Expansive Poetry & Music Online Essay


essay by

Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics: Hunter College

     Fledgling literary movements always face obstacles, not the least of which are their theoreticians.  The primary impulse to create and the secondary impulse to define and systematize the act of creation are antagonistic, for the second is lethally parasitic on the first. Theory-mongers carry the stench of death on them--they are like morticians skulking about Mount Helicon, ready to embalm literature with their idées fixés.  In a dying culture such as this one, that is why theory-spouting is so prominent and prestigious a scam.
     These thoughts are prompted by H.L. Hix's essay "New Formalism at a Crossroads," published in the most recent issue of Sparrow (Summer 2000).  The essay, which takes the form of a review of three recent critical texts put out by Story Line Press, is the latest academic attempt to make New Formalism respectable and presentable to its natural enemies.  The procedure for doing so is a simple one: force the movement into the postmodernist theoretical postures that will make the collegiate tenureocracy take it seriously.
     Written in an arch, pedantic style reminiscent of a graduate school thesis at its most turgid, Hix's essay urges the New Formalist movement to "commit to the ongoing challenge of remaining 'expansive' in its understanding of form and form's infinite possibilities." That is Corporate Academia-Speak for "Stop being an irritant and a scandal in the poetry world, and get with the program."  Hix also wants the movement to be more self-consciously theoretical, and he calls for an "Eliot to send down in prose and verse a phi1osophical taproot to let the tree grow tall."
     The first of these exhortations is typical of late twentieth century America, where the incessant burbling about "diversity" has conditioned most of us to have a positive reflex response to calls for inclusion, openness, flexibility, tolerance, and multicultural melange.  It nevers occurs to Hix that the more open-ended anything becomes, the less likely it is to retain a recognizable identity. To be completely open is to be undefined.  In this respect Hix's essay resembles, rhetorically, a puff-piece in a slick alumni magazine praising the rainbow-colored components of a school while at the same time glorifying the school's utter blandness and lack of character.  This is, I suspect, the real motive behind the review--Hix is essentially calling for a soft-focus New Formalism that will offend no one.  The movement is to be made palatable to the biggest potential audience or group of supporters.  It's all so quintessentially American: pitch to the largest market, and make sure your product satisfies everybody.
     Hix's second exhortation--to up the theoretical ante--is rooted in the Marxist-inspired delusion that a vigorous movement cannot be allowed to develop and grow spontaneously, but must instead be guided and captained by some intellectual elite.  God forbid that formalist poets should simply write the best poems that they can produce! No--according to Hix, they need "a philosophical taproot."  Well, the fact is that they don't need any such thing.  Great poetry was being written long before any jargonizing theorist came along.  Nevertheless, the delusion is one to which academics are particularly prone, especially those who were unfortunate enough to do their graduate work in the last twenty-five years.  But although theory may be indispensable to modern academics, it's not at all necessary for working poets and intelligent readers.  The thing that is healthiest about any movement, whether political or aesthetic, is its lack of a theoretical ball and chain.  In fact, a movement is at its most potent and dynamic stage when intellectuals don't know what to do with it, and when they are explicitly hostile towards it.  New Formalism will remain a promising vital force in poetry as long as it continues to confound and enrage its various enemies.  When it joins the club and becomes respectable, it will die.
     I don't say that, as a matter of fixed principle, New Formalism should remain a marginalized movement.  Pariah status is not necessarily a badge of honor, nor is popularity always a sign of worthlessness. But attempting to make oneself acceptable and popular by compromising one's nature or identity is quite a different thing.  Hix tries to mask his advice on this issue by using the verb "to unsettle" as a kind of metaphor--approaches and attitudes that "unsettle" New Formalism are preferable, in his view, to ones that keep New Formalism where it is.  But metaphors are treacherous in argumentation, and are always vulnerable to counter-metaphor.  What's so great about being "unsettled"? Is it like an unsettled stomach or an unsettled insurance claim or an unsettled paternity suit?  The metaphor may sound daring, but in point of fact most people prefer being settled to the reverse.  And being secure in the possession of one's identity is infinitely better than going through some charade in order to be popular.
     It should also be noted that Hix's prescribed act of unsettling is not directed at our enemies--the smug and complacent Free Verse Establishment that has wallowed in Olympian inertia for the better part of a century.  One would think that their sclerotic imperturbability could use a little unsettling.  No--Hix wants the unsettling to be aimed at ourselves.  But why should it be?  We are a new movement, just beginning to make our mark.  Why should we become destructively introspective when we still have a war to win?  It makes not the slightest sense to "unsettle" ourselves when the Free Verse Establishment hasn't had a new idea since the Beats.
     Hix's essay puts forward and answers six questions about New Formalism to make its basic argument.  But the questions themselves are loaded with hidden assumptions and rhetorical special-pleading that predetermine their answers.  Consider questions 1 and 5: Can new formalism construct a durable, flexible identity? and What history will new formalism claim for itself?  Both questions rest on the unexamined postmodernist notion that history and identity are socially constructed fictions, changeable at will.  It's a very chic and trendy notion, but it's untrue.  You cannot "claim" a history.  You either emerge from a certain historical milieu or you don't.  It's as simple as that.  And you cannot "construct" an identity, like forging a false birth certificate or creating a fake passport.  Any such construction is bogus, or criminal, or both.
     Moreover, even if this identity-shifting legerdemain were possible, it could not be carried out by some sort of hypostatized abstraction called "New Formalism," as Hix seems to think.  No single voice or group of voices has the authority to speak for the movement.  Who would presume to do so?  Dana Gioia?  Timothy Steele?  Kevin Walzer? Annie Finch?  H.L. Hix?  Nobody here can "claim a history" or "construct an identity" that will suit everyone else writing formal poetry today. There is no Fuhrerprinzip in New Formalism, and that's a good thing.
     This is the profoundly ironic aspect of Hix's essay--it purports to have as its aim the opening up of New Formalism to "the best newest voices" and to "a lively internal debate," all of which sounds very tolerant and liberating.  Yet the essay is also permeated with a sense of urgency about what New Formalism ought to do, and how its practitioners ought to see themselves.  Hix specifically voices the hope that the movement will develop "a durable basis for consensus." These two hopes are at cross purposes.  When there is consensus, there is no debate.
     Today, when you hear someone say "consensus," alarm bells should go off.  As currently used in North America, "consensus" is a weasel-word that refers to smothering conformity--one imposed not by governmental fiat, but by hegemonic Public Opinion manipulated by a self-appointed elite of journalists, bureaucrats, and teachers. Consensus is our new compulsory Groupthink, the iron fist of benevolent, We-Know-Best liberalism telling the rest of us poor unenlightened peons how to live.  Academia is governed by this kind of stifling consensus, which is why academics think of it as an ideal way to run the world.  Blathering on about the need for "consensus" is a surreptitious method of enforcing one's ideology on people while at the same time appearing to be properly democratic.
     There doesn't need to be a consensus in New Formalist poetry. The only thing that matters in any poetic movement is the poems that come out of it.  As long as an individual poet writes to his or her best ability, the aesthetic task is accomplished.  So why is Hix so concerned with our collective identity and history and attitudes? Obsessing about who we are or how we should see ourselves or what we ought to think is beside the point.  More significantly, it is inherently tyrannical and limiting, because when you decide on those "oughts," someone is bound to be excluded.  But could it be that, behind all the rhetoric about openness, Hix's real purpose is to do just that?
     Consider the evidence.  For someone who supposedly champions more freedom in New Formalist thinking, Hix puts forth an awful lot of strictures about what we cannot do or say.  Here are a few of them:
1.    According to Hix, we cannot say that amorphous free verse ruled the roost in American poetry during the 60s and 70s. His reasoning?  A number of formalist poets got Pulitzers in those days.  This is like saying that Germany in 1938 wasn't anti-Semitic because a few prominent Germans opposed Hitler's racial policies.  All I can ask is this: Was Hix around in the 60s and 70s?  Does he know the kind of scum who dictated policy in workshops and creative writing programs back then, and who still largely do so today?

2.    According to Hix, we cannot say that there is a substantial difference between free verse and formal, metrical verse. His reasoning?  Timothy Steele says that meter's strength derives from its irregularities, and therefore "regular meter always was free verse."  This is like saying since structural steel derives its strength from the irregularities of its trace elements, good steel can be made by just heating up anything in the smelter.  Does Hix really believe that there is no difference between formal and free verse?  Perhaps he does, since he calls Story Line Press "the primary publishing organ for new formalist poetry."  Yet Story Line Press has just published An Honest Answer by Ginger Andrews, a completely meterless and formless collection of confessional lyrics in the style of Williams and Ginsberg.  If Andrews is a "formalist," somebody is conning us.

3.    According to Hix, we cannot "settle for a narrow, fundamentalist view of form."  His reasoning?  It wouldn't be (to use his own terminology) expansive, dynamic, and ecumenical.  What do those three words mean?  Nothing, really--but they sound great to a certain kind of wide-eyed naif who wants to seem energetically trendy.  And attacking anything as "narrow" or "fundamentalist" always guarantees a good kneejerk response from a liberal audience.

4.    According to Hix, we cannot become a subculture within the subculture of poetry.  His reasoning?  Because that would "replicate fractally the failure Dana Gioia has attributed to poetry itself."  This is like saying that since Luther had already broken with the Catholic Church, Zwingli shouldn't have broken away from Luther.  Who says so, and why?  Why should Hix presume to tell us that we may not form loyalties and allegiances of our own choice, no matter how "fractal"?

In short, all four of these claims rest on unexamined assumptions, which means that they are emotionally-based pleas rather than arguments. The message of those pleas is essentially this: New Formalism should become Formalism Lite, and consciously strive to make itself more appealing to the people in the poetry world who matter.  Who are they? That's easy to divine, though Hix never mentions them: the publishers, editors, reviewers, grant-dispensers, and academic Pooh-Bahs who carry clout, and who can certify a movement as socially acceptable.
     But instead of arguing these individual claims of his, I'd rather point out their overall tenor and drift.  By coming up with these various strictures, Hix is attempting to expel from the ranks of New Formalism those of us who take an oppositional and confrontational stance towards the Free Verse Establishment.  He also wishes to rid the movement of those of us who are defiantly heterodox, not just in regard to free-verse practices but also to the general silliness and cloudy thinking that mark the poetry world as a whole.  Hix now wants us to make peace with that world, to drop our adversarial stance--in short, to join the club.  He is also calling for a rapprochement with the postmodernist academy, which today has taken the place of the world of letters as a source of prestige and influence--and that rapprochement can occur, of course, only when New Formalism sheds its last vestige of political incorrectness and contrarian independence of spirit. Those are two things that academia will never tolerate.
     In this sense, New Formalism is indeed at a crossroads.  Shall we sell out for the thirty pieces of silver represented by popularity, mainstream praise, and the pretense that what we do is no different in essence from what free versifiers do?  Or shall we continue to produce the best work we can, and not give a damn what the opposition thinks? I'm hoping and betting that we haven't come this far just to make a few friends.

                               Joseph S. Salemi

 Click here to return to home page