formalism poetryIntroduction

If the New Formalism was a reaction to the perceived failings of free verse — a slovenly technique, indifference to tradition, a self-centred 'anything goes' attitude — the promotion of an iambic cure brought its own problems. The narrowness of its aims, and the drum-beating of its followers, made New Formalism a somewhat blunting and wrong-footing movement, though there are still many excellent poets following its prescriptions.


What Arthur Miller wrote on the appearance of The Formalist magazine in 1990 was the simple truth: "I am sure I will not be the only one grateful for The Formalist. Frankly, it was a shock to realize, as I looked through through the first issue, that I had nearly given up the idea of taking pleasure from poetry."{1}

Formalism arguably began much earlier, with Richard Wilbur, {2} whose first collection, The Beautiful Changes, was published in 1947. And formalism in one sense had never been dead, {3} since crafted verse was the staple of good poetry from De la Mare {4} Graves {5}, Muir {6}, Auden {7} Spender, {8} Amis {9}, Larkin {10} Thomas {11}, Betjeman {12}, and Hill {13} in England, and from Frost {14} Wylie, {15} Teasdale, {16} Robinson, {17} Ransome, {18} Meredith, {19} Carruth, {20} Booth, {21} Hall, {22} Davidson, {23} Moss, {24} Ferry, {25} Cunningham, {26} Nemerov, {27} Lowell {28} and Hollander {29} in America. And countless others.

But the New Formalism was rather different, notably in its proselytizing role, its marked antagonism to free verse, and its stress on metrical correctness.

Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur exemplifies both the successes and some of the shortcomings of the New Formalism. Wilbur served with the Infantry during WWII, studied English at Harvard on the GI Bill, made friends there with Robert Frost, and had his first poem published by the Saturday Evening Post. {30} His first collection, The Beautiful Changes (1947), was warmly received, and the second, Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), established him as a name to watch. Much-praised collections and translations followed. {31} Yet after many accolades, a successful academic career, a Pulitzer Prize and Poet Laureateship of the United States, a William Logan article in The New Criterion article could say of him: "Wilbur had great gifts he didn’t squander so much as stop using, at least for his poetry. He became our premier translator of Molière and Racine, but whether he abandoned poetry or poetry abandoned him has never been clear. He has continued to write, doing little more than toying with his verse, the way a great cat toys with prey. The poems, now simpler and less distractingly ornate, don’t seem to matter much to him, and it’s hard to see how they can matter much to the reader, even at their best." {32}

But misgivings had been voiced much earlier by Marjorie Perloff {33} who said of the title poem of The Things of This World (1956) collection, which begins:

that, for all the New Criticism values of depersonalization, ambiguity, tension, and paradox so brilliantly displayed, the aloof conceit of washing viewed as disembodied angels took some swallowing. Could we forget what laundry actually involved and looked like from a New York apartment? Wasn't the St. Augustine-derived title, "Love Calls us to the Things of This World" more a studious, male-orientated avoidance of things as they were in the world? And though written in the peace and prosperity years of the Eisenhower administration, when Russian threats were contained, and both WWII and the Korean War could be set in the past, the poem was nevertheless curiously separated from cultural realities, perhaps being only a painless juggling with words that drew their resonances from literature more than the living speech of everyday joys and perplexities.

Likewise, David Perkins praised the grace, wit and intelligence of the title poem of the second collection, Ceremony, which begins:

but wondered whether such a dazzling style with its echoes of the English Metaphysical poets did not "stifle passion and conduce to a bland evasiveness." {34}

Perloff and Perkins were writing from a committed avant garde position, but their charges make a claim for something crucial to contemporary poetry: openness to larger issues. Poets who neglect this dimension, who remain apart from their anxieties of their age, too much at ease with themselves, can dry up in later life, as Tennyson did, {35} and the cantankerous Pope did not. {36}

But deftness is not necessarily a handicap. In commenting on the accomplished but emotionally narrow work of an earlier poet, Christopher Ricks suggested that the better poems of A.E. Housman succeed because their rhythm and style mitigate and extend what their bald paraphrase is saying. {37} But perhaps it would be better to say that their lapidary exactness inserts them into the grain of language, on which they feed and rework, crystallizing the language into views that seem believable through one of the oldest of devices: creation of a literary personality. Housman was never a yokel, {38} and never drawn to country lasses, but the loneliness and anguish of his homosexuality condensed in poignant expressions of adolescent love, which he placed in a landscape of his own imagining. Wilbur is not an anguished writer, and his personality has been extended through translations of French playwrights.

2. The New Formalists revived the dying art of verse-writing, and created magazines, courses, university appointments {44} publishing houses and bulletin boards {45} to further its appreciation. The world's poetry is largely in verse, and if that poetry is not read first and foremost as verse then we are struggling in a foreign tongue, one where we may broadly understand the words, but do not feel any exultation or chill in the blood, or any sense of a world beyond the prose meanings.

3. The New Formalists brought attention back to poetry as poetry, away from media stunts, political commitment and literary theory.

Poem Tree (online anthology of metered poetry)
Hypertexts (reviews and good anthology of NF poets)
Contemporary Rhyme (good selection in quarterly issues)
Barefoot Muse (two issues a year with some 20 poets)
AbleMuse (a review of metrical poetry, now back in expanded form)

References and Resources

1. Quoted in The Formalist subscription form. (Evansville, Indiana. 1993)
2. Richard Wilbur (b. 1921).
3. Kevin Walzer, "Poetical Correctness: James Wright's Formal Practices," The Midwest Quarterly 39, no. 4 (1998). Q
4. De la Mare Society.
5. The Robert Graves Trust.
6. Edwin Muir’s. Poem Hunter.
7. W.H. Auden (1907-73)
8. Steven Spender (1909-95).
9. Kingsley Amis (1922-95).
10. Poetry of Philip Larkin. Poem Hunter.
11. Dylan Thomas (1914-53).
12. Sir John Betjeman (1906-84).
13. Geoffrey Hill (b. 1932).
14. Robert Frost (1874-1963). Poem Hunter.
15. Elinor Wylie (1885-1928).
16. Sarah Teasdale (1884-1933).
17. AE Robinson (1869-1935).
18. John Crowe Ranson (1888-1974).
19. William Meredith (b. 1919). Poem Hunter.
20. Hayden Carruth (b. 1921). Poem Hunter.
21. Philip Booth (b. 1926).
22. Donald Hall (b. 1928).
23. Writing Well is the Best Revenge, Dana Gioia. Review of Peter Davidson's The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955-1960 (Knopf. 1996).
24. Howard Moss (b. 1922-87).
25. David Ferry (b. 1924).
26. J. V. Cunningham (1911-85).
27. Howard Nemerov (1920-91).
28. Robert Lowell (1917-77).
29. John Hollander (b. 1929).
30. Richard Wilbur: A Critical Survey of His Career. Dana Gioia.
31. Richard Wilbur: Biography and General Commentary.
32. The way of all flesh. William Logan. NNA. Review in The New Criterion Vol. 18, No. 10, June 2000.
33. Poetry 1956: A Step Away From Them. Marjorie Perloff. Detailed review of Wilbur's 1956 book The Things of This World.
34. David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After (Belknap Press. 1987), 383.
35. Auden's poetry and his last years. Margaret Rees. Nov. 1999. Review of Later Auden by Edward Mendelson that touches on Tennyson's attempt to be spokesman of his age.
36. Alexander Pope 1688-1744. Poem Hunter.
37. Christopher Ricks, The Force of Poetry (O.U.P. 1987), 163-178.
38. George L. Watson, A. E. Housman: A Divided Life (Beacon Press, 1958). Q
39. From The Killing Machine. Moore Moran.
40. From Drums From the Growing Ground. Anton N. (Tony) Marco.
41. From Deputy Finds Dean's Tombstone on Highway. Jim Barnes.
From A Poem: My Agent Says. R. S. Gwynn.
43. From You Almost Remember. Esther Cameron.
44. Consult the essays and biographies on Hypertexts:
45. Particularly Able Muse:
46. Steele Timothy, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (Univ. of Arkansas Press, 1990). The book more attacks free verse than makes a case for traditional forms.
47. Vernon Shetley, After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 156
48. From Business and Poetry. Wade Newman.
49. From Rubaiyat for Sue Ella Tucker. Miller Williams. In Philip Dacey and David Jauss (Eds.) Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (Longman. 1986).
50. A Late Aubade. Richard Wilbur. In Dacey and Jauss 1986, op. cit.
From The Barrens. Alan Sullivan.
52. From Resurrection. William F. Carlson.
53. From Wet Watercolor. Oliver Murray. In The New Formalist, Vol. 3, No.2. NNA.
Nearly two hundred poets feature in Dacey and Jauss 1986, op. cit, but not all are New Formalists, however or indeed traditional poets. Note also the poets appearing in The Formalist and on the ezines listed above.
55. Frederick Turner (b. 1943).
56. Gerry Cambridge (b. 1959).
57. Bill Coyle (b. 1968).
58. Dick Davis (b. 1945).
59. Rhina P. Espaillat (b. 1932).
60. Robert Francis (1901-87).
61. Judson Jerome (1927-91).
62. A.M. Juster (b. 1956).
63. X. J. Kennedy (b. 1929).
64. Paul Lake (b. 1951).
65. Gail White (b. 1945).
66. Jennifer Resser (b. 1968)
67. A. E. Stallings. (b. 1968).
68. David Yezzi. The Fortunes of Formalism. April 2005. NNA. A New Criterion article: not a history but short article arguing for poetic craft.



C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.