Saturday, 15 January 2011

The formalist/free avant-garde/mainstream UK/US splits


It's understandable when outsiders describe a formalist poem as "mechanical" or a free verse piece as "sprawling" - these are alternative (albeit derogatory) terms for characteristic features of the types. But there are other features (let's call them "secondary characteristics") that seem to have become attached to certain types of poetry even though there's no necessary connection. For example, Formalism (by which I mean here reliance on meter and/or rhyme) doesn't imply thematic/tonal coherence, though increasingly in practice it seems to. Other potential secondary characteristics include continuity, dependence on old-fashioned aesthetic theories (often in the guise of being theory-free), tendency towards pastoral, and avoidance of modern diction.

Are these characteristics a consequence of the form or the poet? I think metered verse makes using long words harder, increases the number of meter-padding words like "upon" which are infrequently used elsewhere, and is likely to reduce the range of (and rapid shifts between) voices - "The Waste Land" had to be in free verse. However I don't see why meter and closed form should impose any uniformity and insularity at the conceptual level. Perhaps nowadays, with no obligation to write formal poetry, those drawn to write it are more likely to be by temperament attached to these secondary characteristics. Their poetry in turn perpetuates the connection.

On the face of it, formalist and free verse have access to much the same poetic effects (rhythm, rhyme, imagery, voice, etc) so one might expect critiques to be similar. In practice however, the critiques are dividing along similar lines to the poetry. When Formalists comment on free verse they won't criticise the lack of "form" but they might bemoan the lack of the secondary characteristics that they're used to. For example, lack of "unity" is sometimes treated as a fault, though it can arise for reasons which nowadays should no longer be causes for concern

  • Extensive use of juxtaposition. Gregory Ulmer described collage as "the single most revolutionary formal innovation in artistic representation to occur in our century". David Antin remarked "for better or worse, 'modern' poetry in English has been committed to a principle of collage from the outset".
  • Use of several motifs that have a family resemblance but no common central feature. The 'centreless poem' has a tradition going back millennia.
  • Appropriate allusions to several unrelated sources outside the poems (rather than internal cross-references).

Formal poems lend themselves to types of analysis that are less immediately applicable to free verse. The sound/spelling "techniques" may not need to be as central to poetry nowadays as they used to be. To focus on them at the expense of more worldly concerns might be considered rather a navel-gazing endeavour. Non-Formalist criticism uses more theoretical/technical considerations that also could be applied to wider spheres - other uses of language, and other cultural/idealogical considerations. For example, free-form has at its disposal a range of linguistic effects that are also used in prose - rapid tonal shifts, quotes, etc - but are hard to deploy in Formalist works.

The strain between formalist and free verse has increased since the free verse category has broadened, taking over some territory once belonging to prose. When Don Paterson wrote a one word text he had little choice but to call it a poem. And when someone in the English speaking world has a bon mot or joke nowadays the easiest way to get it published is to insert some line-breaks. I don't think Novalis lived under such conditions. Were there a market for short literary prose I think there'd be fewer conflicts between formal and free verse.


The formalist's stock criticism of free verse applies even more strongly to avant-garde writing. Each year the "Cambridge School" of poets (a school that nobody belongs to) hold the CCCP (Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry). CCCP poems tend to have broken sentences, multiple styles and perhaps most strikingly, multiple voices. Dialogue with the reader isn't just implicit. Eliot's "that's one way of looking at it - not very satisfactory" becomes integrated into the poem (indeed, at the readings it isn't always clear when the poet's introduction ends and the poem begins). In contrast, mainstream poems have an air of dramatic irony - they, like an actor in a farce, seem unaware of what's going on behind them, things obvious to a well-read audience.


The divides mentioned above manifest themselves differently in the US. Formalist verse appears less in syllabuses over there. Under the aegis of "New Formalists" the flag still flies, but their main publication - "The Formalist" - has just ceased publication. In the Dec 24th/31st TLS 2004 Roger Caldwell compares "The Best American Poetry 2004" (ed Lyn Hejinian) with the UK's "Forward Book of Poetry" 2005 (ed Greenlaw et al). It's a rather unfair comparison in that the Forward's a by-committee selection rather than a personal choice but I think the differences (though greater this year than usual) apply more generally. The UK anthologies always contain some rhyming poems, the US ones often have none. He says that

  • the UK poems are "technically adroit, up-to-date in their diction, go through the usual poetic motions but have nothing to say". The selection's "traditional in its touching belief in the translucency of language ... and in poetry that is as much oral as written ... tame stuff indeed". "it is typically in the attempt at a resonant closure that poetic lift-off typically - if belatedly - takes place".
  • the American poetry is "fresh, adventurous, daring ... self-regarding, prolix and pointlessly obscure ... little sense of any kind of quality control". It's narrowly based on the "stale aesthetic of yesterday's avant-garde".

Our mainstream is less avant-garde than that of the US (or at least, the UK mainstream have less contact with fringe elements). Randall Jarrell felt that in the UK Modernism never got "beyond the level of the Sitwells" - i.e. not far. Of course we English love our eccentrics, but that doesn't mean we take them seriously. We politely put up with them hoping that they'll get fed up and go away. In the US "modern poetry" seems to have been absorbed into the mainstream - perhaps because US universities have more contacts with poets, and because their tradition includes Wallace Stevens rather than Larkin. People like Jorie Graham would have had trouble breaking through here. Robert Sheppard's review of Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court (Peter Barry) gives some background to UK developments.


My generalisations above are more applicable to bad writing than good. Also when formalism feels under threat (as in the US) there might be more polarisation. In the US the formalist/free streams of poetry may have diverged so much that they can no longer interbreed. If free-versers read older books they might be surprised how many kindred spirits are there, and if formalists read newer ones they'd find that Derrida et al often use formalist texts as source material. In the UK the split is far less decisive. Our fissure is more between innovative and mainstream poetry. The CCCPers I've met read mainstream poets (in an interview with Bernstein, Drew Milne said he didn't read it much though - "it doesn't look like poetry to me". Most mainstreamers don't even know the names of the CCCPers. The Aristotlean idea of unity and coherence is still strong in the UK mainstream - something that (by dint of style or content) doesn't "fit in" is considered a hole out of which the poem leaks, rather than a door through which the reader can gain entry and begin trading.

In his review, Caldwell wishes for the best of both worlds. How might the rift be closed? Sometimes a strong poet can shift public sensibilities. Eliot combined new and old techniques. Nowadays Don Paterson is playful, but hardly revolutionary. Ian Duhig's worth tracking, though I think we need to place our hopes more in publications

  • Eric Mottram in the 70s opened Poetry Review to more experimental work. The magazine gained new editors in 2002 who were sympathetic to the CCCP. Their contracts are up for renewal.
  • UK poets need more access to US poems. Our magazines contain few big US names, and we buy few of their books.
  • Recently in the UK the annual "New Writing" anthology has included a section entitled "Texts" to include unclassifiable pieces. I think this will help free-verse to escape from some of its prosey obligations.
  • The anthology by Oxford University Press ("20th Century British and Irish Poetry", edited by the Canadian Keith Tuma) tries to be more inclusive. No Prynne (because he refused) but no Fenton or Douglas Dunn either. As one reviewer wrote, "it's worth buying for the omissions alone".
  • Reviewers have a large role to play. Individual poets may have narrow ranges but critics need to be open minded, coping with books of different styles, but also lines of different styles within a single poem. Rather than disparaging disunity, it's worth trying to characterise the type of disunity/discontinuity more carefully before assessing its effectiveness.

No comments:

Post a Comment