"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"new" in this moniker actually enciphers the word "retro," and the name thereby signals an upgrade in, an otherwise outdated, ideology (one that now seeks a hipper cachet).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.

Originally Published: December 2nd, 2007

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...

  1. December 2, 2007

    Christian, can you name more than one of the New Formalists (that is, the critics or thinkers about poetry) whose beliefs (at their worst, as you say-- and I agree that those wd be wrong beliefs) you describe?

  2. December 2, 2007
     Joseph Hutchison

    So Mr. Bernstein "denudes" formalist poems of their content. Can contentless verse rise to the level of satire? Can it rise to the level of readability? (By "readability" I mean that quality that makes one want to read it.) Based on this excerpt, I'd argue no in both cases–although evidently Mr. Bök wants to read this stuff, so he is certainly entitled to claim that it satirizes by the very fact that its content is absent. But I can't see how this excerpt says anything at all about the social agenda of American Formalist verse, especially in contrast with Russian Formalist verse; this is an amusing case of "reading into," which is seems to be a preoccupation of academics and novice readers alike. (I once had a student tell me–and I kid you not: "I don't care what the words mean; I know what I think they mean.") The need to "read into" is unsurprising, of course: a "social agenda" is at least as absent from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school poetry as it is from the New Formalist verse Mr. Bök derides.

  3. December 3, 2007
     Don Share

    I like these better, by George Starbuck (even if I risk Ron Silliman's saying that G.S. is the only vispo we know here); the first is one of his "space-saver sonnets"-
    My Mistress' Eyes Are Nothing
    Sonnet with a Different Letter at the End of Every Line
    O for a muse of fire, a sack of dough,
    Or both! O promissory notes of woe!
    One time in Santa Fe N.M.
    Ol' Winfield Townley Scott and I ... But whoa.
    One can exert oneself, ff ,
    Or architect a heaven like Rimbaud,
    Or if that seems, how shall I say, de trop ,
    One can at least write sonnets, a propos
    Of nothing save the do-re-mi-fa-sol
    Of poetry itself. Is not the row
    Of perfect rhymes, the terminal bon mot,
    Obeisance enough to the Great O?
    "Observe," said Chairman Mao to Premier Chou,
    "On voyage à Parnasse pour prendre les eaux.
    On voyage comme poisson, incog."
    I can't format it properly here, but check out, just in time for the holidays, Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree.
    Incredible as it may seem, Jane (see the neo-formalist thread) and I both were lucky enough to have had Starbuck as our mentors.

  4. December 4, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    Well, I have to say, it would be much more fun to be known as a "Nude Formalist" than a "New Formalist"!
    I think Steve is right though that first it might be good to establish just who these New Formalists are--to name names, journals, instances. "Formalists" come in all political stripes, of course. Dave Mason's verse-novel Ludlow illuminates a tragic historical moment in America's labor struggle. Well, I suppose that isn't the kind of politics you mean, but nonetheless...
    Actually, I think the avant-garde, at least as I understand its use here, and formalism have a lot of grounds for conversation. You yourself, Christian, have brought up numerous instances of the avant-garde's use of the I'm-not-dead-yet-Sonnet. And as for Oulipo-ian experiments, I think they should certainly be of interest to formalists, and perhaps it is a shame they are not more discussed in those circles. Although I am outside academia and don't hold a teaching post, I do teach a three-week poetry seminar in the summer on the island of Spetses. It's three intensive weeks, and we do many things, including read the Odyssey. But I "assign" a different form every day, and they are not all what you would call "formalist" forms--we look at abecdarians and pangrams, riddles, syllabics, ghazals. I'm not sure whether Ashbery counts as avant garde or not--I'm guessing not here--but I teach a number of his poems in form courses: pantoums, sestinas, sonnets. I tend to present them first without telling the students who the poet is, since I think some people are afraid of Ashbery and seize up rather than really try to read and enjoy the poems on their own terms.
    It is interesting to me that the avant-garde is interested in playing with things like sound and pattern--yes, even rhyme!--even if to be satirical (but at least Bernstein can pull off a sonnet, and make it rhyme and scan too--with some terrific rhymes like "clang" and "harangue" and "carousel" and "scrawl"), effects largely eschewed by the mainstream of American free verse, perhaps because artifice is supposed to conflict with authenticity of utterance and sincerity (a hold-over from our Puritan roots?). I don't buy that argument--though it is millennia old--but I think one thing the avant garde and formalism have in common is an interest in and exploration of artifice, and artifice as a way towards authenticity.
    I guess where I seriously differ is in phrases like "advances" of Oulipoism. There are innovations in art, sure, but "advances" imply that arts are in a state of evolution towards something better, it is a metaphor from the sciences that is in my opinion misapplied. It is arguably even hubristic. Art changes, it must change, it innovates, there are revolutions and reactions, and greatness can occur at any point along the continuum. But have we improved on Homer? Are we more advanced?

  5. March 10, 2008
     Don Share

    Anybody catch Alfred Corn's blog about the "new formalism"?? Excerpt:
    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...

  6. March 10, 2008
     Don Share

    This just in: Mark Jarman has commented on Corn's blog thusly:
    "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."
    Mr. Corn acknowledged the error.
    While I'm addendumbing, let me add another 2 extracts:
    "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?"
    "...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."

  7. March 14, 2008
     Joseph Duemer

    Mark Jarman can say what he will, but the New Formalism & the New Narrative (the specific program of The Reaper) were tightly entwined. Anyone who doubts this should look at the list of faculty at the West Chester Poetry Conference (see Wikipedia, West Chester Conference). Both movements were culturally conservative in the way Christian Bok enumerates above, and both were anti-modernist.

  8. July 2, 2009
     Mark Jarman

    Well, I've come to this conversation very late, and I have responded to Joseph Duemer's accusations some time ago in another context. I think Alicia Stallings has done an excellent job of responding to Christian Bok and, slyly, to Charles Bernstein (recently referred to as one of the Languish Poets, a term to cherish). I simply wish to clarify the stance of The Reaper, the magazine Robert McDowell and I edited in the 1980's. Duemer has referred to the magazine as culturally conservative and anti-modernist. The only modernist The Reaper criticized, in an essay called "Wallace Stevens, What's He Done?," was the eponymous Wallace Stevens. The only modernist The Reaper championed was Robert Frost, in an essay called "The Elephant Man of Poetry." Any examination of the politics of these two giants of American modernism will not discover the sort of engagement with the progressive thought of their times, which W. H. Auden claimed was necessary for a great poet (in his essay about Yeats). Both Frost and Stevens, like Yeats, were politically reactionary, although Frost from this vantage point might seem to have had a more coherent political philosophy than Stevens. And yet both Frost and Stevens were great modern innovators in poetry. To call Modernism one thing, culturally, aesthetically, or in any other way, is to promote a limited agenda. Here's an interesting political side bar: during World War II, when Louis Untermeyer pressed Robert Frost to join in writing propaganda for the war effort, Frost refused. He wasn't going to put his art at the service of any political agenda, even one he believed in. \r

    Modernism can hardly be considered monolithic, making it somewhat improbable that anyone could be, as Duemer claims, "anti-modernist." As for being culturally conservative, really, few of the great Modernists (and you can take your pick here) could be considered anything but.