Keith Maillard - Issue 109

Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism; Jarman, Mark & David Mason, eds.; Story Line Press; Brownsville, Oregon; 1996; 260 pp.

In their modest and sensible introduction to Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism, editors Mark Jarman and David Mason claim, quite rightly, that "the most significant development in recent American poetry has been a resurgence of meter and rhyme, as well as narrative, among large numbers of younger poets, after a period when these essential elements of verse had been suppressed." The label that has been applied to this development is "New Formalism," and, although some poets have objected to the term, it has, by now, established itself in the critical vocabulary. There is still some debate, however, over who does or does not fit within the category. The broadest, and, I think, most practical usage would be to label as New Formalist those poets who write in meter — whether tight as Pope's or considerably looser than that — and who could be called "younger" (to distinguish them from poets born in the twenties or thirties who never stopped writing in meter) and this, obviously, is the definition employed by Jarman and Mason. Their excellent anthology brings together for the first time a sample of the work of most of the major New Formalists with that of newer poets at early stages of their careers.

There is much to praise in Rebel Angels, so I feel impelled to get my quibbles out of the way first. There are a number of important poets left out. J.D. McClatchy, Alfred Corn, and William Logan all have written memorable poems in meter; as different as they are from each other, one element they share in common is that they appear to be the direct inheritors of the New Critical style of the 1950s; their work — at least some of it — can be as complex and highly filigreed as anything written in the salad days of Allen Tate or John Crowe Ransom, and the inclusion of any of their more difficult formal poems would have provided examples of an approach not found elsewhere in the book.

I also missed the unique styles of Richard Kenney and Melissa Green; no one can match Kenney for adventurousness or Green for full-blown, unashamed lyricism. But the most serious omission is that of Gjertrud Schnackenberg; her The Lamplit Answer (1985) is one of the best collections of recent American formal poetry yet published, and her absence makes the anthology quite simply incomplete.

With the exception of Schnackenberg, however, all of the big name New Formalists are here. There is a bit too much of the bleak and sardonic Tom Disch and not quite enough of the elegant Timothy Steele. Mary Jo Salter has contributed two poems demonstrating her considerable talent for illuminating small moments of domestic life as well as two larger, more public statements: "Welcome to Hiroshima" and a finely crafted tribute to Robert Frost, "Frost at Midnight."

Dana Gioia, the genial, omnipresent gadfly of the New Formalist movement, is well represented; included are his often praised narrative poem "Counting the Children" and his sestina which opens with: "Let me confess. I'm sick of these sestinas/ written by youngsters in poetry workshops/ for the delectation of their fellow students..." (When I read it to my poetry workshop, it reduced the students to gales of laughter.) Gioia's "plain" style has, at times, seemed to me overly bare, but in "The Country Wife" it combines beautifully with the repetitions of the double triolet to create a lovely, magical effect.

In only one instance did I quarrel with Jarman and Mason's choice of specific poems: Brad Leithauser is a better poet than one might guess from the curious sampling of his work the editors have given us. His monosyllabic sonnet, however clever it might be, is hardly more than a poetic joke, and the three other poems selected are neither his best nor his most characteristic.

I was delighted by the inclusion of Marilyn Hacker. In the mid-eighties, when lists of New Formalists first began to appear, she was often left out (possibly because a few misguided critics were making a futile effort to equate writing in form and meter with Neo-conservatism, and to admit that an outspoken feminist like Hacker could also be a New Formalist would have contradicted their thesis), but her first book — Presentation Piece, 1974 — beat the more celebrated New Formalist poets (Steele, Leithauser, Salter, Schnackenberg, Gioia) into print by several years, and she has, by now, established herself as one of the best. Although both wit and humour abound in her work, Hacker is, at heart, a grave and serious poet, and she is at her best in the beautiful and harrowing alternating corona sequence in which she chronicles her struggle with breast cancer.

Cancer, gratuitous as a massacre,

answers to nothing, tempts me to retrieve

the white-eyed panic in the mortal night,

my father's silent death at forty-eight,

each numbered, shaved, emaciated Jew

I might have been. They wore the blunt tattoo,

a scar; if they survived, oceans away.

Should I tattoo my scar? What would it say?

I was also pleased by the inclusion of Molly Peacock. Much of her work is what I would call "semi-metrical" (as opposed to Dana Gioia's pejorative term, "pseudo-formal"); that is, although it hovers close to being fully metered, it isn't quite, and a strict definition of New Formalism would leave her out. Jarman and Mason neatly avoid this problem by the use of the term "irregular meter." Peacock is an enormously appealing poet; her small, quiet voice is sincere, confessional, and utterly convincing. In "Those Paperweights with Snow Inside," she opens with a typically dead-pan statement — "Dad pushed my mother down the cellar stairs." — and concludes her listing of domestic horrors:

...My sister ran away.

My father broke the kitchen table in half.

My mother went to work. Not to carry

all this in the body's frame is not to see

how the heart and arms were formed on its behalf.

I can't put the burden down. It's what formed

the house I became as the glass ball stormed.

Both the defenders and opponents of the New Formalism have attempted to define a narrow New Formalist aesthetic, but it has always seemed to me that the only thing genuinely uniting these poets is their interest in formal verse. As Jarman and Mason claim in their preface, New Formalism has attracted writers from varied social and political backgrounds exploring a wide range of subjects and forms; their anthology amply demonstrates this diversity. There are, among other things, ballads and a ballade, sonnets and sapphics, couplets and quintets and sestets, and blank verse — lots of it. The voices vary from the unabashedly colloquial to Timothy Steele's poised, quietly elevated diction in "Eros":

Gently to brush hair from the sleeping face,

To feel breath on the fingers, and to try

To check joy in that intimate, small place

Where joy's own joyousness can't satisfy —

This is pain....

There are many fine examples of the "new narrative," ranging from Sydney Lea's grim, Frostian "The Feud" to Andrew Hudgins "Saints and Strangers," a Baptist woman's account of her preacher father which had me chortling out loud at such lines as:

You teach a Baptist etiquette, she turns

Episcopalian. I did. It's calm.

Some of the poets included are more accomplished than others, but all of them have something of interest to offer; the range of individual styles and approaches to formal verse is truly impressive, and there are many wonderful moments in the anthology. I was particularly moved by Emily Grosholz' "Life of a Salesman," an account of her travelling salesman father who needs to find AA meetings "to fill the shady/ dangerous intervals of middle evening"; R.S. Gwynn's "Body Bags," a grim and funny poem from the era of the Vietnam War that includes a portrait of "Dennis `Wampus" Peterson" who "said he'd swap his Harley and his dope/ And both balls for a 4-F knee like mine"; Marilyn Hacker's tribute, in sapphics, to the Ohio Valley poet James Wright:

You are the lonely gathering of rivers

below the plane that left you in Ohio;

you are the fog of language on Manhattan

where it's descending.

Rebel Angels is not only an admirable introduction to American New Formalism — the only book, at the moment, attempting to fill that role — but, with its judicious selection of poems, brief biographies of the poets, and careful index of forms, it is also a teacher's dream. It may well prove to be the most influential anthology of American poetry published in over forty years.