Experiments In New Formalism

I am not good with rigidity when it comes to writing.  I like to write on my own schedule, about whatever emerges when my pen hits the page.  I can’t be bothered with memorizing metrical patterns or when lines should repeat, so I am famously bad at form poems.  I signed up for a form slam once and nearly withdrew from the competition out of sheer embarrassment when my sestinas and villanelles turned out less than pleasant to listen to.

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Last week I mentioned that Dana Gioia’s essay on New Formalism really got under my skin when he asserted that contemporary poetry has no idea how or when to employ form, and therefore has no ear for language.  It made me want to, in spite of my deep and serious aversion, write a form poem, and not only do it right, but do it well.  Easily said, but pretty difficult to execute.  Unless you have the right tools, of course.  (Here’s where it gets weird.)

I’ve been itching to write a poem about Danny Williams, tragically disappeared filmmaker and Warhol lover, ever since I first saw the documentary A Walk Into The Sea for the first time a handful of years ago.  (If you’ve never heard of the movie, you’re not alone.  But it is available for instant viewing on Netflix and very worth it, so go!  See!)  In fact, after seeing the film, I’ve been thinking about writing a series of poems about the revolving cast of characters in Warhol’s Factory, but I could never figure out where to begin.  So much about everyone of that specific cultural moment is myth or hearsay, and writing about people I have no personal connection to is rather difficult for me unless I can find an access point.  So the Warhol poems got shelved indefinitely.

Until Monday night, when I decided it was finally time to write Danny Williams a poem.  I cued up the movie and took notes from start to finish, filling four pages of my notebook; you can see the distilled version of those noteshere.  Initially, my idea was to write a found poem, using only dialogue from the first person interviews.  But as I scrawled away and then typed up the quotes, I realized how repetitive the information was.  How many people uttered some iteration of, “I don’t remember Danny Williams,” and then revised their statements, the truth building on the initial lie until something completely new and very real had come from the original obfuscation.

It seemed the perfect opportunity to write in form.  The repetition was already there, it was simply my job to shape that repetition.  Working from my notes, I started building a pantoum using the documentary dialogues.  Words were tweaked here and there, but the final product is almost entirely composed of found text from the film.  When starting a poem from scratch, form intimidates me.  But with all the raw material laid out in front of me, it helped to organize all that talk into a compact, evocative story.  Where normally it’s difficult for me to write about strangers, the form became my access point for speaking comfortably about someone I can never meet.  It imposed a distance from the subject that made it easier to pick out which pieces of information were important enough to present to a reader multiple times, while reminding of the way the layered truth comes about in the documentary.

Repetitive forms lend themselves especially to this layered version of the truth.  Check out contributor to our up-coming art issue Cassandra de Alba’s sestina, “Tchaikovsky, 1944,” in this month’s issue of Printer’s Devil Review for an example of contemporary formalism gone incredibly right.  Contributor to our Gender, Sex, and Sexuality issue and Side B‘s representative in the BILiNE anthology, Sean Patrick Mulroy, has a poem called“wight,” that consists of two blank sonnets based on some pretty upsetting footage of Brittany Murphy from her last public appearance before her death.  Amy Newman’s poem, “The Letting Go,” is another bit of neo-formalist excellence, and her book Dear Editor invents something of a new form by collecting cover letters as poems in their own right.  And though there are plenty of literary journals that may turn up their nose at such formal experiments, online lit mag Radius solicits submissions of invented forms with instructions, seeking poets who are not only willing formalists, but inventors as well as authors.

On Poetry And The Academy

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I’m going to start by saying that I don’t read a lot of theory when it comes to poetry–I tend to get annoyed with the holier-than-thou tone of a lot of critical writing, essays that end up so far removed from the original subject matter that ultimately what is said could be in reference to any situation or details disdained.  But I recently had a birthday, and my grandma gave me a collection of critical essays entitled Can Poetry Matter?  The collection is built on its title essay, which has a lot of points I generally agree with.  Dana Gioia makes plenty of convincing arguments therein that I fully agree with, most of them about how poetry’s shift from the artistic community to the academic community has institutionalized the art.  In my favorite moment, he diagnoses why this shift is dangerous:

Today poetry is a modestly upwardly mobile, middle-class profession—not as lucrative as waste management or dermatology but several big steps above the squalor of bohemia… The campus is not a bad place for a poet to work. It’s just a bad place for all poets to work. Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform with institutional ones.

Unfortunately, he contradicts himself in a later essay, “Notes On The New Formalism,” claiming that the dearth of formal training evident in contemporary poetry has caused a generation of poets unaware of how their work sounds aloud, and wholly ignorant of how ugly their verse is.  His argument attempts to impose the institutional view of poetry–poems as rigidly organized syllabic structures instead of intuitive art objects–on a world where free verse reigns supreme, and has since the modernists he so lauds.

When Gioia speaks about free verse as the death of attention to sound in poetry, I get uncomfortable.  Not just because it seems hopelessly reductive, but because free verse, by its very nature, is the most democratic of poetic forms.  One need not have any kind of formalized poetic education in order to write a successful free verse poem.  There is no rhyme scheme to memorize, no feet to count out, no binding metrical pattern to organize the writing.  Because of this fluidity, free verse can be used by any person to enter the world of poetry.  It is how I fell in love with the medium.  It is the bridge poetry has into the layperson’s world, the one Gioia so craves in Can Poetry Matter?, where the academic guardianship of poetics acts as an affront to all things holy about being a poet.

In the same way that Gioia abhors the idea that poets must teach to eek out a living, I abhor the idea that a poem must be written in recognizable metrical pattern or formal structure for it to be well-crafted.  Full disclosure: this difference of opinion is likely owed to the fact that I cut my teeth in the spoken word community.  This happenstance is what inspires my biggest issue with Gioia’s reasoning; “Notes On The New Formalism” claims that poets have lost track of the importance of the sounds of words in their work.  He assumes no one reads their work out loud.  He could not be more wrong.  The proliferation of poetry readings in every major city I’ve ever visited makes him a liar.  The rampant popularity of slam poetry among young poets makes him a liar.

It is fully possible that a lot has changed in the poetry world since Gioia first penned his essays.  But what is more likely to be the case is that the poetry community exists in deeply divided factions.  Poetry’s most visible home has become college campuses, without a doubt.  Poets, more now than ever, make their living teaching.  Despite this change in the way poetry fits into our culture, it can still be found outside of the academy’s sphere of influence, and thus, outside the rules the academy has for what makes a poem.

I was in New Jersey this past weekend and ended up in a dive bar for drinks with a few close members of my family.  After the atrocious cover band finished up their last set, the bartender put on a hip-hop mix that was mostly Lil Wayne songs.  My uncle said, “You hear patterns in this, don’t you?” and we got into a discussion about the literary devices at play in contemporary hip hop.  I thought of a poet I know who structures poetry workshops for kids in juvenile detention around Lil Wayne songs.  That’s definitely not what Gioia was thinking of when he begged for form to be taught to budding poets, but I think it speaks to all of the roads we can take and still end up with a poem.