Monday, March 22, 2004

I'm rather sorry that Mike Snider hasn't yet had the chance to write the "rather long essay" he'd intended in response to my post on formalism; I was actually looking forward to Mike's account of why he found my position "frankly incredible"--an anticipation that was only to a very minor degree gladiatorial.

So maybe it isn't entirely fair to respond to what may be a very partial statement of Mike's position--but one works with the tools at hand.

I do want to say that I'm not really intervening in the corollary debate between Josh Corey and Chris Lott on, among other things, what Chris is calling "New Cult." I don't believe (and neither, I think, does Josh) in the pursuit of "new" poetic forms just for their own sake; that would be a formal fetish just as silly as insisting that all poems for all time had to be sonnets. Rather, the impulse to "make it new" comes from the simple idea that a poem's form should have some correlation with what it says; and since what we have to say may change from time to time, it may be that we need to find different forms in which to say it, just as a language changes to accommodate our changing ways of life. "Make it new," in short, is less a formal than a historical gesture; and any new (or old) form comes with some argument, implicit or explicit, about why it is best suited to saying what needs to be said at a particular moment. (And this need not lead to an idea of aesthetic "progress"--the newer always better than the older--any more than a historical narrative does.) The horizon of "experiment"--not just what kinds of new poetic gestures might be widely accepted, but what it would even occur to anyone to do--is always delimited by literary and historical conditions.

Mike actually tackles this question of historical context head-on in his post, but in a way that I must say turned my ideas about "avant-garde" and "new formalism" upside-down. In my Cartoon History of Poetry, I'd pictured new formalists as bewigged traditionalists, with a rich sense of the literary tradition and a haughty conviction that the classic forms were the best. In the next panel, there'd be wild-eyed avant-gardists shredding anthologies, streaking through classrooms, and taking sledgehammers to busts of Shakespeare. In this caricature, it would be formalists who concerned themselves with social and literary history, while avant-gardists shouted "burn the museum" and embarked on wacky projects in willed ignorance of tradition.

But Mike's post convinces me that I had it all wrong. In his account, it's contemporary formalism that seems ahistorical, that doesn't see why we can't write a sonnet as Frost, or Wordsworth, or Milton did--that, indeed, understands "the sonnet" itself as a relatively unchanging form. And it's the avant-garde that has a sense of history--that can respond to Mike's question, "What happened, and when?" with its own map of the seismic shocks of the twentieth century.

To be fair, Mike does acknowledge, in an addendum to his post, that in fact quite a lot has happened over the past hundred years (in a narrative that's surprisingly, well, progressive for someone who's highly critical of the idea of literary progress). But even if we decided that history in the larger sense has no bearing on the forms that poetry takes, we'd only need to look at literary history to understand "what happened" that might make the sonnet seem a remote form today.

Well, for starters, free verse happened. Frostian grumbles about "playing tennis with the net down" only serve to demonstrate the very changed context in which Frost himself was writing; and Frost thus found himself in the historically unique position of writing metrical verse as a choice, one that to him must have spoken volumes about order, decorum, and sensibility--but that also made his practice of "the sonnet," or of blank verse, rather different than anything Wordsworth or Elizabeth Barrett Browning could have imagined.

And modernism happened. Pound's assault on writing "in sequence of a metronome" was so persuasive that it continues to be workshop gospel today; but more important was Pound's cranky historical consciousness, his sense that modernity simply couldn't be expressed in Victorian rhetoric. And Eliot's notion of "tradition" was one that demanded that the poet calibrate his or her means to the complexity of modern civilization; Eliot's own "return" to meter and form in some of his later work is an agonistic and, yes, even ironic one, hopeful that such traditional forms can restore some semblance of order to his materials, yet equally convinced that such efforts are futile. One can certainly argue that these writers were wrong or misguided; but their understandings of form, history, and modernity can't just be dismissed, as they've become part of the history of form as much as Shakespeare or Wordsworth.

Finally, there's Robert Lowell. For Lowell's readers, one of the main questions was whether Lowell's confessional and embarassing materials were elevated and ordered by his (sometimes) formalist style, or whether that high style was dragged down into the mud by its content. But it's precisely that ironic edge that gives Lowell his distinctive voice: a massive and ponderous rhetoric that probably isn't earned by Lowell's occasionally whiny introspection, but perhaps at times is. Perhaps more importantly, Lowell provided a model for how formal verse could re-enter American poetry: as a kind of high ground of value from which the muck of our "savage servility" could be regarded with a withering, ironic eye.

That's why, as Mike puts it, Milton's and Wordsworth's readers could read their sonnets without irony, while we can't read our own that way--although I think this statement is only supportable if we understand "irony" in a narrow sense, as a kind of sneering detachment or ridicule. Mike also takes this irony to be a product of reading, whereas I meant it more as something that would have to go into the process of writing. Mike's of course right to say that poets have always used irony as a rhetorical technique; but that isn't really the kind of irony I mean. What I mean is more like a kind of formal irony, one that might even be constitutive of sonnetry: the sonnet's consciousness of itself as a sonnet; or more precisely, the poet's awareness of the sonnet as a form that is historical, even dated, even dead. "My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun" is precisely this kind of irony; it's Shakespeare's acknowledgment that the sonnet is a received form even for him, one weighted down with Petrarchan baggage and probably a bastard form in English anyway. That same irony is evident in the fact that every great sonnet-writing poet has to write a sonnet about sonnets; historical self-consciousness is a paradigm of the form.

So I actually thought I was giving Rhina Espaillat a lot of credit for those moments of self-consciousness in her poem, as those could be read as exactly those moments where the sonnet tradition is asserting itself the most. I'm by no means claiming, as Mike suggests, that the barriers to writing a sonnet today are simply insurmountable, and I'm honestly not so mean a reader that I start any poem hoping for the writer to be "crushed" in his or her aspirations. I do wonder why, though, there's so much emphasis being placed on what Mike calls the "traditionally constructed" sonnet, a phrase that I think obscures how narrow a definition Mike really wants to put on the sonnet; this phrasing really does make a fetish of form, limiting the sonnet to a poem in iambic pentameter that rhymes ababcdcdefefgg, regardless of content.

But the fact that all manner of poets over the past century have wanted to slap the label "Sonnet" on poems that often don't obey these rules suggests that there are other ways of signaling continuity with the sonnet tradition: focusing on its tropes, such as that of romantic love (Mayer) or the blazon, or seeing the sonnet as ground zero for lyricism itself (Berrigan). If the sonnet's always been about examining its own history, such non-sonnet sonnets may be more sonnets than a poem that just happens to have fourteen lines and rhymes in the right way.

Mike says that in introducing Mayer and Berrigan into the conversation, I'm asking, "why doesn't Snider do it that way?" Not at all. I'm just trying to point to a different possible lineage for the contemporary sonnet, one that speaks more not only to my interest in the sonnet tradition but to what I value in contemporary poetry too. I'm not going to back off of my claim that new formalism is post-rhetorical, or that it plays off of mainstream free-verse lyric, because if it weren't we simply wouldn't recognize it as contemporary poetry at all; if I wrote a sonnet in pure Miltonic rhetoric, were such a thing possible, it would simply seem weird and anachronistic rather than being recognized as a contemporary sonnet (a category that Mike insists exists).

The Rosanna Warren poem Mike quotes illustrates this perfectly: my judgment that this poem is post-rhetorical has nothing to do with its meter or lack thereof, and everything to do with its sensibility, imagery, and syntax. The opening--"High Summer. Plentitude"--is less rhetorical than telegraphic, signaling an entire tradition that no longer needs to be spoken. But the image "I crouch on the warm skull / of New Hampshire" couldn't have been written anywhere but in the United States of the last three or four decades; it unglamorously places the lyric speaker and her body ("crouch") in a flat sentence unadorned with flourishes, save the shock image of "warm skull," which appears and then is absorbed back into a mere location.

But the line that opens the sestet is, to my ear, pure formal irony: "From the valley rises the interstate's purr..." For the first time in the poem, Warren employs a syntactical inversion to set up a moment of drama--"From the valley rises"--that is deflated and made banal--"the interstate's purr." Again, here's the sonnet signalling its awareness of itself as a sonnet, and indeed of the precise historical moment in which it exists. The contemporary gesture that gets made here is precisely that of the disconnect between the high form and the banality of what's being seen.

Were it not for this line, this poem would be a perfect illustration of precisely that free-verse, post-confessional style I was talking about--personally grounded, vaguely reaching toward the metaphysical without stating any particular position or belief, ending with a striking, bodily, epiphanic image. I'd like to think that the sonnet form forced Warren into the inversion, "From the valley rises..." because in that moment the work of the poem--of making an ordinary experience transcendent--gets shifted onto the sonnet form itself, and the sonnet doesn't quite want to cooperate, or will do so only with a nudge and wink. That irony is there; it just can't help itself.

No comments: