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This review is taken from PN Review 117, Volume 24 Number 1, September - October 1997.

WANNABEES MARK JARMAN and DAVID MASON, Rebel Angels, 25 Poets of the New Formalism (Story Line Press)

Despite its spokespeople's protestations of artistic purity, the self-defined 'New Formalism' in American poetry is indubitably an ideological instrument to facilitate a certain, albeit inchoate cultural agenda along with the not incidental byblow of advancing its members over other poets. That the 'New Formalists' are concerned with politics, not poetry, is revealed by their penchant for manifestos, such as the cogent one presented here by Jarman and Mason, which are intent on breaking down a door which is already wide open. After 100 years of wildly creative experimentation, a freedom to which the 'New Formalists' are heir, no one will object to anyone writing in (say) iambic pentameter. Conversely, and this is what both animates and agitates them, there is no reason for anyone to pay attention to their diktat that poetry has to follow the 'traditional' forms of meter and measure. The critical literature associated with the 'New Formalists' is of interest to the specialist in versification and will become source material for scholars seeking to explain late twentieth-century America's cultural anxiety and search for order.

But what actually is 'formal' about new formalism? If its spokespeople are evasive about their cultural agenda, they are frustratingly vague about exactly what standards one has to adhere to in order to join their club. Jarman and Mason are willing to accept 'accentual-syllabic meter' and 'syllabics or accentual meters' as well as poems which are 'experimental in their meter'. So that's just about everything, right? Their conclusion that the ...


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