On Formalist Poetry by Lesley Jenike

March 24, 2010

Lesley Jenike’s poems have appeared in 32 Poems and will be appearing soon in The Journal, Diode, and Drunken Boat. Her first book of poems, Ghost of Fashion, was published May 2009 by CustomWords. She teaches writing and literature at the Columbus College of Art and Design and is working on her second manuscript tentatively titled With the Left Eye Alone.

It seems there’s been a recent push to categorize, define and delineate contemporary American poetry. We’ve had the marvelous new anthology edited by David St. John and Cole Swensen, American Hybrid, which attempts to collect work from younger poets that doesn’t necessarily subscribe to that old lyric/narrative dichotomy, but that pushes the bounds of language, voice, and story in ways deliciously post-post (poetics of identity and self-reclamation giving way to an altogether diffused self). We have critic/poets like Ron Silliman and Stephen Burt coining terms like the “Poetry of Quietude” (which I interpret to mean poetry of the status quo, or “conservative” poetry?), and the “Elliptical Poets”, or the “Third Way—“ and now “The New Thing,” which, Burt suggests (using Armantrout as a model) relies on “brevity” and “skeptical pressure.” These poets, according to Burt, “pursue compression, compact description, humility, restricted diction.” If this is, indeed, “The New Thing,” I’m interested in finding and identifying poets and poems that fit the paradigm; I like to compartmentalize just as much as the next girl.

But what I feel is missing in many of the aforementioned critiques is any real interest in new approaches to traditional form. Of course we all know about that little thing called “New Formalism, ” and some of our American poets may very well still be operating under than nomenclature, but New Formalism can’t be the whole story. In fact, I’m excited by some of our younger poets’ use of metrics and rhyme while absconding that New Formalist penchant for contrived narrative moments, causal, conversational language, and tamped down, smooth surfaces. The poems/poets I’m thinking of (and there may be more I’d love to discover) aren’t afraid to allow for range of motion, subject matter, and tone. They often employ a variety of dictions and languages, cumulating in a heightened rhetoric that’s at times flat out visionary.

I’m particularly fond of Timothy Donnelly’s Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit and Susan Wheeler’s Ledger (though now we have a lovely Assorted Poems just out this year). Interestingly, these are both poets Stephen Burt refers to as “Elliptical” in their mix of diction and in their elusiveness, but while Burt, in his review of Wheeler’s Smokes, argues Wheeler’s “technical interests lead her astray” I, on the other hand, find Wheeler’s patchwork quilt of traditional verse forms stunningly equipped to handle the poems’ thematic largesse. These are poems that range and range widely/wildly. Their appropriation of historic forms suggests an intellect fraught by the constant interplay between the past and the present. Similarly, Donnelly doesn’t choose to bury his masterful iambic line under conventional syntax and/or narrative structures, but rather allows it to anchor his surrealist tendencies and jarring juxtapositions. It’s the delightful interplay between form as a ship’s sails and imagination as its rudder (to completely mangle an analogy of Coleridge’s here) that gives the poems their forward motion. But you may already know these poets. They’ve been around for a while now. Erica Dawson’s debut collection Big-Eyed Afraid is perhaps more meticulous in its use of traditional verse forms, but her explosive surfaces never attempt to disguise the artifice—a truly post-post technique I find utterly refreshing and frankly inspirational.

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