The Nude Formalism
"When fled I found my love defamed in clang
Of riotous bed she came, along the flues
I harbored there, scarce chance upon harangue
By labors grant the fig of latched amuse
She quakes and bless her soul would harsh realize
That none our maps could burn aboard her ship
And floral hung to lit parts cleared eyes
Left like that elder hap that splits a chip
When dull's the deed wherewith else back I on
Forewent all trial asleep her carousel
Thread in torching tease turned basilican
Drifting after still much breath-crested scrawl
Hence going beads each langorous thronement
When all I gown errs come again cement"
from The Nude Formalism
by Charles Bernstein
A. E. Stallings has fomented vibrant debates in her recent remark, where she describes New Formalism as a poetic school that has no prerequisites for membership, other than a desire to write in rhyme and metre—and yet, she confesses that no one wants to join such a school for being typecast as a supporter of only one "ism." She has aptly pointed out that the word "new" in this moniker actually enciphers the word "retro," and the name thereby signals an upgrade in, an otherwise outdated, ideology (one that now seeks a hipper cachet). I might suggest that any renewed interest in formalism has, no doubt, arisen in response to the abuses of freer verse (whose endgame now resembles a style of prose, with a ragged margin)—and consequently, such formalists might argue that, in an effort to demonstrate the rudiments of both craft and skill, we must return to the proven merits of both rhyme and metre, doing so in order to lend some official standard of judgement to our now debased poetics.
New Formalism, in my opinion, has always resembled a kind of conservative party that complains about some other conservative party for not being conservative enough—and Stallings is probably correct when she points out that, while a poet like David Campion might write according to principles of formal rigour, such a writer does not necessarily fall under the rubric of such a formal school. New Formalism, moreover, does not seem quick to appreciate any kind of avant-garde experimentation with formal rigour—and hence the school has largely ignored, for example, the advances of Oulipo, a coterie that writes poetry according to a whole array imaginative constraints, some of which respond to obsolete, literary traditions (like the sestina or the rondeau). New Formalism seems far less concerned with making older forms "neoteric" through acts of innovation; instead, New Formalism seems more concerned with making older forms "dogmatic" through acts of renovation.
New Formalism (at its worst) thus begins to take on the character of a "conservation society," protecting an endangered form of poetry at the brink of its extinction, thereby preserving these "styles" for posterity, like a taxidermist stuffing dead owls. Charles Bernstein has, of course, lampooned this attitude in his chapbook The Nude Formalism, which presents a suite of formal poetry, written nonsensically, like doggerel misremembered in the act of its recitation. Bernstein sets out to "denude" these poems of any content in order to showcase the aesthetic potential of such forms, once they have freed themselves from any semantic necessity. Bernstein implies that, unlike the Russian Formalists, who might have argued that poetry constitutes a revolutionary investigation of linguistic structures in society, our American Formalists seem to have abandoned such a social agenda, refusing to find novel forms of poetic rebuke, appropriate to the linguistic conditions of our modern milieu.
Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...