Formal Poetry and Recklessness by Anna Evans
At the Bread Loaf writers’ conference this summer I heard Dean Young’s lecture “On Recklessness.” “Poetry,” he said, “Is in perpetual negotiation between anarchy and order.” Indeed, it sometimes seems as if recklessness, along with its more quantifiable cousin, risk, is the new holy grail of poetic—possibly even all artistic—endeavor.
Among a plethora of found poetry, centos, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and poems using idiosyncratic syntax and spelling, not to mention single note operas and sculptures created from bricks or human waste products, can it be possible for formal poetry to create its own productive dialogue with recklessness? Throughout the age-old debate between formalists and modernists, the latter have tended to deny formal poetry any experimental credibility. In his seminal 1975 anthology, Leaping Poetry, Robert Bly denigrated form as “a corridor, full of opening and closing doors. The rhymed lines opened at just the right moment, and closed again behind the visitors.” Meanwhile, Charles Bernstein, in his essay collection A Poetics, opposed all “structures, styles, tropes, methods of transition” that enforced standardization, in an effort to cast modernist verse as reckless to the point of anarchy. The assumption from both poet-critics was that in formal poems there can be no originality, and very little excitement.
In reality this way of thinking about formal poetry is relatively new. Dante Alighieri took a huge risk in the fourteenth century when he composed his Commedia in the Italian vernacular, rather than the traditional Latin. A hundred years later, surely Chaucer’s use of vulgar idiom and ribald humor in the Canterbury Tales raised a few eyebrows. Milton’s blank verse epic Paradise Lost attracted similar critical attention in the seventeenth century.
As Timothy Steele points out in Missing Measures, the identification of meter with dull, stagnant poetry only occurred when the leaders of the modern revolution objected to “the diction and attendant subject matter of Victorian verse,” and ignored the preceding centuries during which meter and rhyme had been no strangers to innovation. Unfortunately in rejecting the somewhat predictable lesser poems of Swinburne, Tennyson et al, Eliot and his followers created the stereotype of risk-averse formal poetry that endures to this day.
However, in the same way that Robert Frost equated free verse with the prospect of playing tennis without a net, I would argue that risk can be more meaningfully assessed when measured against an established framework. In other words, if the rules for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry are that there are no rules, why is it any riskier to throw words down in one particular order as compared with another? According to this aesthetic, we should recognize that poems, which follow forms proscribed by the oldest rules in the English language, but which resist the ways in which such poems have always been written, are the poems of true risk. Excitement here rubs its shoulders against familiarity, and the result is poetry that does not sacrifice comprehensibility for innovation.
Take for example Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets XV and LIX (from The Sonnets.) “Sonnet LIX” is a relatively conventional blank verse piece of ekphrastic commentary on an artistic collage by Joe Brainard. But Berrigan was dissatisfied with this and decided to re-arrange the lines into his own collage, producing “Sonnet XV,” a poem that should be read as the artwork itself is to be viewed—with the eyes darting from line to line in an attempt to make connections and restore order.
Fortunately there are many ways in which today’s poet working in form can resist the rules or tradition of that form to generate the frisson of risk, and I hope that the poems in this new issue illustrate these principles.
Gone are those Victorian days when formal poems burgeoned with capitalized abstractions, mythical creatures, Greek and Roman goddesses, temples and waterfalls. Today’s iambic pentameter is just as likely to cover subjects as diverse as the satirizing of a church social (Lance Levens’ “An Episcopalian Oyster Roast”) or a slaughterhouse (Ben Berman’s “On Detachment and Delicacies.”) Norman Ball takes on pop culture and science in “Gene Supreme.” Nor does a basis in meter and rhyme prevent poets from making mischief or achieving levity of tone (Richard Moore, Don Kimball, Anne Babson and James Wilk.) Phillip Dacey’s “New York Postcard #81” is constructed entirely of the type of statements one imagines the denizens of that city might well say, while T.P. Perrin’s haunting “Uxmal” takes elements of various forms—the rondel, the pantoum—to produce a phantasmagorical piece which belies its strict rhyme scheme, as does Erica Dawson’s “One Fish, Two Fish.” Furthermore poems such as Kate Bernadette Benedict’s “Shrapnel” contradict the notion that formalism somehow always equates to a conservative political stance, while Derek Updegraff’s translations from Catullus and Horace should disabuse anyone of the mistaken belief that the classical poets were invariably pompous and reverent.
William Stafford said that every minute of a poem, the poet has to be willing to fail, and perhaps that is the true definition of the kinds of risks we are seeing taken by today’s formal poets. By steering formal poems to places where only free verse has gone before, they are opening the oeuvre to criticism from traditionalists and modernists alike. But ironically, it is in risking such grand failures that we discover the success and regeneration of the art we love. I hope you enjoy this issue—I believe the chance of failing to do so is extremely low.