As a kid, I was, I admit, a little gullible. No, one could not play tricks on me, or generate obvious lies in the hope that I’d believe them, for such things — please excuse the pun — were mere child’s play, and always level with the world. Not so with poetry, I thought. Here were smart people, most of whom were a lot more experienced than I was, and were, therefore, in the position to guide me. I was willing. I was receptive. And I wanted to learn, for — despite the burgeoning ego of adolescence — I was quite serious, too, and needed help to connect memories, this or that minor experience, some fleeting, ill-remembered word into a system that mattered. I wanted, in short, to be a writer, here were people that were doing it, and every force, from awards, to reputation, personality, popularity, and, at times, the opaqueness of how such things were judged, in the first place, seemed to imply that they were doing it quite well.
That was on the one hand. On the other, I was also discerning enough to realize that the advent of free verse helped engender poetry that slipped, well, into total formlessness. This was not ‘freedom’ (as the phrase might imply), since to be free also implies to be in (and under) the control of something, to allow good expression to flow. The crowd did not heed this, and my automatic reaction was, well, reaction: that if free verse wasn’t doing it right, something else was, and that something must have been its diametric opposite, i.e., New Formalism. This is, of course, an example of extreme thinking, and showed my inability to make some nicer distinctions. But the New Formalists nonetheless struck me as the good guys who, fed up with laziness and schlock, wanted to bring poetry back to its source, and were, in fact, quite rebellious in their aesthetic conservatism — ironic given that art moves forward, not back, with the New Formalists merely substituting one bad side-step for another. And yet… ‘poetry at its source’. I liked the ring of it, and before I knew it, was lost in a fug of syllables and feet that had remarkably little to do with the source itself.
Of course, the issue here is that a poetic form is NOT poetry, but a method, and New Formalism a mere aesthetic preference that may or may not lead to good writing. Now, I shed my fixations as soon as I realized this, but not before acquiring a few documents in the midst of this (short) foray. One such document is William Baer’s 150 Contemporary Sonnets, an anthology that was put together from submissions to the now-defunct The Formalist journal (edited by Baer) as well as other publications. Yet despite having claimed to have published over 500 “talented sonneteers,” Baer’s anthology does not include a single truly great sonnet a la the classics of yore, does little to push the sonnet of today into more contemporary directions, and is mostly a showcase for passable, but seldom good writing. Having re-read it cover-to-cover a few weeks back, there are, to be sure, some excellent moments, but lots of flab as well, even when quite sound on a purely technical level. The anthology therefore highlights precisely what is good and bad within the New Formalist school, albeit in a way their neither Baer nor the contributors, themselves, seem to realize.
To wit, one of the book’s worst sonnets is in fact Baer’s, and although it’s not 100% typical, it captures the sort of cliches of narrative, diction, trope, and form that plagues much of New Formalism as a whole:
Timing’s everything. The vapor rises
high in the sky, tossing to and fro,
then freezes, suddenly, and crystallizes
into a perfect flake of miraculous snow.
For countless miles, drifting east above
the world, whirling about in a swirling free-
for-all, appearing aimless, just like love,
but sensing, seeking out, its destiny.
Falling to where the two young skaters stand,
hand in hand, then flips and dips and whips
itself about to ever-so-gently land,
a miracle, across her unkissed lips:
as he blocks the wind raging from the south,
leaning forward to kiss her lovely mouth.
Consider the title before all else. Not terrible, in and of itself, but uninteresting, commonplace, and rote right off the bat, for unless Bael does something grand with the poem to somehow twist and pull against the title’s associations, it is a complete waste, simply taking up space in naming a banal object described in a banal way. Worse, still, is the number of times snow is referenced or implied (“freezes”, “crystallizes”, “flake”, “snow”, “drifting”, “falling”, “miracle”), making the title not only rote, but redundant, as well. Yet the poem itself is the real problem here. It starts with not so much a cliche as a commonplace (“Timing’s everything”), which is already quite the gamble, requiring, as it does, some further surprise to justify its use. And does the reader get it? Well, the first 3 lines do little but describe vapor turning into snow — decent music, but fairly prosaic, forgettable word-choices. The fourth line whacks you with a cliche the entire length of that line (“a perfect flake of miraculous snow”), the fifth continues in a similar vein (“countless miles”), and the seventh, for the first time, tries the poem’s hand at being something ‘deeper’ than mere description (“appearing aimless, just like love”), but falls flat since there’s no real follow-up except another cliche (“seeking out, its destiny”). This makes this sudden ‘turn’ to depth feel forced, unjustified, as it is, by any words on the page. It finishes with a needless cliche-cum-repetition (“miracle”) — all the worse in a mere 14 line poem that can so easily die through such redundancy — another cliche (“wind raging”), and an abysmal cliche in the very last line that, instead of serving as a memorable capstone to the poem, only further annihilates it. Yet it rhymes; it takes slightly more endurance, I guess, than to merely blab the same exact content in no form whatsoever. But, as I’ve argued, above, a poetic form is not poetry, and does remarkably little to save a bad poem, a fact that Baer does not realize despite his seeming quest for excellence and “talent” — selecting, even, this as one of his better poems, thus potentially occluding far better writing in the process. No doubt there are worse sonnets than this, but, by that same token, there were probably better ones, too, that were NOT chosen by Baer, making this a poorly edited book, to boot.
But what if you simply get rid of all the cliches? Could the sonnet form, then, depend more on some kind of intrinsic worth, if such a thing even exists? Would you have a better poem? Well, no, because if you merely get rid of the worst, but do little else to rectify the deeper problem, you simply end up with Willis Barnstone’s sonnet:
Sirens are singing monsters of the sea
who live on mountains in the north. A bridge
connects two peaks, and from that height I see
their yellow eyes: star beacons on the ridge,
longing to shake me into the abyss.
Their passion fills my ears. I’ve thrown away
the wax, and despite trembling cowardice
I hear the river in their throats. My way
is clear. Their fatal weapon is my choice.
The singing pierces the protective fan
of lead under my clothes. Their wings explode
like virtue cracking through a Puritan.
Easy as consciousness, I jump, a toad
into the waters of their cloudy voice.
Now stop for a moment and think about what you’ve just read. No, it’s not particularly egregious; it has one or two turns of phrase that, in a better poem, could have pushed it to a more interesting direction. Yet the net effect is so unremarkably flat, from the child-like opening (as if the term “siren” need be defined), to the forced end, that one is left with nothing to say about it. There’s the rote description (“trembling cowardice”), the predictable way in which the sonnet finally ‘turns’ on the too-familiar siren mythology (“My way/ is clear”), and a desire for depth at the end that, as with “Snowflake,” simply has nothing in the narrative, structure, or words to justify it, and ultimately does so little. And the title, repeated in the very first word of the very first line, is still lazy and redundant.
For all the smallness of this poem, however, it does do something interesting, albeit inadvertently. It captures precisely what Formalism is, if not as a movement or school, then as a way of seeing, a way of talking about art (no matter the poverty inherent to this method). It seems that, in this system, a poem’s essence is its shape, and little else. It really doesn’t matter what transpires within. It doesn’t matter ‘how’ it all transpires– only that it DOES. In short, it only needs to follow certain rules. No, worse than that: it needs to pay respect to formula. A few decrees, if you will, once applied to the Greek and Roman world, and now updated — however slightly — for modernity. Do not ask of origins or trajectory. Do not wonder what they will communicate. It is simply good enough that, in this particular and overly limiting set of regulations, something clicks, and gets to work, no matter how mechanically. And, no doubt, the above poem ‘works’. It is, no doubt, a sonnet. There is, of course, a clear beginning, middle, and end. And there is, I guess, narrative. Yet if one tries to search beyond this, the question of WHY these two poems were ever written in the first place inevitably comes up.
But why, unfortunately, cannot be answered with the first two poems. This is because the word implies care, some desire to KNOW, and such desires are simply not justified by the content of these poems. Of course, not everything here is this low, as the majority of the poems are simply forgettable, even if solid, but there are some flashes of quality in between. Here, for instance, is a sonnet by Thomas Carper:
Why Did The…
Because the cackling of the cocks and hens
Had raised his hackles for too many years.
Because the pecking order made no sense,
But simply fattened the inferiors.
Because the smells – not only of the yard,
But of the mental air – had made him sick,
With every hatchling hurrying to discard
The truths he had been raised on as a chick.
Because his spirit was oppressed by Freud,
The prince of darkness, and by Darwin’s laws
That left the whole farm falling into void
No fowl could find a reason for. Because
The barnyard now seemed ready to explode,
With hope in flight, the chicken crossed the road.
Is it a great poem in the vein of some more classic sonnets? No, but from the intriguing and narrative-driving title, to the sometimes-interesting word choice (“mental air”), the aptness and playfulness of its allusions (Freud as “the prince of darkness”), and the recycling of familiar material (in this case, a joke) into something new and meaningful, makes this, at the very least, a solid or even good poem. Notice how, in the 9th line, the sudden ‘turn’ to depth, via Freud and other references, feels less forced, because the content is immanently interesting and therefore justifies further connections in the reader’s mind, as it’s been coaxed into and opened to such by all that comes before. Here is an example, then, of an otherwise strict form being able to rebel not so much against its parameters, but push against what is normally thought of as ‘acceptable’ content for poetry, especially for such a strict form, thus showing just one way in which a sonnet can move forward and stay relevant instead of merely dying in the fug of what’s contemporary.
An even better poem, however, is Tony Barnstone’s:
The time has come he never thought would come
when he sees her see in him just defects.
As if his love is what has kept her down,
what once she thought was perfect she rejects.
She takes an audit of his qualities,
subtracts affection, multiplies distress,
and so, in sum, she takes his sum and sees
the countless reasons she should need him less.
She knows him better than he knows himself
so if she finds his love to be oppression,
and reads these years of joy as years of lies,
then he must turn his mind against himself
and see, laid out in infinite regression,
his net and gross of failure in her eyes.
The title (although unfortunately repeated mid-poem) is a good one, for it amplifies the nature of the content, and is able to serve as a de facto justification for some of its more jargony word choices. Line 2 has an interesting play with the phrase “just defects,” for it calls to mind both ‘mere’/’only,’ as well as the deeper idea that the lover sees her lover’s defects are “just” — as in, justifying her own thought process, and probable behavior. Lines 3 and 4 neatly capture the tug-and-pull of many similar relationships, while the next 4 are playful and clever without simply losing themselves in such, ultimately leading into an idea (“the countless reasons she should need him less”) that controls the poem’s remainder. The subtle use of a word like ‘should’ further complicates the meaning, and ensures there’s more than one interpretation for what follows. Line 9 digs even more deeply, for “She knows him better than he knows himself” serves to reduce the impact of her previous rationalizations, if only by further attacking her lover. It implies what her behavior MIGHT look like in the real world, outside of this poem, as she critiques other as being not self-aware enough, while not realizing her own guilt in such. This means that, in a single line, we get a fair amount of characterization, and although line 11 has some bad, over-obvious phrasing (“years of joys as years of lies”), this does little to reduce to impact of the actual sum. Moreover, even some of the jargon is given a poetic quality. “Infinite regression,” besides being a mathematical term, brings to mind a stretching out into both past and future, all the while amplifying the woman’s original thoughts until they occlude reality. The poem is tight, then, and makes meaningful choices, and while there’s nothing too deep, here, or mysterious, or willing to take some riskier, less intuitive leaps for the possibility of breaching greatness, it’s still well constructed, has a clear point, and makes this point well.
Unfortunately, of the book’s 150 sonnets, only a half dozen or so reach the quality of the above two (and never higher), a dozen others can be argued as having some positive flashes, while the rest teeter between bad and mediocre. And this is the reality of ALL poetry, as a whole, whether free verse or formal, straightforward or experimental, American or international, written now or written centuries ago. Quality is necessarily rare, in almost ANY contemporary sampling, for art beyond such categories, and remains unbounded by such. 150 Contemporary Sonnets, however, does bind it, and when, by pure luck, something of quality is finally let through, it’s not even differentiated by Baer, and is lessened, in a way, by being put in such divergent company.