Expansive Poetry & Music Online
Guest Essay


by Dick Allen

There's a Website for Expansive Poetry. The College of Santa Fe has held a national conference on the movement. The California literary magazine Crosscurrents sold out its special issue on "Expansive Poetry: The New Formalism and the New Narrative" within months. For several years, poet Frederick Feirstein has run highly successful monthly poetry readings devoted to Expansive Poetry at three Barnes and Noble bookstores in New York City, now joined by Arthur Mortensen. Oregon's Story Line Press specializes in publishing many of the movement's authors, as does the University of Arkansas Press.

But what exactly is Expansive Poetry?

One of its most characteristic poems is Mary Jo Salter's "Welcome to Hiroshima," which concludes, as the poem's narrator visits a Japanese museum displaying artifacts from the atomic bombing of that city,

. . . . This is the wristwatch of a child.
Jammed on the moment's impact, resolute
to communicate some message, although mute,
it gestures with its hands at eight-fifteen
and eight fifteen and eight-fifteen again

while tables of statistics on the wall
update the news by calling on a roll
of tape, death gummed on death, and in the case
adjacent, an exhibit under glass

is glass itself:  a shard the bomb slammed in
a woman's arm at eight-fifteen, but some
three decades on--as if to make it plain
hope's only as renewable as pain,

and as if all the unsung
debasements of the past may one day come
rising to the surface once again--
worked its filthy way out like a tongue.

Another is Frederick Turner's epic poem, The New World, which includes these lines:

. . . . And often the folk of the County by invitation
wander the garden and take slips, or bring
to the gardener cuttings or seeds of their own. 
For gardens walled off entirely from time and the world
will flourish only as gloomy kingdoms of death;
and the Sun, the mine where every delicate leaf
digs its ethereal fuel, is owned in common
by any who knows how to give thanks
by turning the fire to the work of construction; from the long
death of that star, burning the first gas
of the universe, this sweet world of water, poised
between vapor and ice, performs its miraculous play
of creation and fabricates richer gardens of time.

And here's a third, by Charles Martin:

Easter Sunday, 1985

To take steps toward the reappearance alive of the 
disappeared is a subversive act, and measures will be
adopted to deal with it.--GENERAL OSCAR MEJIA 

In the palace of the President this morning,
The General is gripped by the suspicion
That those who were disappeared will be returning
In a subversive act of resurrection.

Why do you worry?  The disappeared can never
Be brought back from wherever they were taken;
The age of miracles is gone forever;
These are not sleeping, nor will they awaken.

And if some tell you Christ once reappeared
Alive, one Easter morning, that he was seen--
Give them the lie, for who today can find him?

He is perhaps with those who were disappeared,
Broken and killed, flung into some ravine
With his arms safely wired up behind him.

Immediately, the central difference between Expansive Poetry and numerous other genres of contemporary poetry becomes clear: the poems' emphasis on significant non-confessional content. In fact, Expansive Poetry's significant content and non-autobiographical emphasis is very nearly a conscious reaction to what Donald Hall, in his 1963 introduction to Contemporary American Poetry , noted as...

the eternal American tic of thinking about art in terms of its techniques. (This tic is shared by left wing and right wing and middle.) We talk about syllabics or sestinas or colloquial vocabulary or old spelling as if they made up a Little Marvel Poetry Kit, Free 10-Day Offer, One to a Customer, No Home Without It. The danger is that we may take technical variations more seriously than they warrant.

Opposed to the "tic," Expansive Poetry's emphasis on significant content, strong narrative and dramatic elements, and a renewal of variations of traditional forms, say its poets, once again expands poetry's reaching out to a wider, more general reading audience. Like Language Poetry (which Expansive Poets generally regard as trivial Dadaism), Expansive Poetry is a reaction against the domination of free verse lyric confessional poetry's excesses of nominalism and narcissism. But unlike Language Poetry, Expansive Poetry's emphasis is on meaning carried by variations on traditional technique, rather than on the use of technique as a way to meaning. While not slighting form, Expansivists treat form as it had been commonly treated until the last half of our century: not as organic, but as a vehicle whose shape follows from its subject rather than occurs simultaneously with it.

Expansive Poetry is more a poetry of synthesis than exclusion. That is, its sub-genre of New Formalism gives to it aspects of traditional rhyme and meter while its sub-genre of New Narrative provides it with its non-Confessional elements. It takes its social, cultural, political, religious and audience emphasis from the example of Beat Poetry but discards Beat's narcissism. It may incorporate aspects of "Voice Poetry" and New Surrealism, but not Dadaism. Its concern with subject material make it amenable to contemporary science. As a further way of distancing itself from Confessionalism, it emphasizes use of the persona.

For a nutshell definition, I'll try this: Expansive Poetry is a narrative, dramatic and sometimes lyric poetry of the late 20th Century that conveys significant non-Confessional observations, thoughts and feelings about the world outside the Self and about the Self's various relationships with this outer world. In carrying such content, it generally uses traditional rhyme and meter--sometimes loosened or roughened--incorporating natural speech patterns.

But who writes this poetry?

As in many other poetic movements, there is only a loose allegiance, and some Expansive Poets are uncomfortable with being labeled. Nonetheless, older poets whose work has significant aspects of Expansive elements include Gwendolyn Brooks, Donald Hall, Daniel Hoffman, Richard Moore, Frederick Morgan, Louis Simpson, and Miller Williams, with varying influences felt from the late Elizabeth Bishop, John Ciardi, Amy Clampitt, Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Hayden, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Howard Nemerov and Judson Jerome, as well as from Anthony Hecht, X. J. Kennedy, John Frederick Nims, W. D. Snodgrass, Richard Wilbur, and William Carlos Williams.

The mid-generation or transition generation includes Jack Butler, Jared Carter, Thomas Disch, Frederick Feirstein, Marilyn Hacker, Charles Martin, Frederick Turner and myself, with connections to Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Phillips, Louis Turco, and Robert Wallace.

The dominance of male names in the above listings goes a good way to explaining why Expansive Poetry, when it first appeared, was sometimes charged with primarily being a male genre. But this false impression was quickly put to rest with the assertion of Expansive Poetry's obvious major influence from Elizabeth Bishop and the ascendancy of slightly younger women writing poems that fit the genre.

These women are part of a growing list of younger male and female Expansive poets, most currently in their forties: Julia Alvarez, David Baker, Bruce Bawer, Lucie Brock-Broido, Kelly Cherry, David Dooley, Rita Dove, Daniel Mark Epstein, Anne Finch, John Gery, Dana Gioia, Sarah Gorham, Emily Grosholtz, R. S. Gwynn, Rachel Hadas, E. D. Hirsch, Andrejika Hough, Andrew Hudgins, Paul Lake, Sidney Lea, Brad Leithauser, Phillis Levin, William Logan, Thomas Lux, David Mason, Robert McDowell, Arthur Mortensen, Wade Newman, Molly Peacock, Wyatt Prunty, Mary Jo Salter, Gjertrud Scnackenberg, Vicram Seth, Robert Shaw, Jeffrey Skinner, A.E. Stallings, Timothy Steele, Thomas Rabbit and David Wojahn.

What's most significant about this listing is who it leaves out: virtually all Beat poets, all Confessional poets, Naked and Open Form and Projectivist poets, New Surrealist poets, Language poets, New York School poets, Neo-Formalists, and Performance poets. Such a grouping recognizes a pattern in numbers of what previously seemed disparate poets whose works were not easy to categorize.

The origins of Expansive Poetry are controversial. The term itself was first used by Wade Newman, but Frederick Feirstein maintains that the first conscious recognition and basic theoretics of the movement came out of a meeting between Feirstein, Frederick Turner and myself, in New York City's Minetta Tavern, in early 1981. Others, such as Dana Gioia, say that the movement was growing naturally and only needed a more conscious alignment. Regardless, conscious linkages formed throughout the 1980s between the Minetta Tavern poets and Gioia, Christopher Clausen, Emily Grosholtz, Mark Jarman, Phillis Levin, Charles Martin, Robert McDowell, Richard Moore, Frederick Morgan, Molly Peacock, Louis Simpson, Timothy Steele, and others.

During Frederick Turner's editing of The Kenyon Review, he published significant early Expansive Poetry, concluding in Spring, 1983 with an issue emphasizing the long poem. In 1989, I collected new work by some Expansive Poets in a special issue of Crosscurrents. Story Line Press published Feirstein's anthology of essays, Expansive Poetry: Essays on The New Narrative and the New Formalism in late 1989 and Robert McDowell's Expansive Poetry-oriented anthology, Poetry After Modernism, in 1991. The University of Arkansas Press published Timothy Steele's extensive study, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter, in 1990. Graywolf published Dana Gioia's influential Can Poetry Matter: Essays on Poetry and American Culture in 1993. Story Line also emphasized Expansive Poetry's New Formalism sub-genre with Anne Finch's anthology of poetry in form by women, A Formal Feeling Comes, in 1994 and Mark Jarman's and David Mason's Rebel Angels New Formalism anthology in 1996.

As in all poetic movements, a certain splintering and confusion takes place. Thus, after Sharon Dolin stumbles upon Feirstein's Expansive Poetry, she mistakenly writes in the December, 1996 issue of AWP Chronicle, that the book "is really just a collection of essays written by New Formalists of varying degrees of hostility toward free verse and whose goal is to constrict our definition of poetry so that it is synonymous with metrical verse." Dana Gioia has attacked what he calls "pseudo-formalism," a term that has been used by strict New Formalists in attempts to nip in the bud poetry that expands the loosened or roughed use of rhyme and rhythm stemming from such influences as Lowell's and Berryman's late work. Some New Formalists tend toward making lyric elegance and traditional sound the main element of their work, slighting Expansive Poetry's subject matter emphasis. Not all, but some significant younger New Formalists completely disavow any connection to the Vietnam Generation. Their basic allegiance and sensibility is only to poets born before the 1930s who did not incorporate into their poetry the passion of the Confessionalists, New Surrealists and Beats.

But the best New Formalism retains its emphasis on content while not sacrificing excitement of language. Here's the first stanza of Molly Peacock's "Don't Think Governments End the World":

Don't think governments end the world.  The blast
the burnings, and the final famine will
be brought on by mistake.  'I'm sorry,' the last
anxious man at the control panel will
try to say, his face streaked with panic, red
hives rising on his neck.  He'll have been a jerk
all his life, who couldn't get through his head
that his mother couldn't love him.  Work
at the panel would give him the control
that she had denied him again and again.

And this is one of Jeffrey Skinner's sonnets from his sequence of "Sonnets to my Daughter Twenty Years in the Future":

In the news today, a woman in fatigues
let loose an automatic rifle in a shopping mall.
Three dead, seven wounded.  By now you’ll
know, have seen a thousand images of disease,
cruelty, death in rags and formal dress,
failed negotiations, husband, child, wife beatings--
the endless catalog of humans who’ve so lost
the way, they tease evil in, thinking it unboring.
It is boring.  Weil, Merton, a few others
were right--good is the only real surprise.
Do you love movies?  I do, especially comedies.
One favorite moment:  a bum in a Marx Brothers
film asks for a dime to buy a cup of coffee.
Harpo opens his coat, pulls out a cup, steaming.

New Narrative poets are much closer to Expansive Poetry's stress on content. But some of their work, particularly when adhering like the New Formalists to strict traditional rhyme and meter with little variation and experimentation, can tend to sound dull and old-fashioned. The best examples of New Narrative, however, are exceptional--such as Charles Martin's Passages from Friday, portions of Robert McDowell's The Diviners--a blank verse book-length study of the middle class; Mark Jarman's Iris, Frederick Turner's The New World and Genesis, Frederick Feirstein's rhyming couplet book-length narrative Manhattan Carnival, as well as various of his other rhymed and metered dramatic poems; Sidney Lea's The Feud, and the best narratives and narrative sequences of Julia Alvarez, Rita Dove, Marilyn Hacker, and Richard Moore.

And virtually all Expansive Poets have written what increasingly looks like a new genre of American poetry, the lyric-narrative which may be personal but not confessional, and revolves around a small story rather than meditates upon an incident or feeling. A good example is Gjertrud Schnackenberg's "Supernatural Love," from which the following lines:

    . . . . I am four,
I spill my pins and needles on the floor

Trying to stitch 'Beloved' X by X.
My dangerous, bright needle's point connects
Myself illiterate to this perfect text

I cannot read.  My father puzzles why
It is my habit to identify
Carnations as 'Christ's flowers, knowing I

Can give no explanation but 'Because.
Word-roots blossom in speechless messages
The way the thread behind my sampler does

Where following each X I awkward move
My needle through the word whose root is love.

It is worth noting the difference between the personal 'I' of Schnackenberg and the personal 'I' of a narcissistic Confessionalist. In "Supernatural Love," the 'I' is used as Emily Dickinson used it, as inclusive rather than exclusive. The girl in the poem could be a thousand girls--although she is not. Expansive Poets strongly feel that late utterly-specific Confessionals tend toward poems that are more exhibitionistic than participatory, poems that invite voyeurism more than identification.

The main early influences on Expansive Poetry come from how poets born in the late 1930s and early 1940s sought to combine what they felt were the best elements of poetry's warring camps in the 1960's--Beat' and Academic. That is, Expansive Poetry took its emphasis on content and subject and audience from the most politically and socially-oriented Beat Poetry, its use of colloquial language and natural speech patterns from William Carlos Williams. Affected by the scorn Academic Formalist poets heaped upon what they saw as the careless prosody of the Beats and Projectivist Verse poets, Expansive Poets took their form from the Academics, loosening it in the process. In tone and other matters, they often discarded what they felt was an over-reliance on elitist, intellectual and New Criticism irony, wit, and classical allusions too often conveyed with a lack of emotion and passion.

For its basic theory, Expansive Poetry reached as far back as Sydney's "A Defense of Poetry," and to other pre-20th Century poets and critics who claimed, with Shelley, that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world" and who consciously tried to make many of their poems universal. Expansive poets have continually questioned the New Critics' emphasis on "How a poem means" and Archibald MacLeish's "A poem should not mean, / But be." Expansive poets have sought to recover for contemporary poetry aspects of the content in the century's neglected other major genres of poetry than the lyric: satirical, religious, pastoral--in addition to narrative and dramatic. They are attracted by genres in which ideational content, information, story-telling elements, vision and prophecy have a high place.

All this is difficult, for the American "tic" of regarding poetry mainly in terms of technique still pervades. Additionally, Expansive Poetry, by the very nature of its emphasis on content and its borrowing from traditional forms, continually tends to attract to its coattails inferior amateur story-telling or rhyme-till-you-drop or light versifers or hobbyist didactic message poets--poets who seek a return to the 19th Century Bards with capes. Probably this attraction is a main reason why 20th Century poets have been so reluctant to speak of the primacy of meaning and tradition in poetry, fearing they may be lumped with well-intended but tin-eared and banal lumpkins.

The future for Expansive Poetry looks relatively bright. It was the first group of poets to launch a strong and still unrelenting attack on Confessional free verse--a movement Expansive Poets acknowledge was of great importance in its beginning with Snodgrass, Ginsberg, Plath, Sexton, Lowell and Berryman, but presently--possibly with the exception of Sharon Olds--is seemingly in its dog days: repetitive and whiny. Expansive Poetry continues to nudge at Rilke-influenced "'Voice Poetry." Here and there, Expansive Poets are learning to incorporate some surrealistic aspects. Most of its poets have few major arguments with non-confessional free verse, however, and most write and publish free verse as well as more formal verse.

Expansive Poetry's greatest potential probably lies with those now in their twenties and early thirties--Generation X, if you will--who are increasingly asserting their independence by turning from the confessional free verse still primarily written by their parents and still stressed in undergraduate and graduate poetry workshops. There is a quite remarkable resurgence in interest in prosody, spurred by New Formalist criticism and the widely taught Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms anthology, edited by Philip Darcy and David Jauss and published in 1986. Also, young poets are not likely to ignore the acclaim given to America's three recent Nobel Prize-winning imports (all of whom, similar to Expansive Poets, incorporate significant content with variations on traditional form): Seamus Heaney, Derrek Walcott, and the late Joseph Brodsky. Wislawa Szymborska's Nobel Prize winning poetry also seems to many American poets Expansive.

Still, it remains to be seen if the tic of technique will once again dominate and Expansive Poetry's emphasis will be consumed in attacks on its sub-genre of New Formalism's tendency to become trivial or polished light verse. If that happens, it will be a shame. The effort to expand American poetry's concerns, to emphasize non-autobiographical elements and more universal themes and subjects accessible to a wide and non avant-garde audience, is certainly of major relevance and importance.

		Dick Allen

Dick Allen's work may also be found on the recommended books section of this Web page.

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