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J A C K E T  # 6
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Eliot Weinberger : What Was Formalism?


I HAVE RECENTLY come across an anthology with a fire-alarm red cover, an inflammatory title (Rebel Angels), and a gaseous introduction whose first word is "Revolution." It is not, as one might expect, a lost artifact of the Beat Generation, but rather a Molotov cocktail tossed by the radical right of poetry, the self-styled "New Formalists."
      According to these Rebel Angels -- who, like most conservatives, have short historical memories for what they are conserving -- it was during the "cultural upheavals of the 60's and 70's" that formalism, defined as "meter and rhyme," was "largely . . .  abandoned by American poets." The result was that "poetry and prose became nearly indistinguishable." [The 150 years of prose poetry aside, to what are they referring? People reading projective verse mysteries at the beach?] Happily, however, certain poets -- Wilbur, Nemerov, Hecht, Van Duyn, among them -- "courageous in their commitment to their art," withstood the onslaught, kept the faith, and inspired a renaissance launched by those misfits from the Generation of '68 for whom baba was a rhyme-scheme and not a guru, and who are now in their forties and fifties.
      The formalism they have collectively revived is not merely "the art of making poems in measured speech." It "assumes a valued civility . . .  a larger cultural vision that restores harmony and balance to the arts." According to the poet Timothy Steele, formalist poetry, more than any "other pursuit," can "nourish"

a love of nature, an enthusiasm for justice, a readiness of good humor, a spontaneous susceptibility to beauty and joy, an interest in our past, a hope for our future, and, above all, a desire that others should have the opportunity and encouragement to share these qualities
which presumably were and are absent from "free verse," not to mention the "other" pursuits. The thought that justice and equal opportunity are the hallmarks of a flourishing formalist verse culture (such as Victorian England, the Court of Versailles, Heian Kyoto . . . ) belongs in a parallel universe, perhaps one where a group named after Lucifer & Co. promotes hope, good humor, beauty, and joy.
      Rebel Angels collects the poems, each labeled with the form it employs, of twenty-five poets "deserving attention for the beauty, accuracy and memorability of their language, as well as their feelings and ideas." They "represent nothing less than a revolution, a fundamental change, in the art of poetry as it is practiced in this country" -- and, if poets deserve attention for their feelings, a revolution in criticism as well.
      As a devotee of poetic revolutions, formal or informal, I cracked the book at random, hoping for a new specter haunting America. But these were the first lines of the first poem I read:

We stood on the rented patio
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride . . . 
Every revolution must lose a few skirmishes, so I flipped again, to a rebel sonnet:

Four years ago I started reading Proust.
Although I'm past the halfway point, I still
Have seven hundred pages of reduced
Type left before I reach the end. I will . . . 
As Charles Reznikoff used to say, when I come to a poem like this, I turn the page. On to another sonnet, titled, unpromisingly, "The View from an Airplane at Night, Over California":

This is a sight that Wordsworth never knew . . . 
I had thought that this particular trope had been buried forever, forty years ago, by Kenneth Koch's famous parody of academic poetry: "This Connecticut landscape would have pleased Vermeer."
      Turning the pages, there were too many titles and first lines that inspired me to turn the page: "On Leaving the Artist's Colony"; "Convalescing in London"; "Remembering the Ardèche"; "Grand Central Station, 20 December 1987" ("The clock's so huge you can watch the minute hand"); "Back Trouble" ("And so to bed . . . "); "Approaching a Significant Birthday, He Peruses The Norton Anthology of Poetry"; "Moments of Summer"; an unironic "To Be Sung on the Fourth of July"; "Blue Jay" ("A sound like a rusty pump beneath our window/ Woke us at dawn. Drawing the curtains back,/ We saw -- through milky light, above the doghouse -- / A blue jay lecturing a neighbor's cat."); "Dinner at Le Caprice"; "Those Paperweights with Snow Inside" (speaking of "accuracy," they're called snow globes) and so on through bland but happy career lives, now apparently available to poets, male and female, of all races, regions, and sexual preferences (all of which are represented here). The only note of incivility was a leering sexuality ("The Rapist's Villanelle," "Satyr, Cunnilinguent: To Herman Melville," "Victoria's Secret") that was creepy in its adolescent frisson of formalism and pseudo-lewdness, and entirely lacking in genuine perversity -- as is found in that bizarre form-meister, Philip Larkin, who used to exchange spanking magazines with the expert on Stalin's atrocities.
      But I paused at a numbing title, "The Lost Bee," because the line by Allen Tate which inspired the poem -- "As a lost bee returning to the hive" -- seemed to embody an eighth type of ambiguity, lack of sense. (As Mark Twain said, "I wasn't lost, just slightly misplaced.") "The Lost Bee" begins:

When I returned to the hive I was one
Among many, in a blistering hum.
A braid of air had brought me far from home
-- Blinder than flowers, simpler than the sun . . . 
The poem, involving some sort of first-person apian epiphany, was as bad as "braid of air" promises, but what interested me was its identification, in the forms index, as "envelope quatrains, iambic tetrameter, iambic pentameter." An envelope quatrain rhymes, like the elegists of the Dancing Queen, abba, as the first quatrain did (with a slight "off" on hum/home). The second quatrain had a second slight "off": curves/serve and give/grave. But the third and then the fourth increasingly fell off the rhyme chart: god/strand, lose/skies, dance/space, and sense/encodes. This was starting to look like that dreaded tennis without a net, free verse itself. Then I went back to the first quatrain, quoted above. The second line had only managed one iamb in its four feet -- in athletics it would have been a disqualification. On the next page was a poem by the same author labeled as "alternating, envelope, and ballad quatrains, iambic trimeter." Five of the ten quatrains were none of these forms, and a stanza like "And the brightest halo/ Shrinks to a shadow/ Gray as a noose./ Intangible truths" was hardly iambic or trimetric.
      I began to suspect that the vaunted strictures of the New Formalism were rather like the rules in a household with small children: tiny attempts at maintaining order, frequently reiterated, and rarely observed. Very few Rebel Angels attempted anything more difficult than a sonnet, and only a few even tried their hands at these. Many of the poems merely kept to regular stanza forms, without rhyme -- as countless "free verse" poems do. The rhymes themselves were astonishingly banal (brook/book, well/tell, park/dark, eye/sky, storm/warm, etc); not a one even approached the wit of popular song: Bob Dylan ("the pump don't work/ 'cause the vandals/ took the handles") or Smokey Robinson or Moss Hart or Curtis Mayfield or John Lennon or nearly any song by Cole Porter ("Let's throw away anxiety, let's quite forget propriety,/ Respectable society, the rector and his piety,/ And contemplate l'amour in all its infinite variety,/ My dear, let's talk about love.").
      And nearly every poem was written in three, four, or five feet of iambs. What is difficult, as Pound said at the beginning of the century, is not to write in iambs: "to break the HEAVE." After all, most of what we say in English is an unstressed monosyllabic personal pronoun or possessive or preposition or article followed by a stressed monosyllabic noun or verb (one iamb) or a disyllabic noun or verb stressed on its first syllable (one and a half iambs). Most polysyllabic words have alternating stresses. When one adds the permissible trochee at the beginning of the line, the permissible anapests anywhere, and all the other little infractions -- exceptions that are supposed to make the rule -- it may well be that the iamb is no more a formal quality than standard spelling.
      Add to this the facts that the division into strictly stressed and unstressed syllables is inappropriate to English, that a line may have many possible scansions according to how it is read ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"), and that off-rhymes, some quite far-fetched, "count" in a rhyme-scheme, and we are left with a system of measurement as organic and untechnical as Williams' much-derided "variable foot" (which, by the way, is what English-language poets have always practiced). The only American formalists of the century may well turn out to be Louis Zukofsky, John Cage, and Jackson Mac Low, who invented their own, idiosyncratic and inflexible rules: placement of letters according to mathematical or mystical formulae, predetermined word lists and selection processes, and so on.
      I'm sorry, but these Rebel Angels are wimps, café Republicans measuring out their lives in coffee spoons that keep changing size. For real formalism, we must go to the Old Formalism, to the days when forms were forms and form had nothing to do with etiquette. We must go back, that is, to the Vikings:
      Viking formalism meant, for example, that to write a mere epitaph of ordinary statements and sentiments for a tomb -- such as "Here lies a warrior famed for his virtue. Denmark will never know a more honorable sea-captain, or one stronger in battle" -- one began with a common stanza form, such as the dróttkvatt.
      This stanza form had eight lines, broken into two half-stanzas of four lines, each expressing a single thought, that were, in turn, divided into two couplets. Each line had six syllables; only three could be stressed (and Old Norse, as one can imagine, had genuine stresses). The first line of each couplet had to have two stressed syllables that began with the same sound, which was also the sound of the first stressed syllable in the next line. (The other stressed syllables could not be alliterate.) The two stressed alliterative syllables in the first line could not rhyme; but the first stressed alliterative syllable in the second line had to rhyme with another syllable in the same line to which it was not alliterative.
      The word order was completely unlike that of prose. For example, the structure of a normal prose sentence of 16 words (taking 1, 2, 3, etc., as the words in their proper prose order) looks like this in a relatively simple half-stanza:


2 4 5 3
1 8 9 6 7
12 10 13 14
11 15 16
In a more complex poem, poetic syntax is further stretched by fragmenting and reassembling the clauses. For example, back to the sea-captain and the first half-stanza. ("Here lies a warrior famed for his virtue . . . ") The poet employs a kenning, or epithet, for warrior ("the one who carried out the work of Þrudr, goddess of battles"), and the whole sentence reads literally: "Under this mound is hidden the one who carried out the work of Þrudr, goddess of battles, whom the greatest virtues accompanied; most men knew that." (Though the Old Norse only has 15 words.)
      The poem (keeping the literal English prose syntax) breaks this into something like:

Under this mound     whom the greatest
most men knew that     virtues
accompanied     the one who carried out the work of Þrudr
goddess of battles     is hidden
The pattern of clauses is:

1 3
4 3
3 2
2 1
      This was merely a tombstone epitaph, not a particularly memorable poem. It was written, as all poetry was, in a single line. (The ragged right-hand margin is a by-product of the availability of cheap paper.) There were no spaces between the words. The form of the poem was musically, not visually, evident -- and evident to all its readers or listeners -- and was only one of many such forms, most of them even more complex.
      In a famous Icelandic story in the sagas, Hallbjörn of Þingvellir wanted to compose a poem in praise of a dead poet. He fell asleep on the poet's burial mound and dreamed that the mound opened, a tall man appeared, and said, "There you lie, Hallbjörn of Þingvellir, trying to do something you are incapable of doing -- composing a poem in praise of me." The dead poet then taught Hallbjörn all the forms while he dreamed. They took many years to master, but in the end he wrote his poem.
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