The HyperTexts

Formal Poetry and Related Terms: Formalism, New Formalism, Neo-Formalism, Pseudo-Formalism, Neo-Classicism, Traditional Poetry, and the Multitudinous Variations Thereof


by Michael R. Burch

What is Formal poetry? Should contemporary poets who specialize in formal poetry be called Formalists or New Formalists? What is the main difference between traditional poetry and free verse? Is free verse somehow "nontraditional"? Is free verse intrinsically better than traditional poetry, worse, or merely different? If a poet calls himself a Traditionalist, should we applaud him, boo, or just look at him askance?

These are some of the questions I intend to address, in a somewhat rambling fashion. If you bear with me to the end, I may surprise you with my ultimate conclusion, and hopefully I will provide you with room for thought and reflection along the way.

But as soon as the subject of formal poetry is broached, one risks falling into the chasm of what my colleague Tom Merrill has termed "the Great Poetic Divide." It's as if tectonic plates shifted wildly in the early twentieth century with the advent of Modernism, and poets ended up on opposite sides of a literary Grand Canyon that had materialized, seemingly, overnight. The suddenly divided poets then proceeded to set up two openly hostile, militaristic camps (euphemistically called "schools" in literary circles), which were bitterly antagonistic toward each other. One side was led by more traditional-minded poets like Robert Frost, who called writing free verse the equivalent of playing tennis without a net. The other side was led by poets like Ezra Pound, whose rallying cry "Make it new!" was unfortunately taken in some quarters to mean "Anything written more than a few seconds ago must be an object of ridicule!" Unless readers understand the nature of the division, and how it continues to affect poets and poetry to this day, there is the possibility that reading this page might further widen the rift. This is not what I want. So I asked Tom Merrill to write an essay about the "Great Divide." The rift widened when the majority of poetry journals began openly scorning formal poetry. Discrimination against poetry that sounded "too traditional" was difficult for many poets (and readers) to bear. Because the outcast style was being widely denied a public voice, an entrenchment resulted, in the form of a sort of survivalist movement. The two opposing movements were both reactionary in origin and spirit, and frequently clashed with each other. But there is no reason to perpetuate old animosities and needless violence (even if the violence is mostly of the "nanny-nanny-boo-boo" variety, punctuated by bouts of name-calling and hissy fits). So I encourage readers to begin by reading Tom Merrill's essay, which they can do by clicking here, then returning to this essay.

Whew!, now that we have the Hatfield-McCoy thing in proper perspective, we're ready to move forward . . .

Socrates insisted that we define our terms before engaging in what would otherwise be a frivolous, fruitless discourse. What better way to define "formal poetry," "traditional poetry" and associated terms, than to give examples and cite knowledgeable, passionate practitioners thereof? And so, here goes . . .

Let's start with what I take to be the most general term in my title, "traditional poetry" and work our way forward from there.

What is traditional poetry? What is the poetic tradition? Is it a whitewashed sepulcher full of dead men's albescent bones, or is it a veritable fountain of youth? Should we shun the tradition like a pale, diseased leper, or approach it with trembling awe, like the treasure hoard of a firebreathing dragon? Or is the tradition something more human, more intimate?

"Tradition is not, as post-modernists maintain, a library or museum the artist plunders. It is the endless conversation between the living and the dead. Young artists enter into this conversation passionately—not merely intellectually, though study and analysis play a part. They live and breathe it. Tradition is not a public building. It is a love affair."Dana Gioia

I believe Gioia just smacked the nail dead on the head, and thus gives us something solid to build on. Through the years I have visited many online forums where young poets (and not-so-young poets) have enthusiastically questioned and debated the history and various forms and devices of the English poetic tradition, so there is an ongoing "conversation." I was so impressed with the rightness of Gioia's words when I first read them that I immediately grabbed my pen and wrote a poem in response:

The Endless Conversation
by Michael R. Burch

Here the living and the dead convene,
and here the Book of Life is read.
Each fallen grain of wheat, life's bread,
and the trampled grape, love's wine. Serene,
the clouds of witnesses, the Host,
speak to the heart. They seem, almost,
like mortal men, their eyes more keen
for having wept yet seen, half blind.

There is no rancor; they are kind.
In childhood man was ever green,
if prone to pine. They only say
such words as men at close of day
might say—of distant visions seen
beyond themselves: ahead, afar . . .
Can they be wiser than we are?

The concluding point of my poem is that while contemporary poets and contemporary readers of poetry often assume that the poets of yore were wiser than we are today, we actually have more of the English poetic tradition than they did. For we hear what they said, and also what contemporary poets have to say today, and so we have the better end of the conversation. And just consider the many great and near-great poets the modern era has produced: Conrad Aiken, W. H. Auden, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, Hart Crane, e. e. cummings, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, Archibald MacLeish, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wilfred Owen, E. A. Robinson, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas and William Butler Yeats, just to drop a few good names. Are we not richer for having read their work, than readers of prior eras? Yes, and therefore contemporary poets and readers have a deeper well of the English poetic tradition to draw and drink from.

To some degree, all poetry is traditional because all poetry draws from the great well of the past. When we use the term "traditional poetry" we generally mean something like "poetry that looks and feels more like the poetry we recognize from the past, as opposed to poetry that seems more experimental, avant garde, etc." But we should probably use the terms "more traditional" and "less traditional" to qualify things, because in reality all poetry borrows from the past. The same is true for contemporary music. Yes, poets and musicians strive to be original, but at the same time they are always influenced by the artists who preceded them. The Rolling Stones were influenced by Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. Dylan Thomas was influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Bob Zimmerman was influenced by Dylan Thomas and chose to make the Welsh poet's first name his last, becoming famous as Bob Dylan. There is a constant cross-fertilization in process, with modern songwriters often harking back to the poets of yore. For instance, Paul Simon's popular lyric "I am a rock; I am an island" probably refers to a sermon of the poet John Donne in which he said "no man is an island." And so the endless conversation between contemporary artists and their forebears may become an argument, but the influence of the past on the present remains undeniable.

So it seems safe to say that everything from sonnets to the wildest rock and rap lyrics can be called "traditional poetry." The only nontraditional poetry, in my opinion, is not poetry at all, but flat prose masquerading as poetry merely because it incorporates line breaks. For example, the first sentence in this paragraph could be made to look like poetry, if I were to insert line breaks here and there:

It seems safe to say
that everything from sonnets
to the wildest rock and rap lyrics
can be called "traditional poetry."

But is this really poetry? Well, it may be better poetry than any number of alleged "poems" floating around the ether today, but I believe the answer is "no." Poetry is something of a higher order: an art. Slicing and dicing prose does not result in art, but merely in something that looks like poetry. If just inserting line breaks resulted in poetry, I could take the worst paragraph ever written, insert line breaks, and call it poetry, but no one with an ounce of taste would be fooled.

This raises an interesting question. If poetry that only looks like poetry is not really poetry, what constitutes real poetry? I will venture to say, at least for now, that there are only two major classifications of "real" English-language poetry: formal poetry (i.e., metrical or "more traditional" poetry) and non-formal poetry (the less traditional poetry better known as "free verse"). All poetry, in order to be poetry, must have an element that raises it above the level of flat, nonmusical prose. This essential element is the music of words. The best free verse sings and swings, as in the work of poets like Walt Whitman and T. S. Eliot.

But if the music of words is the required element, what is the primary difference between formal poetry and free verse?

"... verse can be divided into either free (unrhymed, metrically ad hoc by line) or formal (patterned in rhythm, sometimes rhymed)."A. E. Stallings

But please don't let the term "formal" throw you, because in poetry "formal" doesn't mean stuffy, stilted, provincial or academic. This (below) is formal poetry at its best, and poetry doesn't get much better, in any form:

Music, When Soft Voices Die (To—)
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory;
Odors, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the beloved's bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.

If the poem above had been written in free verse, the lines would not have seven to eight syllables per line with a patterned rhythm and a patterned rhyme scheme of aabbccdd. A free verse poet might have done something "looser," like this:

Music,
when soft voices die
like endlessly haunting words
gone but never forgotten,
continues to vibrate in the memory;
while odors—as when stricken violets sicken—
live on within the sense of smell they quicken.

Now, as rose leaves when the rose lies dead
are heaped
for the beloved's
bed,
so too your thoughts,
when you are gone,
sweet Love itself
shall slumber on.

Although the lines of Shelley's poem seem irregular in length, this is something of an optical illusion. The longest line consists of eight monosyllabic words, with the length of the word "thoughts" being the main reason the line extends further to the right than the others. The shortest line has seven syllables which are more tightly compacted. But in terms of how the lines are spoken aloud, they are all very nearly equal. In my free verse version (please pardon my mangling of Shelley's poem to make my points), the lines vary from one syllable to twelve. In the first five lines the rhymes are slant and irregular in location: die, like, vibrate ... gone, forgotten, on. In lines six and seven, the rhymes are irregular in location but exact: stricken, sicken, quicken. In lines eight through eleven, the rhymes are the same in location (end rhyme) and alternate between slant and exact: dead, heap'd, beloved's, bed. In the closing four lines, the rhymes are the same in location (end rhyme) and exact (gone, on), with the lines for the first time becoming regular in syllable count: 4-4-3-4.

Here we can see the attractions of both methods. Shelley's poem is beautiful and hard to fault, although the last two lines may be fanciful and are, at the very least, open to interpretation. But I like those lines because I can interpret them freely. The poem's sounds, meter, rhymes and form are certainly pleasing.

My free verse "translation" made it easy for me to expound (however badly) on what it can be like when soft voices die and continue to haunt us, while free verse's lack of restrictions on line length and syllable count let me take advantage of the strong rhymes of stricken, sicken and quicken, and also allowed me to isolate and thus emphasize the rhymes of dead, heap'd, beloved's and bed. The permissiveness of free verse enabled me to return to something very close to what Shelley did, for the grand finale. There is considerable  freedom in free verse, and in better hands than mine the results can be glorious. By way of a better example, here is one of my favorite free verse poems:

A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

In the first stanza, the combination of repeated sounds creates a splendid music. In particular, the use of the plosives "p/t/d" is quite pronounced, and "v" and "f" are used in close quarters to good effect. In line two there is a preponderance of "o" sounds. In line four "f" and "t" dominate. In line five there is a rush of "e" sounds, many of them elongated so that the reader has a sense of the length and immensity of the spider's task. Throughout the stanza there are many uses of "l/m/n/r/s" and it seems the poet has used repeated sounds to weave a web of words as intricate and delicate as the spider's. In the second stanza the phrase "in measureless oceans of space" seems perfect in both sound and sense, and the succeeding images of throwing, of connecting, of forming bridges, of ductile anchors and gossamer threads, combine to make the poet's task seem as immense as the spider's. Whitman doesn't use end rhyme all that often in his poems, but hold and soul add to the power of his closing lines here.

Whitman wrote end-stopped free verse, in which there is a slight pause at the end of each line, with the final word receiving additional emphasis. The final words of each line almost comprise a poem themselves. We can see the spider isolated in its vast surrounding, speeding filaments out of itself. We can see the soul directed to stand in space, being ordered to "connect them" and to "hold." While free verse may not seem to have a definite form, the better free verse poets use line breaks, line-ending words, stanza breaks, stanza-ending words, and white space to create forms that are more malleable and perhaps more organic than those of many formal poems. And yet the better formal poets pay close attention to the same things. As we are about to see, the lines between formal verse and free verse tend to converge and blur.

At this point I believe that I have established my point that the music of words is essential to poetry, whether formal or free verse. The history of English poetry is steeped in story and song. Some of the most popular songs of all time were written by poets. The greatest Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote "Auld Lang Syne" and hundreds of other songs. The greatest English poet, Shakespeare, also wrote songs. In fact, I for one prefer his songs to his sonnets. Ben Jonson wrote "To Celia," the immortal song that begins "Drink to me only with thine eyes / And I will pledge thee mine." Paul Simon set E. A. Robinson's poem "Richard Cory" to music and recorded it. Simon also wrote many of his own lyrics as poems and set them to music later. Frederick Weatherly, who wrote the immortal songs "Danny Boy" and "The Holy City" (my all-time favorite hymn, which starts "Last night I lay a-sleeping / There came a dream so fair / I stood in old Jerusalem /Beside the temple there"), was a poet who wrote lyrics that were later set to music by others. Walt Whitman got some of his most important ideas about cadence from the opera. Even Ezra Pound, the great proponent of making it new and ditching the metronome, instructed his disciples to write "in the sequence of the musical phrase." So if there was to be a departure from meter, according to the two fathers of English free verse, it was to have been a departure from regular meter to something more, not less, musical.

But what, you may ask, about rhyme?

There may be some confusion here, because much of what the public perceives as traditional poetry does rhyme. But there is a long tradition of formal/traditional poetry that doesn't rhyme.

Formal poetry does not require rhyme. The "dominant gene" of formal poetry is meter. The most common type of unrhymed meter in formal poetry is blank verse. Here's a contemporary sonnet written masterfully in loose blank verse:

Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

And here's a more formal blank verse poem from another contemporary master:

To Brooklyn Bridge
by Hart Crane

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty— 

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day ... 

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen; 

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee! 

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan. 

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn ...
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still. 

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon ... Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show. 

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry,— 

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path—condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms. 

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City's fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year ... 

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies' dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

Crane's poem alternates between end-rhymed and unrhymed stanzas. While his poem is a formal poem because of its meter, Crane abundantly proves that formal poetry does not have to be formulaic. I believe I have demonstrated with these two stellar examples that formal poetry does not require rhyme. What is essential to formal poetry is meter. But just what, exactly, is meter? According to Louise Bogan, meter is simply rhythm, and she obviously knows "whereof she speaks":

Song For The Last Act
by Louise Bogan

Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd's crook.
Beyond, a garden. There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.

Now that I have your face by heart, I look.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music's cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence. In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat's too swift. The notes shift in the dark.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

Now we're getting somewhere: the "dominant gene" of formal poetry is meter, and meter is simply the rhythm of words, a rhythm we can hear with our ears and tap our hands and feet in time to. Meter allows us to "keep time" with the poem. Perhaps meter was man's earliest method of marking and keeping time, having its roots in the rhythmic grunts, chants, hand-clappings, breast-beatings and foot-stompings of cavemen which predate speech. We hear chimps and other primates making such sounds, and these sounds often seem to denote exuberance, celebration, joy. Perhaps such sounds are a way of expressing joy . . .

Eternity
by William Blake

He who binds to himself a joy,
Does the wing
èd life destroy;
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in Eternity's sun rise.

Still not convinced on the rhyme thing? I know it's hard to give up, and I dearly love it myself. But think of popular songs. Most popular song lyrics rhyme, but not all do. A good example is "All I Wanna Do" by Sheryl Crow. But how, you might ask, if it doesn't rhyme, do we know that it is, indeed, a song? Simply because we can sing it; it carries a tune. Formal poetry works the same way: it has a "tune" integral to the words themselves. There are other formal elements besides meter, including the various poetic devices (assonance, consonance, metaphor, simile, symbolism, etc.) and the way the poem is presented on the page, but the bloodlines of formal poetry begin with meter. Here's a wonderful example of a poem that sings, but doesn't  end-rhyme consistently, blurring the lines between formal unrhymed blank verse and a formal rhymed poem:

The Old Lutheran Bells at Home
by Wallace Stevens

These are the voices of the pastors calling
In the names of St. Paul and of the halo-John
And of other holy and learned men, among them

Great choristers, propounders of hymns, trumpeters,
Jerome and the scrupulous Francis and Sunday women,
The nurses of the spirit's innocence.

These are the voices of the pastors calling
Much rough-end being to smooth Paradise,
Spreading out fortress walls like fortress wings.

Deep in their sound the stentor Martin sings.
Dark Juan looks outward through his mystic brow . . .
Each sexton has his sect. The bells have none.

These are the voices of the pastors calling
And calling like the long echoes in long sleep,
Generations of shepherds to generations of sheep.

Each truth is a sect though no bells ring for it.
And the bells belong to the sextons, after all,
As they jangle and dangle and kick their feet.

Wallace Stevens blurs the lines between formal verse and free verse. Blank verse is typically written in iambic pentameter, with each line having ten syllables, unstressed and stressed as follows:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

If you're alarmed that I have begun to dabble in scansion (the dissecting of poetic meter), please don't be. First, I'm not very good at it. Second, although I'm not very good at scansion, I have a very good ear for reading poetry. I imagine the vast majority of us are better at reading poetry than we ever will be at scanning it. So just relax, or skip this section if the subject bores or annoys you.

Here's an example of iambic pentameter. Notice the driving rhythm naturally created when a weak (unstressed) syllable is followed by a strong (stressed) syllable.

To STRIVE, to SEEK, to FIND, and NOT to YIELD.

Some words naturally take a high degree of stress, particularly monosyllabic nouns and verbs such as: "rock," "rack," "seek" and "slap." Some words don't naturally take as much stress because they have softer sounds and/or serve a lesser purpose: "if," "of," "a" and "the."

Here's a famous example of ringing iambic pentameter:

We HOLD these TRUTHS to BE self EV-i-DENT

In the example above, it's not as clear that "BE" and "self" and "EV" exactly fit the pattern. Why? Because "be" is not a strong verb, "self" is a fairly strong word in its own right, and "ev" is only one syllable in an important word whose final syllable is likely to receive the most emphasis because of its position at the end of the line. So "self" might be closer in stress to "be" and "ev" than "truths" is to "these" and "to." But what if the reader is thinking of the Founding Fathers and these particular truths, and the fact that they are self evident? Then he might naturally put more emphasis on the words "we" and "these" and "self evident." It is quite possible to read this line in a ringing manner, slowly and forcefully, pausing where I have inserted slashes:

WE HOLD / these TRUTHS / to be SELF EV-i-DENT

A man whose forefathers were slaves and who is arguing in court for justice might put particular emphasis on certain words that another person might not. The natural processes of language might cause him to put less stress on less important syllables, as a way of compensating for additional stresses placed elsewhere. While it is possible to read this line as near-perfect iambic pentameter, it is also possible for the reader's experience and inclinations to "color" his personal reading of the line.

Here is another example of iambic pentameter:

Was THIS the FACE that LAUNCH'D a THOU-sand SHIPS
And BURNT the TOP-less TOW'RS of IL-li-UM?

The best blank verse seldom stays this "regular" for long, and variances in syllable counts and stress patterns are well and good, as long as the poem reads well. Suppose we made a few changes to these lines . . .

Was HERS / the FACE that LAUNCHED TEN THOU-sand SHIPS
And BURNED the GREAT BRIGHT TOW-ers / of IL-li-UM?

"Hers" is a stronger word than "this" and "ten" is a stronger word than "a." The two monosyllabic words "great" and "bright" take more stress than the syllables of "top-less." But we can see just how flexible English poetic meter can be. The first line still reads well, because there is a slightly longer pause after "hers" (which I have denoted with a slash), and because the slight  increase in stress on "ten" is not enough to destroy the meter of the line. In the second line, there is a natural tendency to stretch out the pronunciation of "tow-ers," putting less stress on the second syllable, and to pause slightly in the reading before continuing on to "of Illium."

But in lines four and five of "The Old Lutheran Bells at Home," Stevens goes beyond what I did, and adds a good number of extra syllables to the normal "ten count" of iambic pentameter. Does he pull it off? Yes he does, because the poem reads well and anyone not deliberately counting syllables probably wouldn't notice the extra ones, except perhaps because they cause lines four and five to be the longest ones in the poem.

How close are these lines to regular iambic pentameter?

GREAT CHOR-is-ters, pro-POUND-ers of HYMNS, TRUMP-et-ers,
Je-ROME and the SCRU-pu-lous FRAN-cis and SUN-day WO-men

While the lines don't look all that close to the regular pattern, what seems interesting is that there appear to still be five strongly stressed syllables in each of the lines, so perhaps Stevens was able to somehow "sneak in" extra unstressed syllables. Scansion is not my forte, nor am I a great believer in it. It seems to me that some of the "unstressed" syllables above might take more stress than other unstressed syllables. Also, since readers can't easily process ten syllables without a pause, most lines of iambic pentameter will have one or more caesuras, or pauses, which I will denote with slashes below. With each caesura and at the end of each line, the duration of the pronunciation of the concluding word may lengthen and the word may take a degree of additional stress. If I denote middle degrees of stress with italicized caps, and the strongest degrees of stress with bold caps, and use my Southern-flavored pronunciation of words, perhaps a better scansion of the lines for me would be:

GREAT CHOR-uhs-TERS, / pruh-POUND-ers of HYMNS, / TRUMP-et-ERS, //
JE-ROME / and the SCRU-puh-LOUS FRAN-cis / and SUN-DAY WHIM'N //

Because the poem reads well but doesn't scan much like iambic pentameter, perhaps what really matters is the number of strongly stressed syllables. Because I don't pronounce "women" as "WO-men," I tend to put more stress on the preceding syllable "DAY." Again, I'm far from an expert on scansion, and am more or less thinking aloud here. It seems to me that the degree of stress on "pro" would depend on whether the reader says "PRO-POUND" or "pruh-POUND," since a long "o" is pronounced more strongly than the softer "uh." In the same way, the pronunciation of "women" might vary, depending on whether the reader says "WO-men" or "whi-MEN" or "WHIM'N." It seems to me that the syllables "day" and "men" would take more stress than do-nothing syllables like "of," "and" and "the." And it may be that in a succession of unstressed, or less stressed syllables, one syllable will naturally "pick up" an extra degree of stress, especially if the reader has been reading "in meter." And it may be that the last word in a line will naturally receive a degree of additional emphasis. The hardest part of the two lines above for me to scan is the last four words of the second line, since "day" might take less stress since it follows the strongly stressed "sun" and because the pronunciation of "women" seems to be largely up in the air these days. My guess is that the reader will find an accommodation which incorporates his understanding of the proper "in meter" reading of the poem and his own methods of pronouncing certain words. And he will do this without thinking about the process (or he would if he wasn't reading this.)

Is it possible that we have inherited or somehow acquired the ability to adapt our reading of poems "on the fly"? Is this part of the English poetic tradition? Yes, I believe it is.

Here's another poem with lovely meter and rhyme. Some of the rhymes are perfect (exact) rhymes, and some are slant (inexact) rhymes, which makes the rhyme scheme a bit hard to identify. To make the pattern clearer, I've bolded the perfect rhymes:

Lullaby
by W. H. Auden

Lay your sleeping head, my love, [a]
Human on my faithless arm: [b]
Time and fevers burn
away  [c]
Individual beauty from [b]
Thoughtful children, and the grave [a]
Proves the child ephemeral: [d]
But in my arms till break of
day [c]
Let the living creature lie, [e]
Mortal, guilty, but to me [e]
The entirely beautiful[d]

Soul and body have no bounds: [a]
To lovers as they lie upon [b]
Her tolerant enchanted
slope [c]
In their ordinary swoon, [b]
Grave the vision Venus sends [a]
Of supernatural sympathy, [d]
Universal love and
hope[c]
While an abstract insight wakes [e]
Among the glaciers and the rocks [e]
The hermit's carnal ecstasy. [d]

Certainty, fidelity [a]
On the stroke of midnight pass [b]
Like vibrations of a
bell [c]
And fashionable madmen raise [b]
Their pedantic boring cry: [a]
Every farthing of the
cost. [d]
All the dreaded cards
foretell. [c]
Shall be paid, but from this night [e]
Not a whisper, not a thought. [e]
Not a kiss nor look be
lost. [d]

Beauty, midnight, vision dies: [a/e]
Let the winds of dawn that
blow [b] 
Softly round your dreaming
head [c]
Such a day of welcome
show [b]
Eye and knocking heart may bless, [a/e]
Find our mortal world
enough; [d]
Noons of dryness find you
fed [c]
By the involuntary powers, [ ]
Nights of insult let you pass [a/e]
Watched by every human
love. [d]

In this poem, things get a bit tricky because in stanzas three and four, the [d] rhymes of cost/lost and love/enough are perfect (or near perfect, depending on how you pronounce "love" and "enough"). It seems the poem may have three different classes of rhymes: the slant rhymes [a] [b] [e], the always perfect rhymes [c], and the "variable" rhymes [d] which vary from near-perfect to perfect. (Please note that it is not necessary to understand the rhyme scheme to enjoy the poem. I read the poem a number of times before noticing the rhyme pattern myself.) Auden's "Lullaby" is an example of a modern formal poem with an intricate rhyme scheme that doesn't have concrete, unbendable rules. This can be clearly seen in the final stanza, where the [b] rhyme is suddenly perfect for the first time, at least one line is unrhymed ("powers"), and the [a/e] rhyme seems more or less "heretical." Is it possible that "powers" is meant to rhyme with "pass" simply because the words both begin with "p" and end with "s"? Or is it possible that "dies" and "powers" are both meant to be unrhymed? It's hard to say, and it probably doesn't matter. Auden was less constrained by rules than many of his more formulistic predecessors, and he obviously felt free to bend or break the rules he had established (or seems to have established) for his own poem. And I see nothing at all wrong with his approach. The final test is whether the poem is pleasing, and I find it immensely pleasing.

For readers interested in learning more about English poetic meter and its highly interesting roots, here's one of the best essays I've read on the subject:

"Poetic Meter in English: Roots and Possibilities," an essay by Richard Moore

And for readers who are suckers for rhyme, like me, or who would like to know more about rhyme in English poetics, here is another superior essay by the same author:

"On Rhyme," an essay by Richard Moore

Auden's poem brings us quite naturally to examine another major element of a formal poem: its form. His poem above has a form that consists of a title, lines of somewhat regular lengths and syllable counts, stanzas of ten lines each, and a flexible rhyme scheme.

Do meter and form alone establish a poem as a formal poem? In a "dictionary definition" sense the answer might be yes. Metrical writing presented in a traditional form (i.e., one having a title, lines rather than paragraphs, and either a single stanza or multiple stanzas with stanza breaks) might qualify it as formal poetry. But what about something like this "poem"?

Surely there's something better
than these lines I just cobbled together
like a robot knitting a sweater . . .
which might well go on forever
and leave you saying, "Whatever!"

My not-so-sterling example above brings us to an important point: the form of a poem matters little or nothing unless the poem itself shines. A lantern is a "form" with a particular purpose: to cast light. A poem that doesn't please is like a lantern bereft of light: an empty form.

Form is, of course, essential to a formal poem. But there is something even more essential to a formal poem, and to any poem: light. A poem is like the proverbial city on the hill, proclaiming itself Zion to a world all too often shackled in darkness:

First Fig
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
 
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends

It gives a lovely light!

Although Millay's poem is about the same length as mine, hers goes far beyond mine. In four lines she does a remarkable job of summing up her life and perhaps certain beliefs of hers. Although her candle (life) may have been fated to burn down to the quick at both ends (i.e., twice as fast as normal) and be snuffed out by night (death), yet while she lived she cast a lovely light (through her poetry and perhaps in other ways as well). The title "First Fig" may refer to the fig leaves legendarily used by Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness. The immediate result of the Fall seems to have been a new apprehension of human sexuality. So perhaps Millay, who had a reputation for "naughtiness," was saying that her sexuality was part and parcel of the light she cast. And what about "both ends"? Might this be taken to mean that she swung both ways? According to Max Eastman, Millay once discussed her recurrent headaches with a psychologist who asked her, "I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that you might perhaps, although you are hardly conscious of it, have an occasional impulse toward a person of your own sex?" She allegedly responded, "Oh, you mean I'm homosexual! Of course I am, and heterosexual, too, but what's that got to do with my headache?" So it seems possible that the candle burning at both ends is a reference to bisexuality. While I am of course speculating, it seems quite possible that Millay was telling her foes (people who engage in gay bashing) to "lighten up" and/or "see the light." Her use of "ah" for her foes may imply something like a eureka moment of discovery, while her use of "oh" for her friends is more intimate. Also, because she doesn't mention morning this may be taken to mean that she doesn't hold out much (or any) hope of a resurrection. Although I am speculating, it seems to me that Millay may have told us quite a bit about herself and her beliefs in this short poem. And she manages to do so in a poem that itself casts a lovely, tender light.

But the true poet also has an antithetical purpose: to expose to the world everything that is not of the light: the canker, the worm, the darkness, the rottenous and the misbegotten:

The Sick Rose
by William Blake

O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

The true poet reveals himself to the world as both heretic and prophet. Was there ever a true prophet who was not considered a heretic in his own day? Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Whitman, Dickinson, Hopkins ... heretics all. For a poem to be a true poem, it must shine with an inner light that transcends its form:

My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold
by William Wordsworth

My heart leaps up when I behold
   A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
   Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

The true poet is also often an advocate: an advocate of the helpless, of the dispossessed, of the downtrodden, of the abused, of the neglected, of the forlorn, and of the ones better unborn:

Cradle Song
by William Blake

Sleep, sleep, beauty bright,
Dreaming in the joys of night;
Sleep, sleep; in thy sleep
Little sorrows sit and weep.

Sweet babe, in thy face
Soft desires I can trace,
Secret joys and secret smiles,
Little pretty infant wiles.

As thy softest limbs I feel
Smiles as of the morning steal
O'er thy cheek, and o'er thy breast
Where thy little heart doth rest.

O the cunning wiles that creep
In thy little heart asleep!
When thy little heart doth wake,
Then the dreadful night shall break.

The true poet is also a truthteller who never shirks from telling the truth. The poet's truth may not be that God is good and all-powerful, as religion claims, but that God has been proven weak, pale and ineffectual because of suffering and death. The poet's truth may be that nothing good lasts as itself, nor returns as itself. The poet's truth may be that man, in the end, is mere compost for whatever supersedes him. All that's good, all the verdant greens of autumn, may become in the poet's truth the deathly golds of autumn, the harbingers of death and decay:

Nothing Gold Can Stay
by Robert Frost

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The true poet is unafraid to speak the truth, even to God. The poet is sager and wiser than the prophet, because he speaks the truth to God, rather than meekly believing whatever he is told to believe, and saying whatever he is instructed to say:

Forgive, O Lord
by Robert Frost

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I'll forgive the great big one on me.

The true poet is often a lover who will not allow the human heart to disavow that it loves its own kind more than any God, more than any pale, bloodless artifact of religion. Just as Adam preferred Eve to God, so the true poet prefers human love, the ephemeral love of this world, to all the harped-upon nebulous promises of "heavens" to come. His communion is with the one he loves in this world, even as his heart breaks to think of the world without her. His blessing is to have known her:

Bread and Music
by Conrad Aiken

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, belovèd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,

They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.

At times the true poet seems too wise, too truthful for the good of the world, and we almost wish he did not write so powerfully of loss and acute despair. But at the same time we are drawn into his spell, mesmerized. The poem below strikes me as being far more terrifying than anything ever penned by Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King:

Directive
by Robert Frost

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry

Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there's a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone's road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.
(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

What I believe I am illustrating here is the power of formal poetry to touch, move and enlighten readers. There is nothing stiff or provincial about the poems on this page. The best poets appeal to the hearts and minds, to the compassion and reason, of readers, in compelling ways.

So it's important to remember that form is not the be-all and end-all of formal poetry, nor is meter. A poem must contain something something essential, just as a lantern must contain light, in order to justify its existence. But is the form of a poem something exterior to its light, or an integral part of its light?

"The form of a poembe it in meter or free versemust grow naturally out of its substance. The form and meaning are not merely inseparable; the form is an essential (if often ineffable) part of a poem's meaning. If the form seems mere decoration, if it appears arbitrary or excessive, if it calls attention to itself in ways that do not deepen the overall impact of the work, then the form is being used badly. The formal elements have not been successfully integrated into the totality of the work. This disjunction is not only a problem with bad poetry in traditional forms; it is a common failing of avant-garde art where technique often either becomes an end in itself ormore commonlyextreme styles are employed to mask banal content."Dana Gioia

Perhaps a firefly is a better analogy than a lantern. A firefly's form and light are organically part of its being. In the best poems form and light may well be inseparable.

The most common English poetic form is the sonnet, which at first glance can seem "arbitrary and excessive" for almost any sensible purpose. The sonnet can be a daunting form. A Shakespearean sonnet has fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, a deterministic rhyme scheme, a logical sequence of progressions similar to those of a waltz, which might be called "turn, turn, turn and counter-turn," and more esoteric rules than I care to shake my essay stick at. And yet passionate avowals can be conjured by great poets even from such pressure cookers:

Sonnet 147

by William Shakespeare

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest.
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed,
       For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
       Who art as black as Hell, as dark as night.

Still, poets tend to be rebels, and even Shakespeare ignored the rules he created when he found it necessary (or perhaps merely convenient) to do so. Other poets seem to be Houdini-like magicians intent on finding innovative ways of escaping every straightjacket, while wowing fans in the process. For instance, Robert Frost's "Acquainted With The Night" has a terza rima rhyme scheme (aba bcb cdc dad aa):

Acquainted With The Night

by Robert Frost

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain
and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-by;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Percy Bysshe Shelley's deliciously ominous "Ozymandias" has an idiosyncratic rhyme scheme (ababacdcedefef):

Ozymandias
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Now that we've seen the undeniable good "luggage" that comes when good poets uplift readers by accepting and bearing formal constraints, let's consider for a moment the bad "baggage" that comes part-and-parcel with certain poetic terms. For instance, A. E. Stallings cautions us that "the term 'neo formalism' ... is absurd. There is nothing new about form, nor has it ever ceased from being written ..."

I agree with Stallings. When we begin to split poetic hairs with terms like "Neo-Formalism" and "New Formalism" it seems we're merely denigrating the new by implying it's inherently a poor copy of, or substitute for, the old. Robert Frost wrote blank verse poems long years after John Milton, but I wouldn't call Frost "Neo-Miltonian." Nor do I have any idea what "pseudo formalism" might mean or infer, except a slap in the face. Of course there is good formal poetry and not-so-good formal poetry, but does it really make any difference if a bad poem was written this morning, or six hundred years ago? And while a term like "neo-classicism" might make sense in terms of a revival of a certain style of art, formal poetry has been written continuously for many hundreds of years. Meter and form have long been intrinsic to English poetry. To use the word "neo" in conjunction with "form" in terms of poetry seems to me like calling a musician a "neo-note-ist" and a "neo-keyboard-ist." 

And I'm not at all sure that terms like "Formalist" and "formalism" are tremendously helpful, either, although I use the term "Formalist" because that's what some of the poets I know call themselves. If a poet calls himself a Formalist, I  immediately understand that he writes metrical poetry. And I would be surprised if his poems didn't tend to take particular shapes and forms. But I would not be particularly surprised if he chose not to write specific forms such as sonnets, villanelles, etc. And I wouldn't be surprised if he also wrote free verse, since many of the better Formalists I know do just that. But being a Formalist is probably similar to being a mammal. A Formalist might be someone like Robert Frost, who more or less disdained free verse and compared writing it to playing tennis without a net, or he might be someone like e. e. cummings, who seemed content to play without rules, or to make up his own as he went along. The fact that Frost and cummings may have been the last two American poets who were both popular and acclaimed by critics may tell us something important about the breadth of the English poetic tradition.

Which brings me back to what I think is a more positive term for poets of all ilks: "traditional." Should we consider the term "more traditional" for poetry that looks and feels more like the poetry of past centuries, and "less traditional" for poetry that is looser in meter and form? If I had to describe myself as a poet in a word or two, I might call myself a "Traditionalist" or a "tradition-embracing" poet. But neither of these terms seems quite right either. While I love the tradition, it doesn't seem to lend itself to labels, perhaps because the tradition is so large and all-encompassing. As I pointed out before, all poetry is traditional to some degree. Perhaps a more useful term is "metrical," which would allow us two major categories of English poetry: metrical poetry and free verse, with all true poetry being metrical to some degree, but with free verse being loser in meter and form. But the argument soon begins to tire, and I find myself sympathizing with Walter Savage Landor:

On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday
by Walter Savage Landor

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Can we even mention "traditional poetry" or "the tradition" without raising eyebrows and hackles?

"Tradition has become such a loaded word that one can hardly use it today without being misunderstood. One hears it employed mostly as a code word to signal a reactionary defense or radical attack on some body of work. But, as an artist, I see tradition as something quite different from a fixed or oppressive canon. It is neither static nor prescriptive. Tradition is a vast, living landscape we have inheritedso rich and varied that not only do we constantly discover new aspects of it, but the places we revisit always seem slightly different. In art, there is no absolute break between the past and present. One grows naturally out of the other. Moreover, once a new work is written, it exists in an eternal present tense with all the works of the past; and by finding its own place, each new work slightly changes everything around it. The heroic bluster of Romanticism and early Modernism makes it easy to forget that no artist exists in isolation. Art is a collective enterprise embracing past and present, artists and audience. There is also no single past. Artists choose their own predecessors, and great artists reconfigure the traditions to which they belong."Dana Gioia

It's sad, I think, that our poetic forebears labored long and hard to give us a rich heritage and a strong foundation, and yet today that heritage and foundation are mistrusted by (and perhaps even distasteful to) many poets. I'm reminded of the wonderful poem by Robert Hayden that I cited previously:

Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze.  No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

It seems something similar has happened with poets, beginning with the day Ezra Pound first cried "Make it new!" Within less than a generation, Charles Olson called Pound and Eliot "inferior predecessors" and soon every two-bit poet on the planet seemed intent on being endlessly more "original" than every other poet who had ever drawn breath. It seems to me that point of writing poetry is not to denigrate the past, but to draw from it, as a farmer draws water from a well in order to give his family and livestock the gift of continuing life.

Of course there are negative impressions of contemporary formal poetry, even among those poets, critics and readers who admire the great poets of yore. One of the arguments against formal poetry is that it's artificial.

"... Artifice is an advantage, not a hindrance, to expression. Is form artificial? Of course it is. I am all for the artificial. I am reminded of an anecdote. A lovely girl, with natural blonde hair, but of a rather dark, rather dingy shade, complains to a friend. She has wanted for a long time to get it highlighted, which she thinks will brighten her appearance, but with the qualms and vanity of a natural blonde, scruples about the artificiality of having her hair colored. At which point her friend laughs and declares, 'Honey, the point is to look natural. Not to be natural.'"A. E. Stallings

Stallings makes a good point. A formal poem about a tree is no less "natural" than a sketch of a tree or "O Tannenbaum." Anyone who writes a poem, draws, or coins a song engages to some degree in artifice. Flowers are natural. When we bring them indoors, however, we don't toss them on the floor randomly, but we we create an artificial setting and arrange them to our personal liking in a manmade construct, a vase. The artifice is in the arrangement of what we love about nature, the flower, in accordance with our own mysterious whims. Some of the best tradition-embracing poets can be wonderfully whimsical:

anyone lived in a pretty how town
by e. e. cummings
 
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did
 
Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
 
children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
 
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone's any was all to her
 
someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then) they
said their nevers they slept their dream
 
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)
 
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
 
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.
 
Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

Another argument against formal poetry is that it is elitist.

" ... Form is democratic, not elitist. The absurd accusation that formal verse is elitist is easily put to rest. Take almost anyone off the street and show them a poem by A. E. Housman and a poem by Jorie Graham. Which do they prefer, which will be more popular? The Housman. Why? They like it because it rhymes, it has a “beat,” they understand it. (Nor is even this last quality necessary, if one would argue that I have paired a difficult poet with an easy one. Take the nonsense verse of Lewis Carroll. These will still elicit more popular responses, and not because they are more understandable.) This does not mean that Jorie Graham is not a fine poet ... But if charges of elitism must be leveled, it is easier to do so at free verse, which originates from a High Modernism that was deliberately elitist (if not Fascist), and is often written for a limited, academic audience, and which does not contain those elements (meter, rhyme) which originate from the people, for the pleasure of the people.—A. E. Stallings

While I wouldn't go so far as to call free verse or its poets "elitist" or "fascist" (since I write free verse myself!), I think it bears saying that most readers love meter and rhyme, and that some, if not many or most of them, felt betrayed when poets abandoned meter, rhyme, story, song and even honest human emotion for more esoteric pursuits. In the poem below I make a confession for poets I myself have felt betrayed by:

The People Loved What They Had Loved Before
by Michael R. Burch

We did not worship at the shrine of tears;
we knew not to believe, not to confess.
And so, ahemming victors, to false cheers,
we wrote off love, we gave a stern address
to things that we disproved of, things of yore.
And the people loved what they had loved before.

We did not build stone monuments to stand
six hundred years and grow more strong and arch
like bridges from the people to the Land
beyond their reach. Instead, we played a march,
pale Neros, sparking flames from door to door.
And the people loved what they had loved before.

We could not pipe of cheer, or even woe.
We played a minor air of Ire(in E).
The sheep chose to ignore us, even though,
long destitute, we plied our songs for free.
We wrote, rewrote and warbled one same score.
And the people loved what they had loved before.

At last outlandish wailing, we confess,
ensued, because no listeners were left.
We built a shrine to tears: our goddess less
divine than man, and, like us, long bereft.
We stooped to love too late, too Learned to whore.
And the people loved what they had loved before.

Can there be a balanced, unbiased outside view of "the New Formalism" for those who mistrust the opinions of insiders? Probably not, or at least not entirely, but here's a reasonable attempt, from the Academy of American Poets website:

New Formalism, or Neoformalism, a late-twentieth century development in American poetry that sought to revive traditional forms of verse (metrically, rhythmically, stanzaically), is arguably a misnomer. Simply, the advocates of New Formalism wanted to take what was old and make it new again. A glance at the roots of the New Formalist movement reveals that it was only the most recent response to a series of reactive movements throughout twentieth-century American poetry. If the Modernists (Pound, Eliot, etc.) were largely responsible for popularizing free verse, they were answered by the likes of John Crowe Ransom and the New Criticism's rescue of formalist verse (1941). Then the rise of the San Francisco Renaissance in the 1960s, by way of the Beat poets, made free verse nothing less than the contemporary poetic standard. Naturally, to follow an apparent wave of disregard for the "old," came the New Formalist cause to revive traditional forms, benchmarked by anthologies such as Robert Richman's The Direction of Poetry (1988) and, recently, Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism, edited by Mark Jarman and David Mason. New Formalism soon found its detractors. Critics decried neo-formalists for privileging metrical artifice and (sometimes) stylized speech over otherwise more ambitious, visionary, and freer forms. Some have gone so far as to call New Formalism patriarchal. Still, others raise a basic question: what is form? From this the case can be made that free verse is no more or less a form than traditional (metrical, rhythmical) verse. New Formalism's most noted poets include Brad Leithauser, Timothy Steele, Molly Peacock, Phillis Levin, Alfred Corn, Marilyn Hacker, Mark Jarman, and Dana Gioia, among others. For insights on these issues, consult Dana Gioia's "Notes on the New Formalism" (Hudson Review, 1987) or his book of essays, Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture. For a different point of view, read an article by Ira Sadoff, originally published in American Poetry Review in 1990, called "Neo-Formalism: A Dangerous Nostalgia."

Here is what I might call "the ultimate insider's" vantage:

"... New Formalism ... began as a counterrevolution against the deadening orthodoxy of the Free Verse Establishment. Fed up with the self-absorption, formlessness, and intellectual vacuity of confessional lyrics, which under the aegis of Whitman, Williams, Ginsberg, and Plath had swamped poetry for most of the twentieth century, a number of poets began to reclaim the heritage of English verse. They rescued fixed forms and meters from oblivion, they dusted off tropes and figures, they distinguished poetry's special language from quotidian speech, and they rediscovered what fictive craft means. They schooled themselves in their literary antecedents (in spite of an American educational system that fought ferociously to prevent it), they read history, and they studied foreign languages and literature. Most important of all, they saw no reason why one could not imagine a poem into existence rather than make every poem the record of some squalid personal trauma. To Pound's fatuous precept "Make it new!" they replied "Up yours, Ezra—we're making it old." And they were right to say so, for by 1980 Pound's modernist free verse had petered out into the earnestly prosaic drivel of institutionalized poetry workshops, or the politicized ranting of the poetry slam. Incidentally, Pound himself recognized the truth of this, for late in life he granted an interview to the New York Times wherein he was asked about the current poetry scene. The aged but still temperamental Pound exploded in response: "Disorder! Disorder! I can't be blamed for all this disorder!"—Dr. Joseph S. Salemi

Another well known Formalist quite rightly points out one of the many undeniable problems with mediocre (and worse) contemporary formal verse:

"Pseudo-formal" verse is a term that I coined to describe a common type of bad contemporary poem. It is a poem that employs formal principles so sloppily that they have no integrity. The lines appear roughly similar but lack the energy that regular rhythm gives. Pseudo-formal poems may be arranged in regular stanzas, but on close examination the visual form has no integral relation to the sound. A good poem rewards scrutiny. The closer one looks at any formal element in a pseudo-formal poem, the more arbitrary or imperfect it appears. Nothing survives close examination. It's just language chopped up into a vaguely regular shape without sufficient attention to sound or structure. It is neither good formal verse or good free verse—just a superficial pretense. And isn't one of the big problems with so much contemporary poetry that it's carelessly written and pretentiously presented?—Dana Gioia

And yet it seems to me that the rhetoric on the part of formal poetry's defenders, at least at times, becomes overheated. If there is such a thing as free verse, or freer verse, then the best practitioners thereof have written outstanding poems. Walt Whitman was a great, highly influential poet. His poems sing and swing. If the formal poets are to be judged by their best practitioners, then the same must be true of the free verse poets. In the end, the lines will begin to blur. Walt Whitman was a singer and a swinger. So were Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens. Whitman broke all sorts of rules, but so did Crane and Stevens. Whitman made up new rules. So did Crane and Stevens. Perhaps there really is only one sort of English poetry, after all: the good kind, with everything that isn't good not really mattering a hill of beans.

In closing, I would like to say that I agree with T. S. Eliot that poetic time is relative. The past informs the present, and the present informs the past by reinterpreting it in light of all that has come and gone, and is currently coming and going, and all that seems likely to soon transpire. The test of a truly great poem is that is was great in its day, and that it remains great today, and that it is unthinkable that it will not be great tomorrow. There are certain poems that will, almost undeniably, always remain great, and that are therefore eternal. "They Flee from Me" by Thomas Wyatt is such an eternal poem, and it sounds as startlingly original today as it undoubtedly did the day it was written:

They Flee from Me
by Thomas Wyatt

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

In some areas I agree with the critics of contemporary formal poetry. Some contemporary Formalists are good technicians but seem seldom, or never, to be inspired. They tend to write plebian poems on plebian themes. Great poems are entertaining, not duller'n'deader'n'doornails! Sometimes their poems seem to be crushed by the weight, not of formal constraints, but of their own inhibitions, as if an elephant had squatted on their heads, snuffing out the life and light from their thoughts. They have too many forbidden themes. Praise is taboo. Elegy is taboo. Passion is taboo. Honest human emotion is taboo, invariably written off as "sentimentality." Adjectives are taboo, or at least frowned down upon by Highbrows from sequestered Ivory Towers. The interjection "Oh" is taboo, although we use it hundreds of times each day in actual speech: "Oh, what a spectacular sunrise!" Exclamation marks are likewise taboo, and a poet is limited to the use of one or two per lifetime. And yet we constantly raise our voices to a higher pitch for the slightest and most nebulous of reasons: "Don't forget to buy me a toothbrush at the drug store, darling!" Exuberance is taboo. Italics are taboo. Seemingly, everything that might enliven a poem is taboo. And some of the stupid things accepted as facts make me question the IQ of poetic groupthink: can anything be more moronic? Let's take a single unsterling example, the taboo against "easy" or "predictable" rhyme. The logic goes something like this: it's too easy to rhyme "light" with "bright" and "night" because this has "been done so many times before." Bad poets use predictable rhyme, which is a form of cliché, and so it's highly unoriginal to use any rhyme that a reader might anticipate, even if the anticipation, like Carly Simon's for ketchup, comes with relish. I will close with a single poem that will forever disprove the abysmally bad idea that "predictable" rhyme is bad, or in any way contrary to great poetry. This poem was a great poem the day it was written. It is a great poem today. And it will be a great poem tomorrow, and for all foreseeable tomorrows, till the world ends. It has "easy, predictable" rhyme. It has unspectacular adjectives, such as those kindergartners might use. But it is undeniably a great poem. I have read it hundreds of times, and it has never once bored me, or made me wish the poet had chosen "more difficult, less predictable" rhymes or "more original" wording. It's a great poem, period, and if poetic time is relative, and if you were ever so lucky (or ever so magnificent) to write a similar poem, it would also be a great poem, period.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

What are my final conclusions? I conclude that the distinction between formal poetry and free verse is a farce. The best formal poetry has music, form and light. The best free verse has music, form and light. There is only good poetry, bad poetry and non-poetry. A poem lacking in musicality is not a poem, but prose masquerading as poetry. I conclude that poetic time is relative. If the best poems of the past can still be enjoyed by readers today, then because poetic time is relative, the methods of those poems are still valid. Rhyming "light" with "night" is not suddenly a horrible mistake, or we would all suddenly despise "Do Not Go Gentle." There is only good rhyme and bad rhyme. We all know good rhyme when we hear it, and we all know bad rhyme when we hear it. I conclude that most theories and maxims adopted by poets are utterly lacking in logic. Is less really more? Do we want less or more of the best poets? Obviously we want more, not less. Should there be no ideas but in things? No, because the great metaphysical poets would have turned that maxim into a chiasmus: no things but in ideas. There is nothing wrong with concrete imagery, if the poetry is good. There is nothing wrong with abstract ideas, if the poetry is good. There is only good poetry and bad poetry. Should poets endeavor to make it new? Yes, if they can innovate within the tradition. No, if they must abandon the tradition, because the tradition allows us to read poetry without starting from scratch with every poem. Poets who are unable to read or write metrical poetry are severely crippled. Poets who can only write metronomic verse are severely crippled. The best poets are high fliers, not cripples.

My final conclusion is that I don't give a damn about labels and schools. I know good poetry when I see it, and good poetry is all I really care about. 

I rest my case. And thanks for hearing me out, since you read so far!—MRB

Credits, Credentials and Further Reading:


Dana Gioia has published two poetry collections, Daily Horoscope and The Gods of Winter (Graywolf Press, 1986 and 1991, respectively) and two critical collections, Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (Graywolf Press, 1992) and The Barrier of a Common Language: Essays on British and American Poetry (University of Michigan, 1996). His The Madness of Hercules, translated from Seneca, was published in 1995 by Johns Hopkins. For readers interested in the debate about poetry itself (Is it still relevant? Does it still matter? If so, then how?) the following essays should be of interest and are only a mouseclick away:

"Can Poetry Matter?" an essay by Dana Gioia
"Hearing from Poetry's Audience," a follow-up to "Can Poetry Matter?" by Dana Gioia

T. Merrill is The HyperTexts' Poet in Residuum. This is a mysterious office.

Richard Moore has taught at Boston University, Brandeis University, the New England Conservatory of Music, and Clark University. He leads the Agape poetry series in Boston and The Poetry Exchange in Cambridge, Massachusetts. and Leesburg, Virginia. Of Richard Moore's ten published volumes of poetry, one was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and another was a T. S. Eliot Prize finalist. He is also the author of a novel, The Investigator (Story Line Press, 1991), a collection of essays, The Rule That Liberates (University of South Dakota Press, 1994), and translations of Plautus' Captivi (in the Johns Hopkins University Complete Roman Drama in Translation series, 1995) and Euripedes' Hippolytus (in the Penn Greek Drama Series, U. of Pennsylvania, 1998). Moore's most recent poetry books include The Mouse Whole: An Epic (Negative Capability Press, 1996) and Pygmies and Pyramids (Orchises Press, 1998).  He is listed in Who's Who In America, and articles on his work have appeared in The Dictionary Of Literary Biography and numerous newspapers and journals. His fiction, essays, and more than 500 of his poems, have been published in a great variety of magazines, including The New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper's, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, and The Nation. He has also published translations of poetry in German, French, and Italian. He gives frequent readings, lectures and dramatic performances in Boston, Washington, and other cities. Nine of Richard Moore's books may be ordered from the bookstore of Expansive Poetry & Music Online, which also has pretty pictures of them. All 14 of his books, including the most recent from Truman State University Press, can be ordered from Moore's web site, where there are descriptions of each book. His books are also available on Amazon.com, but there they are mixed up with the books of numerous other Richard Moores, a name almost as common as John Smith. Further suggested reading:

"Poetic Meter in English: Roots and Possibilities," an essay by Richard Moore
"On Rhyme," an essay by Richard Moore
THT's Second Interview with Richard Moore

Dr. Joseph S. Salemi teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University, and in the Classics Department of both Hunter College and Brooklyn College, C.U.N.Y. He is a widely published scholar, translator, and poet whose work has appeared in over fifty journals and literary magazines in the United States and in Britain. As a translator, Salemi has rendered into English a wide selection of Latin, Greek, Provencal, and Sicilian poems, and his scholarly work has touched on writers as diverse as Chaucer, Machiavelli, Blake, Kipling, Crane, Ernest Dowson, and Wiffiam Gaddis.  He has won several awards, including the Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, the Lane Cooper Fellowship, and an N.E.H. Summer Seminar Fellowship. Further suggested reading:

"The Totems of Poetry," an essay by Dr. Joseph S. Salemi

A. E. Stallings is an American poet currently residing in Greece. Her first collection, Archaic Smile, is the recipient of the Richard Wilbur Award, and is published by the University of Evansville Press. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, the Eunice Tietjens Prize from Poetry, the James Dickey Award from Five Points, and been included in Best American Poetry, 1994. She was included in Best American Poetry, 2000.

Michael R. Burch is the editor of The HyperTexts and has been published over 900 times in literary journals and sundry publications around the globe.

The HyperTexts