Thursday, May 28, 2009

Formal Fallacies

Been reading the new issue of Arc. It's another strong, interesting issue of what has become one of the top literary rags in the country. One of the great things in this issue is a feature called "White Salt Mountain," devoted to various poets talking about John Thompson's work.

One of those poets is Allan Cooper. In an interview with Janna Graham, who organized the White Salt Mountain festival in Sackville, Cooper says something that kinda sticks in my craw:

JG: What is your experience of writing in forms (as opposed to free verse)? What are your thoughts on the resurgence of form in Canadian poetry today?

AC: I employ the ghazal form in my poems, or at least my version of the ghazal, but I stopped writing sonnets and villanelles when I was in my teens. I found that formal verse couldn't contain the extreme states I was seeing in the world. When I first started writing serious poetry, the Vietnam War was coming to an end, and an American cargo plane full of Vietnamese children crash-landed. I think all of the children were lost. So how could I write about that experience in a formal poem? I needed colloquial speech--free verse--to get that experience across.


There are so many things wrong with this statement I hardly know where to start, but here goes:

1) Cooper is basically saying that formal verse is okay for kids, but grownups facing real issues need free verse, thereby tacitly dismissing anyone who writes the former.

2) He is guilty of the logical fallacy of generalising from a particular. Instead of saying that he didn't feel that he could write about certain subjects in rhyme and metre, he says that those structures are somehow incapable of containing those subjects, no matter who tried. Never mind Wilfred Owen, Cooper knows better, 'cause, you know, he heard about some kids dying on the news. Classy. What Allan probably should have said is that he stopped writing rhyming verse because a) he was crappy at it or b) none of the cool kids were writing it (Cooper's mentor Alden Nowlan famously abandoned rhyming poems for free verse) and he just really wanted to fit in and write achingly naive liberal-minded poems about how awful war is.

3) Pace Allan Cooper, there is no equation between "colloquial speech" and free verse. Lots of free verse is highly formal in terms of diction and syntax (KJ Bible anyone?) and lots of rhyming, metred verse is colloquial (see Carmine Starnino's review of David O'Meara's latest book in the same issue of Arc).

4) Allan doesn't even try to answer the second part of the question, presumably because he doesn't know anything about it, since he's still living in the 1970s, apparently. Groovy.

Cooper would do well to heed Peter Sanger's answer to the same question:

Poetry is form. Without form it is non-poetry. Anyone who turns to free verse to avoid scansion, rhyme, regular stanza pattern and other similar disciplines will write bad poetry. Good free verse cannot be written without some substantial grounding [ed.: i.e. beyond having a few juvenile pokes at it] in formal verse, although it can, of course, be faked by a parasitic extension of the style of another poet who is or was so grounded.

17 comments:

Dr. Ursus said...

Zach,

I think you're being too hard on Cooper. Note his repetitive use of the word "I." I certainly didn't think he was dismissing formal verse in the way you characterized, I think instead he was saying it wasn't right for him. Could you be perpetrating the fallacy of internalizing his position, and somehow making itan attack against your (often formal) poetry?

Zachariah Wells said...

Part of the problem is the root problem of most free verse lyric/narrative poems: that it's all about his "I" and not enough about the actual and potential carrying capacity of poetry in English, most of which--never mind my own--has employed formal constraints, which have been adapted to fit all manner of subject matter. Whether it's an "attack"--your term, not mine--or just an ignorant dismissal--which I think more apposite--he doesn't know what he's talking about. If he did, he might have something to say to the second part of the question, no? (But that question had nothing to do with him, so I guess not.) When he asks, "how could I write about that experience in a formal poem?" he is begging a question he might have tried harder to answer.

Al Cooper said...

Zach:

I’d like to clear up a few points that you’ve made here. Firstly, many of my favourite poets are, or have been Formalists. I studied Robert Frost for a year, and I go back again and again to Wordsworth, Blake, John Clare, Christopher Smart, Keats, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney, the early formal poetry of Alden Nowlan and James Wright, among many others. I agree with Peter that poetry is form. A lot of free-verse experiments in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies failed simply because the work was a deliberate attempt to circumvent Formal Verse. Writing free verse is not without its restrictions, which is obvious in the poems of Walt Whitman. Those long lines move across the page like waves, and they are not without form ; they have a distinct rhythmic pattern. Leaves of Grass is perhaps the first great triumph of Free Verse in English, and it’s a book which I refer to constantly.
I did answer the second part of the question, but it was removed during the editing process by Arc. There was no condition attached to the Q and A that all parts of all questions had to be answered. In my response, I mentioned my admiration for several of the new Formalists, including Carmine Starnino and Geoffrey Cook.

Best,

Allan

Zachariah Wells said...

Thanks for the clarification, Al, but the only thing I'd withdraw on the basis of what you've said is that you ignored part of the question.

What you say bespeaks the crudeness with which these issues of form get analysed. Wordsworth, Keats, Blake, Clare, Smart are formalists? Since when? Christ, they could only be seen this way from the wrong end of the historical telescope. These were all radical looseners of the rigid formalities of the Augustan verse of Pope, Dryden et al. I mean, have you read the preface to Lyrical Ballads? Or scanned any given stanza of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

In no other age could these poets be considered formalists. This term, if it's going to be anything other than a meaningless snipe, can't simply refer to someone who has written in some kind of rhyme and some kind of meter. It means someone who is dogmatically attached to orthodox metrics and rhyme.

As for Whitman, it's ridiculous to see his work as "the first great triumph of free verse in English." In my original post, I made reference to the King James Bible, from which Whitman got the patterns of syntactic parallelism used to structure his verse. And this was in some manner an adaptation of Blake's fourteeners, which in turn were an extension of Milton's radically enjambed pentameter.

Again, as I've argued on this blog and elsewhere, it's utter nonsense to call Carmine Starnino a formalist, New or otherwise. The scansion of the vast majority of his poems simply does not bear out this stereotyped label. If you admire him as a formalist, then I have to conclude that you've read his poems rather crudely. Just as you answered the original question.

Al Cooper said...

Well, at least I admire your tenacity. You're a bit like a dog digging for a bone, but unfortunately the bone is elsewhere. As I understand it, Geoffrey and Carmine are self-proclaimed formalists. And if all we're doing here is splitting hairs about who is more formal than whom, then frankly I don't see the point. I think we should be considering the quality of the work, not the form in which it is written.

Best,

Al

Zachariah Wells said...

Heh. Digging for a bone? I'm not the one responding to a 6 month old blog post!

The problem isn't that I'm splitting hairs, it's that you're splitting logs with dynamite, in that you use terminology that should have specific precise meanings in a hand-wavingly general manner. If the terms are used precisely, they're of some analytical use. If they're used the way you've used 'em, they're worse than useless. If I "misread" your statements in the interview, it's because I'm afraid I can't read your mind, because I didn't misrepresent anything you actually said.

Carmine and Geoff are good friends of mine and I've never, in our many conversations about poetry, heard either refer to himself as a formalist, nor have I read any such statement in print. If you can point out the existence of such self-descriptions, then I stand corrected. Unlike Carmine, it's true that Geoff has tended to favour rhymed over unrhymed poems in the past, but as I said, this does not a formalist make. His metrics are in general quite shaggy. Neither Johnson nor Pope--who might aptly be described formalists--would approve, I'm afraid. Bona fide formalists are very few and far between in contemporary Canadian poetry. Daryl Hine and Wayne Clifford are examples. Christian Bok is another.

"I think we should be considering the quality of the work, not the form in which it is written."

That's kind of the point I was making and that I've made repeatedly here and elsewhere. But thanks for the reinforcement. I would add, however, that "quality of work" and "form in which it is written" are not discrete concerns.

Al Cooper said...

Zach:

I think a discussion of form is useful. Prose poems (object poems as a sub-form), haiku, Milton Acorn's Jackpine sonnets, are all employed in contemporary poetry, and to good effect. I wrote a series of 'informal' sonnets in my book Singing the Flowers Open, the section entitled A Voice that Rose like the Wind. The lines range from 13 to 17. I've written short poems, prose poems, informal sonnets and ghazals. None of them conform completely to the form itself. I've studied ghazals for over thirty years, and it took me most of that time before I found my own way with the form.I would say that the ghost of form lies behind most contemporary poetry. We can't deny the dark sonnets of Shakespeare (John Thompson told me that he believed that the ghazal lay behind the sonnet form, and I don't think he was too far off the mark). I'm not asking you to retract anything you said, as I believe that every generation of poets clears the ground for itself by critiquing the work of the preceding generation, but I do think we should stick with the quality of the work. What do you think of John Clare's poems?

Best,

Al

Zachariah Wells said...

Okay fine, but you can't talk about how well a poem is written without talking about how it's written. And the more precisely you can delineate that how, the more clear and persuasive the argument will be. So there's no either/or about this, right?

And I'm not "critiquing your work"--I'm critiquing a statement you made in an interview. I have no problem with free verse or the lyrical mode as such. I write such poems myself. I have problems with poems in those modes insofar as they merely reproduce conventions. And I firmly believe, as Peter Sanger says in that snippet I quoted in the original post, that anyone without a firm grounding in metrics and prosody will merely reproduce the conventions of mid-to-late 20th Century poetics.

Clare is a major touchstone for me, my favourite of the Romantic era poets. And he was writing jackpine sonnets long before Acorn--another favourite poet of mine--ever picked up a Bic ballpoint.

Al Cooper said...

Right--and I agree with what you're saying here: "...anyone without a firm grounding in metrics and prosody will merely reproduce the conventions of mid-to-late 20th Century poetics."
One of the problems with 'free verse' is that it implies you can throw everything out the window, ships be damned, and do whatever you want. This never works with poetry, music, fine art or any other artistic venture and simply leads to a muddle of words, or notes or colours. I'll write more later, but the heavy snow here is threatening to knock out the power. I'll pull out my Clare books later today.

Al

Al Cooper said...

Zach:

In between dimming lights and a darkening afternoon I managed to find one of my Clares (an edition which reprints Arthur Symons' selection from 1908, punctuation added, etc.) which will do well enough for now. I was first introduced to Clare's work in the 70s by an English friend whose father, a psychiatrist, worked in the same Northampton hospital where Clare was kept for the remaining years of his life. What amazed me was Clare's ability to write despite debilitating circumstances. "Clock-a-Clay", "Love Lives Beyond the Tomb" and "I Am" are late favorites of mine. James Wright, in an interview in Unmuzzled Ox in the 70s, read "I Am" from memory, then went on to point out the significance of that astonishing image, "the living sea of waking dreams" for contemporary poets.If I remember rightly, Wright considered the poem a triumph, an example of how one man can write a poem of this quality despite the hardships, the loss, the pain he endured in his life. "I love the fond,/ the faithful and the true" is something I carry with me like a talisman. I hear a lot of Clare in Theodore Roethke as well, a poet who wrote sometimes formally, sometimes not, and who also fought with his inner and outer demons. I'll write more later. It would be wonderful to have an anthology that could bring Roethke and Clare together with Blake and Acorn and Nowlan and Oliver and Wright. Then maybe we could see more clearly the lineage, the influences, the ghost of form, the music behind all great poems.

Best,

Al

Zachariah Wells said...

What I think is more remarkable is how well he wrote despite his social class and lack of formal education. Poets like Clare and Nowlan are the exceptions that prove the rule. Acorn, e.g., for all his prole poses, was basically a middle-class kid. It's cases like Clare and Nowlan that make me wonder about Gray's "mute inglorious Miltons." Maybe adverse circumstances just weed out the dabblers and dilettantes that comfort and cash-flow preserve.

Everyone has their own ideal anthology, which is probably why anthologies are almost universally disappointing.

Al Cooper said...

Zach:

Well, why don't we talk about an anthology, and one that isn't disappointing or deflating but one that brings into focus some of the things we've been discussing here? It would be worked over time,maybe a long time, rather than the 24 hours or so we've been exchanging information here. We could place Blake next to Nowlan, or Thurston next to Wordsworth or Clare next to Roethke and see what it looks like and what discussion it leads to. Anyway, I appreciate your fierce dedication to poetry. It's rare these days.

Best,

Allan

Best,

Allan

Zachariah Wells said...

What you're talking about sounds something like Heaney and Hughes' Rattle Bag anthology. This is one of the few anthologies that actually reads well as a book, in large measure because it is far more eccentric than canonical. My only complaint is that, as with most English-language anthologies published in the UK or Britain, Canada is under-represented.

A backburner idea I've had for many years is a sort of Canadian appendix to that book. I even have a tentative title: The Medicine Bag. Problem is, every time I bring this up in conversation with a publisher, it gets shot down. It would be a big, expensive-to-produce book--and if sales of my very well-received and critically lauded sonnet anthology (itself something of a correction to another excellent anthology, Don Paterson's 100 Sonnets) are anything to go by, it would be lucky to sell 1000 copies. These, sadly, are the realities here.

Al Cooper said...

Zach:

I'm heading for the Annapolis Valley this morning to visit relatives, but wanted to get back to you before I head out. I think your idea of an anthology is very good, and I like your working title. I know how little interest there is for anthologies among publishers, but I still think it should be pursued. Keep in touch.

Al

Al Cooper said...

Zach:

The more I think about the idea of the anthology, the more I like it. There are publishers out there, and there are avenues of funding. If an anthology is engaging, it's bound to find a way and an audience. I think the work needs to be done.

Let's talk some more.

Best,

Al

Zachariah Wells said...

I agree, Al, but I'm not in a position to make a multi-year commitment to the project--because that's what it would require in order to do it justice--without a firm commitment from a publisher. And this sort of book is a small press publisher's worst financial nightmare.

Al Cooper said...

Zach:

An anthology is not necessarily a small publisher's worst nightmare, if they can break even, or come close to it. I edited Owl's Head for a number of years, and the best scenario was when a poet promoted their own work--not standing naked on Main St. scaring the locals, but quietly (or not so quietly) got the word and the books out there. I curtailed my publishing company when I had to go through the ordeal of five-year prospectives before there was any chance of having my publishing programme move forward. I put together an anthology of object poems, over several years, the first of its kind in North America, and it was turned down for funding largely because one-third of the poets were American. I couldn't leave out Robert Bly, for example, as he is the father of the form in North America,a fine translator of Francis Ponge and a promoter of Thoreau, and his poem "The Dead Seal" is a masterpiece in the object poem genre. I'd love to pair that poem with Yeats' "The Circus Animals' Desertion." I'd also love to pair Harry Thurston's "Father on My Shoulders" with Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle...". And I'd love to write tiny essays to go with the pairings. I'd like to pair Gwendolyn MacEwen's "The Transparent Womb" with Theodore Roethke's "Elegy for Jane." Another might pair James Reaney's "The Plum Tree" with James Wright's "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" which ends "I have wasted my life."

I'd like to do something totally different from what I've done before. Maybe it's madness, maybe not. I'm still looking for a Canadian poet to pair with Clare's "I Am."

Best,

Allan