Expansive Ideas

Who Says Modern and Traditional Verse Can't Mix? They Can in This New Approach to Poetry.
by Michael J. Bugeja

from Writer's Digest, January 1994,
by permission of Michael J. Bugeja,
not for commercial or any other distribution
without the permission of Michael J. Bugeja and Writer's Digest.

Last year I received an official-looking bulletin from the assistant dean of a small Arkansas college, in which he made the following proclamation:

The Expansive Poetry Movement is the hottest and biggest movement to hit international poetry in a half century. Twenty of American's most famous poets will be guests of the conference, and top scholars will be attending from all over the country. The conference will be a one-of-a-kind gathering, as historic as the Beats, or the first meeting of Shelley and Lord Byron..."

My interest was piqued. The bulletin went on to define Expansive Poetry:

The Expansive Poetry Movement seeks to return to the pleasures of rhyme, meter, music and storytelling to modern poetry...Poets in the movement feel modern academic poetry has become too withdrawn, self-indulgent and just plain boring to have much value for the general reader. Expansive poets think poetry should be as relevant and exciting as a good novel.

Though unable to attend, I did interview several of the keynote speakers to get their definitions of Expansive Poetry.

More Forms and Forums

Frederick Feirstein, one of the movement's founders, is a psychoanalyst in New York. In addition to his dramatic narrative City Life (Story Line Press)(NOTE PUT LINK IN HERE), he has authored several major collections and one influential anthology -- Expansive Poetry: Essays on the new Narrative and the New Formalism (Story Line).

"The movement was formed to help overcome the limitations of poetry as it was practiced over the past quarter century. Between the mid-1960's and the 1990's the main types of published poems were the short free verse autobiographical lyric that said little, and the cerebral academic formal poem that had little passion."

To turn this trend around, he says, the poets who joined the expansive movement have the following goals:

  1. They want to say significant and passionate things about the larger world outside themselves.
  2. They want to use all the resources of the craft, including meter, rhyme and dramatic and narrative structures.
  3. In their imagery and subject matter, they strive to make easy reference to and use of science and technology.
  4. They also strive for a poetic language that embraces colloquial American and combines it with meter to avoid using the awkward rhetorical patterns of free verse.
  5. Yet, Expansive poets continue to use free verse when subject matters calls for it, and discuss free verse as one of the many forms available to the poet.

"Expansive poets are very concerned about the loss of audience, which relegates poetry in America to a minor art form. The movement currently is trying to find ways to reach that larger audience by asserting that its longer narratives can be read as easily as novels, by having its dramatic poems performed in theaters, and by working collaboratively with rock and theater composers."

For the beginning poet, he says, Expansive Poetry offers not only a larger readership, but also more forms and forums to convey messages, truth and stories.

Like Making Music

Andrea Hollander Budy was identified as an "Expansive poet" before she realized she was participating in the movement:

"I though the bulletin announced an 'expensive poetry' conference, which shows what a stranger I was to the terminology. Since then I've educated myself. But I was never a stranger to concepts of poetry, Expansive or otherwise. Over the past twenty years or so, the free verse movement has indeed produced a poetry that seems to have become stale, or at least it may seem so when one peruses some of the literary journals. Therein are too many examples of a poetry that contains flat, unremarkable, unmusical language, and a lack of subject matter that is truly useful to a reader."

For Budy, it's the essence of each poem that counts. She emphasizes that she is no more an advocate of free verse than she is of formal or narrative poetry. Whether free or formal, poems should please the ear as well as arouse the emotions, she believes.

"I learned to write poetry by learning how to read it aloud. After 20 years of serious poetry writing, I continue to believe that all good poetry must sit well in the ear before it can travel to the heart, where it is ultimately headed...we carve poetry the way we crave music. If we are human, poetry is something we must have. If we are deprived of good poetry, we will memorize television jingles and lousy song lyrics. But if we are given good poetry, we keep that instead, and will want more."

Many of you will remember Dana Gioia. A keynote speaker at the conference, Gioia says that meter is a means of making the language of poems understandable to the greatest number of people. For him, meter is how poets converse with readers. By learning about rhyme and meter, a young poet "learns, by extension, how others will hear those words. A well-executed formal poem provides a pleasure that the writer and reader can share on equal terms," says Gioia. He cautions that intelligent formal verse is difficult to write. Nevertheless, he encourages poets to persevere. "Form provides something we can't get so easily elsewhere." That something might well be sound and sense, the prescription for good poetry.

Stick to the Scheme

Annie Finch is an assistant professor of creative writing and prosody at the University of Northern Iowa who's published poems in top journals. She's the author of The Ghost of Meter (University of Michigan Press) and the editor of A Formal Feeling Comes, (Story Line) an anthology of women working in form and meter. she says learning to write in regular form will train a poet's ear to hear the music of language while also obtaining a foundation for writing good poetry of all types. Finch advises poets to be sensitive to repetition, which she considers the basis of poetic form.

"When you repeat a word several times in a row, doesn't the same word sound different each time? How many times do you need to hear a popular song to remember it? When a clock strikes, does the memory of the number of strikes stay in your ear even before you have counted them? This sense of repetition is also key in making good formal poems."

Formal poems should also sound natural, Finch says. Thus, poets don't need to get every syllable of a formal poem right the first time. The attempt can cause a stiffness or artificiality that dooms many traditional poems from the start. Instead, she recommends that poets should compose meter roughly in the first draft, and then be "ruthless" in the rewriting process.

"Few things are more disturbing than a poem that starts out with one meter or rhyme scheme and then abandons it, even for a line or two. It is better not to use regular form at all than to decide halfway through that it's too difficult or that it got in the way of what you wanted to say...once you've mastered form, your poem should appeal to others, stick in their minds, and change their lives -- and your own -- more powerfully than you have ever expected."

The Truth, The Whole Truth

Robert McDowell is the founder of Story Line Press (I recommend his anthology of essays titled Poetry After Modernism). McDowell suggests that anyone serious about poetry learn all they can about various poetic traditions:

"That education will include a comprehensive study of metrical forms, among other things. The main goal is not just publication -- instant gratification -- but telling the truth, the stories we must hear."

He says that poets should compare their work to tat of the masters, and he practices what he preaches, comparing his own poems to those by Homer, Milton, Byron, Yeats and Frost (to name a few). McDowell finds the exercise useful, humbling and honest. He also suggests the following:

  1. Read all the time.
  2. Imitate the poets you read.
  3. Keep a notebook in which you scan or analyze the meter of poems to discover what makes them tick.
  4. Learn to appreciate poems you don't like. Figure out how they work and why. Often you will learn more in coming to terms with poems you don't like than from rereading favorites that reinforce what you already think you know.
  5. Write reviews and critiques of books of poems, individual poems, and a poet's body of work.
  6. Memorize some poets. Recite or read them aloud -- to yourself, to friends, to your dog. Work up a loving, pestering, never-ending dialogue between yourself and the great, uttered poems.
  7. Imagine an audience.
  8. Write in voices other than your own.
  9. Be ware of using the first person too often.
  10. Ignore the ordinary aspects of your life and focus on subject matter of substance.

Although the poets who attended the Expansive Poetry Conference may not agree with McDowell or with each other all the time, they do share his final observation: "Poetry is fun -- serious often, but fun. It is also communal."

Michael J. Bugeja