Shine, Perishing Republic
I knew I had come to the wrong place when the instructor intoned that "in the old days a sonnet meant fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, usually with three quatrains and a couplet, but now any fourteen-line poem is a sonnet." This was not uttered in the same tone with which I often note that nowadays, anything, it seems, can be a poem.
For those of you who care about such matters (and I fervently hope that you do), we are witnessing a great reactionary crisis in the world of poetry. Formal, metrical, rhyming, and otherwise traditional verse has, as Pop Kipling might have said, "passed to the further side". A glance at the poetic currents being loosed at my alma mater would certainly corroborate this suspicion - the last formal poem I heard read in a Stanford auditorium managed to sneak past the gatekeepers of high culture only because it was a paean to the leather men of San Francisco in the early 1980's. Formal poetry has acquired a stigma that only a few years ago was reserved for imperialism or eugenics, having fallen from the sad dustbin of quaintness (insulting enough) to eminently less touchable depths. Formalism is now, it seems, a vote for neoconservatism. Indeed, clinging to its rare pleasures has likely made among its protectors stranger bedfellows than, for instance, the New Criterion and your humble narrator. (Although its politics are sometimes hard for me to stomach, you should really do yourself the favor of examining this challenging but often courageous and incisive magazine).
The New Criterion has notably advanced, in recent issues, the criticism of Adam Kirsch, of whom The Nation's John Palattella complains, "As prolific as Kirsch is, he is not expansive in his taste. His tirades...against the enduring influence of the experimental strains of poetic Modernism on contemporary American poetry marks him as the intellectual offspring of the New Formalists, a small group of poets and critics--among them Brad Leithauser, Timothy Steele and Dana Gioia (Bush's head of the National Endowment for the Arts)- whose essays and poems in defense of traditional formal conventions were championed by The New Criterion during the 1980s." The implication is not hard to grasp - formalism is as superannuated and backwards an approach as any being made in the current political arena. What if, however, the old, dead white men were not entirely wrong about something for once?
I could wax on and off about the merits of structure, the sublime pleasures of uniform syllabic count, the kinship present-day formalists share with the great geniuses of ancient Greece and Rome, but I won't. Instead, let me share with you the wisdom of noted non-critic Beau Michael Baer of Carmel Valley, who argues for the superiority of formal poetry thusly: "Well, let's say there are two girls, OK? And they both have great personalities. Except one of them is gorgeous, and the other one is, um, not. Which one do you prefer? See, that's why I prefer poems that rhyme." For this, Beau, who has long shrugged off the mantle of cultural authority with his famous false modesty and aw-shucks folk wisdom, earns the prize for Best Analogy Ever.
The crippling prejudice against metrical verse in today's universities is, in a strange way, about entitlement. No one wants to work hard at anything anymore, and poetry is a perfect example of this. My own mentor, the remarkable John Ridland, permitted his students to do a free choice poem once a week, but only after demonstrating competence in that week's assigned form. Elsewhere, the wayward children of the workshop are not blessed with such fatherly discipline. It is taken for granted, perversely, that the old were wrong and the young are right. The result is, more often than not, a sort of poetic terrorism, in which the only beauty to be gleaned is the beauty of destruction of the sacred institutions of others. One's own puerile and violent inclinations are the only justification needed, and the twisted rhetoric of modern "poetics" helps to obscure this ugly truth.
If this sounds eerilie familiar, it should. We are living in a world where the headlines are being made by spoiled children - as The New Criterion's Stefan Beck aptly noted in a recent entry (7/14) in the magazine's weblog, Arma Virumque. Without resorting to finger-pointing hysteria, I wish to purport that the syndrome manifested annoyingly by the anti-formal revolution in American poetry shares a pathogenic lineage with the recent explosion of terrorists nurtured not in the crucibles of Afghanistan but in the halls of often English-speaking privilege. As David Pryce-Jones, quoted by Beck, writes in The New Republic,
"[s]even British Muslims have been captured in Afghanistan and detained in Guantánamo. Several British Muslims have attempted suicide-bombing missions in Israel, at least one successfully, and others have been reportedly killed fighting with Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq. Omar Sheik, responsible for beheading Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, was born and educated in Britain, a student of the London School of Economics, no less. Those recruited to Islamism are not the poor and disinherited, but, on the contrary, those whose intelligence and social advancement allow them to submit to the luxury of an identity crisis."
Even more obviously, one thinks of John Walker Lindh, the Marin County youth whose search for meaning led him to joining the Taliban, and, of course Osama bin Laden, the screwup son of a billionaire who bought credibility with the disaffected by being photographed with the mujahideen and whose apocalyptic worldview was given shape and polish by a wealthy doctor, Ayman al-Zawahri, who has spent more time blaming the West for his decaying culture than practicing anything so prosaic as medicine.
This is where free verse and terrorism cross paths: they offer a ready-made scapegoat (U.S. imperialism/Zionism/Jews; tyrannical and outmoded literary techniques) for lazy and childish minds, who would rather destroy than create, and have found a reactionary ideology ready-made to their hands. The anti-formalist (and, it should be noted, this does not include all composers of free verse, but rather those who trumpet it as a political revolution) and the terrorist are, according to their proclivities, born with an entitled sense of grievance against the dual imprisonment of Western civilization and traditional poetics. What the now-ignored poetic genius E. A. Robinson might have termed "the question that has held us heretofore without an answer" ("The Valley of the Shadow") must be "Where do we go from here?" In thus inquiring, we find revealed the true nihilism of both movements. Terrorism is not about achieving political goals, it is about settling for self-immolation because dignity and purpose were too hard to come by. On a milder level, the same can be said of the anti-formalists - rabidly vocal about what they are not, but painfully unsure of just what - and who- they really are.
Now, let us return for the moment to Pryce-Jones' statement, "Those recruited to Islamism are not the poor and disinherited, but, on the contrary, those whose intelligence and social advancement allow them to submit to the luxury of an identity crisis." Interestingly, if you take away the clause "Those recruited to Islam", you are left with a fairly accurate portrayal of the modern-day intelligentsia, who have, it should be noted, ingeniously packaged their version of anarchy as a populist response to centuries of metrical tyranny. Bob Mezey lamented in his excellent introduction to the Selected Poetry of E.A. Robinson that a recent American laureate claimed, "Accentual-syllabics were the principal means by which the educated classes of Europe mystified their utterances, and called them poetry" - as though there could be a more democratic means of disseminating poetry than rhyme and meter, the essential tools of the oral tradition by which songs make their way into the popular consciousness. Indeed, Dana Gioia himself notes, ""Poetry is not a branch of analytical philosophy. It is a primal, holistic kind of human communication."
So what of communication, then? What is most noxious is that the mendicant philosophy of a privileged few has attracted an army of dupes swayed by the easy answers of a teaching that demands no achievement, only rage. In other words, it's ok, honey. Go blow something up. I need scarcely cite any one example to demonstrate the effect this is having in the Middle East; I argue that those who by all accounts should know better are leading the few remaining students of American poetry down similarly specious paths. At how many other universities, I wonder, are impressionable youths being taught that a sonnet no longer must obey the least little rule? In both cases, unsurprisingly, such malfeasance is touted as an act of intellectual liberation.
The modern French Revolution being waged against formalism has not merely resulted in a poverty of style, however, but one of content as well. In accordance with its destructive qualities, recent poetic anarchy has also allowed us to witness the triumph of the confessional, banal, and absurdly esoteric. For, after all, the "scholars" promulgating both free verse and terrorism most often have, underneath their raging beards, nothing constructive to say. It is no accident that it is chiefly democracy that produces human progress. It is likewise no accident that it is primarily formalists such as Gioia who are advocating a return to the truly instructive power of narrative, for which form must be, to borrow a favorite metaphor, both queen and servant. The self-indulgence of a fatted few must give way to real, tangible substance - as Gioia puts it, "The recent return to narrative... represents perhaps the surest evidence that Modernism is now an irretrievably dead period style, despite the cosmetic expertise of the embalmers of academe who naively believe in an eternal avant- garde" - whether or not that eternity includes seventy-two virgins.