Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

"The Ghost of Tradition" by Kevin Walzer (Story Line Press, 1998)

He begins with

  • "My aim is also to show how Expansive poetry has helped to transform poetry's place in American culture - particularly in its challenge to the creative writing establishment based in universities", p.ix
  • "I use the term 'Expansive,' first used by Wade Newman in a 1988 essay. The term reflects these poets' interest in expanding both the formal possibilities available to poets, and the audience for poetry in American culture. The term also recognizes the broad affinities between the New Formalist and the New Narrative poets", p.xiii

I like Annie Finch's The Ghost of Meter and even more so Steele's "Missing Measures". They're both discussed in chapter 2 where the Expansive poetry movement's put into historical context. Dana Gioia is described as "already one of the most influential poets and critics of his generation", (p.53). I didn't think his poetry did much. Frederick Turner is mentioned too as a key theorist whose "major work has earned him a place among the significant poets of the twentieth century" (p.121), which judging by the material presented surprizes me too. Opinions on the poets aren't uniformly favorable though - weaker books are pointed out. Interestingly, some of the poets featured began as free-formers.

Walzer writes that High Modernism's experiments "share a common denominator: presentation of direct objects and experience, in free verse, without interpretation, in short units" (p.25). He presents various arguments that have been used to explain Modernism's effect on poetry: the increasing respectability of prose; the extrapolation of "poetry needn't be in a form" to a prohibition; the changing notion of Organic Form (the natural world no longer being considered orderly); the rise of science and experiment. He points out how older forms have become associated with other older things -

  • Easthope links "blank verse with the emergence of the borgeois, capitalistic society that is the hallmark of modernity. In Easthope's view, blank verse helped to create the very cultural conditions that bring on mass oppression ... Easthope argues that iambic pentameter furthers bourgeois culture by creating the illusion of a single poetic speaker, attempting to capture that individual's idiomatic voice by effacing the rhythm of the lines, rather than foregrounding the musical and communal quality of poetry that the older four-stress, oral poetic tradition emphasized", p.12-13
  • "For serious twentieth-century women poets, traditional poetic form has had a troubled legacy", Annie Finch, "A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women", p.1

He writes that "Like any successful revolutionaries, however, the Modernists and their successors changed more than the present system; they changed our senses of the past", (p.25), listing some of the victims - "In the twentieth century, dominated by the free verse revolution, poetry came increasingly to be identified with lyric - primarily because good free verse, lacking the rhythmic regularity of rhyme and meter, tended to make extensive use of other aspects of sound form to achieve intensity (assonance. consonance, alliteration) and, influenced by Modernism, concentrated on direct, unadorned presentation of images to portray its subjects" (p.122). Satire and narrative became harder to write.

As a summary of the historical arguments it's a useful book, but how good is the poetry? He offers some long examples, as he must if he's going to illustrate narrative tendencies. He shows that Formalists aren't bean-counters - he's happy with terza rima that ends with an "aba bba cdc" rhyme scheme, and sonnets with the "wrong" number of lines. But he doesn't convince me that there's much uptapped potential.

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