Monday, June 29, 2009

There Is No Such Thing As "New Formalism" in Canada

I don't mean to keep picking on Paul Vermeersch, but if he keeps making erroneous statements, I have little choice. In a recent blog post, he opines:

[James] Langer is a poet clearly energized by the present-day Canadian renaissance
of New Formalism in lyric poetry (which is the hot topic in CanPo according to its champions ...and only 25 years behind the Americans who have long since moved on to more interesting discussions).

Where to start? First of all, saying that there is a "present-day ... renaissance of New Formalism" implies that the movement had some kind of prior life in Canada. It didn't. New Formalism as such is an exclusively American phenomenon. As the entry in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics opens: "A reaction, in late 20th-c. Am. poetry, against free verse and a return to metrical and fixed stanza forms." There were magazines, particularly The Formalist, and anthologies associated with the movement and there were poets who identified --and who continue to identify--with it explicitly. As the Encyclopedia entry makes clear: "This is not to say that poetry in traditional forms was not being written in America in the 1940s, '50s, '60s, and '70s." Of course it was, mostly by people little concerned with being part of a school or movement (the Encyclopedia cites Lowell, Hecht, Merrill and Berryman as prominent examples). The movement was, as movements tend to be, more an attempt to consolidate a share of lit-political power, than a reflection of the practice of poets.

In Canada, there has been a similar continuity in the writing of metrical poems, even while free verse has been, and continues to be, the predominant mode--and while anthologists have systematically ignored most of the strongest metrical verse being written here. Unlike the US, there has been nothing resembling a movement here to enshrine the practice. Small clusters perhaps, but no magazines, no manifestoes, no CW programs dedicated to it or biased towards it. There was an anthology, In Fine Form, a few years ago, but its editors, while clearly interested in the possibilities of traditional verse structures, can't seriously be considered as "formalists." Also, the anthology is historical and not contemporary, unlike Jarman and Mason's provocatively titled Rebel Angels.

So, if there's no movement, there are also no champions. Presumably alluded to by Paul is Carmine Starnino, since the former recently asserted that the latter is a promulgator of "formalist orthodoxy." So, if Langer is a product of the "New Formalism" "championed" by Carmine, he should be overjoyed about Langer's book, right? Oh, but wait. In the Globe and Mail review of Gun Dogs I linked to and discussed a little while ago, Carmine said that the arrival Langer's very good book is ill-timed because it slots too neatly in with a constellation of other books published in the years preceding it. So much for "fashionable" being favoured by the fashion's "champions."

Getting back to Langer's book, which I don't think should be seen as an avatar of the retarded New Formalism of Canada--whether or not you think that's a good thing: if you engage with the actual poems of the book, you'll have a hard time seeing much influence from Langer's contemporaries, who are supposedly "energizing" him. Frost is a touchstone of the book, but Langer's translation of the opening lines of the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Seafarer" shows that he has sent his taproot deep into a line of poetry beginning in the Middle Ages and moving into the present thru Wyatt, Coleridge, Clare, Hopkins, Hardy, Frost (of course), Hughes and Heaney. That's where the prosody is coming from, not from some ephemeral--which is not to say imaginary--present-day movement.

What we're seeing in Canada right now is more an exhaustion of the possibilities of loosely structured vers libre than a concentrated and deliberate reaction against it. Rhyme and metre have always been a part of poetry written in English and, as resources, they are no less relevant to the present moment than they ever were. The way these resources are employed differs considerably from their use in past ages; if it didn't, it truly would be retrograde. Very few of the poets who use metre and rhyme do so exclusively, making the designation of "formalist" even more dubious. I've appended an incomplete list of living Canadian poets who use metrical and stanzaic devices below. Very few of them do so near-exclusively. Daryl Hine and Wayne Clifford are exceptions. Hine, who sensibly rejects the label of "formalist," has been doing it, quite against the grain of fashion, since the '50s. Wayne Clifford's turn to "form" (one really has to put it in quotation marks because the notion that form pertains only to metrical poetry is ridiculous) came in the middle of his publishing silence, in the 1980s, when it really wasn't fashionable to be writing extended sonnet sequences.

As for the supposed fashionability of metre and rhyme, these days, I don't really see it, for all the interesting work being produced. As "Murray Citron" points out, as a response to Arc's ads for the Poem of the Year contest, in a recent letter to the editor:

There have now been 12 Poem of the Year contests, with three prizes each year. No rhyming poem has won first or second prize. In 2001, a partly rhymed poem took third prize. The rhymes were subdued, and may have escaped notice. Twenty-two poems have been printed with Honourable Mention. One, in 2005, rhymed violion, skin, and within. In 2001 there was a sestina [CLM: almost never a rhyming form]. There have been 78 Editor's Choices. Two, in 2004 and 2009, had rhymes. The rhymes were unconventional. As with the 2001 third prize winner, they may have slipped under the radar. That is 136 poems, four with rhymes, and a sestina. Who says rhyme doesn't pay?

If there's any impression of fashionability, it's because several editors not hostile to metre and rhyme are ensuring that the books get published, despite their continued unfashionability. Most notably, these editors are Starnino, Babstock, Clifford and Ormsby.


An incomplete list of living Canadian poets who use or have used metre and/or patterned rhyme with some regularity (please let me know who I've forgotten). I think the list shows that the common denominator of "formalism" is trivial at best.

George Amabile
Ken Babstock
Elizabeth Bachinsky
Mike Barnes
Brian Bartlett
Walid Bitar
J.D. Black
Christian Bok
Tim Bowling
Stephen Brockwell
Suzanne Buffam
Mark Callanan
Jason Camlot
Colin Carberry
George Elliott Clarke
Wayne Clifford
Don Coles
Pino Coluccio
Geoffrey Cook
Mary Dalton
Jeffery Donaldson
George Ellenbogen
Adam Getty
Catherine Graham
Richard Greene
Jason Guriel
Jen Hadfield
Steven Heighton
David Helwig
David Hickey
Daryl Hine
Michael Holmes
Nancy Holmes
Troy Jollimore
Sonnet L'Abbe
Anita Lahey
James Langer
Ross Leckie
Ian Letourneau
Michael Lista
David McFadden
David McGimpsey
Don McGrath
George McWhirter
Robert Moore
AF Moritz
George Murray
Shane Neilson
Barbara Nickel
Peter Norman
David O'Meara
Eric Ormsby
Catherine Owen
PK Page
Brian Palmu
Elise Partridge
Christopher Patton
Molly Peacock
Craig Poile
James Pollock
Alessandro Porco
Steven Price
Matt Rader
John Reibetanz
Peter Sanger
Richard Sanger
Robyn Sarah
Sandy Shreve
Goran Simic
Anne Simpson
Adam Sol
Karen Solie
David Solway
Carmine Starnino
Ricardo Sternberg
Shannon Stewart
Todd Swift
Brenda Tate
Bruce Taylor
Harry Thurston
Joshua Trotter
Peter Trower
Peter Van Toorn
Patrick Warner
George Whipple
Alan R. Wilson
Carleton Wilson
Christopher Wiseman
David Zieroth

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