Who Writes Formal Poetry Anymore?
In times of grief, in times of pain, humans look to art for consolation, and throughout history the poem has enjoyed a principle place in human reckoning with a fallen cosmos. Psalm 23, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Longfellow’s Psalm of Life—these have been companions to readers in the face of tragedy. I wrote the following essay before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, and as I was editing it for our school blog, I realized that it did not acknowledge poetry’s historical place in human consolation and healing. Thus, I would like to acknowledge it: poetry matters, in part, because at its best it can preserve and communicate fundamental human experience and truth to those who most need it. The one who reads it is not so alone as before. For those looking for a poem that reflects on the recent disaster in the Gulf Coast, I recommend this poem by Jennifer Hartenburg.
It has become something of a cliché in Great Books circles to bemoan the state of poetry today; indeed, if one digs far enough on the internet, one can find even yours truly giving a lecture about a decade ago in which I argued that American poetry since 1950 has largely been a wasteland.
The common complaints boil down to two:
- No one publishes, reads, or cares about poetry anymore; it has been almost totally eclipsed by fiction and visual media. For all intents and purposes, poetry, which reigned as the greatest of literary genres the world over for thousands of years, is now dead.
- Those poets who do still write and publish poetry, and the small audience that still reads it, have abandoned all traditional forms—epic, sonnet, ballad, ode, etc—in favor of free verse, rendering the little poetry that does exist a mess of solipsistic and formless emotivism. This alienates the general readership from poetry, further solidifying complaint #1.
Some have attempted to spin these complaints as a good thing. Both Dana Gioia and Adam Bradley have argued that formal poetry—which had grown old and decrepit on the pale page—has survived by jumping off of the written page, and thrives today in oral artistic traditions, especially the Hip Hop and Spoken Word scenes. While I don’t disagree with either writer, I would like to take a slightly different approach to the two complaints themselves.
I would like to flatly disagree with them.
Reading and Writing Formal Poetry Today
Simply put, original, formal, contemporary poetry is alive. I do concede that no contemporary poet’s work rivals the likes of J.K. Rowling or Star Wars in its popularity. The novel and the blockbuster film are where the money is. Still, let us not forget that one of the biggest cash cows of American culture last year was not a movie or a novel, but a historical drama written in formal verse: Hamilton. Whatever you think of the quality of writer Lin Manuel Miranda’s poetry in the play, there is no denying that it is an example of popular poetry in the poetic tradition of Sophocles and Shakespeare, not Stephen King or Spielberg. To point out that Miranda more primarily derives his formal inspiration from ’90s Hip Hop is no contradiction. Tupac Shakur, we must remember, cut his performative teeth reciting Shakespeare onstage in high school drama clubs.
But for all this, Hamilton is an exception. Those poets who are relatively popular in their genre—John Ashbery, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, W.S. Merwin, etc—sell exponentially fewer books than popular fiction writers. Looking only at the numbers, it appears the majority of Americans who do still buy books and read them for fun do not buy or read poetry.
But this is quite different than saying that no one reads poetry, nor is it to say that those who do read poetry have no discernment when it comes to traditional poetic form. What is the case is that poets who do truck in formal traditions are in the minority of popular and esteemed poets, but they are there, and they are not silent.
I would like to turn now to look at several poets who, in the last decade, have proven that poetry of contemporary value and relevance can be deeply informed by and add to the ongoing formal traditions of English Poetry:
Former chairman of the NEA and current professor at USC, Dana Gioia is a national spokesman for the cause of poetry—especially formal poetry. In several influential essays since the 1990s, Gioia has bemoaned the lack of formal training and knowledge taught by English writing programs, and suggested ways to remedy this lack. In fact, Gioia’s work is something of a go-to for both the most learned and informed Jeremiad against the state of American poetry, and for some of the most winsome and accessible formal poetry of our era: he writes humorous ballads, lovely sonnets, and sometimes downright macabre blank verse monologues. In short, Gioia preaches the gospel of formal poetic tradition, and he practices what he preaches. For a good introduction to his work, check out his latest collection, 99 Poems: New and Selected (Graywolf Press, 2017). For his essays, see Can Poetry Matter? (Graywolf Press, 2002).
Poet Laureate of Connecticut from 2001-2006, Nelson’s poetic project is nothing short of daunting: she seeks, in her collections, to give voice to and tell the stories of African-American experience throughout America’s history. She favors the sonnet form, especially the difficult sonnet-crown, and through it takes on moments of historical pain and power: the career of George Washington Carver, the murder of Emmett Till, the experience of 19th century manumission, etc. Nelson’s poems at times remind one of Robert Frost: at once formally precise and achingly raw. Check out her Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems (LSU Press, 2012).
Two time winner of the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, Scotsman Don Paterson is, I admit, my favorite poet writing today. Like Gioia and Nelson, he is an accomplished sonneteer, but unlike them, he is an avowed agnostic. He is deeply aware of how his materialism puts him at odds with his poetic predecessors—Hopkins, Milton, Donne, Shakespeare—and he wrestles to articulate a universe without God in the same formal language that gave us the great devotional verse of the English tradition. Like the formally in-tune Philip Larkin, he can be bitterly funny, griping about consumerism and political posturing. He can also be heartbreakingly honest, writing about infant loss and other varieties of human suffering. He is adept at both iambic pentameter and tetrameter, and has become something of a national treasure in Scotland, having beat out several popular novels to win the 2015 Costa Book of the Year award. Check out his 40 Sonnets (FSG Press, 2017), published last month in the US.
It is almost unfair to put Wilbur on this list, as he did his most important work in formal poetry in the 1940s and ’50s. He hobnobbed with the likes of Sylvia Plath, and saw her less-formal style eclipse his in the 1960s and ’70s. Indeed, if there is someone to blame for the rise of emotionally vomitous free verse in the late 20th century, it is Plath, though it can be equally argued that Plath was much more formally controlled and precise than any of her hackneyed imitators seem to have noticed. Either way, Plath has long since passed, but Wilbur is still alive and publishing. His poetry and translations in the last two decades have continued his tradition of formal facility and precision. Indeed, Wilbur may be the most formally precise and knowledgeable poet writing today, having had almost seventy years of professional practice. See his Collected Poems (Harcourt Press, 2004).
Though Hill passed away last summer, his recent poetry and criticism has provided a solid—indeed, fundamentally profound—grounding for the continuance of formal English Poetry in the 21st century. Hill published a handful of highly regarded collections from the 1950s through ’90s. Tenebrae, published in 1978, is arguably one of the most haunting and religiously serious collections of formal poetry in the 20th century, and contains Hill’s best sonnets of the last century. But Hill did not slow down in the 21st century, having published 10 collections of formal and demanding verse in the decade before his death. Hill is a master not just of the iambic line, but also of complex syllable structures.
Accompanying these final collections are Hill’s critical essays and lectures, the most important of which are his fifteen lectures given at Oxford from 2011 – 2015. These lectures are no more and no less than a thoroughly British excoriation of contemporary politics and culture in general and poetry in particular. Hill builds a complicated and erudite argument for the writing of a historically and theologically informed, formally robust poetry in the 21st century, drawing on the English poetic tradition from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, and Philip Larkin. These lectures, along with the major essays of Gioia, ought to be required for anyone seeking to criticize or participate in the Anglo-American poetic scene of today.
Popular Poetry: Our Responsibility
The state of poetry today in America is indeed a diminution, both popularly and formally, from its state in the nineteenth century. However, the formal traditions of the past have not been wholly forgotten, and some of our most accomplished poets continue to keep alive the old forms: the tradition of the sonnet and sonnet sequence in particular have enjoyed fantastic contributions from contemporary poets. There also have been important contributions to the ballad, dramatic monologue, and verse drama traditions.
It is up to the living generations of readers and writers to patronize those poets who preserve and keep alive the traditional forms, and to practice those old ways ourselves, if we are serious about the tragedy of their loss.