All things old are new: the return of rhymed poetry

February 16, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Unlike the one preceding, our century has not been a formal one. Especially for the last 40 years, informality has been its guiding principle.

Like our president, many of us -- I certainly include myself -- learned in youth to be suspicious of handed-down rules, customs, traditions and rituals. They weren't good enough for our generation, so we demanded new ones, and expressed our independence in our clothes, our speech, our preferences in art and music, and of course in our politics. When John Kennedy appeared in public without a hat, or in his shirtsleeves, it proved so popular that soon every politician was doing the same.

In such an atmosphere, people who clung to vestiges of formality were considered at worst pretentious, at best quaint. If they were otherwise popular, this behavior was dismissed as misguided, and they were urged to lighten up. But if their formality seemed based on fundamental beliefs, they were perceived as reactionary and perhaps dangerous.

Obviously, those who consider themselves revolutionary are always the most intolerant of the formalities embraced by the regime or the culture they wish to see overthrown. That's why such intolerance often has a left-wing cast.

Thus in the Soviet Union, especially in the Stalinist period when all art was expected to meet certain standards of ''socialist realism'' established by the state, any deviation was heresy.

In fact the political crime of ''formalism'' in the U.S.S.R. came to mean not only traditional aesthetic forms, but new unapproved ones as well. Even the artist Pablo Picasso and the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, not exactly right-wingers, were at various times denounced as degenerate formalists by the cultural commissars.

Now that our century has entered its own fin de siecle period, much of that has long since changed. Some old left-wing attitudes survive, of course, but they are corroding, too.

Formal evening clothes are making a comeback, especially among the young. Books on manners sell well. The paintings of Andrew Wyeth, despite the grumbling of elderly critics, draw crowds to museums. In all the arts, rules abandoned and left for dead by modernists are being dusted off with revolutionary zest by post-modernists.

The politicians have noticed, too, and the rumpled image is losing favor. Even Bill Clinton now likes to be filmed wearing a suit, coming out of church with his loving wife, and ostentatiously carrying a Bible.

At the close of the buttoned-up 19th century and in the first half of the 20th, one way new intellectual attitudes first surfaced was in poetry. And now a hundred years later, by golly, the same thing seems to be happening again.

I'm reading an anthology of the work of 25 younger American poets, all born since 1940. Their poetry, some of it very powerful, uses traditional English forms and meter, and in many cases rhyme as well. It's a striking departure from the ''free verse'' that has dominated poetic output and university creative-writing programs for the past 50 years. (''Writing free verse,'' observed Robert Frost, perhaps unfairly, ''is like playing tennis without a net.'')

The anthologists have proudly titled the collection ''Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism.'' If that doesn't tell you which way the wind's a-blowin', and not just in poetry, you're in serious need of a weatherman.

''Rebel Angels'' appears just 10 years after the publication of a famous (in poetry circles, anyway) essay by someone called Diane Wakoski titled ''The New Conservatism in American Poetry.'' After denouncing Frost, T.S. Eliot and others as not only formalists but Eurocentric ones to boot, Ms. Wakoski attacked younger poets who had had the effrontery to use rhyme and measure in their work.

Naturally, her objections were at bottom political. She bewailed ''this new generation coming along which cannot deal with anxiety of any sort and thus wants a secure set of formulas and rules, whether it be for verse forms or how to cure the national deficit.'' It was a screech of, well, anxiety, as her own anti-formalist poetic generation felt itself nudged urgently toward the darkness of history.

The New Formalists, whose work varies widely in style and subject matter, all take the position that the discipline and structure brought to poetry by the use of traditional meter don't shackle it. Instead, by giving it form, and by clearly distinguishing it from prose, they vastly enhance its power. Rhyme and measure in poetry, like melody in music and like the careful development of character and plot in fiction, may not be essential -- but when they're absent, they're likely to be missed.

So when future poets are one day called upon to write the last eulogies of the late informal age, it's now beginning to look as though they may well do so using traditional meter and rhyme.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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