Expansive Poetry & Music Online Critical Essay

Introduction to New Expansive Poetry
Story Line Press, 1999
      by R.S. Gwynn
      copyright (c) 1998 by Story Line Press and R.S. Gwynn

R.S. Gwynn's introduction to this new book is one of several viewpoints on a movement that has spread far beyond its originators, both in numbers of participants and in perceptions of what it means to use the whole palette again instead of continuing the highly contrived political restrictions on the art of poetry that prevailed in the academy for several decades and in most respects still do.  It is also fair to say that, outside of the academy, much of the critical arguments regarding this movement (not only against, but in qualified support for it) are perceived as matters of dispute within a closed society.  Whether these perceptions are justified will not likely be answered by critical conversation but by proof or disproof of readership outside of the college and university.  Such openings to a larger audience are much in doubt and will continue to be so until poets consider their audience as mattering more than their political posture within the academic scene.   This is not intended as a critique of R.S. Gwynn, who indicates a strong awareness of this problem,  but of the academic side of this movement which is still embroiled in such nonsense as prosody and story line being aspects of -- take your pick --  fascism, male dominance, what you like.  Only a body of readers ignorant of most of the world before 1960 could believe such stuff -- would anyone who knew describe Ezra Pound's free verse as proof that he wasn't really a lifelong fascist?  Would anyone who could read say that Charles Martin's metrical poetry is a subtle proof of his being racist and homophobic?  Will we be expected not to read Elinor Wylie because she wrote sonnets?  Or Edna St. Vincent Millay because she had a male lover and wasn't a member of the Communist Party?  Or that we should love the verbal scrap iron that comes out of most poetry workshops described as "free verse"?   Critical opinion that doesn't take note of such stuff is little more than a sales pitch for a stagnant and deadly status quo.  Fortunately, R.S. Gwynn makes a strong effort to work through this. One expects the book to be as interesting and valuable as the original.

 A decade has passed since the appearance of Frederick Feirstein's original edition of Expansive Poetry, and those years have witnessed the arrival of the poets and poetry it championed at a secure place in the contemporary canon. Still, when Expansive Poetry was first published in 1989, the two related movements in contemporary American poetry which occasioned the essays it contained were largely uncharted.  The New Narrative canon could then boast only a handful of successful poems, and the New Formalism lacked any defining anthologies providing a body of poems by which readers could judge its merits.  In the ensuing decade both movements have prospered to a degree that has surpassed the expectations of even their most ardent early supporters.

In recent years narrative poems--both book-length and shorter--by Robert McDowell, Dana Gioia, Mark Jarman, Sydney Lea, David Mason, Marilyn Nelson, and others have found enthusiastic critics and audiences eager to read poetry of a type that has been virtually extinct in the second half of our century.  Anthologies such as A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women, edited by Annie Finch, and Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism, edited by Jarman and Mason, have gathered some of the key texts on which the New Formalism can either stand or fall.  If neither movement has yet marked contemporary American poetry in as raucously public a way as the Beats or the Confessional Poets did forty years ago (and one can hardly imagine its poets actively seeking such notoriety), both New Narrative and New Formalist poetry continues to attract critical attention to a degree that, on the present scene, is rivaled only by the avant-garde Language poets.

The continued success of Expansive Poetry can best be measured by the objective benchmarks of contemporary poetry--the aforementioned anthologies and critical articles; the emergence of younger poets doing sustained work in form and narrative; the willingness of magazines and journals, many of them like The Formalist, Janus, Sparrow devoted to formalist poetry; a writers conference at West Chester University focussing on form and narrative; and even the uneasy sanction of the Associated Writing Programs, in the form of a panel on New Formalism at its annual convention.  If these signs of the times are indicative, it is indeed an expansive moment in American poetry.

The "expansive" banner under which these poets march has, however, always represented something of a marriage of convenience between two families of poets; though some critics have offered compelling theories, no automatic reasons spring to mind linking the return of metrical poems with that of narrative ones.  The term was coined by Wade Newman in an essay, "The Expansive Movement in American Poetry," which appeared in a special issue of Crosscurrents 8.2 (1989), edited by Dick Allen.  "Expansive" has been a problematic term from the outset; even Crosscurrents mislabeled the movement as "Expansionist Poetry" on its cover.  While "Expansive Poetry" may never have found much general favor among even its own practitioners, it remains, for good or ill, the most commonly used name for a group of poets whose careers have been consistently intertwined.  Still, its defining essence remains elusive.  In their introduction to the original edition of this book, Feirstein and Frederick Turner offer a cautious program for its application:

A lively adversarial spirit abides in these words, representing a stance that is echoed in the sentiments of many New Formalist and New Narrative poets.  Most of them came of age in the 1960s, when Beat, Confessional, and Deep Image poetry, in their respective turns, dominated the poetic table d'hôte.  They watched bemused while their mentors, the poets of their parents' generation, emerged from mid-life with a vengeance, turning away from tradition toward open form and increasingly subjective approaches to autobiographical material.  Dissatisfied by the limited possibilities offered by the 60s Zeitgeist, these younger poets, unlike many of their contemporaries, turned back to earlier models--Frost, Hardy, Jeffers, Millay--and in some cases attempted to counter Modernism by recovering and reconstituting the forms and genres of earlier literary periods.  This strategy could thus be compared to the way in which post-modern architecture successfully imports the flying buttress and arched nave into a world of concrete and steel or that a return to musical tonality can rightly be celebrated as "new."

 In the curious manner of literary dialectic, this return to tradition can be seen as yet another manifestation of a generation's revolt against the authority of its elders--not this time as wild-eyed revolutionaries urging even further extremes but as counter-insurgents in the Culture Wars--hence Jarman and Mason's designation of them as "rebel angels."  One poet associated with New Formalism has confessed that he is by nature so "contrarian" that had he been raised in an age of sonnets he might well have written only free verse.  In The Reaper Essays, Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell state that their aim in promoting narrative poetry was, in some measure, "adversarial--aimed to explode the complacency of contemporary letters."  By the late 1970s, the tribal music of Poetryland--the murky manifestos of Projective Verse and breath-units, the proliferation of cut-rate knock-offs of "Howl" and "Daddy," the shamanism of the deep image and the multiform brain--had begun to resemble ritualized incantations, mumbled by the multitudes but comprehended by few, and a sense emerged that certain types of poetry had overstayed their welcome.

That said, what directions remained for younger poets who were not content to remain part of the status quo?  Alternatives to the aesthetic impasse were found in two very different ways: the Language poets attempted to go further into disorder and subjectivity, dispensing with an audience entirely; the New Formalist and New Narrative poets, returning to a more accessible vision, have claimed that an audience is entirely indispensable.  Perhaps this desire to embrace a larger readership is the essence of what "expansive" connotes; these poets are giving the elusive common reader the missing ingredients that are most often lamented by those who claim to have given up on modern poetry.  Indeed, if we are to think of Expansive Poetry as a truly populist movement (and I, for one do, in the most honorable senses of the term) then its poets have simply responded to the audience's call (as opposed to arrogantly disregarding it) for formal elements that can be heard and narratives qualities that can be understood.

 In preparing this revised edition of Expansive Poetry, I have striven to remain true to Frederick Feirstein's conception, but I have also tried to strengthen some aspects of the original.  Several selections which were only tangentially related to the matter at hand have been replaced by more pertinent ones, including important essays on the New Narrative by David Mason and Thomas M. Disch; I have also added Brad Leithauser's "Metrical Illiteracy," an essay which has been much alluded to in discussions of Expansive Poetry but which has heretofore been hard to find.  One criticism of the first edition was that it did not provide any clear historical perspective for Expansive Poetry; to that end, I have included essays by Meg Schoerke and Keith Maillard which place New Formalism in its larger cultural and historical contexts.  The latter essay replaces Paul Lake's "Toward a Liberal Poetics" (Lake is represented elsewhere here), offering a comprehensive discussion of the genesis of New Formalism and the ensuing controversies that have surrounded it.

Another criticism which was leveled against Expansive Poetry was that it misrepresented the true state of contemporary American poetry by focusing largely on the work of white male poets.  This charge gave the false impression that New Formalism and New Narrative are solely their province (an assumption that is quickly deflated when one peruses the tables of contents of A Formal Feeling Comes and Rebel Angels).  To illustrate the diversity of the movement more accurately, I have added selections by a dozen women poets and critics; many of their comments address the question of how contemporary women poets both subsume and subvert the "patriarchal authority" that some critics have claimed as an inherent component of traditional poetic forms.  Also, I have wrestled with the problem of whether or not to retain several selections about which I, both as an editor and also as a critic who has written about Expansive Poetry, have reservations.  I have reprinted one such essay because of its historical importance to the movement, because of its widely admired speculative nature, and because I trust the discerning reader to judge its conclusions fairly for him- or herself.

Finally, I am aware that the reader will encounter many cross-referenced critics, poets, and poems in the essays in Expansive Poetry.  For this, I make no apology; as it is in all literary movements, personal friendships and professional alliances play roles equally as important as a shared aesthetic credo, and it is inevitable that many of these poet-critics should praise and promote the work of those whose work and temperaments they find most sympathetic to their own.  It is unavoidable, too, that Story Line Press should figure so prominently in the pages of one of its own books, for Story Line gave some of these poets, editors, and critics shelter when there was none to be had elsewhere.  It is only natural for a group of writers who have weathered more than their fair share of benign neglect, facile dismissal, and downright antagonism to draw their poetic wagons in a tight circle, witness the Imagists and the Black Mountain Poets of earlier decades.  "Marginalization," a term that is currently fashionable in academic circles, does not apply solely to the more visible segments of the poetic underclass.
 In conclusion, I would like to lend my appreciation to several publications and individuals who perhaps deserve more credit than they have received.  One is the Mississippi Review, which published in 1977 a special issue called Freedom and Form: American Poets Respond.  I do not believe that this early, perhaps earliest, shot in the "form wars" has received prior mention in the history of the expansive movement.  Aside from providing the present editor with the first platform from which he was allowed to sound off on the subject, the issue also included comments and poems by a number of poets whose names and voices appear in the pages that follow.  A significant figure in the history of Expansive Poetry is Lewis Turco, whose Book of Forms and subsequent New Book of Forms helped many young poets to sustain their interest in formal possibilities through many a lean year.  Indeed, it was Turco who, in his round-up reviews for the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, first began in the early 1980s to chronicle the activities of a movement he called "neo-formalism."  A wider readership for Expansive Poetry could not have come about without the support of editors like X. J. Kennedy (Counter/Measures), Frederick Morgan (Hudson Review), Donald Stanford (Southern Review), and Frederick Turner and, later, Marilyn Hacker (Kenyon Review) who proved hospitable to its poets.  Finally, there remains the steadfastness of older poets who never entirely forsook their first love and who were generous in their support of younger writers who likewise cherished the tradition.  With their example in mind, it seems appropriate to conclude with some remarks that Richard Wilbur made in the Mississippi Review twenty years ago:

It is a hopeful sign that Wilbur's words, which sounded two decades ago like advice for a prophet who had not yet arrived, are now echoed in the voices of the younger poets and critics who have taken up his challenge as an aesthetic imperative and, perhaps, as a moral one as well.

                                                            R. S. Gwynn
                                                            Lamar University

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