The New Formalism--A Postmortem

    It’s time to write the obituary for New Formalism. Yeah, yeah,
many of its major institutions remain, and the bulk of its originators
are still writing. But it is hardly “new” nowadays. When what would
become New Formalism was coalescing, my main interests were
dinosaurs and chocolate cake. While the New Formalism, New
Narrative, and any other movements I may be forgetting linked under
the term “Expansivist” in the 1980s provided a real service to those
who have come after, many of the movement’s shortcomings have
become more pronounced over time. It is my intention to look at
those deficiencies as a means of cleaning the slate a bit for what is
already coming next.
    New Formalism began in the 1970s and 1980s as a group of poets
including (but not limited to) Dana Gioia, Frederick Turner, Timothy
Steele, Rachel Hadas, Charles Martin, and R.S. Gwynn became aware
of each other when their poems started appearing in little magazines
such as Sparrow. As opposed to the reigning free verse orthodoxy of
the day, they began working in rhyme and meter to one degree or
another. In so doing, they drew on not only the broad tradition of
American verse, but also the work of mid-twentieth-century metricists
such as Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Yvor Winters, Howard
Nemerov, and J.V. Cunningham. By the 1980s, a closely related New
Narrative movement had developed, including exemplars such as
Mark Jarman, David Mason, and Frederick Feirstein. I possibly have
some names in the wrong columns. I was never terribly good at keeping
the two straight—and there was certainly a great deal of overlap.
    As these poets gained in prominence, the Free Verse
Establishment™ struck back. The New Formalists (who had acquired
their name in an American Poetry Review article entitled “Yuppie
Poetry”) found themselves under attack as the poetic wing of
Reaganism, as part of a general Kulturkampf against the Sixties and
God knows what else. Some of the attacks were clearly off the wall.
But some of them were and are harder to dismiss. One of the more
trenchant critiques came from Ira Sadoff in an essay entitled “Neo-
Formalism: A Dangerous Nostalgia” (American Poetry Review,
January/February 1990). The core of Sadoff ’s argument is this:

    When [the New Formalists] link pseudo-populism (the    
“general reader”) to regular meter, they disguise their nostalgia
for moral and linguistic certainty, for a universal (“everyone
agrees”) and univocal way of conserving culture. Neoformalism
shares with other contemporary poetic “movements”
formal solutions to perceived weaknesses of American poetry.

    Sadoff does not say that this is unique to New Formalism, and he
quite explicitly steers clear of equating meter, per se, with right-wing
politics. Commenting on the poems in Robert Richman’s The Direction
of Poetry
, Sadoff writes:

    More than twenty of the one hundred-twenty poems in
this anthology make poetry the central subject. Almost as
great a number of poems are elegies. “Lonely” and “empty”
are among the most commonly used words. So Richman’s
anthology pays tribute to a self-referential, decaying culture.
We read about many sad love affairs (Anthony Hecht’s ironic
“The Ghost in the Martini,” provides the most horrifying
example of a deluded, aging poet lusting after, while disdaining,
the “youthful” and “babbling” woman he hopes will save
him from his own tortured, self-obsessed intellect.) We find
much banal appreciation of the tragic beauty of nature. With
the exception of Tony Harrison we see precious little
acknowledgment of the social world.

    This, to me at least, seems to sum up rather fairly the bulk of what
appears in most “formalist” journals today. For Sadoff, the problem
with New Formalism is that its conservatism is of an ultimately
untenable quest after “an essentialist, universal vision,” not too
eggheaded, not too disturbing, a poetry where it was “Morning in
America Again.”
    Unlike some, Sadoff never claimed that the New Formalists were
all Republicans rather than Democrats, but rather that the broad
nature of their program tended to promote a broader cultural conservatism
in terms of what they did or did not write about, did or did
not lionize. One might add that what the Expansivists/New
Formalists/New Narrative lot disparaged was also significant. Gioia
was the central figure at the time and is perhaps best known to the
general public as the head of the National Endowment for the Arts
under George W. Bush. In a 1987 essay entitled “Notes on the New
Formalism” (reprinted in New Expansive Poetry, ed. R.S. Gwynn, 1991),
Gioia declared that the New Formalists, who at the time could be
described as “young poets,” rejected the “specialization and intellectualization”
of the reigning Free Verse Establishment™. “The point,
argued Gioia, was to revive poetry “not by simplifying their work but
by making it more relevant and accessible.” He imagines that the
“general reader” has certain implicit characteristics. In his essay, “Can
Poetry Matter?” he laments:

    It seems, in short, as if the large audience that still exists
for quality fiction hardly notices poetry. A reader familiar with
the novels of Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, or John Barth
may not even recognize the names of Gwendolyn Brooks,
Gary Snyder, and W.D. Snodgrass.

    We are not talking about the character whose main reading
involves flipping through the TV Guide or Swedish Cycle Sluts, but presumably
a middle-brow, college-educated, probably middle-class person
who reads a few books that get favorable notices in major metropolitan
newspapers. In other words, a guy or gal with a profession and
a house in the suburbs, the sort of person who would have hated
The Cantos in college but might like the amiably dull Ted Kooser,
whose career Gioia played a significant role in boosting.
    Gioia was quite certain what such a reader wanted. Take Gioia’s
view of the long poem. In a 1983 essay in the Kenyon Review entitled
“The Dilemma of the Long Poem,” he argued, “The long poem has
become an all-or-nothing proposition, an obsessive, lifelong undertaking.
The poet must confront his entire culture and prepare some
vast synthesis of its history and values.” After taking a predictable
swipe at Ezra Pound’s flawed masterpiece, The Cantos, Gioia declared:

    Given that the structure of the modern epic has become
an elaborate nonce form, it is not surprising that one finds no
incontestable masterpieces among the major long poems of
this century but only a group of more or less interesting failures,
none widely read in its entirety by the literary public,
though all jealously guarded by a particular faction…

    Gioia proceeds to mention as examples such poems as
Berryman’s Dream Songs, Zukofsky’s A, and William Carlos Williams’s
Paterson—all poems that are both accomplished and (speaking as
someone who was not a literature major much less a professor with a
vested interest in any of them) read in their entirety by a fair number
of non-specialists. Certainly, when the Irish poet Michael O’Loughlin
and I met in a Galway pub in late 2007, we did not trade lines from
our favorite Richard Wilbur sonnets, but rather lines from our respective
favorite passages of The Dream Songs.
    The book-length poems from the Expansivists—good (such as
Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate or David Mason’s Ludlow), dated (Frederick
Feirstein’s Manhattan Carnival), or a bit nutty (Frederick Turner’s     A
New World
) tended toward the verse novel. The movement
“expanded” the long poem in one sense. However, as Gioia’s scorn
indicates, it also tended to spurn a tradition of long poetry that has
produced some of the most enduring and significant poems of the
twentieth century. While the Modernist tradition was sometimes
acknowledged (particularly Eliot), the general notion was that
Modernism had proven to be a cul-de-sac and that the trend should
be one of re-routing back to less mystery, less convolution, and less
    Was the conflation of New Formalism and conservatism fair? On
one level, clearly not, as Paul Lake had already pointed out in his
“Toward a Liberal Poetics” (Threepenny Review, Winter 1988). Lake’s
article ably parried attacks from the likes of Wayne Dodd and Diane
Wakoski, who portrayed metrical verse as un-American even as they
smeared it as being necessarily right-wing or even fascistic. Lake quoted
examples of liberal-of-center verse from New Formalists such as
Timothy Steele and Charles Martin to at least complicate the charge
of political conservatism. He cited poets such as Roethke and Lowell,
who went back and forth between free verse and metrical verse. He
noted that John Berryman, in the Dream Songs, achieved a synthesis of
metrical and modernist techniques, and that important American
poets such as Wilbur and Hecht had never ceased working in meter.
    However, Lake had changed tack by 2002, stating in an interview
with Tim Murphy on the online poetry board Eratosphere:

I also now see that writing in meter and rhyme is an
innately conservative act, whatever the politics of the poet or
the poem. The American left in its desire to remain forever in
a state of sinless, Adamic innocence must attack and abolish
every vestige of the tainted past, including our history, language,
and poetic traditions. Writing in meter and rhyme really
is politically incorrect. It shows a conservative allegiance to
our traditions, our language, even our bodily pleasures. Good
Puritanical leftists, on the other hand, know that we are
marching forward to a multicultural utopia and can’t afford to
be seduced by such subversive pleasures as rhyming poems
that may cause us to stumble on our way.

    Note that Lake distinguishes between the conservatism of writing
in meter and rhyme and a particular political viewpoint—then proceeds
to launch into an anti-leftist tirade in which an anti-historical
bias is stated on the part of unnamed but “Puritanical” leftists, who
hate anything redolent of the past. This scenario is far from proven,
being among other things utter and complete horseshit. In any event,
it is as if Lake wishes to have it both ways. Writers of metrical verse
can be of any political viewpoint, but their writing in meter will sustain
a conservative, anti-left-wing agenda. One is unsure if Lake was
even aware of this sleight-of-hand. But his Culture War tirade against
unnamed “leftists” conflates aesthetic and political conservatism,
when, clearly, some left-wing poets (Tony Harrison, Auden in the
1930s, etc.) have found working in meter and drawing on various traditions
in meter congruent with their own politics.
    And this conservative leaning, denied and embraced at the same
time, had aesthetic consequences. Recall that Gioia stated that poetry
should not be simplified, but rather made relevant. The effect was not
merely to replace the image of the thin, starving Romantic poet scribbling
in a garret with a former insurance executive like Kooser, who
bears more than a passing physical resemblance to Orville
Redenbacher. Indeed, literary references, parodies, and revisitations
abounded in New Formalist poetry. The effect, though, was frequently
that of reading a Fodor’s guidebook rather than living in a place, a
romp though the museum of the Tradition rather than an engagement
with the European past extending into the present. Many New
Formalists developed a particular fondness for the Canon Poem, a
slightly rejigged account of an ancient myth either done straight or
folded into some scene of middle-class banality. Some poets were able
to make the canon poem at least episodically interesting (notably A.
E. Stallings in her first book, Archaic Smile, though the sheer number
of the things got numbing at times), but at its worst, the canon poem
reflected a sort of prissy preciousness. Take these lines from the
poem “To Her Book” in Catherine Savage Brosman’s Breakwater:

Farewell, then. May your readers be those birds
which by an Orphic song were freely caught,
embracing as their own the poet’s words,
the very shape and countenance of thought.

    Oh, please. One thinks of an amateur Renaissance music ensemble
in some out-of-the-way minor university town, eking tunes out of
viols and sackbuts and utterly convinced that they are somehow contributing
to the preservation of the Great Western Tradition.
    It is also worth noting that Brosman is the poetry editor for
Chronicles, which, like First Things, is a “formal-friendly” venue with a
few pages of poetry, but which is mostly a conservative political magazine,
with Chronicles leaning in the direction of xenophobia and
racism. Indeed, the journal’s general editor, Thomas Fleming,
exclaimed in Chronicles last year (August 5) that:

The Irish, who have a genetic weakness for alcohol, are
too prone to get into fights, while Sicilians and South Italians
have demonstrated an amazing ability to organize extortion,
protection, prostitution, and gambling rackets. When O.J.
Simpson kills a white woman or engages in other violent acts,
he is simply living up to a statistical stereotype that informs us
that African Americans, who make up less than 15% of the
population, commit roughly 50% of violent crimes. And, O.J.
is as exemplary a representative of his group’s criminality as
Bernie Madoff, John Gotti, Mohammed Atta, and Joaquin “El
Chapo” Loera Guzman (a billionaire Mexican drug lord who
made the exclusive Forbes list in 2009) are of theirs.

    Clearly, we are dealing with an openly racist mindset. One could
go on in this regard with ample quotations from the pages of
Chronicles, but one would need to take a particularly long shower afterwards.
    Why is this relevant to the Canon Poem? Because Fleming and
Brosman, whose work frequently goes in the direction of the
European past, have not only a professional relationship, but because
the canon poem can be a sign of a certain cultural narrow-mindedness.
It is often an act of simultaneous admiration for and distancing
from other time periods and cultures. The Renaissance music ensemble,
were they to walk through Genoa’s medieval streets near the
quays, would perhaps be secretly (or openly) disappointed at all the
non-European immigrants in them, at the fact that the tradition that
they have attempted to preserve in pristine state has evolved as much
as that of the United States itself. The Canon Poem is not always an
attempt to reduce an evolving tradition to a museum piece, but it frequently
has that effect.
    Still, it goes down well (supposedly) with suburban middlebrows,
who don’t want some Modernist epic making them feel dumb. They
want a poem that will tell them exactly what the allusion is and, like a
plaque in a museum, tell them how to interpret it. The Canon Poem
is, as typically practiced, a classic case of bourgeois contentedness,
making the reader feel as if he or she is rather erudite without actually
pushing the tradition forward or outward, or really connecting to a
culture other than the American.
    Lest this essay become the subject of a tirade from one of the
usual parties, let me clarify—it would be foolish to ban myth from
poetry, just as it would be redolent of Paul Lake’s phantasmal leftists
to deride a reverence for the European past (which has Robespierres
as well as Richelieus back there) as inherently reactionary. Certainly,
the cottage industry of vaguely feminist poems that rework the old
stories to make new points is not racist or reactionary—it’s just gotten
a bit tired, as we all know the trick now. Rather, it’s the poem with
the hushed reverence, the farcical solemnity for the Glory that Was
Greece and the Grandeur that Was Rome—at least Poe was far-out
enough to make it cool.
    When The Formalist commenced publication in 1990, it followed
the same somewhat fusty and precious tendency. Edited by William
Baer, the journal was devoid of any reviews of new books. In place
of that, The Formalist instead devoted considerable space to readilyavailable
older poems “From the Tradition,” with the prose often
consisting of reprinted snippets, sometimes only a page long, that
seemed to have struck Baer’s fancy. Canon Poems abounded, as did a
certain schoolhouse hush in the general feel of the magazine.
    While The Formalist was generally apolitical (and, one hastens to
add, ran some good poems as well as some… not so good ones), Baer
clearly saw a link between poetic form and conservative politics. In
the introduction to his Conservative Poets anthology (2006), Baer wrote:

    Although it’s not unthinkable that a conservative might
experiment with freer forms (Eliot certainly did), it’s also logical
to expect that individuals who value tradition and order
would tend to write their poems in the time-tested metric that
has dominated English-language poetry from Geoffrey
Chaucer to Richard Wilbur. Some, myself included, would
even tend to see the underlying structure of meter as a poetic
representation of the provident order of God’s universe.

    While Baer doesn’t necessarily say that metrical poetry must be
linked to political beliefs such as his staunch conservatism, or religious
beliefs such as his staunch Catholicism, the clear assumption is
that there is an organic unity between writing poems in meter in a
contemporary setting and opposition to “utopianisms, all totalitarianisms
(Marxism and Fascism), all socialisms and utilitarianisms, overcentralized
government, economic levelling [sic.], excessive taxation,
the unconstitutional over-reaching of the Supreme Court….” You get
the picture.
    R.S. Gwynn, reviewing the anthology in the Hudson Review (Winter
2007), indeed objected to the passage quoted above, noting that the
New Formalist movement had had to vigorously deny the connections
between right-wing politics and meter as such for years.
    No doubt these elements are linked in Baer’s own poetic activities,
given that the uncompromising Catholicism, political conservatism,
and metered poetry he writes all spring from the same brain. But to
pose this as a general case—conservative poets write in meter because
of their conservatism, as is the natural way of things—is something
very different.
    Even still, The Formalist, by running little critical prose (with much
of what it did run only meeting the criteria in a loose sense), gave only
hints of its editor’s beliefs. But there was another journal associated
with New Formalism that emerged at roughly the same time. Hellas
has largely been written out of the history of the Formalist movement
as generally told. However, over the course of its run from 1990
to 1997, its editorial board, headed by Gerald Harnett, included several
leading New Formalists, including Dana Gioia, Richard Moore,
Timothy Steele, Frederick Turner, Annie Finch, and Lewis Turco. The
luminaries generally fell away as time went on, and, presumably, it
became increasingly apparent that Harnett was at best an eccentric
and at worst a bigoted nutcase with a florid prose style that started
grandiose and ended in megalomania. (That he had an emissary read
what was apparently a rabidly insulting screed directed in large part at
Dana Gioia at the West Chester Conference in 1997 probably didn’t
help matters.)
    But Harnett’s views were clearly a bit suspect from the start.
While it is standard if not necessarily good form to launch a new journal
with vitriolic attacks on the broad sweep of poetry as one finds it,
Harnett’s opening essay (under the characteristically pretentious pseudonym
of “Ipsissimus”) was a mélange of questionable assertions. In
the first place, his “New Classicism” was centrally based, “on the principle
that art is representational, an ‘imitation of nature’.” (Hellas,
Spring 1990) He saw this as counterposed to ideas stating “that reality
is in one way or another the construction of the human mind, that
things have no independence from language.” One does not have to
accept an extreme postmodernist view of the way we perceive reality
to see the problems with this. Yes, things have an existence independent
of the human mind, but we comprehend them and their relations
to one another through our limited senses and interpret objects and
their relationships with each other through the imperfect, evolving
structures of language. If the ideas Harnett lamented as having damaged
poetry were “unchallenged” for a very long time, it is because
they are, in the broad sense he lays out, valid, at least in “one way or
    While Harnett eventually found himself and his journal marginalized—
and from what remains on-record, rightly so—his aesthetic
outlook, from the beginning, was hidebound, almost ludicrously
reactionary, and would probably be off-putting to many if not most
writers of metrical verse. Yet Hellas was, in its time, one of the most
prominent metricist journals, with a large number of leading formalist
poets hopping on its editorial board and by their presence lending
luster and legitimacy to an editorial outlook that was more than a bit
    The Edge City Review was, on the other hand, an explicitly conservative
journal—in the political sense. Its publisher, T.L. Ponick, was
an art critic who wrote for the Moonie-owned, hard-right Washington
Times. While not everything in the journal was politically rightist—
and, indeed, one election-related satirical poem contest had separate
categories for anti-Democrat and anti-Republican poems—the magazine
nevertheless explicitly declared its conservatism a key part of its
overall outlook. Which is, of course, perfectly legitimate.
    The problem with these three magazines lay not in any of the editorial
styles per se, but rather in the cumulative effect of aesthetic and
political conservatism. Yes, only the Edge City Review had an explicit
political leaning, but in general, the magazines specifically catering to
the metrical crowd leaned right. They just did. Oh, they’d publish
writers who held different beliefs, and even poems in which one could
discern a few sparks of something vaguely liberal or left-wing, but
editors’ broader social and political views are products of the same
minds that make them appreciate or not appreciate certain poems. In
general (though by no means in all cases), the most outspokenly political
poets associated with New Formalism were the more right-wing
ones, and it is probably fair to say that those who edited metrical poetry
journals in the 1990s were more conservative than the general run
of American metrical poets.
    Why does this matter? It matters because a lot of what we see in
terms of metrical poetry in the United States goes or at least went
through the figures under discussion, who provided the editorial filter
and, eventually, much of the institutional support for metrical poets.
Dana Gioia may no longer rule the roost at the NEA, but he still plays
a leading role in the West Chester Conference, as well as wielding
considerable influence in broader poetry channels. As for the
magazines, it is easier to publish metrical poetry in “mainstream”
magazines than it was twenty years ago, but it is still an uphill battle,
in large part because of the sort of rigged prejudices Paul Lake deflated
in “Towards a Liberal Poetics,” but perhaps, to an extent, because
many of the leading New Formalists are in fact waging what they see
as a bit of a Kulturkampf. In any event, a given poem, or poet, who
writes metrical poetry typically rises through the metrical journals and
contests that cater to the New Formalist crowd. None of this is
absolute, but the gatekeepers are quite real, and while they are by no
means all politically conservative, their ideas of poetry are at times
pseudo-populist, but frequently backward-looking. And such changes
as there have been in what is now a fairly solid New Formalist establishment
have been fairly minimal. Indeed, the hidebound and reactionary
tendencies of the movement continue to manifest themselves.
    It’s not that the current right-leaning (or pseudo-populist) orthodoxy
should give way to a left-wing orthodoxy, but rather that many
of the core assumptions about poetry and audience the New
Formalists made are dubious, flat-out wrong, or explicitly or implicitly
exclude many talented writers of metrical verse. For all of their
shortcomings, the New Formalists did do American poetry a great
service. But it’s time to see what’s already coming next, and the semimoribund
form of a movement that has served what purpose it could
increasingly blocks our view.
    The change is coming. Metrical poets rub shoulders with burlesque
artists at the Bar on A in New York (there are still traces of glitter
on my jacket), while poets ranging from Jehanne Dubrow to Erica
Dawson to R. Nemo Hill to Rick Mullin, not to mention a host of
others who should not be offended to be excluded from what is not
intended as a comprehensive list, are taking American metrical poetry
in directions that are mindful of tradition but aren’t “traditional.”
Even in this journal, poems by form magazine regulars can look different
when set next to looser material or prosodically-minded free
verse, or a larger proportion of work from outside the United States
and its incessant and tedious Poetry Wars. And we’ll even let the old
New Formalists hang out with us if they promise to behave themselves.

by Quincy R. Lehr