Poetic Form

I know poetry is not dead, nor genius lost; nor has Mammon gained power over either, to bind or slay: they will both assert their existence, their presence, their liberty and strength again one day.
— from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I like poetic form, with meter and stuff like that. I’m a “formalist”, as people say nowadays (the older word was “poet”). We live in a free verse age, so I’m out of the mainstream—although near enough to have plenty of company.

Formalism is a matter of taste. Some formalists like to challenge the taste of the mainstream, perhaps hoping to change it. To challenge is also a matter of taste. For my part, I don’t particularly care. Let the mainstream flow where it will. If you do care, I suggest that talking about it is not your first job. Instead, follow these two rules of form: 1. Vote with your feet! 2. Write well!

There is a formalist movement (or more than one, if you want to look at it that way), called New Formalism. I don’t see myself as belonging to it; I am an independent. For my take on New Formalism as of 2007, see these poems:

A Continuous Tradition

Formalists often portray themselves as reviving an interrupted tradition, and complain that skills have been lost which they are still struggling to recover. I see myself as belonging to a continuous tradition going back to Chaucer. I worked hard on formalist poetry as a teenager and gave myself a solid grounding. I didn’t notice any interruption to my tradition—because I wasn’t paying attention!

There must be other poets in the language besides me who have ignored the mainstream and grown up with a good formalist education. There was never any barrier to it. The material is all right there. What matters is where you spend your attention.

Free Verse

“Rhythm must have meaning.” — Ezra Pound

Verse is never free, at least not if it’s any good. In a manner of speaking, every poet is a formalist, because every poem has a form. I think most people understand that. So I reason that the current purpose of the term “free verse” is to obscure the nature of free verse by refusing to draw distinctions among its varieties.

That can’t be healthy.

Form and Content

To take a wider view: Today’s poetry emphasizes content over form. To me that seems strange, since poetry is defined by its form. “Poetry without form” is not poetry at all. In the limit you count content as all and form as nothing, and poetry ceases to exist as such. In my opinion, we’re already close to that limit.