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This item is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.

Letters from Mark Jarman and James Hatch
Rebel Angels


David C. Ward's love letter to the New Formalism in your most recent issue ('Wannabees', PNR 117) also purports to be a review of Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism, an anthology I co-edited with David Mason. In his anxious search for was to discredit the New Formalism, he also unfortunately misrepresents Rebel Angels. If, as he says, he finds the editors' preface (he calls it a manifesto) 'cogent', then how can he think this particular book is part of 'an ideological instrument to facilitate certain, albeit inchoate agenda along with the not incidental byblow of advancing its members over other poets'? The anthology includes work by 25 American poets born since 1940 who write in traditional English verse. Of course it is meant to promote their work, but not at the expense of other poets. As for the ideology to which Mr Ward ominously refers, I challenge any reader to find, for example, that the poems of Marilyn Nelson and Andrew Hudgins and Julia Alvarez and Tom Disch, all poets included in the anthology, have a 'certain, albeit inchoate agenda' in common. All they have in common is that they are written in metrical rather than free verse.

As for the quality of the poems in Rebel Angels, Mr Ward says most 'are simply not well-constructed'. Clearly he is blinded by the love of his own outrage. I do have a theory about the source of this outrage, since it appears to be rooted in the fear that the status quo, which Mr Ward seems to represent, is going to lose the power to enforce some agenda of its own. But let it go. And let your reviewer read the anthology again - all the way through this time, starting with its preface.



David C. Ward's review of Mason and Jarman's Rebel Angels makes a number of interesting points but often does not substantiate them. In a review of such brevity this is not surprising. But let me point out the instances where I think the review is contradictory and vitiates its own arguments.

New Formalism, Mr Ward states, is 'indubitably an ideological instrument to facilitate a certain, albeit inchoate cultural agenda'. If this is true, one can see why the movement has provoked such vigorous, and often vituperative, debate in the United States. Mr Ward does not let us know what the 'agenda' might be, though clearly this is of importance. The disdain and anger awakened in creative-writing departments in the United States by New Formalism gives the lie to Mr Ward's statement that 'no one will object to anyone writing (say) iambic pentameter'. Indeed, many have objected to these poets' use of pentameter and have attached ideological significance to it. Going back to an older form, an older way of doing things in writing is in fact profoundly disturbing to a society which has such conflicted feelings about tradition, canons, and 'progress'. Mr Ward's phrase 'late twentieth-century America's cultural anxiety' only belittles a controversy which, besides being of great interest to any literary theorist, touches on so many practical issues - the teaching of poetry in the schools, the attempt to bring about a popular or populist poetry, and the formation of a multicultural aesthetic (along with the question of whether this is possible without commercialization). Quite clearly, the New Formalists are hoping to gain (or create) an audience of the kind that existed for magazine and newspaper verse in the nineteenth century. The wish to return to a state of affairs that never existed before the nineteenth century and never will exist again seems more quixotic than frightening to me.

The contradictions of both the pro and anti sides of the question are obvious. The New Formalists believe that traditional forms and form in general - all of which require communal agreement and the teaching of models or the adherence by writers to models - are necessary for poetry to exist; the opponents of New Formalism believe that poetry is highly personal and centred on self-expression rather than on the values of the community and so promotes (or should promote) individualism and freedom. Yet the opponents of New Formalism are entrenched in degree programs at universities and write in a way which stems directly from Modernism and its elitist aesthetic, while the New Formalists find it hard to convince the general public that they should trammel their feelings in quatrains and sonnets rather than let them flow easily in the free verse common to creative-writing programs everywhere.

Here we can only address what the New Formalists say they are doing. Mr Ward finds Mason and Jarman's introduction to Rebel Angels 'cogent'. In fact, it is nothing of the sort: it is a seriously confused and often silly piece of pseudo-theory which works by asseveration rather than by argument. It suggests that New Formalism is a 'revolution' but then asserts it is a 'resurgence' of metrical writing. Is it a reaction or a revolution? The editors would have it be both. Their introduction is replete with non sequiturs. The editors write, referring to the ascendancy of free verse in the middle of this century, 'The alliterative heritage and bountiful vocabulary of English suffered, too, as the aural range of poetry shrank to the plainest diction possible.' The sentence is nonsense. What is the 'alliterative heritage'? I would think the 'alliterative heritage' referred to alliterative verse, which flourished in the Dark Ages. Alliteration consistent within a line (and defining a line) is a formal device found in Old and Middle English, not in current English (except in largely uninfluential resurrections such as Auden's Age of Anxiety). According to the editors, the 'aural range... shrank to the plainest diction', which would imply that 'diction' is a part of 'aural range', which we cannot possibly be sure of, given that 'aural range' is a vague and confusing phrase. In addition to sentences which make no sense, Mason and Jarman are capable of writing incredibly naïve statements - 'The act of making poems in measured speech assumes a valued civility, putting a premium not only on technique, but also on a larger cultural vision that restores harmony and balance to the arts' - that any first-year graduate student in English could tear apart.

Mr Ward is right to raise the question of what 'formal' really means. The editors' introduction never defines it. It seems to mean that a poem must have some metre, whether accentual, syllabic, or accentualsyllabic. Mr Ward's objection to allowing syllabics into 'formal' poetry evades the implication of the editors' choice, which is that anything that is metrical, i.e., mensurable, is allowable. The problem here is the editors' way of measuring. They have not made clear that in pentameter, for instance, they are glad to have anapests stand in for iambs or have occasional lines that are of indefinite metre with twelve or more syllables. The New Formalists' theoreticians have never been able to indicate where their kind of informal formalism shades into formlessness. When Mr Ward writes, 'most of the poems in Rebel Angels are simply not well-constructed', he must make it clear that the faulty theory of New Formalism underlies the faulty writing he is objecting to.

Mr Ward's observation that end rhymes are 'the easiest way to indicate form' is troubling. What is form without metre? Are there in fact any forms defined by rhyme alone? Surely it is metre along with rhyme (along with lack of rhyme) that creates a form. More troubling still is Mr Ward's statement that the '"New Formalists" conform to the popular definition of poetry as short lines linked by rhyme; sometimes known as doggerel'. Are nursery rhymes and weather saws doggerel? Are poems written in rhyming trimeter doggerel? Doggerel is characterized by irregularity and triviality or humour; its line lengths may vary from very short to very long. Mr Ward is right, however, in applying the word to much of the poetry in Rebel Angels, in that much of that poetry is trivial and inconsequential. Of course, most of the verse in Rebel Angels has none of the charm and wit of good doggerel.

Despite the fact that the New Formalists can be said to have manufactured an issue rather in the way different factions in Paris and at Versailles manufactured the Querelle des bouffons, the quarrel may have some lasting and positive results. We cannot say at this time. Because no poet of the highest rank has identified himself or herself as a New Formalist, the movement seems ephemeral. If such a poet appears on the scene, however, then the movement will turn out to have meant much more than we think it does now. I think that Mr Ward is wrong to dismiss all the poetry in Rebel Angels; as an anthology it probably is not generally worse than an anthology of poetry by free-versers of the same age would be. This in itself should give us pause. The state of poetry in America is not good and the 'solution' provided by New Formalism will not suffice to change things. What is needed is a renewal not of form but of spirit. Romanticism in all its forms has petered out, but there is nothing to replace it. The best poets in the language - Geoffrey Hill and Jorie Graham, for instance - describe the search, not the goal. Their honesty gives their work its strength, but we should not look for a renewal in poetry based on their work: Hill is - perhaps - the last Modernist and Graham's latest poems now threaten to become centos. The case of the New Formalists may force us to re-examine our assumptions about imitatio, tradition, and culture in a fruitful way. More important, it should show us that a renewal of poetry requires that we look within, not without.

New York

This item is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.

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