In the fall of 1959 I was a graduate student in the Writers' Workshop of the University of Iowa, a member of the poetry workshop taught by Paul Engle and Donald Justice. I had always been interested in the traditional forms of poetry — I was born a formalist, and I wanted a reference book that contained the whole range of verse forms, but I'd never been able to find one other than those that contained merely the standard sorts of things: the sonnet, the villanelle, the haiku and tanka, the sestina — mainly the medieval Italian and Provençal forms plus a few others.
But what else was there? Perhaps there weren't enough forms to fill a short book. Then, one day while I was browsing through the bargain bin of Iowa Book and Supply on Clinton Street in Iowa City, I ran across a book of poems by Rolfe Humphries titled Green Armor on Green Ground. Humphries had laid out "the twenty-four official meters" of the Medieval Welsh bards, and he had written a poem in each of these complicated syllabic forms. I bought the volume, of course — I think I paid a quarter for it, or maybe a dollar — and I took it home. After I'd looked it over a while I got to wondering whether, with such forms as these, I might not be able to gather enough material for a book, particularly if I filled it out with examples of poems written in the forms. I asked my instructor and friend in the Workshop, Donald Justice, whether he thought such a volume might be useful. He encouraged me, and I began working on the project as I could find the time.
That period when I began putting together what would eventually become, first, The Book of Forms; two intermediary texts; the second edition, called The New Book of Forms in 1986; The Book of Forms, third edition, in 2000, and finally The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Including Odd and Invented Forms, Revised and Expanded Edition in 2012, was not auspicious for such projects. The so-called "Beat Generation" was in the process of consolidating its anti-intellectual stranglehold on a generation, and the self-righteous, self-indulgent decade of the 1960s loomed ahead. Heedlessly, I plunged forward. Within two years I had a manuscript, a combined reference work/anthology that I titled Contemporary Poetry: The Book of Forms. Between 1961 and 1968 I revised the manuscript over and over again, researching it, sending for books to Europe, rewriting whole sections, paging through volumes of contemporary poetry for examples of poems in the forms and adding them to the volume.
Whenever I submitted the manuscript to a publishing house I would argue that, although the book might not sell big, it would sell steadily and it would eventually help to create its own market, but I was always disregarded. The verdict was ever the same: although it was a good book, there was no market for it. In 1967, after many fruitless efforts to find a home for the volume I deleted the poems in order to shorten the book and limit its reprint permissions costs so that a potential publisher might find it more attractive, for the examples I'd chosen were all by living poets. I added a bibliography of the missing poems so that people who were interested might search them out.
By a fluke — quite literally by accident, and after more frustrations — E. P. Dutton accepted The Book of Forms in its non-anthology format. Then I discovered that Cyril I. Nelson, the Dutton paperbacks and poetry editor, would have been happy to have the poems as part of the manuscript. I wanted the book published without further delay, however, and so it was, in 1968.
For sixteen years it stayed in print; then, although it was still selling at a steady rate, in 1984 it was dropped by Dutton without notification or explanation — Tom Trusky of Boise State University phoned to tell me he couldn't get copies for his classes anymore. When I checked with the publisher, I found it was true. Some folks out there in the world of "organic poetry" and "free verse" had bought more than 25,000 copies of The Book of Forms during the period that it was in print, not counting the passing around, the college resales, even the photocopying that went on. I used to think it was 'passing strange that such a crowd of people was using a book that was at crosscurrents with the tidal flow of the times.
I never stopped working on The Book of Forms, even while it was going through its several printings which, I might note, I was never informed were going to take place. I was never given the opportunity to correct a number of typographical errors I had missed in the proofreading, or to reword some of the descriptions — people were misreading them; consequently, I was seeing such phenomena as villanelles with varying line lengths appearing in the London Times Literary Supplement and many other places.
The year following publication of The Book of Forms the State University of New York asked me to write a correspondence course study guide, Creative Writing in Poetry, and I used as the basis for that text the material I had collected since The Book of Forms had appeared. The study guide went into service in 1970; the text it called for in the correspondence course was, of course, The Book of Forms. At S.U.N.Y. College at Oswego, where I was teaching, I simultaneously developed a television course along the lines of the correspondence course; it was called “The Nature of Poetry.” The Program in Writing Arts, which I directed at Oswego, for some time had been offering such basic "Nature" courses as the foundation of the tiered system of the Writing Arts major we had developed, with the misgivings of the English Department, for no one believed that the students of the period would enroll in such demanding courses. But they did, and in considerable numbers; they still do. In fact the Program is now the Department of Creative Writing at Oswego.
In 1971 David M. Ungerer, vice-president of the newly organized Prentice-Hall spin-off Reston Publishing Company, saw a copy of the study guide lying on a table in the office of the Dean of Continuing Education at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He wrote to ask me to develop a college text-anthology based upon the S.U.N.Y. guide, and in 1973 Poetry: An Introduction Through Writing was published. I conceived of it as containing everything about poetry not covered by The Book of Forms. While Poetry: An Introduction was going through its own extra printings, I dreamed of combining it with The Book of Forms eventually, and that is in effect what happened in The New Book of Forms whose manuscript working title was Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Poetry but Were Afraid to ask.
On Friday the 27th of June 1987, three days after I sent the proofread page proofs and the completed indices of The New Book back to the publisher, the University Press of New England, I began to gather together all the manuscript versions of the four books to send to the special collections archives of the Homer Babbidge Library of my Alma Mater, the University of Connecticut. I also intended to send the typescripts of the Dacey-Jauss anthology Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms, just published, which X. J. Kennedy and I had evaluated separately at the request of the publisher, Harper and Row, and the Miller Williams text-anthology Patterns of Poetry, to be published at the end of the summer of '86, which I had gone over at the request of its editor before it was finally accepted by the Louisiana State University Press. In the course of this gathering I found the original 1961 manuscript of Contemporary Poetry: The Book of Forms, which I had caused to be bound in order to preserve it as it went its hopeless rounds of the publishers.
For the first time in I don't recall how many years I began to read the introduction I'd written a quarter-century earlier. I'm afraid I was both pleased and mortified to discover how long I'd been saying the same things. Here is what I wrote in 1961, the year before I founded the Poetry Center of Cleveland at what is now Cleveland State University:
It used to be said that a sign of the poet is his mastery of the form; the sign of the poetaster is the form's mastery of him. However, one does not hear this very often nowadays. Instead, when one comes into contact with a writer of verse one is likely to hear that it is not the poet who writes the poem, but the poem that writes itself: the poet is merely a medium through which some kind of cosmic vibrations get themselves transmitted to paper. One line grows out of another "organically," that is, the first line is somehow inspired by the gods and from the mysterious poetic womb of this line there is born another line, and another, and another, until the poem has completed itself. The poem is thus seen as a vital organism which exists and procreates naturally.
This all sounds fine and esthetic, and of course it is tremendously romantic as well, which lends passion to the concept, if such a theory may be dignified by the term "concept." But upon reflection, perhaps it seems a shallow and useless theory, for then of course poets may be born only, touched by providence with the divine gift of the Muses.
The truth is, of course, that any good poem must have organic unity, but it is the poet who gives the poem unity, and it can be no other way. Regardless of all sophistry to the contrary, without the poet there can be no poem; it is the poet who breathes life into the verse which is trying to be a poem; it is the poet who is the creator: he lives, and the poem cannot be born without him. One line cannot follow another without a mind to link them and a hand to write them. The poet, therefore, and no other, makes the poem, and the making is seldom easy.
Take, for instance, the example of Dylan Thomas, who is the very prototype of the romantic bard to most young poets writing today. His verse is full of music; his lines rise and fall majestically, invoking allusion, rhetoric; giving insight and raising towering symbols which are at once primal and sophisticated. He seems a veritable great wild stallion on the plains of poetry, master of herds of lesser steeds. His poems must have poured forth spontaneously and grandly, for as he speaks it seems he is talking to the soul's ear.
But Dylan Thomas often wrote in strict syllabics, always in strict patterns. His symbols have assigned meanings. His rhyme schemes are sometimes fantastic, but they are sequential. Some of Dylan Thomas's poems have been through a hundred drafts.
Is this how a poem makes itself? If so, we are slaves to words, lesser organisms being used by literature, and not intelligent beings creating a literature to serve mankind.
In the interest of sanity the author of The Book of Forms rejects utterly any theory of automatic writing. In the beginning there may have been The Word, but since then there have been simply words, and if there is magic in them it is a studied magic which only talent, craft, imagination, intelligence and passion may invoke.
No one, unfortunately, may give a person talent, imagination, intelligence or passion. These are qualities the origins of which may be debated by the theologians and sociologists, not by me. The Book of Forms can help only with craft — but perhaps one ought not to have said "only," for a writer may have many things, but if he hasn't craft, he will never be a poet.
A strong statement, and a precarious one. For what is craft? Simply, craft is skill, as distinguished from talent, which is aptitude. Skill in what? Skill in language, including words and their meanings, rhythms, sounds; skill in handling ideas within the conventions of writing; skill in constructing forms that will enhance meaning. Skill perhaps in saying ordinary things in an extraordinary way, or saying extraordinary things in an ordinary way.
For all good poems are formal, though not all formal poems are good. That is, all poems are organized in some way. The organization may be around an idea, or a symbol, or a sound, or a rhythm, or an image or sequence of images, or any number of things, for each poem has its own locale and focus. It is for the poet to decide what he is trying to do, and for the reader and time to corroborate or reject the poet's vision and statement.
But how does one acquire craft? It is not bestowed upon one, it is learned. One way in which to learn it is to construct your own forms and, by trial and error, discover what may be done with them. Another way is to experiment with traditional forms and see what may be done with them. Certainly, reading good poems and analyzing them is a third way, but the best way is to do all three.
It is more than two and a half decades since I wrote those words. During that period of time we have had the Beats, the New York School, the Black Mountaineers, the Confessional Poets, the Deep Image Surrealists, The Movement — which included the anti-war, the civil rights, and the early consciousness-raising schools; we have had the subsequent Feminists and the Gay Poetry movement, the Plain-Talkers of the Northwest, Hispanic and Native American and Cowboy and Rap poetry movements, and, most recently, the so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. In criticism we have gone from the New Criticism to Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, and Deconstructionism. But at last the pendulum has begun to swing back, as it was bound to do eventually.
I wrote in 1983, in an essay titled "The Year in Poetry," "One keeps hearing these days rumors and siftings of a return to formalism in American poetry." By 1986 those rumors had turned into a full-fledged movement, for that was a considerable year for what critics and readers had begun to call "Neoformalism" or "The New Formalism" in American poetry. Philip Dacey and David Jauss' neoformalist collection Strong Measures appeared during the late winter of 1985-86; it was the first major anthology of formal poetry to be published since the so-called "War of the Anthologies" of the late 1950s and early 1960s between the "Academic Poets" and the "Beat Generation."
In a review titled "Six Poets" published in the Spring of 1986, Thomas Swiss wrote, "New poems by young writers like Molly Peacock, Baron Wormser, Mary Jo Salter, and Richard Kenney exhibit meter and rhyme. Some of these poets have been dubbed New Formalists, but how does one tell the 'new' formalists from the 'old' if all these writers are mining the same traditions, exhibiting the same manners?"
The answer lay in that qualifier, "if," for of course all those poets did not "exhibit the same manners," though they did perforce "mine the same traditions," which are the traditions of literature in English: one could tell the Neoformalists from the old by getting to know the names of the people who wrote formally twenty-five years ago, and the names of those who were in the 1980s struggling to throw off the prevailing anti-intellectual egocentrism of the preceding two decades and more.
The next manifestation of the onset of The New Formalism was astonishing. During the summer of 1986 Diane Wakoski, in an essay titled "The New Conservatism in American Poetry" in The American Book Review, May-June 1986, launched an ad hominem attack on "John Hollander as Satan" and on Robert Pinsky, "a nice man, even a good writer, but NOT one of the searchers for a new American voice." These two poets, Wakoski maintained, were representative of conservative literary legions who were making an assault upon "the free verse revolution, denouncing the poetry which is the fulfillment of the Whitman heritage, making defensive jokes about the ill-educated, slovenly writers of poetry who have been teaching college poetry classes for the past decade, allowing their students to write drivel and go out into the world, illiterate of poetry."
The last time critics attacked what was then called "academic poetry" and equated it with "Fascism" and the "military-industrial complex" the ploy had worked. Rather than be perceived by their students as members of the American Nazi Party or the Ku Klux Klan, poets on college faculties everywhere during the activist 1960s abdicated their responsibility to provide their pupils with substance and became a caste of "nurturers" rather than teachers: the pedagogical philosophy of William Stafford became the rule, and students tended to become imitators of their teachers, many of whom were themselves imitating Stafford and, especially, Robert Bly. A quarter-century later in the May-June 1986 issue of The American Book Review one of the younger members of the Beat generation, Diane Wakoski, attacked formalist poetry which had dared again to rear its curly head. Wakoski was unable to perceive that her generation of anti-intellectuals were the "conservatives" and that the consideration of craft and structure was new, even revolutionary, to the younger poets.
Whether one is an innovator or a traditionalist in poetry, however, has nothing to do with one's politics. Wakoski was so intent upon scoring rhetorical points that she went so far as to equate the Modernist T. S. Eliot with the traditionalist Robert Frost, but two more different poets can hardly be imagined. If Eliot was a closet Fascist, as some have claimed, and an arch-traditionalist in religion, he was nevertheless one of the most innovative and experimental poets of the early twentieth century, like his friend Ezra Pound who was in many ways responsible for the revival of that "Whitman heritage" whose imminent demise Wakoski seemed to be lamenting. Pound — wild man of the Modernist literary world, first to cry "make it new!" and to make it stick — far from being a liberal of any kind, was an outright Mussolini Fascist who narrowly escaped execution as a traitor following World War II because he had broadcast Fascist propaganda on Italian radio.
Furthermore, if Frost was both a New England farmer and a traditional poet, it is equally true that party-line socialist poetry throughout the world is generally at least as "formal," "traditional," and "rhetorical" as any that Wakoski might have named. As to Wakoski's complaint regarding "American" as distinguished from "European-style" poetry: the work of Frost is as identifiably "American," for all its formalism, as anything that the Modernist "Imagist" poet William Carlos Williams ever wrote. No perceptive American or European reader would or could confuse Frost's voice and style with those of any British poet.
Miller Williams' Patterns of Poetry was published in August 1986 — it differed from the Dacey-Jauss book in that it was more specifically focused upon the traditional structures of poetry, and it included work by poets ranging back to the Middle Ages. The New Book of Forms appeared in November; less than three years later, in the summer of 1989, it went into its third printing, with more than 10,000 copies in print. The other neoformalist books were doing well, too, according to their publishers.
During the previous score of years before the pivotal year 1986, The Mississippi Review had been nearly alone in devoting a special issue to the subject of form in poetry: in 1977 it had published Freedom and Form: American Poets Respond. Poets had been asked to submit a poem and then to write a short comment upon its composition and organization. Contributors to that issue included Richard Eberhart, William Stafford, Vern Rutsala, X.J. Kennedy, Richard Wilbur and yours truly. A decade later, in 1987, another formalist book following the same format was published, David Lehman's Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms. Contributors included John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Dana Gioia, Marilyn Hacker, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, Richard Kenney, Brad Leithauser, Joyce Carol Oates, Molly Peacock, Robert Pinsky, Louis Simpson (who had been one of the three editors of the original showcase of the "Academic Poets," The New Poets of England and America, which had been the first shot fired in "the War of the Anthologies" in 1957), Mona Van Duyn, and Richard Wilbur — a real potpourri of both the older formalist poets and Neoformalists, plus many antiformalists, young and old. If anyone is interested in reading more on the subject, this book ought to be published shortly:
The Dialects of the Tribe: Post Modern American Poets and Poetry, by Lewis Putnam Turco, Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2012, 336 pp., paperback, forthcoming.