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Why No One Wants to be a New Formalist
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.