Back to School: The New Formalism

What Arthur Miller wrote on the appearance of The Formalist magazine in 1990 was the simple truth: 'I am sure I will not be the only one grateful for The Formalist. Frankly, it was a shock to realize, as I looked through through the first issue, that I had nearly given up the idea of taking pleasure from poetry.'{1}

Formalism arguably began much earlier, with Richard Wilbur, {2} whose first collection, The Beautiful Changes, was published in 1947. And formalism in one sense had never been dead, {3} since crafted verse was the staple of good poetry from De la Mare {4} Graves {5}, Muir {6}, Auden {7} Spender, {8} Amis {9}, Larkin {10} Thomas {11}, Betjeman {12}, and Hill {13} in England, and from Frost {14} Wylie, {15} Teasdale, {16} Robinson, {17} Ransome, {18} Meredith, {19} Carruth, {20} Booth, {21} Hall, {22} Davidson, {23} Moss, {24} Ferry, {25} Cunningham, {26} Nemerov, {27} Lowell {28} and Hollander {29} in America. And countless others.

But the New Formalism was rather different, notably in its proselytizing role, its marked antagonism to free verse, and its stress on metrical correctness.

Richard Wibur

Wilbur served with the Infantry during WWII, studied English at Harvard on the GI Bill, made friends there with Robert Frost, and had his first poem published by the Saturday Evening Post. {30} His first collection, The Beautiful Changes (1947), was warmly received, and the second, Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), established him as a name to watch. Much-praised collections and translations followed. {31} Yet after many accolades, a successful academic career, a Pulitzer Prize and Poet Laureateship of the United States, a William Logan article in The New Criterion article could say of him: 'Wilbur had great gifts he didn't squander so much as stop using, at least for his poetry. He became our premier translator of Molière and Racine, but whether he abandoned poetry or poetry abandoned him has never been clear. He has continued to write, doing little more than toying with his verse, the way a great cat toys with prey. The poems, now simpler and less distractingly ornate, don't seem to matter much to him, and it's hard to see how they can matter much to the reader, even at their best.' {32}

But misgivings had been voiced much earlier by Marjorie Perloff {33} who said of the title poem of The Things of This World (1956) collection, which begins:

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple.
As false dawn. Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

that, for all the New Criticism values of depersonalisation, ambiguity, tension, and paradox so brilliantly displayed, the aloof conceit of washing viewed as disembodied angels took some swallowing. Could we forget the drudgery that laundry actually involved, and how washing actually looked from a New York apartment? Wasn't the St. Augustine-derived title, Love Calls us to the Things of This World more a studious, male-orientated avoidance of things as they were in the world? And though written in the peace and prosperity years of the Eisenhower administration, when Russian threats were contained, and both WWII and the Korean War could be set in the past, the poem was nevertheless curiously separated from cultural realities, perhaps being only a painless juggling with words that drew their resonances from literature more than the living speech of everyday joys and perplexities.

Likewise, David Perkins praised the grace, wit and intelligence of the title poem of the second collection, Ceremony, which begins:

A striped blouse in a clearing by Bazille
Is, you may say, a patroness of boughs
Too queenly kind toward nature to be kin.
But ceremony never did conceal,
Save to the silly eye, which all allows,
How much we are the woods we wander in.

but wondered whether such a dazzling style with its echoes of the English Metaphysical poets did not 'stifle passion and conduce to a bland evasiveness.' {34}

Perloff and Perkins were writing from a committed avant garde position, but their charges make a claim for something crucial to contemporary poetry: openness to larger issues. Poets who neglect this dimension, who remain apart from their anxieties of their age, too much at ease with themselves, can dry up in later life, as Tennyson did, {35} and the cantankerous Pope did not. {36}

But deftness is not necessarily a handicap. In commenting on the accomplished but emotionally narrow work of an earlier poet, Christopher Ricks suggested that the better poems of A.E. Housman succeed because their rhythm and style mitigate and extend what their bald paraphrase is saying. {37} But perhaps it would be better to say that their lapidary exactness inserts them into the grain of language, on which they feed and rework, crystallizing the language into views that seem believable through one of the oldest of devices: creation of a literary personality. Housman was never a yokel, {38} and never drawn to country lasses, but the loneliness and anguish of his homosexuality condensed in poignant expressions of adolescent love, which he placed in a landscape of his own imagining. Wilbur is not an anguished writer, and his personality has been extended through translations of French playwrights.


1. Very pleasing work was created (and continues to be created) under the aegis of New Formalism. It can be most things:

playful and telling:

And it turned out in the platoon I had a clone
-- Same height, weight, eye color and so forth--
Named Morgan. Put fatigues on us
And our mothers couldn't tell us apart,
So naturally the cadre
Was constantly mistaking us too.

I'd stay out of sight and he'd yell, "Morgan,
Clean the shit cans!" or "Morgan, police

The wrappers--let's see some ass and elbows!"
And Morgan, the poor bastard, plodded
Week after week through this plain
Case of mistaken identity and never did catch on.

The last day, when we were fully trained and terrified
The cadre said, "Well, Morgan, how does it feel
To be a killing machine?"
I told him the name was Moran
And that it felt piss-poor. He stared at me like
He'd never seen me before, which of course he hadn't. {39}


Tell it to me, Ralphie...
Ralphie, tell it to me under this lean tree...
Ralphie, tell me what's happening under the ground
That pulses the air lightly
Breaking these new buds
Over my head...

Tell me why drums beat
Out of the ground, Ralphie,
Tell me what a long winter it's been,
How the drum's talking itself alive,
How sweat (flows out of the ground, baby)
Makes leather sing... {40}


Over forty years ago, I saw you
in my mirror mornings before the slow
days dawned. Working the hootowl shift miles
above Bohemia and in love with smiles
anyone gave, I was you to the core,
looked like you even then. Hung my hands in
pockets lightly exactly the way you did,
and wore the light blue pants.

Our names the same
signaled something I tried my best to grasp.
Maybe I have it now. But for you, Jimmy,
I would have remained in the north country
and never have known the freedom of road
and will. I was a slow rebel, double
for you in the smoky taverns of Oregon
where lost women and mournful men spilled their
lives on Saturday nights. {41}


My buddy says this time I've got it bad.
My first love says she can't recall my name.
My baby says my singing make her sad.
My dog says that she loves me all the same.

My pastor says to walk the narrow path.
My coach says someone else will get the ball.
My God says I shall bend beneath his wrath.
My agent says Los Angeles may call. {42}


You have half forgotten, you almost remember the dream
Of a native country whose language was joy
Despite the numerous crosses, the wide denial
Of an abundance flowing from the infinite
Founding the city upon the reformed heart
And sustaining the world through one small land.

It always was about this piece of land
Where a people held together by a dream
(Or compressed by surrounding pressures into a heart)
Found, between towering walls, the way to joy
Just for a moment that seemed infinite
Before the jaws of empire closed in denial. {43}

2. The New Formalists revived the dying art of verse-writing, and created magazines, courses, university appointments {44} publishing houses and bulletin boards {45} to further its appreciation. The world's poetry is largely in verse, and if that poetry is not read first and foremost as verse then we are struggling in a foreign tongue, one where we may broadly understand the words, but do not feel any exultation or chill in the blood, or any sense of a world beyond the prose meanings.

3. The New Formalists brought attention back to poetry as poetry, away from media stunts, political commitment and literary theory.

Weaknesses of the New Formalism

The New Formalism was a combative movement, {46} and the opposition soon retaliated, pointing out {47} that:

1. Much was flat-footed and unadventurous. The following poem is making fun of the situation by being so baldly written, but the metre betrays the sense into what could be more interestingly said in prose.

Just one profitable week at the office
Will offset a recent manuscript's rejection
And white-out bad press in the Book Review section
By granting almost every temporal wish.
And on days when faithful clients ignore your call,
When a slumping stock becomes more than an omen,
When you stagger home wasted as Willy Loman,
How easy to write a line and damn them all. {48}

2. Correctness was over-emphasized. The preferred metre was a strict iambic, and that heavy-handed requirement closed down the melodies that are played over the regularity in underlying metre — melodies needed to express the finer shades of emotional content, and respect the personalities of individual words. This poem has an unromantic story to tell, but the no-nonsense iambic beat finally alienates us from its pathos:

Sunday morning sitting in the pew
She prayed to know what she should do
If Haskell Trahan who she figured would
Should take her out again and ask her to.

For though she meant to do as she was told
His hands were warmer than the pew was cold
And she was mindful of him who construed
A new communion sweeter than the old. {49}

3. Verse became an end in itself: anything, no matter how trivial, could be written in strict forms, and was valuable to the extent that it demonstrated that reach. The skill is not in doubt in this poem, but the effect is not so much insouciance or brio as heartlessness:

It's almost noon, you say? If so,
Time flies and I need not rehearse
The rosebud-theme of centuries of verse.
If you must go

Wait for a while, then slip downstairs
And bring us some chilled white wine,
And some blue cheese, and crackers, and some fine
Ruddy-skinned pears. {50}

4. Its practitioners were as dismissive of the opposition as the opposition became of them. Free verse requires an acute ear for sound and placing, but this the Formalists did not always develop or recognize in others. Words are too press-ganged by the metre in this otherwise simple and quiet poem:

My parents left a handsome stand uncut
but hacked out all the saplings and the brush.
On stormy nights with cottage windows shut,
we heard old boughs creak in the seawind's rush.

One by one the surviving pines were tried
and the Barrens grew more barren as they died. {51}

5. New Formalists seemed to be living in a time-warp, oblivious to the many concerns that Modernism (for all its failings) tried to address, and sometimes to the everyday world of readers. The argument is not passé in this poem, but too much assembled from the Romantics props cupboard:

There'd be no music from Apollo's lyre,
Nor could the goddess Venus find this place.
His battered heart would be protected here
Against impostors wearing masks of truth.
There'd be no sun, no constellation's light.
And passion would replace this thing called love.
Narcissus was the one he'd follow now.
And so he'd live—the jailor of his soul. {52}

6. Technique became not a means of exploring emotional response, but of evading it. A good ear and clear eye are evident in this poem, but the essential theme, the consolations of art, is not so much explored as tacked on:

At last she stops to watch the paper dry
as if she guesses when to wait; to see
the deeper tones grow lighter as the eye
makes soft flushed hues combine in a mystery
which rarely grants itself, as if it chose
that paint and water now again make fresh
the secret at the centre of a rose,
that's only half-remembered in her flesh. {53}

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's Modernism articles.