Expansive Poetry & Music Online Critical Essay



Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
      Department of Classics: Hunter College, C.U.N.Y.

Dr. Salemi has become familiar on this Web site with his reviews and his poetry.   In addition to his research and teaching in the classics and his work as an investigative reporter, and his articles and poetry in dozens of journals, Dr. Salemi has had  poetry collections Nonsense Couplets and Formal Complaints published by Somers Rocks Press.   EP&M Online invites critical response to this, as to any, critical articles.  They will be forwarded to the author, but EP&M Online does not guarantee publication of every reply.

      Prejudice and fear guide the world, and this is true in the arts no less than in politics or social life.  Contemporary poetry is paralyzed by a wide range of prejudices and fears, all of which conspire to keep poetry the sequestered little intellectual ghetto that most of its practitioners prefer it to remain. Conformism (which is just prejudice and fear translated into day-to-day operations) is a powerful determinant of people's choices, and this is why very few poets are willing to be radically and wholeheartedly committed to their own best esthetic judgments.  Even poets are haunted by the specter of What Others Might Think.

      One sees this in the poetic movement called New Formalism, which began as a counterrevolution against the deadening orthodoxy of the Free Verse Establishment. Fed up with the self-absorption, formlessness, and intellectual vacuity of confessional lyrics, which under the aegis of Whitman, Williams, Ginsberg, and Plath had swamped poetry for most of the twentieth century, a number of poets began to reclaim the heritage of English verse.  They rescued fixed forms and meters from oblivion, they dusted off tropes and figures, they distinguished poetry's special language from quotidian speech, and they rediscovered what fictive craft means.  They schooled themselves in their literary antecedents (in spite of an American educational system that fought ferociously to prevent it), they read history, and they studied foreign languages and literature.  Most important of all, they saw no reason why one could not imagine a poem into existence rather than make every poem the record of some squalid personal trauma.  To Pound's fatuous precept "Make it new!" they replied "Up yours, Ezra--we're making it old."  And they were right to say so, for by 1980 Pound's modernist free verse had petered out into the earnestly prosaic drivel of institutionalized poetry workshops, or the politicized ranting of the poetry slam.  Incidentally, Pound himself recognized the truth of this, for late in life he granted an interview to the New York Times wherein he was asked ahout the current poetry scene.  The aged but still temperamental Pound exploded in response: "Disorder!  Disorder!  I can't be blamed for all this disorder!"

      New Formalism itself soon suffered disorder and deformation as prejudice and fear came into play, and a contagious sort of cowardice began to spread among some of its poets once critical attention was directed towards the movement. Cowardice is the major failing of human beings--it is a vice with the most far-reaching consequences, even more so than cruelty and greed, which demand a certain concomitant energy and initiative.  Cowardice, after all, is easy--one falls into it as one might fall into a feather bed, and all its continuance requires is a lack of action.

      Many poets in the New Formalist movement have proven themselves to be cowards, some in major ways, others in minor ones.  The range of their fears is extensive and varied.  They are afraid to follow metrical patterns precisely.  They are afraid of perfect rhymes.  They are afraid of literary or historical allusions.  They are afraid of elevated vocabulary, or similes, or metaphors.  They are afraid of being called conservatives, or worse, reactionaries.  They are afraid of not getting tenure at their academic jobs.  They are afraid of being ignored at literary conferences.  They are afraid of not being published by prominent presses, or of not getting reviewed.  They are afraid of not being invited to give readings.  They are afraid of being snubbed at cocktail parties (or worse, not being asked to them). They are afraid of not getting their share of groupies among the young acolytes and graduate students.  In short, a whole series of worldly, careerist motives drives them to betray their art--not always in big ways, but in little ones that are no less demeaning for being unnecessary.  I have talked to enough New Formalist poets to know that these fears are nagging realities to many of them, and prevent them from producing their best possible work.

      The source of this cowardice is anxiety about social status.  Like most Americans, formalist poets are desperately worried that their betters will look down upon them.  Who are "their betters"?  Why, the poets and critics in the Free Verse Establishment.  These are the people who control the funding sources and and major publishing outlets for poetry in America, and who utterly dominate poetry's academic rear-echelon, which provides poets with captive audiences, bulk book orders, and sinecures.  Since this smug and comfortable Establishment has money and power, it also has cachet, which in America is always synonymous with material amplitude.  The long-haired New Age freak in charge of the Editorial Board or the English Department may look and talk like a bohemian schmuck, but in the eyes of many poets he is pure Establishment, with all the power, influence, and sexiness that the word implies.  Formalist poets with careerist ambitions will be terrified of offending these powerful people in any important way--hence the almost irresistible impulse among many of them to disguise their work, and to make it as superficially like free verse as possible.

     I shall limit my discussion here to two minor but significant typographical practices that mar much New Formalist poetry, and which I believe are due to this anxiety to conform.  Some may say that these practices are trivial and therefore unimportant, but let me remind them of the very useful moral rule stating that delinquencies in small matters are often an index of more serious failings.  It is one of the very few moral guidelines that has any practical application to the arts.  If an esthetic fault is minor, the sensible response is to correct it quickly and painlessly, not to ignore it.  These two faults could be extirpated in a flash--that is, if the poets in question didn't have a hidden motive for retaining them.

     The first is the practice, common among many New Formalist poets, of beginning a line of verse with a lower-case letter rather than the traditional capital.  In the work of such poets every line begins at the left with a small letter, just as if the poem were a prose text.  The only exceptions are when the beginning of the line coincides with the start of a new sentence, or with a proper name.  Here is a quatrain from Geoffrey Hill's "Veni Coronaberis":

                     The crocus armies from the dead
                     rise up; the realm of love renews
                     the battle it was born to lose,
                     though for a time the snows have fled...

The first line starts with a capital letter because it is the beginning of a sentence, while the other lines remain in lower-case.  Look also at this section from Daniel Epstein's "The Barrel Organ":

                     Since my Vivian left me
                     to fly to another star--
                     Orion was it, Altair,
                     or the pale emerald, Venus?

Here the only reason the third line begins with a capital is because of the proper name Orion.

     Now the fact is that since the sixteenth century it has been accepted procedure in English poetry to begin every line of verse with a capital, regardless of the syntactical status of the first word.  It is a most excellent and useful practice, since it makes for a clear, neat, and regular-looking page of text, and it is also an unmistakable visual marker that what is on the page is poetry, not prose.  What caused the shift, in some New Formalist poets, to the absurdity of omitting these initial capitals?  Without a doubt it was the influence of free verse models.  In free verse, where metrical structure is rudimentary or absent, there is no compelling interest in marking line breaks or beginnings in any special way--indeed, the very concept of "the line" is problematic to most free verse poets, who divide up their text haphazardly or according to non-metrical criteria.  Hence the disappearance of the initial capitals, which really had no place in a poetry that had given up the whole idea of regularized patterns of recurring feet.  But beginning lines of metrical verse with lower-case letters is a silly and stupid affectation, not because it is anti-traditional, but because it is unnecessary and gratuitous.  Capitals down the left-hand side of the page did not interfere in any way with the reading of the poem.  They did not impose any arbitrary meaning on the lines.  Removing them makes the page noticeably uglier, with an uneven mix of upper- and lower-case letters on the left.  The new practice is merely a surreptitious way of proclaiming that one is au courant and with-it.  It is a form of social climbing by careerist poets who want to say "I may be a formalist, but my lines look just as avant-garde and up-to-date as those of the best people."

      The second practice is the useless innovation that I call "the split-level line."  This is the habit of typographically dropping the end section of a verse to the level of the subsequent line when its first section contains a full stop. Here is an example from Yeats's "Leda and the Swan":

                    A shudder in the loins engenders there
                    The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
                    And Agamemnon dead.
                                                            Being so caught up,
                    So mastered by the brute blood of the air...

The two verbal elements "And Agamemnon dead" and "Being so caught up" constitute a single iambic pentameter line in the sonnet, but Yeats has created this "split- level" effect because the poem shifts at that point from narrative description to the closure of philosophical reflection.  As a matter of fact, however, the splitting is unnecessary, as any intelligent reader has no trouble perceiving the shift in discourse.

      The split-level line was originally a convention in the typographical layout of dramatic poetry, where it made real sense.  When two characters in Shakespeare share an iambic pentameter line, the split-level printing is a good way to show who is saying what.  Consider this example from Romeo and Juliet:

     Juliet:              What man art thou that thus bescreen'd by night
                               So stumblest on my counsel?

     Romeo:                                                        By a name
                              I know not how to tell thee who I am.

It can even be used to indicate the quick staccato of interchange, as in this passage from Macbeth:

       Lady Macbeth:    I heard the owl scream, and the crickets cry.
                                      Did you not speak?

      Macbeth:                                                 When?

      Lady Macbeth:                                                   Now.

      Macbeth:                                                                      As I descended?

This passage is made up of only two iambic pentameter verses, the second of which is broken in three places to accommodate the dialogue.  The technical term for this dramatic division of a line is hemistichomythia, and it has been known since classical times.  Representing the division typographically, as in the above examples, makes excellent sense.

      What does not make sense is the indiscriminate use of the split-level line as a way of breaking up a page of metrical verse into something more cosmetically attractive to free verse partisans.  The split-level line may be tolerable in "Leda and the Swan," where one can see a rhetorical justification for it.  Even there it spoils the look of the page, and one feels that Yeats was under the influence of Pound or some other trend-monger when he wrote it.  Today, however, many New Formalist poets use the split-level line whenever a full stop occurs medially in a verse, and there is absolutely no esthetic reason for this. There is, on the other hand, a self-serving one--the more split-level lines in your poem, the more your work resembles free verse.  Who knows?  Someone important might even forget that you're a formalist.

      Lest the reader think that I'm being overly imaginative, I offer the following.  There is a well-known formalist poet living in New York City who personally informed me that this is the reason she uses split-level lines in her work.  "I want to at least appear to be like everyone else," were her words.  I won't mention her name.

      No one could pretend that these two practices are lethal to formalist poetry.  Certainly they have no influence whatsoever on a poem's aural reception. Moreover, a palpably bad poem will not be intrinsically improved by adding the missing capitals or by omitting the split-level lines.  The issue is a symbolic one, but symbols are psychologically important, in that they tell others--and yourself--about your identity and your loyalties.  Many of the poets with these typographical habits are, in my opinion, deeply ambivalent about being called formalists, and are of uncertain loyalty to the esthetics that they publicly profess.

     Let me give a parallel case from the sociology of race relations.  For formalists, the split-level line and the uncapitalized first word are comparable to the practice of some black persons in past decades who used various chemical agents to straighten their hair, or to bleach their skin.  These things were done as a kind of homage or accommodation to European standards of physical beauty. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with these cosmetic practices, but they did indicate a certain lack of self-respect and moral independence.  They were the result of an internalized racism that made people ashamed of their identity.  In the same way, a New Formalist poet who does everything he or she can to disguise poetic identity is lacking in self-respect.  It's as if such a poet were saying to the world: "I may be a formalist, but I'm certainly not one of those declassé and disreputable types that all decent, respectable people despise."

      I'm not sure why anyone would feel compelled to say such a self-abasing and craven thing, even if only implicitly.  After all, there's no DNA code that says one has to be a formalist.  If you're desperate for approval from the Free Verse Establishment, then simply write free verse.  God knows it will be easier on you; you just emote, free-associate, and splash the result all over the page.  The consistent use of the split-level line and the lower-case initial letter suggests that a poet is not committed to formalist verse for its own sake, but merely as a vehicle for the advancement of his career.

      Some people argue that they do not employ these typographical innovations for any ulterior motive, but simply because they are "accepted modern practice." This argument is baloney, but an adroit slicing of the baloney.  By advancing it, such poets are rhetorically aligning themselves with "modernity" (as if conforming to one's contemporaries had a prescriptive claim to respect), while at the same time deflecting attention from the main point, which is the gratuitousness and ugliness of the innovations.  The proper answer to such people is this:  Just open your eyes and look at your damned text, and say whether these typographical tics of yours do anything except render the overall look of your page ungainly and asymmetrical.  Your verse may look modern, but does it look better?  The driving force behind any serious artist's labors should be the desire for esthetic perfection, not for contemporaneity.

      One of the curses of modern sensibility is its consistent preference for the ugly over the elegant, the impromptu over the designed, and the sloppy over the neat.  The cultural undertow of this generalized preference is something that we must constantly be on guard against.  A small step that a formalist poet can take is to eschew the split-level line and the lower-case initial letter.  We lose nothing by this reassertion of our own traditions, except an ugliness that properly belongs to our free verse enemies.

      Let me conclude with a vivid illustration of my major points.  What follows is the beginning of a well-known sonnet by Wordsworth ("London, 1802"), laid out with the typographical faults I have just finished chastising.  Read it, and judge its appearance for yourself:

                            thou shouldst be living at this hour:
               England hath need of thee;
                                                              she is a fen
               of stagnant waters;
                                                altar, sword, and pen,
               fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
               have forfeited their ancient English dower
               of inward happiness.
                                                   We are selfish men;
                     raise us up, return to us again;
               and give us manners, virtues, freedom, power...

This is how Wordsworth might have arranged the poem if he were angling for a scholarship to Bread Loaf, or an instructor's slot at Iowa.  A number of New Formalists seem to be perfectly comfortable hatcheting up metrical lines in this manner.  I'm willing to bet that they are not unperceptive enough to think the result attractive.  They are doing it out of a base desire to suck up to the powerful, or out of a misplaced sense of piety towards a free verse custom that is already sclerotic.  I advise them to cease, and come home.

                                       Dr. Joseph S. Salemi

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