalist and that it’s darn hard to name any, one could just as easily argue that the lang-pos and avants and post-avants and non-SOQs are also yearning for a golden age. Poetry machines, anagrams, concrete language, automatism and generating texts without conscious control, sounding like Frank O’Hara or constructing things like Jackson Mac Low (both of whom I love, for what it’s worth) – are practitioners of such things not also traveling back to a romantic time when those were daring and new?
    It’s pointless to say yes or no, because the challenge for a poet of any worth is to balance whatever came before with that which has changed, and must change. We all have our own allegiances and personal tastes, not to be confused, no matter how passionately we advocate those, with what Jane calls “virtue.” The only kind of virtue worth worrying about is whether a poem succeeding on its own terms, whatever those are and wherever they came from. Even at that, there’s no one measure or standard for success.

  • On November 30, 2007 at 6:04 pm jane wrote:

    Don, you’ll note, I hope, that one of my points was exactly that everyone, formalists and language writers and vers librists and etc, is equally bound to history (and not to “the poem’s own terms,” a nonsensical concept if there ever was one. The terms are always situated; otherwise a given poem would be received the same in all places and times).
    Perhaps you’re right that the formalists are endeavoring to reinvigorate something. Perhaps this is also true of oulipians and flarf and etc. The present is in no small regard made from variegated remnants of the past.
    And yet it is not the past. I never actually made a claim that anyone had some abstract claim on “the new.” In fact, there may be no new. There is, however, a now: a world with conditions that weren’t always the case. And finding an attunement to that remains a central task of poetry. To explain a historical development — romanticism, modernism, confessionalism, free verse, terza rima — as somehow not a historical development but as either a purely technical development, or as an enduring, stable value is a mere mistake.
    Meanwhile, “now” is a shifter, as they say: it means a different thing, a different set of conditions, every time you say it. On the other hand, “alexandrine” is not a shifter. It always means the same thing. So someone committed to “now” is open to historical change; someone who insists the alexandrine is the way is not. If you think that analogous situations don’t exist in anglophone poetry, I am puzzled by that claim, against which so much evidence can be stacked.
    Double-meanwhile: if you look at the poets heavily anthologized in France, those who like to use the alexandrine fade pretty strongly after 1870. Funny coincidence.
    Triple-meanwhile: reinvigoration is a funny thing, edging as it does toward narratives of return. I for one would be leery of anyone who wanted to reinvigorate “form,” and it turned out that the forms in question all turned out to be from the era of British Empire. But that’s me…

  • On November 30, 2007 at 6:25 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    The only kind of virtue worth worrying about is whether a poem succeeding on its own terms, whatever those are and wherever they came from. Even at that, there’s no one measure or standard for success.
    I could definitely pledge allegiance to this! Bravo, Don.
    Henry, are you a masochist with the phd monographs? Oy! My next thought about jargon is this: no matter what, jargon stinks. The best lit crit defines its own terms, just like the best poems succeed on their own terms. See Don supra. I agree with you about the aesthetic encounter – let it be fresh and unencumbered.

  • On November 30, 2007 at 7:15 pm Ange wrote:

    I was going to make a separate post addressing Jane Dark, but with Don’s subsequent comment, it makes more sense to keep the conversation in one place.
    Jane says, “But the last oddity is the neo-formalist fascination with certain forms and not others; why does nobody associate neo-formalism with the dróttkvætt stanza, the cinquain, the basic Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse + medial caesura, or the chant royal? The “forms” that predominate in neo-formalism are themselves not universal, not always-good, not inherent: they’re a very specific set of forms from a specific historical period with its own historical particularities. The fixation on them is not the discovery of some universal rule; it resembles more the mere preference for one certain historical moment over another.”
    I really couldn’t agree more. And I said as much when I talked about (New Formalist) Morri Creech’s book Field Knowledge in Poetry last May:
    “It’s worth interrogating which references from the past we plunder
    for our ditties, isn’t it? And really, which past? There are so many…
    But Creech’s aesthetic choices speak louder than his references.
    His engagement with ‘the past’ is specifically an engagement
    with genteel, staunchly mid-century Anglo-American formalism.”
    Don’t you think, though, that it’s painting with a rather broad brush to suggest that nostalgia for the British empire drives the preference for, say, Tennysonian quatrains? Isn’t that a bit like saying that white people who listen to the country music are nostalgic for the Confederacy?
    There’s rather a strong tension between the desire to be here now, as they say, and the pull of a past — Paris in the 20s, NY in the 50s, etc. — that gives a work depth. In fact, Jane Dark, I would say the poets who are most successfully “of our time” are the MFA teachers & students who model their work on one another and immediate predecessors. Free of the past, free of old forms, they write anecdotal verse about themselves and hope that the reader goes “Ahh” at the last line. I’m telling you: that is the now. What next?

  • On November 30, 2007 at 9:13 pm jane wrote:

    Ange: interesting as ever. And indeed, I agree about plundering the past; as I said, those are compositional elements of the present, as a rule. But plundering and changing and resituating* are not at all the same as reinvigorating, returning to, or replicating the forms of some specific period.
    I would disagree that what you gloss as “the MFA teachers & students who model their work on one another and immediate predecessors,” (the dross of which strikes me as globby liberal narcissism), are the “now.” For I don’t find it historically situated at all. It’s timeless, or thinks it is, or wants to be. Not “timeless” in the sense of “enduring,” but in the sense pretending that the way it works is not implicated in the largeness of historical forces; that it’s somehow personal and to-itself and thus — voila! — can be understood not for its attunement to history but “on its own terms,” or whether the speaker really meant it, or something.
    So it’s happening now, like everything else; but that doesn’t make it of the now, which means to be in some relation, to share an open border with the now. 1994 was the year of Sophie Cabot Black’s The Misunderstanding of Nature, and Bernadette Mayer’s The Desire of Mothers to Please Others in Letters. They were both “now” in that year, but not, I would suggest, in the same way.
    PS: I know you are being a bit witty, but: there was no country music during the Confederacy or before, so that doesn’t seem quite an apt analogy? The music of the Confederate time and place, which is to say things like Appalachian murder ballads, survives (none-too-compellingly, to me) in Bob Dylan and your fellow alum Bonnie Prince Billy, not in Taylor Swift.
    * I realize this veers Bøkwards, which is to say Lautreamontwards, with his oft-cited “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it.”

  • On December 1, 2007 at 8:38 am Don Share wrote:

    Re J.’s remarks about the “personal… pretending that the way it works is not implicated in the largeness of historical forces” Oddly, form is an attempt to, as Eliot put it, escape from personality. (“Tradition and the Individual Talent” is probably part of that “narrative of return,” anyhow.) Form can serve as a mode which one is obliged to acknowledge and engage in the “largeness of historical forces.” Ignorance of poetic form is just one of many possible kinds of narcissism: you don’t have to know anything about what you’re doing! If the only parameters left are whatever you improvise at the moment, you end up with that phony “now” in which so many slackly constructed poems are situated. The machines writing their poets prove it (they compose bad poems for other reasons.) Again, I have no preference between a bad poem in form and a bad poem that is not in form. I just don’t see why one is more discreditable than the other.

  • On December 1, 2007 at 8:43 am Don Share wrote:

    Jane, you may wish to eschew forms that were cultivated in or transmitted via the British Empire, but in that case you’d probably also be obliged to write in another language, one more innocent than American English if you can find one, given the implications of our own empirical empiredom – but that’s your choice! The alexandrine, in any case, is a peculiar example, given how seldom it occurs in contemporary formal verse. Even so, you say that an “alexandrine… always means the same thing.” The point is that it does not, ever. Each time it’s used, it is shifted. That’s the whole attraction, for those drawn by it, to the use of form. If form is static, by the way, so, I’d presume, is grammar, so all language is fallen, just like Geoffrey Hill says it is, though neither he nor we seem likely to quit using it. Again, I’m not a formalist and don’t feel troubled by whether a poem I like is in form or not, so this probably blinds me to the need for all these straw-man arguments. My only point is that some of what we’re hearing in this discussion is argued disingenuously because if there’s a “narrative of return” nobody can possibly avoid it – and maybe there’s lots to be learned from it. When poets, formalists or non-formalists, are complacent in their work, there’s no distinction between them. The shifting “now” is usually just the Zeitgeist in all its monotonous variety, and it spends a lot of time writing poems. Nobody can afford to be complacent, and no ideology exists to save us.

  • On December 1, 2007 at 10:03 am Ange wrote:

    Well, Jim Crow then. And the poem that says so (“Country music is historical/This is the music we were lynched by/These are the hangman’s songs”) can be found here.
    I guess, to make a confession, my rage at the tepid formlessness of most anthologized & mainstream-press verse has diminished with the passing of youth. I don’t think anyone thought more deeply about form or changed our perceptions of free verse more than Robert Creeley, and yet he agreed with Pound, that other formal innovator that “What thou lovest well remains; the rest is dross.” I’m pretty sure, at this point in my life, I’m not going to surpass Creeley’s technical accomplishment. (Neither are you.) But given what I can do, I’m not going to make the world a safer place for machines and plastic surgery, y’know? And that’s what I see happening with the avant-garde at this point. In fact, the idea of ceasing to write poetry altogether has seemed more and more attractive lately…

  • On December 1, 2007 at 10:47 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    either for tragedy,
    comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
    historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
    comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
    poem unlimited
    (Polonius)

  • On December 1, 2007 at 12:10 pm Don Share wrote:

    P.S. The [neo?]-formalists will probably give up their English poetry-past when the avant/post-avant/language and other self-styled non-SOQ poets give up their own century-old French-based notions (from Mallarme/Verlaine/Baudelaire through the Surrealists and beyond), though I don’t see why either should, if they’re feel that such things provide a grounding for their work.

  • On December 1, 2007 at 3:47 pm jane wrote:

    Wow. I love a good panic.
    And one can’t stop anyone projecting provocations and tilting at windmills — the very sign of panic.
    Still, one hopes to be understood. So I’ll try one last time, and see if confining myself to a kind of numerical sequence might make both what I think, and the point I have in mind, more clear.
    0) I take form to mean all the things that are communicative in a poem that are neither denotation nor connotation of the words — and, regarding these formal things, I take the relations among them, rather than the aggregate fact of them, to be at the heart of form. Structures and shapes.
    1) I’m all for form. I have not the tiniest opposition to form, its use, the love of it. I think “poetics” is a meaningless category without it. Poets who write in ways that are significantly indifferent to form tend to be boring as shit, and tend to be reduced to contents of polemic and provocation to appeal for interest.
    2) Fixed forms are cool too. What they aren’t is changeable. A pentameter line has five beats. It’s sort of a rule.
    3) History, where we live, is changeable. It changes in all places, all the time, at different rates. I take human history to involve the relations between parts of the experienced world, and particularly social relations. History is changing structures and shapes.
    4) As a logical consequence of all this, while the rules of a fixed form don’t change, its communication changes — because the communication is formed in the relation between the form and the historical moment. They dialectically inform each other.
    5) As a further consequence, specific forms rise and fall, not because they are discovered to be good or bad, nor because they do or don’t have intrinsic interest, but because a given specific form is more or less attuned to a given historical moment. Its structures and shapes are more or less equipped to be particularly communicative in relation to the structures and shapes of a given historical situation.
    That’s the core of the argument, which has been summarized elsewhere as poetics is the search for forms adequate to make an account of their historical moment.
    I think you’ll discover this is not especially radical or hard to follow. I think you will also notice that this argument is pro-form; indeed, it constitutes a radical formalism, since it locates the particularity of poetics within form. What it isn’t is ahistorical: it doesn’t claim that form has some magical self-regulating message independent of historical circumstance, that communicates “on its own terms.” Thus it can explain why forms rise and fall (as is perfectly visible in any time-spanning anthology) without claiming there’s a right course that folks have gone off of. If you need examples of that rhetoric, go to John Barr’s statement elsewhere on this site.
    You’ll also note, I trust, that this argument has no affection for avant-gardes — insofar as it turns out to be the case that they value the new simply because it’s not the old. A purely aesthetic genealogy is ahistorical too.
    Perhaps the poetry of “now” — which is only to say, this historical moment — is just the “Zeitgeist” (apparently an insult; I don’t take it as such, but I’m no German scholar). But the sonnet was zeitgeist too, and that’s fine. If one thinks there’s no connection between the syllogistic structure of the Shakespearean sonnet and the perfectly coeval ascent of Enlightenment rationalism, well, nifty, it takes all kinds.
    None of that makes sonnets bad. Or good. I like sonnets, sometimes. But if a specific form is, um, formed in the crucible of particular historical conditions, and proves particularly well-suited to making an account of being alive then, it does strike me as unlikely that its structure and shape will turn out to be just as good for making account of a different era. To believe such a thing would be akin to believing that, because a key opens one lock, it should open others.
    A last irony: I fear my argument is structurally derived — particularized and modified for poetry — from Lukács’s History of the Novel. He hated modernism, thought it was a big mistake. Which is to say, this whole radical historicizing of form is in no way a modernist, postmodernist, experimentalist, avant-gardist position.

  • On December 2, 2007 at 5:15 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    I thought I might be opening a can of worms…. So much to respond to, not sure where to go first.
    Susan, thanks for standing up! I was hoping someone would.
    A lot of the lines were drawn in this discussion by Ira Sadoff’s 1990 article, Neo Formalism, a Dangerous Nostalgia, including the conflation of conservative politics with received forms. (Actually, the argument is more nuanced than most rhymesters, myself included, tend to characterize it…) Though admittedly it is flattering to at least be thought dangerous! Better that than irrelevant.
    I guess on the one hand I would completely agree that forms have historical roots and historical moments, Indeed, part of using form is being in conversation with that, being aware of the tradition, and tradition goes hand in hand with history. Writing a criticism of Augustanism in perfect heroic couplets would be a kind of irony. I found in translating Lucretius, for instance, that using rhyming fourteeners was a marker that this poem was pre-Golden age (Virgil). And certain forms, the sonnet for instance, are extremely self-referential about their own history and rules. (The sonnet is far from unchangeable, however–innovation is built in to this particular form. And the decasyllabics of Chaucer are not the iambic pentameter of Surrey which is not the iambic pentameter of Milton or of Keats. Some aspects of iambic pentameter are subject change–for instance substitutions–while other elements–its five-ness–remain.)
    That a form or meter or technique has historical roots and moments and moment does not, however, prevent it from having certain innate strengths and weaknesses which can be exploited in certain ways. Trochaic tetrameter will have a driving, emphatic sound, counter to the iambic cadence of most spoken English and thus marked as special speech, that will tend to be better for some purposes than for others. Long lines will be better for some things than short lines, blank verse better for some things than intricate rhymed stanzas. There will always be poets who can write counter to these tendencies, but going against the grain will be part of the texture of the poem.
    On the other hand, there are forms and there are forms. The sonnet is again a special case here. I actually would agree with Don Paterson that the sonnet is closer to a Platonic form, which I know if going to drive some of you crazy (sorry, Henry)… But really, throughout many histories and places there have been sonnet-like poems–poems weighing in at near 14 lines, with a certain kind of argument and a turn. There are poems of Catullus for instance that come so close to being sonnets they could be defined as such. I remember hearing for the first time The River Merchant’s Daughter in the original Chinese (read by Ha Jin) instead of the brilliant Pound Englished version. In length, in rhyme-like-sounds, it sounded to my ear very sonnet-like. Which isn’t to say the sonnet as we know it is a Platonic form–it has its historical roots and quirks. But if the sonnet hadn’t been invented, something very close to it would have been–perhaps, as Paterson points out, something partaking even more strongly of the Golden Mean, a 13 lines poem with divisions of 8 and 5. This is not true I think of the Sestina or the triolet or villanelle. They are wonderful vehicles too, of course, but seem more particular historical inventions.
    The sonnet is amazingly transportable too to other languages and cultures. It tends to exhibit the “standard” line length of the culture it is in–be it hendecasyllables, alexandrines, iambic pentameter. Well, I have been holding back on a sonnet post–maybe I should go ahead and do one.
    I think you will find too that though new-formalist journals heavily favor the sonnet (and there are heaps of dull competent sonnets–we are in the midst of a sonnet revival but that has never driven out dullness) and a rather traditional sonnet at that, folks-who-write-in-form love experimenting with all kinds of things. You would find on a board like Eratosphere people experimenting with ghazals, with heterometric verse, with alliterative accentual verse, with slant rhymes and no rhymes, with nonce forms, in a host of different voices and sensibilities. There is a new journal Unsplendid that specializes in nonce forms. Anyway, maybe the problem with new formalism is that the form-only vehicles (journals and prizes) tend to be more conservative than the practice on the ground. I had a much harder time getting my first poem accepted in The Formalist than I did into Poetry. Yet the Formalist was invaluable—it did provide a vital corrective and venue at a time when many journals even stated in their requirements that they would not consider rhymed or metered poems.
    (The truth is, you can always sneak in blank verse under the wire—it is rhyme that really gets people hot under the collar—that would be worth a post in itself.)
    I would of course also agree that the poem is the thing. It is not enough to write a good sestina, a good triolet, a good sonnet. It has to be a good poem, rules be damned. I can’t tell you how many “sonnets” I see that would be fine 12-line poems and are marred by a superfluous couplet just to come in at the “right” length.
    I guess if there is something I would like to see more of it is syllabic verse. I think it has been seriously underexplored, largely abandoned by the avant garde (I think… but I could be wrong there) and eschewed by the formalists because, theoretically, it “cannot be heard”.(but then, we aren’t used to listening for it, are we?) I think it is full of exciting possibilities for a heavily accented and uninflected language like English.

  • On December 2, 2007 at 9:32 am Don Share wrote:

    No insult in Zeitgeist – I trust there’s not one in “panic” – but thanks for revealing that the argument derives from Lukács – it’s interesting and explains a lot (I’m not being sarcastic). L. preferred Sir Walter Scott and Balzac to Kafka, Joyce, and Beckett – but he was talking about novels, and how they can be vehicles of objective reality. I’m honestly not sure how this works in poetry, a kind of writing in which it’s darn hard to identify the dialectical relation between subject and object in the historical process, etc., etc.
    Anyway, all I can do is say again that the rules of form change with the times and with history, in its crucible, in fact. Put another way, and paraphrasing Colin Thubron, “language and identity become as shifting as the sands.” I don’t even think Lukács would disagree with that.

  • On December 2, 2007 at 1:43 pm Simon DeDeo wrote:

    The essential thing about the “neo-formalist” movement — which I take to be a bit of a joke, really, although people who self-describe take it seriously — is that it ignores the context of the audience (Josh/Jane uses the term history, which is a bit too large for me — I’m not one to take the living-room habits of upper-class Victorian women as somehow connected to the conquest of India.)
    There is a bit of the SCA — Renaissance Faire feeling to much of the sonnets and general fixed-form verse I encounter, like those LARPers who fight with foam swords.
    Rhyme gets people “hot under the collar” because right now the context for (a focus on) rhyme is hip-hop. It just sounds ridiculous in the largely passive, introspective verses of the academy, and it’s very irritating to watch someone pretending otherwise make a fool of themselves. I’m sweating right now as I think of it.
    I think one of the things that bothers me most about the attention to (a certain subset of) forms is the self-satisfaction — the belief (as Alicia claims) that some fixed forms are special, Platonic forms, have some kind of status above the rest, are anchors for poetry. Different claims are made — we’re mostly Aristotelians now so people say that pentameter and the quatrain conform to our breathing patterns, e.g.. I’m sure the New Criterion will find a neurologist to do a CAT scan and say something similar.
    It’s all a lot of hogwash really, unless you broaden the “sonnet” sufficiently to include, as Alicia does, Chinese poems and Catullus. In which case what on Earth does that kind of “sonnet” have to do with little journals going ABAB?

  • On December 2, 2007 at 2:40 pm Don Share wrote:

    Admittedly, I hardly see any new formal poems (I can count the poets I know who write them on around two fingers), let alone “neo-formalist” ones, so I’m unfamiliar with the claims Simon describes about form being superior, or that it mirrors physiology, etc., and I can only think of one little journal that specializes in such things. But I still can’t see how the distracting “hogwash” he describes makes caring about form somehow bad – anymore than those ago-old gripes about free verse makes it bad. When individual poems (and you be the judge of their “good- badness”) fail, it’s because on their own terms the deployment of strategies chosen by the poet doesn’t work; it’s not because of anything inherent in those strategies. No? Yes? Nothing Platonic about it, though I’d not want to sit in a chair without the Platonic idea of chairness having briefly entered the carpenter’s imagination at some point. I don’t have to sit in a poem. (On which subject see David Byrne’s cover art for the November issue of Poetry for inspiration.) I sure don’t mind rhyme and meter in a poem (from any period), and I also enjoy a bit of verse/chorus/verse in my tunes – but live happily without ‘em all the time. Variety’s the spice, etc., as Bill Knott reaffirms on another thread here.

  • On December 2, 2007 at 4:23 pm Susan McLean wrote:

    It is disheartening to see how many people who don’t do form themselves are eager to sneer at those who do and to lecture them on what rhyme or meter “means” and what are the only acceptable attitudes to take toward this historical moment. Those who use form quickly learn that some forms that originated in other languages are well suited to those languages, but a poor fit with English sounds and speech rhythms. Some forms (such as Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse) are so closely linked to the poetic practices of a past time that they will generally sound dated or highly artificial if redone with contemporary content. That does not mean that they cannot still have a striking beauty if done well, but most writers in form are not going to gravitate toward them. The multiple rhymes of a ballade are quite hard to manage in English, so those who can write one pull off a tour de force, but the form is not suited to most occasions. The most adaptable forms, nonce forms invented for the occasion or blank verse or the incredibly flexible sonnet, can sound as natural as colloquial speech. Many, though by no means all, formalists value clarity, intelligibility, contemporary diction, and varied rhythms. When I give readings, I often hear from the audience that they can’t tell where the introduction ends and the poem begins, because the speech patterns are so similar and the rhymes do not call attention to themselves. But that is just one style of many that fall within the very wide category of form.

  • On December 2, 2007 at 6:25 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    I’m willing to self-define as a lesbian poet, since I think I was born that way. But I wasn’t born a formalist. It takes dogged practice to learn meter. I just started four years ago. Now I’ve written triolets, Sapphics, sonnets, nonce forms, pantoum (one), haiku, rondels, and ghazals. I love meter, rhyme, and form, and I’m not sure I can write free verse anymore, or even want to. It takes more brilliance than I have to pull off free verse – like those Lost Sappho Poems – now that is a truly brilliant creation. But as for form, what thrills me about it is following the form as closely as possible. It’s a way of shmoozing with culture and history. Jane, I have plans to check out the dróttkvætt stanza.

  • On December 2, 2007 at 9:09 pm Simon DeDeo wrote:

    There are a lot of journals — admittedly, hardly famous ones — devoted to reproducing dead forms (and I don’t really feel that calling the ABBA… sonnet a dead form is that controversial.) They are a bit hard to google because they do indeed go for the Platonic-type titles, but here’s one.
    “Caring about form” really means something very different from “thinking the ABBA sonnet is anything but archaic” — but I really meant to argue against that latter impulse than any kind of attention of patterning in general. I do want to steer clear of agreeing that “all good poetry is good” — I mean there is a case to be made here that a poet who sits down to go ABBA is really starting off on a wrong foot that is impossible — at this point — to recover from.

  • On December 3, 2007 at 4:37 am Annie FInch wrote:

    Oddly enough, during the last few weeks when Alicia must have been gestating this post (which I was intrigued to see, having always figured she was one of the poets who is fairly content to be called a newfo),I’ve noticed that for the first time in many years, I can see myself labeled a newfo without squirming and wanting to defend myself. To me, the term just doesn’t feel so loaded anymore. Maybe it’s because the democrats finally control Congress—after all, the first attacks on new formalism followed soon after the election of Reagan (I am thinking of Ariel Dawson’s 1985 piece in which she accused formalists of undermining American, ie Whitmanian, values).
    For me the excitement of writing in forms is that they DO change their meanings. It’s the clash and encounter of those old forms’ layers of meanings against contemporary needs that excites me–to work with their resistance, to feel the points of tension and traction—and of course, the purely artistic excitement of the challenge, taking a form that has been fallow for so long and using its rich minerals, making it work, working with it till it yields a harvest.
    It’s simply not true, Jane, that poetic forms only work for the time in which they’re invented; check out the sonnet’s revival for the Romantics after a hiatus of centuries for one example. But I do agree with you that they are not likely to work again in the same way or for the same purposes–which is one way, I think, that so many new formalist poems fail: they try to use the old forms in the old ways and for the old purposes, without wrestling them to contemporary uses. This is different from the trend of “deforming” or “subverting” forms; I’d submit that if a poem has truly wrestled with a form and won, so that the form yields meaning in a new way, there’s no need to subvert or change the form itself; that would be redundant.
    Annie

  • On December 3, 2007 at 8:21 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    Hey there, Simon, you’re dissing my beloved sonnet. Read “Sonnet for Bill” by R. Nemo Hill
    then tell me the sonnet is a dead form. How about “Souvenir” by Jehanne Dubrow

  • On December 3, 2007 at 8:28 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Wow, what a complex discussion here.
    I’d place myself somewhere in between the “historicists” of form and the pure “formalists”, I guess. On the one hand, to latch onto specific poetic “forms” and equate this with (poetic) form itself is to deracinate the latter. This is one of the things which makes the attempt to use “traditional” forms rather perilous and daunting. The poet has to REALLY absorb & digest the “form” (rather like and amoeba) – otherwise its mechanical and “tour-de-force” quality overshadows the newness which the poet is actually trying to achieve.
    I agree somewhat with “Jane” (unusual for me). But I think he takes history a bit too seriously. I think of specific formal qualities of a poem as aspects of an invention. The “form” (sonnet, pentameter, etc.) is grounded in a “mode” (elegy, love-poem, pastoral, etc.) . These modes are themselves rooted in rather longstanding human experiences and their emotional counterparts : and over the centuries, rhetoric and logic have invented special modes of approach to these (rather) perennial experiential and emotional foundations. The dialectical “turns” in odes or sonnets have their roots in logical back-&-forth – which may in turn be rooted in ritual forms of dance, etc. – gesture.
    Thus the “invention” exhibited in successful poetic form is a consequence of a kind of intersection between 1) experience itself; 20 the rhetorical modes we have developed to narrate experience; and 3) the particular (micro-level) forms we have created to channel those modes. These inventions – when they unite all these levels – are somewhat free-standing, not strictly tied to immediate history. And BECAUSE they are sucessful – they become FASHIONABLE : popular fashions of literary style, through which poets channel the everyday coinage of demotic speech & slang.
    Poetry, however, always has in reserve a final maneuver, a final trick up its sleeve. Because language itself – single words, sentences – are highly-evolved technical inventions in their own right. In this regard I like to repeat Mandelstam’s gnomic comment : “the word is Psyche”. Simplicity lurks at the root of all formal ornamentation.

  • On December 3, 2007 at 9:07 am Don Share wrote:

    Simon says “there is a case to be made here that a poet who sits down to go ABBA is really starting off on a wrong foot that is impossible — at this point — to recover from.” Here’s your chance to make that case! Again, it’d be good to do so without mistaking as evidence all the bad poems ABBA has written, but rather to demonstrate that it’s inherently impossible to write good ones.

  • On December 3, 2007 at 11:48 am Susan McLean wrote:

    Simon, a form may be considered dead if no one is using it, but that is far from the case with the Petrarchan sonnet. I assume that your statement that it is impossible to write a good poem in that form is based not on reading a lot of contemporary sonnets by the best practitioners of form, but merely on your own lack of interest in the form. That doesn’t make a convincing argument. Form is neutral. It is a container for content, but the form itself can only be judged by its content, which either works or does not work successfully with the form.

  • On December 3, 2007 at 11:55 am jane wrote:

    I don’t recall ever saying “that poetic forms only work for the time in which they’re invented,” which Annie whom I like very much wants me to have said so she can rebut. The relevant passage, I assume, is: “specific forms rise and fall, not because they are discovered to be good or bad, nor because they do or don’t have intrinsic interest, but because a given specific form is more or less attuned to a given historical moment.” Rise and fall: sometimes forms have long rises and slow falls, sometimes they might rise and fall multiply. All of this is possible in cases, according both to the historical record and the logic of the argument. Moreover,in other posts, I made more or less the exact same point as Annie: see, for example, comments on Baudelaire’s use of the alexandrine in comparison to Racine’s (or Corneille’s). So you’ll see why I might find it weird that someone would argue via the strategy of repeating my claim as a rebuttal to my claim.
    These historical facts merely go to prove the historicity, as the wonks say, of specific forms. A historical situation was fading away and found a dying burst of energy to make final use of the forms it has used to think about itself. That doesn’t make the form eternal and universal; quite the opposite, it reveals most clearly the form’s historical limits. The sonnet was a fine form for the work of the Enlightenment, just as the alexandrine was a fine form for the French aristocracy. Indeed, there’s a real parallelism there: just as Baudelaire’s pointedly old-fashioned line was making a dialectical case about the new-fashioned, and was entirely aware that the form of poetry (and form of life) wouldn’t survive that passage — in such a way, Romantic sonnets turned insistently to the facts of the new world in which the sonnet stood for the old, knew itself as antique, as remnant trace, as part of what was bound to fade away (cf. “The world is too much with us,” “Ozymandias,” “On First Looking…” etc ad infinitum).
    Of course this argument allows the remote possibility that the sonnet might return again to be an ideal form for anglophone poetics in 2007. But that argument would still have to be historical, and I for one am dying to hear that case, rather than claims about intrinsic qualities of the sonnet (or any other fixed form), resistance, musicality, ritual dance, striking beauty and all that good stuff.
    One once heard that six digits was the ideal length for phone numbers because the mind simply couldn’t memorize a large amount of seven digit numbers. The capacity of people to claim the material truth of entirely contingent and temporary social agreements is nothing short of astounding.
    Final and friendly (really!) note to Simon before I absent myself from this festival: for a historian not to see “the living-room habits of upper-class Victorian women as somehow connected to the conquest of India” would be on par with an astrophysicist not seeing the motion of a ball dropped from the tower of Pisa as somehow connected to the tides. Not that the connective forces of history are as universal as gravity — I merely offer an analogy for thinking systemically, about broad causes (what the hell, “systemic causality,” as the historians say) and then instances within that system. What do you think those Victorian women were drinking, by habit in their living rooms? I rather think this might be connected to Ceylon. And the national wealth of Britain that allowed time for tea and poetry salons — unconnected to the fact “that India’s share of the world income fell from 22.6% in 1700, comparable to Europe’s share of 23.3%, to a low of 3.8% in 1952?”

  • On December 3, 2007 at 12:09 pm Don Share wrote:

    “Long ago? and far away? So all the old stories say it.”
    – Robert Duncan on Helen Adam, who wrote ballads in the 20th century – when ballads were supposed to be of no intrinsic interest at that given historical moment.

  • On December 3, 2007 at 12:47 pm Simon DeDeo wrote:

    Starting off to write a sonnet ABAB (or ABBA) — it is like beginning a speech “unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…” That’s just how it reads to me. You can start there but today if you do not go on to undermine the form, subvert it — if the approach is anything but ironical and smirking — it just does not work.
    I want to take issue with one of Susan’s terms: “the best practitioners of form.” This to me is the essence of formalism today — the idea that poetry is a “craft”, a kind of skill, like gardening or wine-making. To me to call a poet a “practitioner” — this kind of language is all over the formalist case — it just pushes all the wrong buttons. To me it bespeaks a kind of radical discomfort with the actual nature of poetry, which is fundamentally opposed to this — Aristotle would call it the difference between techne and poesis.
    More often than not I hear in the call for better “practice” a worry that without some kind of standard skill set — e.g., the ability to find sufficiently many rhymes — we will be at sea, easily duped by the next free verse joker who comes along. There’s a conservatism, a resistance to development and the uncertainty that comes with new criteria, hidden in there.
    This — and my disdain for the “essentialist” ideas that pentameter is breath, etc — is my opposition to the theoretical backing that I see in a lot of people making the formalist case. And there is a great deal of “case making” that goes on when it comes to formalism in the strict sense (Annie Finch — hello Annie! — is not in this category) — it’s part of the contemporary poetry battles and formalists are putting up a pretty good resistance movement.
    When it comes to the poems themselves — in the end, right, critique of judgment, we perceive these universal laws but cannot argue or communicate them in the way we do rational questions. I can’t argue that people who enjoy reading sonnets written in 2007 are wrong. Just that to me — and my taste is these days so eclectic as to border on bizarre — it doesn’t “read” like poetry any more. At best it reads like verse. It’s not the kind of work I read, or that I want to write about.
    PS: Mary — Dubrow’s poem you point me to is not a sonnet in the sense I’m talking here — the rhythm is sprung, and the pattern unusual — only one rhyme in the usual sense (and it lands like a lead balloon.)

  • On December 3, 2007 at 1:54 pm Don Share wrote:

    Simon, isn’t techne arugably a virtue of poesis?
    “There was a time when it was not technology alone that bore the name techne. Once the revealing that brings forth truth into the splendor of radiant appearance was also called techne. …There was a time when the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful was called techne. The poiesis of the fine arts was also called techne.” (Heidegger)

  • On December 3, 2007 at 2:23 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Simon – how do you like this one?
    Sonnet For Bill
    Even reaching for a bourbon or a beer
    Your hands seemed always gracefully composed.
    Their elegance intact, though more severe,
    All that they’ve held, or wrestled with, still shows—
    Although they reach for nothing now. They lie
    Like orchids, dropped upon the white sheet stretched
    Across your ribs, your chest—which I watch rise
    And fall—a small, pale pine cone filled with breath.
    Forgive me now if face to face with death
    I turn to paint a portrait more discreet:
    A single glass of warm milk that’s been left
    To cool beside a window. In the street
    Outside, long shadows of late afternoon
    Are gathering and entering your room.
    NYC, 2006
    R. Nemo Hill, Poetry, March 2007

  • On December 3, 2007 at 2:31 pm Simon DeDeo wrote:

    Heidegger on the Greeks! I can’t play on that court. Navigating techne and poesis — it looks like I’m having my cake and eating it too (i.e., using “techne” in the sense Heidegger considers ‘modern’, while keeping poesis ancient, as a synonym for the creative act.) My understanding is that Aristotle’s linkage of the terms was “new” so far as before they were distinct.
    In the end Aristotle is not on my side in as much as he wrote the book on making a replicatable craft out of poetry — you could argue that he’s on the side of the sonneteers — although we’re a long way from where this discussion began. But do we really believe that a critic can analyse poetry and construct a guide to its production in the way he once did?
    PS: Jane, just tweaking you man.

  • On December 3, 2007 at 3:08 pm chesimard wrote:

    Hmm. Heidegger is an interesting card to play. He certainly did seem to believe that certain capacities did indeed inhere to certain language (as in, philosophy can only be done in Greek and German). But such beliefs are sadly of a piece with his soil-and-nation musings.
    At the same time, Heidegger surely believed in change over time, especially in matters of representation. When he says “There was a time,” in Don’s citation above, he means it. He also means that time is over.
    In his book on Nietzsche, he announced that Descartes’ cogito inaugurates a new historical period with a new subject, which he calls modernity. Compellingly, he insists that cogitare = to think is a too narrow translation, and ends up claiming that full understanding would find that cogitare = Vorstellen, or “to represent.” So he holds that modernity is representation, crudely put. And perhaps most relevant to this erudite thread, Heidegger thinks that neither the subject nor the object of representation, of modernity, precedes the other: they are mutually constituting. The object (a sonnet, for example) would have no a priori qualities, nor would the subject (a reader or a poet). The meaning of representation, in modernity, is entirely bound up in a shifting relation. The transcendental categories of the beautiful and the true are no longer functional.

  • On December 3, 2007 at 6:24 pm Emily Warn wrote:

    Given the overwhelming number of poets writing, and literary journals publishing, avant-garde and free verse as compared to those writing and publishing formal verse, such as the one Simon Dedeo mentions, and given this vigorous, sustained, fur-flying debate, I can only wonder whether “neo-formalism” or formalism exists as an almost mythic idea in the minds of the avant-garde, a constraint against which they work that is as every bit as generative as form is to the formalists. From Alicia’s original post:
    “Glibness aside, though, do I feel belligerent against free verse? No, I admire good free verse, I wish I wrote it better. Tennis without a net has its own beauties and choreography. But I write best (as more than one editor has pointed out to me when I tried to sneak in some free verse in a submission) when I write against the constraint and pressures of form–any constraint, really, be it syllabic, repetend, stanzaic, metrical, rhyme-schemed. I write… freer that way. “
    Emily

  • On December 4, 2007 at 4:34 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Why shouldn’t people talk about craft? Of course there is craft. Don’t free verse poets have craft? Don’t they think about things like anaphora and line breaks, cadences, sound texture, levels of diction? It would be helpful I think if we separated discussion of Poetry with a capital P from Verse. Not all poetry is verse (there is prose that has more Poetry in it than 90% of the stuff being published as poetry), not all verse is poetry (you can put your shopping list in limericks if you like). But there is nothing wrong with talking about verse, as there is nothing wrong with talking about prose. I think it is a more useful distinction.
    Since I write a fair number of sonnets, many–not all–of them starting either ABAB or ABBA (why is it always the rhyming that annoys people…), I find it bizarre to think this is something that cannot or should not be attempted. The idea that forms are only interesting where they are subverted or broken in some way–derived I think from T.S. Eliot’s remarks on meter–is by now a tired one. There can only be subversion where there is expectation, you have to have those ABBA sonnets to make breaking away from them mean anything. Free verse has so dominated recent decades that writing a sonnet is in itself subversive, as surely some of this discussion demonstrates. It upsets some people; it shouldn’t be done! Writing a straight Petrarchan sonnet in itself defies an expectation, whereas “subverting” the sonnet form–even writing something in free verse that is 18 lines and calling it “Sonnet”–is actually the expected, the norm.
    The sonnet is hardly dead–and it isn’t just New Formalists using it either. I see quite a lot of experimental sonnets, many of which I cannot parse at all, but they are undoubtedly sonnets. Karen Volkman seems an Elliptical poet but she is also a consumate fashioner of sonnnets–and they do go ABBA. Forms, like the poetry of earth, are never dead–subject matter, diction, style, fashion, yes. These are not to be confused though with the forms that might contain them. It is possible to write a completely archaic sonnet without a new idea in its head. You can’t blame that on the sonnet, though. It is also possible to write a radically fresh sonnet, even, yes, a Petrarchan one. The freshness won’t be in the container but in the contents, and in the contrast between the two.
    I have been resisiting a sonnet post, but I think I must come out with it now…

  • On December 4, 2007 at 11:45 am Henry Gould wrote:

    10 Reasons Not to Talk About Craft,
    Composed by a Bona-Fide Form-Flinghest, & Composer of Odes, Pantoums, Gloses, Sonnets, Dream-Poems, Epics, Nocturnes, Chants Royal, Ballades, Riddles, Epigrams, and Generally Endless ABBA rhymed Quatrains, etc. etc. :
    1. One is Too Busy Crafting to Talk About It.
    2. It is in Bad Taste to Discuss Engineering Problems at the Dinner-Table.
    3. Poetry is not a Craft; Poetry is Flesh and Blood.
    4. One should Generally not Talk About One’s Own Art Works, since they are Meant for Others to Enjoy.
    5. One is Usually Wrong in Any Discussion of the Craft of Writing (since it is not a Craft).
    6. I Would Rather Not Discourse Upon the Mechanical Structure of the Bridge While I am Walking Across It.
    7. Poetry is a Daydream.
    8. My Craft is Not for Public Display (ie. Ars Est Celare Artem).
    9. There Is No Joy in the Obvious.
    10. Art (Like God, Sometimes) Hides Itself.
    addendum :
    11. One Is Not Being Paid to Talk about Craft (unless One Is).

  • On December 4, 2007 at 1:59 pm Matt wrote:

    Just a note to chime in in favor of “art” over “craft”.
    As for form in contemporary poems, I prefer the kind that sounds clunky, slipshod, or slapdash, rather than “well-crafted” or “refined.” Call it “forminess”. For one thing, it’s funnier. And when you’re dealing with form these days, the poem probably won’t work if it takes itself too seriously.

  • On December 4, 2007 at 2:33 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I think Matt hit a certain nail on the head, there.
    The real divide in contemporary poetry is not between “formal” and “free” verse. That’s just a smokescreen.
    The real battle is between the polished (the strenuously artful) and the rough-hewn (the strenuously plain). Vast flotillas of poets congregate toward one end of this spectrum or the other.
    However, there’s an even more peculiar paradox which must be taken into consideration :
    BOTH of these attitudes toward poetry are superficial. They only scrape the surfaces of that very subtle art.
    Good poems somehow, inexplicably, scout out a region which UNITES or BLENDS the artful & the plain, the rough & the smooth…..

  • On December 4, 2007 at 5:42 pm Steve Mackin wrote:

    Yes! I agree with Alicia: The artist should talk about craft. Art is craft. Art is that sum of craft with the capacity to engage the participant in the psychic event, that which is of the psyche, the nutritive through the intellective to the intuitive (see Aristotle on Psychology). Or better yet, it is the walk up the chakras, from the anus through the sagittal suture (the thousand petalled lotus on top of the skull). I think it arrogant of artists to keep what they do hidden behind some shroud of metaphysical inspiration and mystery. Yes, art can and should be subtle. It should have depth and breadth and complexity and elegance and transcendence and insight into the gorespring of our nature, but mystery, I don’t think so.

  • On December 4, 2007 at 10:19 pm Matt wrote:

    “…but mystery, I don’t think so.” Whaa?!?! You’ve got to have mystery in art. Actually, that’s kinda what makes art art. (Mystery isn’t the same thing as deliberate obfuscation, by the way.)

  • On December 7, 2007 at 1:43 pm Annie FInch wrote:

    Thanks for the correction, Jane–I see that I read your comment on the imeliness of forms too simplistically… and again, of course, it’s the poems that make the real arguments.
    I don’t think it is the old raw vs. cooked duaity that’s underlying this conflict, exactly. Given the existence of Karen Volkman’s perfectly–even, one might say, conservatively–formed sonnets–not to mention the perfect sestinas of the Oulipians (Harry Mathews’ is one of the best sestinas ever, in my book), and the quasi-pantoums of Jackson MacLow, and Eliot Weinberger’s passionate attack, in the late great innovative journal Sulfur, on new formalists for not setting themselves still more difficult and exacting formal challenges–it does seem as if it’s not reallly ABBA, or a poet’s voluntary submission to random constraints, whether imperfectly or perfectly followed, that is still pushing so many avant-garde and even mainstream buttons.
    “New formalism” stands for something in the popular poetic mind, as Emily and others suggest, and I’m guessing it may have to do with perceived faith in a fixed poetic ego or self. Nobody really cares if Karen V. writes an exactly-formed Petrarchan sonnet with disjunctive syntax and floating referentiality, but if Timothy Steele writes a sonnet beginning with the word “I” and the poem never questions or undermines the “I,” it drives the avant-garde nuts.
    Why it does so more vexingly than an equally self-based free verse poem is the crux of the question for me. Is it simply the avant garde’s repressed passion for form being projected onto the hapless new formalists? (The avant garde have always been the most unrelenting formalists, after all.) Or is it the thought that the archetypal new formalist is somehow having his (because the archetypal new formalist is surely a (white) male in most minds) cake and eating it too–that he gets the fun of writing with constraint, just like a procedural poet, but doesn’t even have to sacrifice his sense of self in the process? Where does he come off being so privileged, so arrogant?! Yes, I’m convinced. It’s jealousy; I think I feel it too.
    Annie

  • On December 8, 2007 at 11:48 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    Some poets are open to all possibilities of form and content, and others aren’t. Is that the answer? I wouldn’t want to limit myself to one school – maybe I’ll go back to free verse? No, that can’t be possible after learning all this craft. Why does any poet say – no, you can’t be a poet that way. (oops, sorry rhyme there) Be a poet my way. But I’m not influenced by what any poet says I should do – I’m only influenced by poems or poetic insights. It’s fascinating to me that a poet would be against the concept of breath in a sonnet. Why reject breath? Or by extension, the body? I want my poems to be whole living bathing beauties that can twirl batons and win beauty contests. That takes breath.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, November 29th, 2007 by A.E. Stallings.