If You Have a Niche, Scratch It

by G. Wesley Purdy

Neo-Formalism — a poetic phenomenon that is no longer so "neo" — begins to have recognizable names associated with it now. After years of exile to obscure venues of questionable quality, there are two outlets dedicated to the craft which have managed to achieve the status of "major journals". William Baer's The Formalist, just recently turned twelve years old, has doggedly advanced until it has become the equal of all but a handful of more mainstream efforts. The Internet has made possible the exceptionally well-produced Able Muse (www.ablemuse.com), which has used its advantages to effect.

Of course, formal poetry had not been entirely abandoned since its fall from grace during the 1960's. Mr. Baer has been graciously aided by the likes of Howard Nemerov, John Hollander, W. D. Snodgrass, X. J. Kennedy and Donald Justice, all of whom had continued, over the years, to produce considerable amounts of formal work. These honored guests were flanked by a healthy quantity of reprints from the traditional canon and with translations from the same.

Those who followed the poets listed above were not as fortunate in their timing. The new generation of formalist poets, unable to achieve name recognition, was entirely without book publishing opportunities. Most presumably became hobbyists or gave up altogether. It was not until the mid-1980's that the drought was ended with the appearance of the poetry of Dana Gioia. After nearly twenty years, he can fairly be said to have become one of our country's major poets and critics.

The fate of the serious formal poets, besides Dana Gioia, remained obscurity. They generally had access to a few limited venues, the quality of which could only be disappointing. Book publication remained a possibility beyond all but the most fertile of imaginations.

Neo-Formalism, itself, might be said to have appeared together with the decade of the 1990's. While its enclaves were still quite small, their efforts were, nevertheless, considerably more sophisticated. Gioia continued to publish meaningful formal work. Timothy Steele, of California State University, Los Angeles, saw his Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter published. The book's publisher — the University of Arkansas Press — would become a much-valued outlet for formal work. The Formalist also began publishing at this time.

Another outlet, of sorts, emerged at about the same time: the World Order of Narrative and Formalist Poets was established. It has since presided over a quasi-annual competition among the faithful. It is actually a series of some twenty to thirty competitions. While publication is not included, a considerable number of poets — new and established — compete.

Still, formal poetry has re-emerged to be, at best, a niche product. Arkansas is hardly a trend-setting capital of the publishing world. Indiana — the home of The Formalist — is no more so. The movement has had to fight with determination for each inch of territory it has regained.

Even the better poets are largely known only by individual poems scattered in venues of widely varying quality. While the occasional poet (such as Rhina P. Espaillat or Robert Daseler) breaks out and manages to publish a book (not always of poetry), the likes of A.M. Juster and Gail White remain decidedly periodical poets.

A more recent asset of the formalist movement has been Arthur Mortensen's Somers Rocks Press. Mr. Mortensen began in the mid-1990's to publish chapbooks by formal poets. Among his initial offerings were volumes by Joseph S. Salemi and Alfred Dorn, two fine poets who had struggled long and somehow managed to achieve a level of accomplishment and recognition beyond any reasonable expectation. Mr. Salemi teaches the classics at Hunter College, New York. He has established himself as a respected critic as well as poet and translator. Mr. Dorn is, by all appearances, an eccentric — in the better sense of the word — and has been a great many things including his own best promoter. Perhaps his signal credit is his role as the Director of the World Order of Narrative and Formalist Poets, mentioned above.

Recently, Somers Rocks Press has simultaneously released two chapbooks by Alfred Dorn: Voices from Rooms and From Cells to Mindspace. Each is paperback, glue-bound, 40 pages including end-papers. Each sports genuine recommendations by the likes of Richard Wilbur, Timothy Steele, and William Baer. The production quality is well above the average for such volumes.

Dorn is one of the formal poets who persevered through the hard times. His poems have appeared in a wide range of small journals over some thirty years. He helped establish a number of venues that would keep his poetry, and formal poetry in general, viable. His volumes show that he became a genuine craftsman, as well. The poems are written in a number of well-handled traditional forms.

There is not a stitch of Romanticism in these volumes. Poems such as "At Giza" are ironic at a level which we do not often see. There is a level of understanding in poems such as "The Yogi" and "The Karma of Rain" (with its delightful, sudden change of perspective in the space of four words) which is equally rare. The fourteen lines of "Books" can only leave the reader deeply thoughtful and more than a little troubled. The tendency, so common today, to fall into pseudo-mystical endings thankfully is nowhere in evidence. Nevertheless, there are small moments genuinely akin to satori sprinkled liberally throughout.

The opening lines of "In Winter Light" are among the better from both volumes:

As north wind makes the year's first snowflakes dance,
one of them drops into my hand like some
white Athens fallen into history's palm —
a moment's Parthenon, brief as a glance.

The juxtaposition of a simple snowflake's crystalline structure with classical Athens allows the poet to make history quotidian and the quotidian historical within its private proportions. In this fashion, he is momentarily god-like and surveys the expanse of time without being in the least grandiose.

Dorn is capable, as well, of reaching down to the quietly exceptional description we find in "Soloist" , where he says of the newly divorced protagonist:

               ...she's new
as an unspoiled idea.

or the deceptively simple observation found in "Choices" :

choices that killed the selves I might have been....

While the thoughts are not necessarily original, the poet knows to leave them understated for the best effect.

Voices from Rooms is not quite the equal of From Cells to Mindspace but rises to the occasion in a number of poems. The sonnet "Chopin" has clean lines and the opening octave is particularly fine. Epigrams are seldom written any longer and the acerbic four lines of "A Gossip" remind us of the delight they once provided.

It is also true, however, that Dorn's volumes display a number of the weaknesses of contemporary poetry. The images are too often not organic to the poems — merely interesting thoughts — and too rarely are explored. As a result the poems generally lack shading. Perhaps because it has already violated one of the sacred tenets of contemporary poetry, Neo-Formalism in general clings to the others with tenacity, and this is evident here, as well. The poems (in Voices from Rooms, especially) are anecdotal, as a rule, and, as a result, sometimes border on the trite. The use of slang is sometimes gratuitous.

What these poems lack, more than anything else, is sufficient quantities of the friendly competition which can forge exceptional poetry. Dante's sonnets are often supremely capable because he was involved in a cross-pollination with the likes of Cavalcante. Without it he would not have been so rigorously self-critical or have written so well. While Keats had no Cavalcante, his little cadre, and his occasional brushes with the best poets of his day, was sufficient to his needs in this respect. The list of examples could go on for many pages. This cross-pollination is too little in evidence here. Not surprisingly — circumstances such as they are — it is too little in evidence throughout the genre.

Still, these volumes are well worth reading. If Neo-Formalism will find a way to translate the spirit of earlier ages into contemporary terms, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Mr. Dorn might be looked back upon as its Thomas Carew: lyrical, at times lacking depth, but an often-delightful poet whom we would be loath to do without.

For Further Exploration

From Cells to Mindspace and Voices from Rooms are available from: Somers Rocks Press, 505 Court Street, #4N, Brooklyn, New York 11231. They may also be ordered from its companion Internet site: Expansive Poetry and Music Online (http://www.n2hos.com/acm/).