Monday, May 09, 2011

ODD HIGH FORMALISM

As the talking wheels of American Poetry World wring their hands over various issues (including hand-wringing), and gaze up at the unanswering blue sky crying "whither Poetry?" and such, I would like to outline, briefly, my prediction - not prescription, but prediction - for the general shape of the future, based on the general shape of the past. The past and future of American poetry lies with OHF, or Odd High Formalism.

Not "New Formalism," a 90s movement which called for a return to formal rhyme and meter and received forms (sonnets, sestinas, etc.). The generally reactionary attitude of that trend inhibited more profound experiments with form : as long as we went back to the good old tennis net so sadly neglected since Robert Frost's day, poetry would revive... no.

Nor do I refer to the formalism of the professional avant-garde, primarily represented by the descendants of the NY School, the Language Poets, and various offshoots of experimental Modernism. The formalism of these groups was terribly overshadowed by two influential & contradictory notions drawn from 20th-century philosophy and "theory," namely : 1) reality is constituted by language, and 2) language does not, cannot, really represent or refer to anything outside itself. It's not hard to see where such ideas might lead with regard to poetry : straight into very formal but also highly-mannered self-enclosed & solipsistic literary entities ("language poems" & such).

The perceived ailments & frailty of contemporary American poetry - it's academic effeteness, its anemic detachment from the larger, living world, its introverted fishbowl solipsism & narcissism, its loss of a public audience & the ordinary reader, etc. & so on - might be remedied by a clearer recognition of the main tradition in American poetry, which is none other than... Odd High Formalism.

What is the nature of Odd High Formalism? Here I can only sketch its main elements in a minimal way. Perhaps the best way to understand OHF is to consider the kinship between poetry, music, and public dancing. An era's leading styles of social dancing are paralleled in its poetry. A generation ago, in a series of books, Alastair Fowler analyzed the design properties of Renaissance poetry - combining number mysticism, seasonal or calendrical measures of time, the occasional thematics of major holidays, public events or persons. Poems were shaped to mimic the stately, ceremonial movements of social dancing. Think, on the other hand, about today's social dancing styles : mostly anarchic wiggle, bump & jump. & though fancier, more formal dancing seem to be making a comeback, it is still mostly limited to individual dancing couples, rather than the elaborate group dances of the past. And anarchic wiggle & hop seems like a pretty fair description of the formal approach of much contemporary poetry.

The poet launches into the poem : the audience or reader has no idea where it's going in a formal sense. It's free, it's experimental... it's of the moment, it's raw, it's real... these are the current values. Poetry wants to blend in with the prosaic activities of the world around it. It wants to be liked for blending in. But it will never be liked on this basis : it will only be held in slight contempt. Odd High Formalism accentuates poetry's difference from prose and ordinary life, by lifting its intricate and elegant formalities to another, higher, more intense dimension. Not a dimension of obscurity or elitism : rather a realm of highly-articulate order and elegance. The world of hip-hop and rap is closer to the ancient and Renaissance sense of poetry than anything being produced by the mainstream poetry factories. One may reject the hip-hop artist's often bleak, violent, selfish, cynical and misogynist worldview, yet still learn from hip-hop's focus on formal differentiation and intricacy (the meter, the rhymes, the word-play) - its separation from prose.

Most of the really great American poets of the past have been Odd High Formalists : that is, they have developed a highly-ordered & articulate formality which easily distinguishes itself from prose of any kind. It is inventive, personal, and suited to its own unique aims, rather than patterned on traditional schemes for tradition's sake (hence its "oddness"). Think of Marianne Moore's sui generis formal patterns; Elizabeth Bishop's elegant & playful designs; Emily Dickinson's construction of a poetic universe within a strict and minimalist formal pattern; Whitman's careful development of his own unique cosmic-bardic metrical form and manner; Melville's re-invention of the philosophical travel poem; Poe's highly-mathematical and calculated sense of poetry's rhythmic/tonal mesmerism; Hart Crane's re-invention of the Pindaric praise-song; John Berryman's manic formalism in the Dream Songs... the list could go on for pages. What these poets have in common is a bold - almost extreme - conception of poetry as an intense, highly-differentiated formal dance of sound, meaning, theme, occasion. The OHF poetry of the future will set a new standard of difficulty. This is not a poetry that will "blend in" easily with the prose world : it will be very much harder to write than what is offered at present in schools & literary communities. It will have to distinguish itself - by its formal qualities - from prose. It will have to offer a very high and strange dancing music, a relief - both from prose and from the mannered allusive theoretical academic obscurities which passed for "difficulty" in the last century. Only American Odd High Formalism will set the measures of the dance to come.

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