Notes on Formalism in Poetry

Though conversant with and occasionally tempted by free verse, my own poetry invariably takes a formal dimension, assonance, consonance and rhyme, slant or not, imposing itself as each  poem develops. Not just because I was happily living a non-American life in Ottawa working mostly in French and spending whatever freetime I had in Tyrol and environs but for other reasons, I was only peripherally aware of the US poetry movement usually called New Formalism. I was thus spared the agonistic debates among US critics over the so-called New Formalism, often contrasted with the more progressive forms, or non-forms which have dominated literary taste since the early 20th century. 

These notes were gleaned from here and there over the last week or so, as I began to follow formalist poets.


William Baer’s Thirteen on Form: Conversations with Poets for the LA Review of Books, Patrick Kurp wrote, “Among the many reasons poets choose to write formal poetry in the 21st century is an intuitive distaste for the imitative fallacy. To write about chaos, one need not write chaotically. It’s only a minor paradox to say that discipline and constraint unlock freedom.”[61]

In a 2007 essay titled Why No One Wants to be a New Formalist, A.E. Stallings wrote, “People debate over who gets to be in the church of the Avant Garde — who gets to be among the Elect, who gets to be in the Canon Outside the Canon. It is clearly a privilege, a badge of honor.” Stallings added, however, that no one, herself included, wants to be dubbed a New Formalist, which she likened to the kiss of death. Stallings continued, “People come up with other terms: Expansive poet, poet-who-happens-to-write-in-form (and ‘I write free verse, too’, they hastily exclaim), formalista… If I have to be labeled, I myself prefer the term Retro-Formalist, which at least sounds vaguely cool, like wearing vintage clothing and listening to vinyl, something so square it’s hip.”[74]

In a 2017 book review for the LA Review of Books, Patrick Kurp wrote, in a sign that the conflict between free versers and New Formalist was ongoing, “Poets, critics, and readers on both sides of the form/free verse divide are frequently guilty of the Manichean heresy. Stated bluntly: Free verse, the more unfettered the better, is good; meter and rhyme, bad. Or vice versa. The schema turns political and nasty when form is associated with conservatism and free verse with progressivism, as though Ronald Reagan commanded poets to compose villanelles.”[61]

In his 1987 essay, Notes on the New Formalism, Dana Gioia sharply criticized the then common practice of making free verse translations of Formalist poems.

Dana Gioia (2002), Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture, Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Page 153.

Persian epigrams in 1997, Ferdowsi‘s The Shahnameh in 2006, and Fakhruddin As’ad Gurgani‘s Vis and Ramin in 2009.[81]

In 2012, Davis also published Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz.

While being interviewed by William Baer, Davis said, “There’s a great 17th century poem by Wentworth Dillon about translation that has the line, ‘Choose an author as you choose a friend’

And Radnóti supposedly answered, ‘Yes, but this is the only thing I have to fight with.’ As his poetry makes clear, Radnóti believed that Fascism was the destruction of order. It both destroyed and vulgarized civil society. It was as if you wanted to create an ideal cat, so you took your cat, killed it, removed its flesh, put it into some kind of mold, and then pressed it into the shape of a cat. That’s what Fascism does, and that’s what Communism does. They both destroy an intricate social order to set up a criminally simple-minded order.”[97]

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