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New Formalism:
Just A Literary Footnote?

New Formalism is sometimes called Neo-Formalism, an academic school of poetry that began in the middle half of the 20th Century calling for a return to rhyme and meter and more traditional forms of verse.

The term "New Formalism" was first used in an attack mode in the May 1985, AWP newsletter (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) in an article entitled "The Yuppie Poet". The article went so far as to accuse the poets who gathered under this banner of being political conservatives and yuppie materialists. They were charged with having a social as well as a linguistic mission – of harboring a nostalgic love for the moral certainty of the past and of expressing this desire through a return to older, more accepted and established means of poetic communication.

Whether or not the New Formalists had a political agenda, the movement had been under way for a long time. 1968 saw the first publication of Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics and in the early 1970s, X..J. Kennedy published the magazine Counter/Measures, a periodical devoted to poetry in traditional forms.

In 1980, the small magazine The Reaper appeared, devoted to formal and narrative verse, followed by the anthology Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms in 1985.

In fact, the roots of New Formalism have been traced back to Richard Wilbur’s publication in 1947 of his first collection, The Beautiful Changes, and to the academic poets of the 50s that followed.

Meanwhile, there were always successful traditional verse writers like John Hollander, Richard Wilbur and X.J. Kennedy, who were happy to appear in these pages. These were poets who never saw any reason to desert rhymed and metered poetry, a medium they perceived as being more nuanced and capable of greater expression for being found in a recognized form.

Many artists and writers and general readers saw the virtue in this – and something else too. On the appearance of The Formalist magazine in 1990, Arthur Miller wrote: "I am sure I will not be the only one grateful for The Formalist. Frankly, it was a shock to realize, as I looked through the first issue, that I had nearly given up the idea of taking pleasure from poetry."

But New Formalism, in a sense, has never been dead – although not defined as such. Even at the height of the Modernist Revolution not everyone subscribed to the medium of free verse. The traditionalist Robert Frost quipped, "Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down." – meaning there was less risk.

In Britain, vers libre and traditional verse existed side by side. Not so in the US. Some time in the post-war years, free verse became the norm and rhyme and meter were no longer accepted in the poetry journals that mattered – except, of course, in the academic world where several poets, as one critic put it, "crawled out of Wilbur’s overcoat pocket."

Clearly, by the 1970s and 1980s, there was a dissatisfaction with what Professor J.S. Salemi called the "self absorption...of confessional lyrics, which under the aegis of Whitman, Williams, Ginsberg, and Plath... swamped poetry for most of the twentieth century..." And Dana Gioia, one of the leaders in the movement, summed up the arguments in his Notes on the New Formalism: "– the real issues presented by American poetry in the Eighties will become clearer: the debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode... and the denial of a musical texture in the contemporary poem. The revival of traditional forms will be seen then as only one response to this troubling situation."

The advocates of free verse were accused of being careless, of lacking any kind of structure that might justify the poem itself, of promoting half-baked ideas quickly written down -- even a juvenile dependence on the self as the world of the poem – as, for instance, in the maudlin sentiments of some of the lesser Confessional poets.

What all this begat, they hinted, was chaos – incoherence.

These were perhaps, sometimes valid arguments, for no less than the doyen of Modernism himself, Ezra Pound, was to have a word in this – late in life he granted an interview to the New York Times wherein he was asked about the current poetry scene. The temperamental poet found within himself, in spite of his age, the will to sit up and shout excitedly, "Disorder! Disorder! I can't be blamed for all this disorder!"

But the critics of New Formalism were not long in pointing out its shortcomings. If free verse was formless, then the poetry of these poets was too dependent on structure – its aims were narrow and its outcome doubtful. Was this not a revival of the tepid, lifeless academic poetry of the 50s – in the persons of Wilbur and his school?

No room here for the village poet or the talented amateur – in effect, the schoolmaster was replacing the artist as the arbiter of taste.

And there were contradictions. Dana Gioia referred to the British using rhyme and meter in "their quaint, old-fashioned way, and the Irish in their primitive, bardic manner". It might have been meant as an offhand remark, but its irony was lost on the English.

The promotion of an iambic meter also brought its own problems. American poets were damned by the New Formalists for not being able to scan, but their editors seemed to want to scan everything. No experimentation with meter was to be allowed - an absolute return to the iambic. The tyranny of the pentameter had reared it ugly head again. Iambic rhythms began to be equated with poetic fascism!

Meter and rhyme – these were the two insistencies of the New Formalists. But how to bring a valid meaning to it in a Modernist or Postmodernist world?

Soon, most critics dismissed the New Formalism as a failure. A few years saw the movement fizzling out on its own and only the ghost of it remains.

Nevertheless, the New Formalists must be measured against the history of American poetry. Because of their efforts, the scope of Postmodern poetry was broadened, say some literary historians, and a few very fine poems got written – mostly by non-academics who fell in with them.

Because of the interest in traditional form, modern poets have begun to reclaim their heritage in Anglo-American verse – literary ancestors have been found and learned from, poetic idiom is reinvented for the modern ear and meter rescued from oblivion.

Perhaps the New Formalists were a short-lived movement, doomed to failure because of their own limitations - no more than a literary footnote. But the history of literature is built on such footnotes.




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