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.

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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)
Conspicuous?

(Read entire)

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

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