A Negative Freedom: Thirteen Poets on Formal Verse

By Patrick KurpOctober 26, 2017

A Negative Freedom: Thirteen Poets on Formal Verse

Thirteen on Form by William Baer

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. The label coined in 1985 by the late Ariel Dawson, “New Formalism,” was intended as disparagement but adopted proudly by practitioners. To put the notion in context, the article in which the contentious phrase first appeared was titled “The Yuppie Poet.” In his preface to Thirteen on Form: Conversations with Poets, poet and editor William Baer commonsensically parses “New Formalism” without refighting old battles:

Although the term was meant as a pejorative, it soon caught on and became the unofficial name of the disparate formalist movement, even though there was nothing really “new” about New Formalism, except that the poets were young and considered “outside” the poetic mainstream.

Baer collects interviews he conducted with first- and second-generation New Formalists, most of whom are squeezed into another convenient pigeonhole, baby boomers: Wyatt Prunty, Dana Gioia, Timothy Steele, Rachel Hadas, Brad Leithauser, Charles Martin, R. S. Gwynn, Frederick Turner, Mary Jo Salter, David Middleton, Dick Davis, Rhina P. Espaillat, and A. E. Stallings. The oldest is Espaillat, born in 1932; the youngest, Stallings, in 1968. The rest cluster between 1942 and 1954. Reading the interviews sequentially, the reader comes to appreciate that the New Formalists do not constitute a monolith. None is an ideologue. None believes a formal poem is automatically superior to its free verse cousin, and some write free verse themselves. But most agree that adherence to form enables them to express what they wish in the most efficient manner. Take Timothy Steele, author of Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (1990). Baer quotes a phrase from Steele’s “Love Poem,” “peace rests in form,” and asks whether it constitutes “a general aesthetic.” Steele replies:

Like many people, I have a keen sense of how chaotic and sometimes brutally discontinuous life can be, and I think we make sense of our experience by giving it form — by turning it into a narrative or some kind of measured exploration of meaning. That’s one of the primary reasons I’m drawn to form.

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. Steele goes on to say that form-minded poets are assumed to believe that “the universe is a nice, neat, orderly place.” On the contrary, he says:

I suspect that most people who write in forms feel that the obvious disorder and chaos of the world afflict us intensely, coming at us from so many internal and external sources, and that it’s necessary, as a result, to be both clear and engaged — as transparent and as pure as we can — so that we can create an environment in which the things we love and value can develop and grow.

Form also makes it easier to be funny. Too often, free verse opens the gates of deadly, gaseous earnestness and stifles the anarchic rigors of humor, whether slapstick or rarefied wit. Meter and rhyme spur the comic. Consider R. S. Gwynn, who once wrote a Hopkins parody, “Fried Beauty,” that begins “Glory be to God for breaded things — / Catfish, steak finger, pork chop, chicken thigh,” and goes on to celebrate the glories of Southern cuisine. Gwynn is conventionally labeled a writer of light verse, a classification at once limiting and dismissive. Like many formal poets, Gwynn is a moralist at heart, one who favors mockery over sermons. His instincts, if not his politics (which remain unstated in the interview with Baer), are conservative, and the best satires are most often produced by writers of conservative sensibility. Think of Juvenal, Pope, Swift, Johnson, and Waugh. Gwynn says, “[M]y lyricism works best when it’s counterpointed against something else, like irony, for example.” In “Approaching a Significant Birthday, He Peruses The Norton Anthology of Poetry,” Gwynn assembles a poem consisting entirely of lines from 28 certified poetic war horses. Half the fun is identifying the sources and marveling at the deathless elasticity of iambic pentameter:

All human things are subject to decay.
Beauty is momentary in the mind.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

The poets interviewed by Baer are a notably unbohemian, well-behaved, independent-minded bunch. None is out to be countercultural. Dana Gioia gets the best line: “I went to Stanford Business School to become a poet.” He means that after getting his MA from Harvard, he had no desire to become a literary theorist. Instead, he detoured, earned an MBA, and went to work for General Foods, eventually becoming vice president of marketing. “I had never noticed any M.B.A.s whose minds were particularly cluttered with conceptual thoughts. […] In business school, most of the skills I learned were mathematical, logistical, and practical, and they didn’t, for the most part, invade the same part of my mind inhabited by poetry.”

Several of Baer’s formalists sustain parallel careers as translators. Dick Davis has virtually invented Persian literature for contemporary English readers. Charles Martin gave us Catullus and Ovid; A. E. Stallings, Lucretius and Hesiod; Gioia, Montale and translations of his own poems into Spanish. Baer quotes Davis’s translation of a couplet by the Persian poet Amarah-ye Marvazi: “I’ll hide within my poems as I write them / Hoping to kiss your lips as you recite them.” Davis’s response speaks for most of the poets in Baer’s collection: “I do love those kinds of poems — light verse as it’s called. I love the technical joy and pleasure that takes place in the writing of such poems, and the hope that those reading them will sense the pleasure that the poet experienced while writing them.”

Not all of the interviews in Thirteen on Form are compelling. Brad Leithauser and Mary Jo Salter, once husband and wife, tend to dullness as conversationalists, as does Frederick Turner. Consider what the latter tells his students to get them interested in writing in meter: “Once I give them my little spiel about the biological and evolutionary roots of meter and its effects in the human brain, they’re quite eager to learn how to do it.” Sounds thrilling, like dissecting a nightingale to better understand its song.

Without exception, each poet in Thirteen on Form speaks of rhyme and meter as liberating goads to inspiration. Some express puzzlement that any poet would repudiate form. A. E. Stallings, who translated Lucretius’s The Nature of Things into rhyming fourteeners, says rhyme permits her to “say something shocking or something totally unexpected.” Her poems are characterized by grace, wit, and good cheer, all encouraged by her use of form, and here she explains its attractions:

It’s helpful and effective to have some limitations on one’s choices and even to “give up” some control over the poem. Which, I suppose, is a little scary for some people. To give up some control to the muse, to outer things. I feel there’s almost a sort of Ouija Board feeling about rhyme and meter, where maybe you’re in control, and maybe you’re not. […] Maybe it’s a negative freedom, something like a negative capability type of freedom.


Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.

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Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.


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