Back in February, Poetry ran a series of “manifestos” in honor of the centenary of Marinetti and his friends issuing the manifesto that launched Italian Futurism. The preview email from Poetry seemed to think these were a pretty hot commodity. That several of the manifesters (if that’s the right word) read their pronouncements at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on a doubtless rather snazzy afternoon reinforced the impression that the “manifestos” might be worth a look. If nothing else, the likes of something called the “Hate Socialist Collective” rubbing shoulders with langpo impresario Charles Bernstein and formalists A. E. Stallings and Joshua Mehigan offered, at least, the possibility of a good brawl, and I, like many poets of American extraction, enjoy a good bout of blood sport on the slopes of Parnassus.
But no such luck. The promised “controversy” simply failed to materialize. The junior faculty members of the Hate Socialist Collective demonstrated that they had, at least, mastered the art of breaking wind at the dinner table, a needful skill to be sure, but nothing they said hadn’t been said in a more provocative and interesting way by someone from France at least thirty years previously. Alicia Stallings’s contribution concerning rhyme was predictably witty and wise… and might have raised a few eyebrows in the early 1980s. And I could go on, but perhaps shouldn’t. I wasn’t provoked, and, all told, the whole thing felt a bit as if the participants were playing at the art of provocation.
And then it hit me, and in a Vision, no less.
While perhaps it is unfashionable in this enlightened age, an Angel of the Lord descended unto me, flanked by all nine Muses and, strangely, the members of Mötley Crüe. (Still haven’t figured that last one out.) I was eating a sandwich and watching a re-run of Sanford and Son, if memory serves. Upon seeing the Angel and his retinue, I no doubt quaked as one does in such circumstances, but being unsure of the broad etiquette when faced with such a Divine Presence, I said, “’Sup?”
The Angel leaned in close, about a foot too close for comfort when one is a heterosexual male and the Angel is, even with the angel-ness factored in, a dude in a shiny white robe, and he said, “There is no Revolution”
And the Muses echoed, “Yea verily.”
Awestruck and trembling, I replied, “Revolution in regards to what, exactly?”
“Poetry, you idiot,” said the Angel. “And no Counterrevolution, either.”
“Poetry? I hate that faggot crap!” said Mötley Crüe skinsman and legendary wild man of rock Tommy Lee, but we all ignored him, because the outburst was a bit rich coming from a man in spandex trousers.
Naturally, I pondered what the Angel had said. We really haven’t had a new movement in poetry pop up in about thirty years—“flarf” shouldn’t count—and at the same time, American poetics have to a remarkable degree fossilized into what appear to be more or less permanent factions. There is plenty of good, exciting work coming from all sorts of quarters. Even if one sits through enough sessions of the dreariest open mike in New York City, one will eventually hear some of the good stuff. But the plenitude of schools of American poetry, each with its own rather strictly defined parameters and alliances, has meant that there are more ways to be a careerist placeholder than, perhaps, ever before. And one doesn’t so much get absorbed into the mainstream as represented by a member in the creative writing faculty some place or other. This is certainly true of New Formalism, now at least a quarter of a century old and the movement with which this journal (by default more than anything else) is frequently associated.
I have never been comfortable in the “Formalist” camp, for a variety of reasons. New Formalism, for all of its insistence that meter and rhyme and so forth are ideologically neutral, nonetheless tended to take on a distinctively conservative cast. And not only on the aesthetic level, but the political level as well. The web page of the now-defunct Formalist includes not only endorsements from prominent poets, but also from the likes of Lynne Cheney and right-wing commentator Michael Medved. And indeed, while the poetry in that magazine managed a contemporary diction, and some poems within its pages were quite good, the journal had more than its fair share of Greek goddesses in diaphanous robes, as well as an absolute ban on naughty words.
The result of this hasn’t been so much a censorship of poems as a tendency to promote work that favors poise over passion, the well-worn themes over the unconventional. And while “New Formalism” managed to carve out a space within a free verse-dominated poetry scene, it nevertheless developed its own traits—not all of which had anything in particular to do with meter, rhyme, and the rest per se. Those traits included, with numerous exceptions, several tendencies:
1. A tendency toward the “canon poem”, that is, a poem, often in sonnet form, that gussied up a canonical myth, literary figure, or what have you in modern garb, or, alternately, rattled off yet another dramatic monologue, filling, like Spinal Tap, a “much-needed void” in the classic stories.
2. Political quietism, save in fairly elliptical form, with the exception of right-wing polemic, which often thumped along in singsong cadences.
3. Especially in the early years, too many poems grousing about how the Free Verse Establishment sucked and didn’t appreciate the authors of metrical verse. These still appear from time to time, and they are the rough equivalent of a variety of water-cooler gossip.
4. A tendency to view the dark outlook, the extreme situation, the personal note, and the strong emotions as things to be avoided at all costs. To a degree, this was an understandable reaction to post-confessionalist poetry, but it was nevertheless an overreaction.
5. And then there are the middle-brow pretensions of New Formalism, the reach toward the “man in the street” (whom Sid Vicious rightfully described as a “c**t”). Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin famously found their stride—and their popularity—when they started ignoring the audience and doing what they thought was funny. But too often, American proponents of metrical verse have argued that it sells. And the “man in the street,” dreadful bore that he is, has been quite happy to ignore it, anyway.
And underlying this all, to one degree or another, was a sense of the “Tradition” and the past—real or mythic—more generally. Now, this is fair enough, of course, and the poems in the main formalist anthologies (Strong Measures, Rebel Angels, A Formal Feeling Comes) were not simple, B-grade rehashes of the days of yore, contrary to what many of their detractors said at the time and still say now. But, looking back at those anthologies, one almost feels as if many pieces were selected to represent this form, that meter, to preserve and rehabilitate a series of prosodic tricks of the trade. But where the revival of meter and rhyme and all the rest in American poetry is concerned, we’re past the quarter-century mark, and who really gives a damn that Diane Wakoski said some stupid crap about metrical verse being the poetic wing of Reaganism over twenty years ago?
Good poetry and bad poetry do not fall on a left-right axis. Nor is the bulk of what appears in the formalist journals programmatically right-wing. But it too often lacks outrage, a sense of moral commitment, shock at injustice, and of life in both its highest and lowest forms. In short, it lacks risk. It plays to its audience’s expectation of what a poem should look like—nicely dressed, the sort of poem you’d let go out with your daughter. There are simply too many Grecian maidens discussing Petrarch while playing croquet with the neighbors. Just as the “avant-garde” of American poetry has sought to play the outsider role in rather comfortable environments, New Formalism has frequently portrayed itself as an unjustly ousted Establishment.
the prejudice against metrical verse remains in certain quarters, it’s all a
bit of a laugh really. Rehashing the same dull argument about the value of
traditional prosody has long since gotten tedious, and we probably just have to
wait for the naysayers to die. Far more damaging to poetry of any stripe is
playing to some “movement” or other that has already developed its own
orthodoxies (by no means absolute, to be sure), playing it safe, writing what
will be published. The only dangerous thing at present to each and every
one of the Lilliputian Establishments spread across the archipelago of American
poetry is to play to none of them.
by Quincy R. Lehr