Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry

The Measure of Poetry
Rob Griffith

Quick Note about this issue: This Editor’s Issue of The Café Review is different from our normal published reviews. We have asked 14 editors of poetry journals from across the United States two complex question: Why do some poems stand out from others? And what is he state of poetry in America today? Their answers will surprise you. We hope this issue will give poets a better sense of what editors look for in poems. You will get the inside scoop about why different journals accept different types of poems. For teachers, this issue will answer questions students have about the dos and don’ts in submitting poems as well as the perennial question of why poetry matter.

In the wake of the Modernist Movement, formal poetry (or, more precisely perhaps, we should say poetry interested in meter, traditional forms, and/or prosodic devices such as rhyme) suffered a decline so severe that, by the ‘60s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s, it became a professional liability for one to even admit that he or she liked to write the occasional sonnet.

Practitioners wore a kind of scarlet letter that told all who approached that they were hopelessly mired in the past, that they spent their free hours at Renaissance fairs or Flat Earth Society meetings. After all, the argument went, meter and rhyme are cages which limit the vocabulary and, thus, what one can express in a line of poetry. And some would have even gone so far as to characterize formal verse as merely a vehicle for conservative thought and free verse as the only way to express a liberal or progressive point of view, the only way to remain avantgarde (whatever that means after a century of mainstream free verse).

These ideas are, quite obviously, ridiculous in the extreme, and formal poetry never really went away. Between the end of World War II and today, poets such as Richard Wilbur, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, Donald Justice, and Seamus Heaney (among innumerable others) have kept the art alive and vibrant. That said, the teaching of traditional prosodic elements certainly did languish during that period, at least in this country, and it wasn’t until the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that a kind of renaissance occurred wherein new journals such as The Formalist appeared, journals dedicated to giving space to poems written in meter and traditional forms. Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry attempts to fill that niche as well and, happily, we receive hundreds of submissions a week.

However, perhaps as a result of a generation of poets growing up having to relearn the craft of formal poetry (often from first principles instead of mentors steeped in the nuts and bolts of the tradition), much of what we receive is flat, boring, didactic, and completely forgettable. Our submissions are full of poems that are simply essays in plodding, unvarying iambs; poems that excoriate the practitioners of free verse; poems that mimic the style, content, and diction of their authors’ favorite 17th century poets; and didactic poems that simply giftwrap a hackneyed sentiment flood our mailbox.

Fortunately for us and our readers, there are also plenty of poets who send in exactly the kind of work we’re looking for: poetry that speaks in a human, contemporary voice; poetry that uses form and meter in innovative ways to move the reader rather than simply set a metronome ticking away; poetry that uses its prosody in an attempt to capture a mind in motion and not to simply deliver a prefabricated “message.”

As an example of what I would consider a successful formal poem, I offer Vermont poet Deborah Warren’s wonderful Orion of the Barnyard:

     The kitchen’s loud with guitars, and the party                          
     throbs from the house and follows me away
     past shed and barn:

    The shrieks and music fade,
     but the light from the windows interferes with the darkness.
     Further then, to the first field and the hay
     heavy with night.

    Nobody sees me wade
     ankles knees in the wet alfalfa, eyes                        
     overhead, in the silences above                                    
     where thickets and forests of constellations move,

     copses of stars in the black sky’s open glades.                        

     These are the bright woods where I recognize              
     Orion; dressed in stars, Orion’s clearer,                                  
     hunting his dim and shimmering distant grove,                
     than the farm that drops behind me, out of sight

     and only yards away Orion’s nearer,                         
     treading the east horizon and the barnyard’s                            
     roofs:  There’s such a thing as too much light.

In this poem, as in all of the best metrical poetry, Warren uses meter to establish a mood, modulate her music, and explore her ideas. And it is far more than mere windowdressing. Think of Robert Frost’s Design or William Butler Yeats’ Leda and the Swan.  In these poems, the meter is tightly bound up with the ideas the poems explore. In both, as the poems approach the idea of chaos and dissolution, the meter itself dissolves, leaving their readers feeling viscerally feeling unsettled and discomforted. Warren, too, knows the power that such metrical control can wield, and when her final line swings into a highly regular rhythm after having strayed just slightly enough for the reader to hear it, we feel the certainty of her pronouncement.

As an example of how some contemporary poets use form in novel ways, examine Minnesota poet William Breen’s Cookie Monster Blue. Though this sonnet could be dismissively called “light verse” (and it certainly is funny), I would argue that its final turn is really quite poignant, and Breen uses the form to expertly mimic the voice of its sad protagonist.

     Me sad. Me who love cookie cannot taste
     with tongue of felt to cardboard pasted flat.
     Me cram and stuff, but puppet throat sewn shut.
     Delicious cookie just crumble. Me waste!
     Me not feel cookie, not see. Strange hand
     creep too far up skirt of phony blue fur,
     rattle plastic eyeballs round. Cookie blur.
     Me hate what move inside, not understand.
     So if little children me supposed to love
     (me teach them take away leave plate of crumbs!),
     why slowest boy so quick to think me dumb?
     Why sweetest girl not what me dreaming of?
     Someday in rocket ship me fly away,

     eat all of moon, wash down with Milky Way.

In Orion and Cookie Monster, as in all of the poems we accept, every formal element of the poem is in service to (or in league with) the content. No mere envelope or garnish, form enhances the meaning and effect of every good metrical poem, and the best contemporary poets use this fact to their advantage. In the end, like every editor, we want poems that speak with a recognizably human voice, that sear themselves into our memories, and that move our hearts and challenge our intellects.

And it is, honestly, that final point that gives me hope about the state of American poetry when people ask, “Does poetry matter?  Can it change the world?” W.H. Auden said, perhaps facetiously, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” In the sense that poetry rarely speaks directly and effectively to the world in such a way as to change public affairs, he’s probably right. However, if the best poetry is personal, and if the best poetry nudges its readers’ hearts just slightly out of their normal orbits, how can it fail to change the world, one person at a time?