Question Two Part Three
I want to start any discussion of “formalism” with the axiom that I do not believe in “free verse” as such. “Verse Libre” is a term initially conceived as reactionary. That is to say, this verse would have nothing from which to liberate itself were it not for the overwhelmingly long tradition of metrical poetry. Williams, for one, said that he did not write “free verse” but that his lines were composed to the music and measure of American speech. In his view, Whitman’s “free verse” was a failed experiment; a loosely structured mess of unmetered lines that did nothing to address what WCW saw as the fundamental problem of re-structuring American poetry. That said, I don’t necessarily believe that Whitman’s poetry was un-metered, but that it was composed to the measure and music of an antebellum southern orator. For me, the notion that a writer who has discarded received forms is not a formal writer is patently absurd. If a writer of free verse is unaware of how his decision of where to end the line impacts the methodology of the poem, then he has neglected a very fundamental aspect of the practice of making poetry. In this context, writers who are “not” formal inevitably demonstrate the manner in which they use form to build a poem. The rest of this discussion will be confined to contemporary American poetics, as two of the poets on my list seem to follow from the tradition of Williams’ denial of “free verse.”
Robert Creeley is a fascinating figure, as his poetics owes allegiance to the Black Mountain practice of Projective Verse. This is a formal tactic most clearly visible to the layman in the work of Charles Olson, who utilized the open field to score the way in which his poems ought to be heard. This is a practice entirely dependant on the formal presentation of the poem, as a lines position relative to the left hand margin is a factor in how that line is received. Robert Creeley was a Black Mountain poet and a writer of Projective Verse. In fact, Olson owes much of his philosophy to correspondence with Creeley, as he makes explicit in is famous essay on the subject. It might strike the layman as odd that Creeley’s poems do not appear to be projective in the way that Olson’s do. In fact, Creeley hugs the left hand margin very closely. Creeley is Projective, then, in his implementation of the short line.
Creeley was a writer of poetry that is decidedly formal. A quick glance through his Collected Poems reveals that the vast majority of his poems look exactly the same; they inhabit a space of no more than two inches or so from the left hand margin, and tend not to assume a length that could be considered “epic” without frequent section breaks. To this rule, the only real exception is the odd prose poem here and there. The content and discourse, however, of Creeley’s verse becomes more sophisticated as the decades march on. All of his poems look the same not because he wrote the same poem again, but because he was consciously writing in one form to the fullest extent.
For Creeley, the line was his measure. In audio recordings, he reads lines as units. The frequent stops and starts he implements in his line breaks do a lot to put pressure on his phrases, and this is the aspect which makes them “projective.” Consider the first stanza of “Thinking”:
Grandmother I'd thought
to have called all together
night before dying
in the bed at the stair's top
If this poem were read “Grandmother I’d thought to have called all together night before dying,” the rhythm and the immediacy of the poet’s speech would be lost entirely. This is easily revealed by reading the lineated excerpt aloud and then reading it as a single prose line. Frequent line breaks insist that each line be weighted equally. They also call attention to the sonic qualities of the lines (an example being the rhyme between “thought” and “top”) and confound the logic of the poem in a manner in which Creeley was well-practiced. “Grandmother I’d thought” is a unit. Syntactically, “to have called all together” follows from “I thought,” but the line puts pressure on this reading. “Grandmother I thought” is a unit as well, and one that finds itself at odds with the reading of the lines as components of a simple sentence.
Creeley does a few very important things in his poetry by so deliberately placing lines that are not “metered” in the traditional English sense. First, he determines to a degree the way that the poem sounds when it is read aloud; he is “projective.” Secondly, he confounds the reader’s understanding of traditional syntax in a way that identifies his poetry as “avant garde” relative to the cultural moment of his composition. If Creeley’s poetry was stripped of its formal aspect, it would be difficult to understand as Creeley’s poetry. The same can be said of the writing of James Tate.
Tate is a remarkable writer in that his implementation of form has metamorphosed as his career has progressed. Here is “The Mirror,” from “The Lost Pilot,” collected in 1967:
She tells me
that I can
see right through
her, but I
look and can
In this first stanza, it is easy to recognize the methodology of Robert Creeley. These lines are units, and they are short. They determine the sound of the poem and put pressure on the syntax. This example is not atypical of the poems that Tate wrote in the first decade or so or his career. However, as Tate is a poet concerned with form and interested in the ways that it might be manipulated to more progressive ends, he did not write skinny poems for his whole career. Here is “Prose Poem,” from “The Oblivion Ha-Ha” in 1970:
I am surrounded by the pieces of this huge
puzzle: here's a piece I call my wife, and
here's an odd one I call convictions, here's
conventions, here's collisions, conflagrations,
congratulations. Such a puzzle this is! I
like to grease up all the pieces and pile
them in the center of the basement after
everyone else is asleep. Then I leap head-
first like a diver into the wretched confusion.
I kick like hell and strangle a few pieces,
bite them, spitting and snarling like a mongoose.
When I wake up in the morning, it's all fixed!
My wife says she would not be caught dead at
that savage resurrection. I say she would.
We line-counters might notice that this is not a prose poem at all. In fact, it is a sonnet. Some of these lines have ten syllables, none have more than twelve, and there are fourteen of them.
The allure of the prose-poem is this: the line is the formal aspect of a piece of writing that makes it a poem. The exploration of the prose-poem is essentially the exploration of what happens to a poem once its only identifying formal aspect is removed, after Modernism cleared away the old meter and rhyme. Tate explores this in earnest in poems that are clearly prose-poems, such as “Viper Jazz” in 1976, but he is doing something else entirely with “Prose Poem” in 1970. It can be read as having roughly five stresses per line, but not as a poem that strives for strict iambs. It even turns at roughly line eight; Tate’s speaker passively reflects on the pieces of his puzzle metaphor, but leaps into physical action in roughly the position of the Petrarchean volta. The act of calling this a prose poem calls into question the integrity of the sonnet after centuries of subtle alteration in a way that is not ignorant of form, but acutely aware of the implications of tampering with it.
Tate’s exploration of form does not stop in 1970. In 2004, “Return to the City of White Donkeys” collected some of the most prosaic-seeming poetry of Tate’s career. Poems like “Suburban Bison” present bizarre and surrealist situations where the speaker of the poem is going bowling when he encounters a herd of Buffalo. Post-modernism ensues. All of this occurs in the space of what is received by the public as a prose poem, but is broken into lines perhaps by the constraint of the left and right margins, or perhaps by the intention of the author. The buffalo poem, for example, contains the line “Neither of us had bowled in years, and we didn’t” followed by a line break. This is the longest line in the poem. Another two lines read “along some strip for tourists to see,’ he / said.” “Said,” it seems, could just as easily have been on the previous line, and would have fit into the margin constraint that seems to have determined the length of the other line in question. It seems possible, then, that Tate is not writing “prose-poems,” but is exploring formal poetry in a way that is remarkably different from his early poems, but nevertheless is concerned with the nature of formalism and what it means for the reading of a poem.
Poetry, essentially, is never informal. Instead, it is constantly in dialogue with what its perceived form might be and the manner in which it presents its content on the page. “Free Verse” is entirely reactionary terminology. “Reactionary” is also a relevant term to the discussion of the formal aspect of poetry that appears to be informal.