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, … Continue reading →