In: Lyrics

Abstract lyric?

Okay, first go check out Mike Snider’s latest piece on his Formal Blog responding to my recent post on abstract lyric.  Then come back here.

All done?  Right then.  Mike, thanks for your comments.  I can tell we disagree too fundamentally on too many things for it to be constructive to launch a full-scale polemic, but let me just, in the name of concession, admit that my definition of “abstract” is rather broad, and that it may be something of an overstatement (and a politically loaded overstatement, yes) to claim, as I have, that abstract poetry is the only poetry these days that still “looks like poetry.”  This was a rhetorical gesture on my part, and a hasty one.

One shorthand in particular that I used has led to some perhaps avoidable wrangling.  When I said that New Formalism is “reactionary,” I meant in an aesthetic sense, which is not necessarily the same as its more broadly political sense.  I’m sure there are New Formalists who are liberals, or at least not right-wingers.  I don’t know anything about Annie Finch’s politics, but she has always seemed to me to be a very reasonable, thoughtful, open-minded person.  For that reason and others, however, she also seems to stretch the meaningfulness of the New Formalist label, which I do connect with a certain rigidity of temperament that often does extend from formal preferences to the voting booth.  The Sam Gwynn excerpt you cite strikes me as inertly middle-of-the-road, and thus for me part of the Big Problem.  We are not “all in this together.”  Some of us oppose others of us who want to take away our freedom and drop bombs on people, whether those others are foreign terrorists or “elected” members of our own government.  I can tell he means well.  But I don’t have any patience left for mere well-meaning.  More to the original point, I don’t have any patience left for limp, wooden, gutless versifying.

Note that I don’t consider everyone who works with traditional forms to be a New Formalist.  Young poets like Jennifer Moxley, Benjamin Friedlander, and others I could name if I thought long enough have done exciting, graceful, witty, moving, intelligent things with “conventional” meters and rhyme.  I even have a little soft spot in my Crank E. Crank heart for mid-century verse by poets like Randall Jarrell and John Berryman, who at least had halfway decent “ears,” whatever that means (see earlier blogpost).  When I think of New Formalism, I think of work like the following:

“The Truth”

I pried into a tomb when I was eight:

Resolved to brave the pit, with Halloween’s

Black nerve in me, I found the magazines

My mom hid in the attic in a crate.

In them I found the pictures I’d equate

With primal fear: Egyptian kings and queens,

Preserved skin bared through gauze, most in their teens,

Who grinned and leered although they lay in state.

Wild skulls usurped the toybox of my youth,

A fillip of dumb terror chilled my veins;

Whenever I could make myself courageous

Enough to sneak a look at their remains,

I trembled at the inkling of the truth

That crept forth ever after from those pages.

[Reason no. 14 to save your old work, no matter how dreadful it is: you may need material for a vicious parody someday.]

The key features for me are: embarrassingly stiff and regular feet, precious enjambments and rhymes, and worst of all a simultaneously maudlin and journalistic insistence on narrating some wise, poignant, sober … well, “truth.”  Gack!  This is the part, naturally, where we could go on sparring back and forth forever and never get any closer to agreement.

I’m sure I’ve left parts of your complaint unaddressed.  One thing I want to thank you for: turning me on to Eratosphere!  What a kick in da PANTS!  Hoo HA!  If y’all want a tears-streamin’ snot-flyin’ everywhere belly laugh, check out the straight-faced advice people give the guy with the squashed squirrel poem!

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