Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The New Formalism

In relation to poetry, would you say ‘New Formalism’ refers to:

a] The tendency for poets to wear formal attire at poetry readings as a reaction to the down-dressing of the 90s.

b] A movement that rose in the 80s to revive formal verse, with the intention of reaching out to a wider public and rejecting the limits of academic poetry.

c] The rising popularity of writing in poetic forms.


I now can reply with confidence (after the arrival, Monday, of my long-awaited the poetry dictionary by John Drury) that it’s b. (And I’m sure my lame attempt at cleverness was a no-brainer for most readers too - oh well).

Of the New Formalism my treasured dictionary goes on to say:

...the New Formalists, according to Dana Gioia, ‘put free verse poets in the ironic and uncomfortable position of being the status quo. Free verse, the creation of an older literary revolution, is now the long-established, ruling orthodoxy; formal poetry the unexpected challenge.’ In addition to Gioia himself, New Formalist poets include Charles Martin, Timothy Steele, Molly Peacock, R. S. Gwynn, Julia Alvarez, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg.

I became vaguely aware of this movement by reading poetry on the internet. Though I haven’t followed it closely, I must admit reading modern poems that flow in natural rhythms, using the diction of normal speech yet still managing to rhyme, is a pleasure. Of course the challenge of writing such, though an attractive, one is fraught with pitfalls. It is too easy to get sing-songy and lazily revert to expected rhymes. I see it as a matter of balance; a poetic high-wire act if you will.

A web site devoted entirely to metered verse - old and modern – is The Poem Tree. A random sampling will, I think, convince the skeptic of the viability of this movement.

For starters, take A. E. Stallings (b. 1968). Her accessible 'Cardinal Numbers’ begins:

Mrs. Cardinal is dead:
All that remains——a beak of red,
And, fanned across the pavement slab,
Feathers, drab.

Remember how we saw her mate
In the magnolia tree of late,
Glowing, in the faded hour,
A scarlet flower,

And knew, from his nagging sound,
His wife foraged on the ground,
As camouflaged, as he (to us)

(Read entire)

Could I pull off something like that? Probably not. But it sure looks like fun!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Poetry - the voice that lets you get it out

This is another snippet from the CD on which Steve Bell talks about his newest recording “My Dinner With Bruce.”

Words by themselves can sometimes be limiting. The language of poetry, though, is much like the language of melody. Because poetry says more than the words say. It’s not just about the words themselves but it’s even how they sound together, it’s about the flow, it’s about the percussion and the stops and the starts. So again, one of the reasons I love Bruce (Cockburn’s) music too is that it has really encouraged me to delve into poetry more.

One of the problems with poetry is that it requires something of you; it takes work. It takes repetition and contemplation and there’s always the anxiety, am I getting it? And I think often with great poets, they’re not all that concerned about you getting it. But when we do work with it like we work with melodies, you sense a deep intuition of what’s true and good and what’s authentic. And so poetry is like melody in that sense, rather than straight compositional language. Bruce does both really well.

Pacing the Cage” – that’s one of those songs that put me on the floor the first time I ever heard it. I can’t remember exactly what was going on in my life at the time but I was so weary of many many things at the time.

Every once in a while I get this way. I’m a very positive person. I see life very positively most of the time. But every once in a while, like everybody else, things just overwhelm you whether it’s fatigue of labor or the relational things that we deal, and the reality of human suffering if you’re paying attention to any of that stuff at all. Every once in a while, you just think, get me out of here, I’m done, I’m so, so done.

That’s the place I happened to be at when I listened to that album - “Pacing the Cage,” it was the most hauntingly beautiful, world-weary song I’d ever heard in my life. And I remember quite literally by the time the song was over I was on the floor beside the stereo holding my stomach because it had just kind of pulled up all of that feeling.

But again, it’s the voice that lets you get it out, you speak it, and as you speak it and you put it out there, you can deal with it. But before it has language, it’s the murky thing deep in your soul, you can’t touch it, you can’t feel it. And so Bruce, again, puts words on these things we have no words for. We can put it outside of us, we can look at it, we can deal with it.

That song is a very important song for me at that time in my life and it sort of gave me permission to write. You know, once I could put what I was feeling out there in language, I could express the way I do that and hopefully write something that someone else can use.


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Filed in Writing - Poetry

Friday, March 10, 2006

Spring's Winter

We have this today - with all our blossoms doubled by the snow.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

That's my song poem

Another snippet of the conversation with Steve Bell (source of which I describe here).

It is one situation that is agonizing, that you can’t really describe. You travel and see unbelievable things sometimes and there’s a loneliness about not being able to share that directly with your best friend.

For example last year I was over in Israel and Palestine and experienced about eight days just kind of trekking through the countryside and hanging out with the Palestinians Christians of which there are a lot of and their story is not told and it’s a deeply sad story. And I remember lying at night and feeling incredible loneliness; I’ll never be able to share this. You’ve got to be here to get it, and just wishing Nanci, my wife, was there and just wishing in my own sort of ripped up soul I could just lean over and touch her hair or her hand or anything. And knowing that no matter what I say to her, I can’t fully share this. There’s an essential loneliness that comes with that.

So I come back and Bruce has written this beautiful love song. He was experiencing something he couldn’t share: “All the ways I want you.” It’s this phenomenal love song. And I thought, man, that’s my song. I should have written that; he got it first.

I have this feeling that songs actually pre-exist anyway. We don’t actually write them. They’re like angels floating around the stratosphere and whoever has their antenna up as they float by gets the song. And so I think it’s okay to say, hey, that’s my song. I should have gotten it but I was watching ‘Survivor’ I guess, and he wasn’t so he got it first.


A quote from Paul ValĂ©ry in Sheila Bender’s Writing Personal Poetry:

“When a poem compels one to read it with passion...the reader feels he is ‘momentarily its author.’ That is how he knows the poem is beautiful.” Reading and writing poetry are two lanes on the same street.