Our Steps amid a Ruined Colonnade II: James Matthew Wilson on Expansive Poetry and its Discontents


         Marble staircases climb the hills where derelict estates
              glimmer in the river-brightened dusk . . .
              And some are merely left to rot where now
              broken stone lions guard a roofless colonnade . . . 
                                               —Dana Gioia 

 Though long anticipated, the recent demise of the respectable Edge City Review affords occasion to explore this argument about form and content in its previous permutations. Consciousness that poets’ frequent obsession with experimental form was a panacea for deeper problems with the scope and interest of contemporary poetic subject matter lay at the root of the “expansive” movement in poetry. As Edge City’s former editor, Terry Ponick, puts it in his journal’s signing-off,

the poetry constituency we once mainly served, in spite of our efforts to publish a literary publication embracing many of the written arts, has been slowly imploding. This constituency generally came to be known as the “New Formalist” poets. Early pioneers in reviving meaning in poetry as well as traditional form, included Fred Turner, Fred Feirstein, and Dick Allen. To oversimplify somewhat, these poets preferred to dub their movement “Expansive Poetry,” preferring to emphasize the return of their poetry to real meaning while not focusing it strictly on their secondary concern of promoting a return to the poetic traditions of meter and rhyme. 

In brief, beginning in the early 1980s, “expansive” poets sought to “expand” the audience for poetry by recovering once flourishing but largely disused kinds of poetry: satire and epigram, for instance, but more importantly, narrative poetry, whether in the guise of the modern narrative epic or the relatively new form of the verse novel (the first verse novel, to my knowledge, was Alexander Pushkin’s wonderful early-nineteenth-century Eugene Onegin). By restoring variety to the art form, these poets hoped to recover also the prominence and prestige poetry had once commanded. They also hoped to show that the short, often fragmentary lyric-narrative of autobiographical experience was neither the only form poetry could take nor even a very important form within the hierarchy of poetic modes ranging from the epic down to light verse. 

I find the logic of Ponick’s statement a bit obscure, but it hits on an important point. The clamoring for “expansive” verse manifested itself primarily as a call for the return of poetry as a truly omnivorous medium. As I have said, Pound sought to expand the material that could find its way into poetry, much as had Wordsworth and others before him. In fact, modern poetry has shown itself significantly less equipped to absorb, or rather, to give form to, a wide range of experiences, precisely because it tends to melt them all down to that fool’s golden nugget, the narrative lyric. Members of the expansive movement, and those who followed them, did their best to produce poetry that could take on—once more—a wide variety of subject matter in an equally wide variety of forms. To make a point that Dana Gioia expressed more pithily almost two decades ago, such poets recognized that poetry is a genus of which there are many species. Moreover, they appreciated that the lyric holds, at best, the third rank in the great hierarchy of these species. Narrative and dramatic verse, historically, and even in the present estimation and ineluctable prejudice of most literate persons, rank above it. And so Frederick Turner’s The Return (1982) returned the epic to our tradition, by pioneering the verse novella. 

Contrary to Ponick’s implication, it hardly seems the Expansive movement was the campaign that failed. Brad Leithauser and Glyn Maxwell published successful verse novels just a couple years ago that were of significantly greater ambition than Turner’s early work. And Turner himself, in The New World (1985) and Genesis (1988), has attempted to reclaim the breathless length and historical vision of the ancient epic—an attribute inevitably missing form his first “novella” foray into the genre. He has done so however by ramming epic narrative into science fiction, a practice that may be inevitable if the traditional martial and heroic components of the epic are to be present and if the novelistic focus on interiority and character development are not. David Mason’s Ludlow (2006) may prove an even more impressive verse novel, taking on as it does a historical moment and conflict of great power, while refusing to surrender the attention to richness of character one expects of non-cinematic and non-“genre” narratives. So expansive poetry, capitalized as a movement, or simply carrying on de facto, is with us still. 

Ponick’s evident bitterness is not without reason, however. Robert McPhillips’s delightful, The New Formalism: A Critical Introduction (which has now been reissued in an expanded edition), perhaps of necessity, seems to garner academic interest through a bit of pandering. He argues that, in a world where free verse narrative lyrics have become the norm, indeed the “hegemonic” convention, the new formalism—expansive poetry’s ostensible splinter group—transgresses current poetic ideology and practice by returning to rhyme and meter. As one can imagine based upon the description of the academy I provided above, nothing gets the desiccated veins of the English Department flowing like chatter about “transgression.” As David Caplan has exploited in his own fine study of formal verse, Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form (2005), the crossroads where homosexuality and sonnets meet affords an academic field day, where identity politics rushes in to justify the apparently otherwise unjustifiable acts of writing and reading poetry. I should point out, however, that neither McPhillips nor Caplan has written a pandering or intellectually dishonest study. To the contrary, McPhillips’ book is concerned chiefly with mentioning and characterizing the work of as many contemporary formalist poets as possible, while also suggesting the broad themes that guide their work and the context in which that work first appeared. In the process, he repeats an argument of Dana Gioia’s that, in an age where free verse is the norm, it would be naïve to claim free verse as a rebellious artistic strategy; to the contrary, a sonnet or stream of heroic couplets, would appear much more “subversive.” Caplan’s study builds upon this observation much more pointedly, demonstrating in the process that within even the most stringent political orthodoxies of the contemporary academic milieu, formal poetry is still important. Their books are supremely readable in comparison with the vast majority of contemporary academic criticism and are no less sophisticated for that (although they deliberately forego the appearance of sophistication). 

I would, however, offer a reservation—one that Ponick also seems to be angling after. “Expansive” poetry may have been aware of the decimated poetic scene on which it tried to improve, but in emphasizing the recovery of poetic genres rather than just formal prosody, it seemed benignly to restore to contemporary poetry the variety and power it should always have possessed. The New Formalism, whether in its earliest practitioner’s critical prose, or the later academic arguments of McPhillips and Caplan, seems to rely at times on the “shock” formal verse provides in an age of bland, prosaic free verse lyrics—and this reliance necessarily limits the kinds of achievement contemporary formal verse might make its own. As Kevin Walzer’s path-breaking The Ghost of a Tradition: Expansive Poetry and Postmodernism (1998) disturbingly suggests, it might be impossible for either expansive or new formalist work to break free from its “dialectical” entrapment as a sort of heresy always griping against the louche orthodoxies and loose prosodies of Charles Wright, Robert Pinsky, John Ashbery, and Jorie Graham. 

Because the free verse orthodoxy is so widespread (its domain extends almost as wide as the narrow terrain that is contemporary poetry), some poets cannot indulge in simply getting drunk on the sweet liquor of poetry because they are punch drunk from the barbarous ham-hands of free verse. Such being the case, the formal poet bitterly skirts around this norm on the road to writing verses of more immediate novelty. Consequently, the formal poet’s identity remains tied to the free verse totalitarianism against which he has rebelled.

Ponick’s complaint justly hints that for many poets who fall under the category of expansive or new formalist, the purpose of the return to form was—ancillary to the rejuvenation of various subject matter and poetic genre—to free poetry at last from that suicidal dialectic between subject dearth and formal experimentation, to free it indeed from an obsession with novelty at the expense of refined achievement. Expansive poetry was not supposed to be a permanent reaction but, as I said, a benign recovery of great things that had been lost. Ponick thus warns us that “new formalism” provides a hospitable label for a supposed revolution that might in fact result merely in blank verse renditions of Carl Dennis or W.S. Merwin, or anapestic cross-rhymed quatrains relating the mundane sexual voyeurism of the heirs of Sharon Olds. 

At times this is precisely what has occurred. Kim Addonizio’s poetry, for instance, frequently relies on a kind of “shock” to the sensibility that has become the most typical convention of the conventional verse of Olds and other more daring “confessionalists.” Most confessional poets, like the realist fiction writers of early twentieth century, offer in their work that mild frisson most contemporary persons have come to identify as the controversial power of “progressive” minded art (a history of modern art lies hidden in the curious fact that pornographic movies used to be called “art films”). When we read details of some sexually abusive midget uncle on whose life a poet’s eyes have lingered for a free verse strophe, we are intended to experience both indignation, uncomfortable arousal, and finally a warm sense of self-congratulation that we can stomach the “great art” of a tortured modern genius. Addonizio complicates this slightly by throwing in the bonus shocks of, first, frequently writing in form, and, second, frequently adding in metrical substitutions that “subvert” that form. My complaint here is not chiefly that Addonizio’s poetry is bad; it at times is much more interesting than that of other confessional poets, and even good in its own right. Rather, this complacent rehashing of the kind of poetic “shock” tactics that have become so familiar and unshocking over the last few decades is surely far less significant, artistically and historically, than were the bold ambitions of expansive verse. If those ambitions have been foiled, then Ponick is right to mourn. 

Ideally constituted, “expansive” poetry offers the great hand of peace. Rather than encouraging critics to group its poets under yet another ephemeral movement, “expansive” poets would seem to insist that the notions of experiment and revolution are themselves superannuated. We must free ourselves from the traumatized and trembling historical consciousness that leads poets to produce poems so that they are “contemporary,” “current,” “avant-garde,” or (Lord have mercy) “post-avant,” rather than simply good and worth being read today, tomorrow, or—the greatest test—yesterday (the tense slip is intentional). 

Dana Gioia’s second and third collections of poems exemplify this gorgeously. He moves from free to formal verse (though his free verse is always metrical in the way Eliot’s was) and from elegy, to satire, to ballad and song, to extended narrative, dramatic monologue, or brief lyric, without making any great fuss about these formal and generic gestures as gestures. His Interrogations at Noon (2001) is simply a coherent collection of several types of poetry that, but for their colloquial ease, could have been written at any time in the past or future. As with his previous volumes, Interrogations shows Gioia’s appreciation that the lyric is, and probably will remain for some time, the dominant poetic mode in our culture, but that lyricism is most effective when complemented by songs and ballads, as well as narrative verse. This historical consciousness aside, noon in his title suggests the zenith of poetic talent aiming to produce what used to be called an “immortal work,” rather than a now-ness insisting that a poem here today will no longer be “relevant” tomorrow. 

Many poets complain, with me, about the reductive pedantic labeling of academic fads, where a poet’s skin color or sexual proclivity is more likely to get that poet into an anthology or taught in a classroom than any honest quality in the work itself. But what often goes unsaid is that an obsession with being “contemporary” leads to most poems being of interest only when such extrinsic temporal matters are taken into account. The convention of novelty and experiment predominates in both the composition and publishing of poems. That much more humble and fruitful convention of craft and tradition, which insists that the best poetry is produced when it merely extends, elaborates and corrects what has come before—despite irritating intimations to the contrary by poets like Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass, which belie their actual practice—is quite out of fashion. Obsessed with the now, most poets write in a fashion that cuts them off from all the poetry of the past and, indeed, from any meaningful understanding of poetry as an art form. And so, when “expansive” verse, with its almost avuncular open mindedness, indeed Odyssean myriad mindedness, to poetic genres aplenty, is eclipsed by the “new formalism” (as Ponick and McPhillips, with opposite judgments, understand it), a moment of great promise has gone into the dark. 

Perhaps this claim is overblown. When one surveys the masses of poems published each year, one ought to conclude that, if we can have nothing else, then we ought at least to have the kind of narrative lyrics produced by many exemplars of the new formalism. One hears all the time about the dullness of the new formalism; Poetry’s 2005 humor issue jabbed it wonderfully, and others whine about it ignorantly. In truth, the vast bulk of published poetry is intolerably dull, but it is so coarsely written, is so transparent as all “prose,” lineated or otherwise, supposedly is, that one turns the page untroubled. This vast bulk, to be precise, is free verse that has neither the interest of content nor that of experimental novelty. Since all things are good to the extent that they are (that is, that they have being or exist) we can fairly assert that most published poetry clings very tenuously to the coattail of existence. Most new formalist poems I encounter, on the other hand, reassure one that they really are things, because their craft, their form, keeps them in being. 

Years ago, Thomas B. Byer complained about precisely this quality, in his essay, “The Closing of the American Line: Expansive Poetry and Ideology” (1992). He observed that Gioia’s “Cruising with the Beach Boys” is not fundamentally different from the narrative lyrics that typically populate literary journals. The “major difference I can perceive,” Byers opines, “between this and hundreds of skillful but generic—and totally self-involved—workshop lyrics is Gioia’s use of meter. But it is unclear why this represents any sort of real gain.” Byers makes many such judgments in the essay, and they require a twofold response. For his essay testifies to the obtuseness of his own reading of this and other poems and, furthermore, to his deafness to the intrinsic value of meter and rhyme. 

The bulk of Byers’s attack in the essay is targeted at Frederick Turner’s The New World, which he reads as an obscene Reaganite, neo-conservative, science fiction fantasy. When one traces down whence Byers gleans his information about and interpretation of the epic poem, one quickly sees he has merely summarized the introduction and summary that Turner has himself provided. One suspects that Byers has not actually read the poem and considered how the epic itself transforms or complicates Turner’s introduction. One would hope that, in an essay contemplating the value of the formal aspects of the new formalism, the scholar would avoid the appearance of a lazy ideologically sensitive paraphrase and turn to the poem itself. This obtuseness presents itself more subtly in Byers’s treatment of Gioia’s lyric. “Cruising with the Beach Boys” begins describing the defamiliarization of encountering a long unheard, and never openly loved, pop song on the radio:

So strange to hear that song again tonight
Travelling on business in a rented car
Miles from anywhere I’ve been before.
And now a tune I haven’t heard for years
Probably not since it last left the charts
Back in L.A. in 1969.
I can’t believe I know the words by heart
And can’t think of a girl to blame them on.
Every lovesick summer has its song,
And this one I pretended to despise,
But if I was alone when it came on,
I turned it up full-blast to sing along—
A primal scream in croaky baritone.
No wonder I spent so much time alone
Making the rounds in Dad’s old Thunderbird.

As Robert McPhillips observes in his study of Gioia and other new formalists, their poetry tends to distinguish itself not only from contemporary free verse but from the graceful, austere style, and high-cultural affinities of mid-century American and British academic formalism. Whereas the early poetry of Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Edgar Bowers, and others, was often urbane and safely distanced from emotion and mass culture by an ironic distance, Gioia’s tends to move less anxiously amid the forms of what Adorno called “the culture industry.” The Beach Boys’ music stands out as a quintessential—rather, cliché—example of mass culture, that is, of a culture constructed upon a compound of clichés and kitsch, upon the immediately disposable and the nauseatingly regurgitated. Gioia’s reference to “the charts,” the usual economic measurement of the lifespan of junk culture, and even his typography in “L.A. in 1969” suggest a fluency in the language and worldview that mass culture provides. The poet can speak of such trivia without an immediate air of condescension. And yet he does maintain a kind of ironic distance. “Dad’s old Thunderbird” may be truth, but it is also a cliché. The poem occupies and represents the same trite imagery on which The Beach Boys relied for their success. 

Is, therefore, the poem just a Beach Boys song with faint literary pretension? It would seem not. Gioia may show his comfort with mass culture, but the frequent formal voice of his other lyrics, and his frequent allusions to and adaptations of European orchestral music and poetry, especially to the German and to the opera, suggest a more complicated perspective. Indeed, Gioia has found a way in his poetry to preserve the distinction between high, popular, and mass culture on which the modernists relied, without indulging in the oft-berated snobbery of T.S. Eliot or W.B. Yeats. The poem acknowledges this distinction and the consequences of it, when Gioia confesses that he had once “pretended to despise” the Beach Boys’ song, even while he indulged in it when in solitude. One thinks of Eliot sitting by himself in the working class music halls of London, delighting in the vulgar sing-song of Marie Lloyd. In our age, it is still possible for one to cultivate one’s sensibility, to come to love the art forms of high culture. But significantly one has to confess that the ubiquitous forms of mass culture inform, and often enchant, that sensibility as well. If one’s adulthood is formal poetry and opera, one’s adolescence still reeks of pop music and the concomitant “freedom” of driving alone down the highway in a fast car. Gioia’s own success in writing opera librettos may perhaps remind us that the opera itself is a consummate high cultural form heavily loaded with the adolescent melodramatics of mass culture. The later stanzas of the poem develop this guilty relation between the serious and the kitsch, by suggesting the ways in which they are folded into one another:

Some nights I drove down to the beach to park
And walk along the railings of the pier.
The water down below was cold and dark,
The waves monotonous against the shore.
The darkness and the mist, the midnight sea,
The flickering lights reflected from the city—
A perfect setting for a boy like me,
The Cecil B. DeMille of my self-pity.

It is a difficult fact that great art and the most embarrassing adolescent emotions both find their elemental source in—are different responses to—the encounter with the “cold and dark” natural world and the distant lights of the civilized world, of which we are always apart and yet from which we can be alienated. The Beach Boys are at once alien and natural to the poem’s speaker; the world as a whole is caught in a similar conflict. High and low, the world and the self, the experience of being within and outside, simultaneously erupt within these lines. Gioia mocks the bathos of his teenage self, and yet the tableau he describes seems sincerely felt and powerful. Cecil B. DeMille could just be another director within the gigantic Hollywood industry that crowns American mass culture, but he was also one of the first directors to make film into a great American art form. The rigid distinctions between high and mass culture, which have already broken down in the form of the poem, break down conceptually as well. Gioia acknowledges them as all part of the compound that constitutes a life, writing in the final stanza,

I thought by now I’d left those nights behind,
Lost like the girls that I could never get,
Gone with the years, junked with the old T-Bird.
But one old song, a stretch of empty road,
Can open up a door and let them fall
Tumbling like boxes from a dusty shelf,
Tightening my throat for no reason at all
Bring on tears shed only for myself. 

As the clichés fall one after another (I count seven in the first five lines), the poem admits that they are not just the adolescent forms that one naturally grows out of and leaves behind. Even our fully formed personalities are informed by them. Consequently, they retain a grip upon us—“Tightening my throat for no reason at all”—and command our attention. Most occupants of the postmodern academy would deride as “elitist” the very enterprise of distinguishing high from low or mass culture. Some of them, more justly, would note that in our present civilization mass culture’s very ubiquity does not so much put in question this distinction as it does compromise the sustaining of it in one’s everyday life. There is a marked ontological difference between art and trash, but the blurring, even the erasure, of that distinction is the normative experience of early-twenty-first century Americans. Gioia’s poem explores not only how the teenager is “father to the man,” but how American mass culture creeps through the cracks of even the most cultivated personality. Byers ignores all this, or perhaps refuses to see it precisely because that would require subsequently establishing some standards—other than the political litmus test with which his article shows him comfortable—for the judgment of this poem and poetry as an art form. 

Let us set this reading aside and come at the poem from an artificially formal perspective. If one enjoys reading poetry, versification becomes its own reward—not separate, but rather distinct, from the meaning of the poem itself. In the present instance, the “gain” of meter is that Gioia’s poem becomes interesting on account of its craft, even though its subject matter may initially appear tired. Normally, the quality of its craft would incite one to explore further the weave of its meaning. Byers’s article suggests, however, that he has not read much of the new formalists he condemns; either refusing or ignoring the craft on which their poems are founded, he is unlikely to be drawn to serious scrutiny of their achievement. He is perhaps the typical rushed academic who hasn’t time to slow down long enough to attend to, register, or appreciate craft. Perhaps his talents would be better harnessed in the analysis of films, where the nuances of craft frequently are subordinated to the pace of plot. 

Largely because of Diane Wakoski’s imbecilities two decades ago (American Book Review May/June 1986), the new formalism has been constantly harangued with being conservative, un-American, unpatriotic, etc., etc. And so boredom gets equated with conservatism, as it does in cheap television caricatures of the Eisenhower era. And radicalism gets strangely confused with the patriotic vision of Walt Whitman. In our age of “poets for peace,” one is surprised to see that the lexicon of the current Bush administration was once deployed in defense of flaccid free verse—or rather against a few poets who like the sound words make when their syllables resonate. The fact is, even the most humble or trivial sonnet is a better work of art—has better attained to “the perfection of the thing made”—than most free verse. When it is dull, it perhaps upsets us because that achievement of craft forces us to slow down, to stop and think, and to recognize that we have encountered something rather than nothing. We dwell poetically in the world with far more wakefulness and light when we read Timothy Steele’s self-consciously modest lyrics than when we get sandblasted with the dialectical diarrhea of David Antin, Charles Bernstein, or Susan Howe. Steele himself has repeatedly noted that the distinction between “verse” and “poetry” generally leads to unproductive and fanciful speculations on the essence of “poetry,” and petty dismissal of the achievement of form—of meter and rhyme. Nevertheless, if one must accept the distinction, then one must at least have “verse” and aspire to poetry. And as an intelligent reader, one ought to be capable of appreciating this modest craft with all its potential of ingenuity, even when its subject-matter does not immediately arrest the mind. Why, I ask, would Byers suggest that Gioia’s lyric is not a great “gain” merely because it is written in suave, irregularly rhymed iambic pentameter? In a poem of J.V. Cunningham, we get a typically dense, terse reflection on this question:

How time reverses
The proud of heart!
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.
But I sleep well.
Ambitious boys
Whose big lines swell
With spiritual noise,
Despise me not,
And be not queasy
To praise somewhat:
Verse is not easy.
But rage who will.
Time that procured me
Good sense and skill
Of madness cured me.

Let us pause upon these claims. Cunningham’s poem suggests that his work has been dismissed as mere verse, rather than the higher good of art. But the tumid lines of other poets, for all their bluster, have grown as naturally not as the leaves on the trees but as cancer of the prostate. Verse however does not come naturally. It requires real work. It is a romantic, a particularly American romantic, convention, to presume that hard work breeds common sense. If that is so, then Cunningham’s poem makes a true claim and, incidentally pace Wakoski, is a more natively American work of art than, say, Whitman’s pretentious yawps (yes, I have just accused Whitman of being pretentious—for he is an incredibly sophisticated writer who determined his technique not according to the end of making a good poem, but to the end of creating a persona for himself that claims to be “representative” of a nation that did not exist). The hard discipline of writing verse has punctured Cunningham’s spirit before it could malignantly swell, and has made him a more intelligent and sane poet for the deflation. 

Ponick may have been correct to express his grievance about the “high jacking” of “expansive” verse by new formalism. We should not overlook, however, that the main ambitions of the expansive movement are alive and well in the work of poets like David Mason and Glynn Maxwell. Nor should we denigrate the tremendous value of recovering formal verse itself. In my experience, most new formalist poetry offers as least as sophisticated and intriguing content as any free verse (a rather difficult claim to demonstrate, I admit), and so intellectually rewards reading. Moreover, because it doubles its interest with the presence of sophisticated verse craft, new formalist writing tends to be both immediately compelling to the ear and mind in addition to whatever second order intellectual delights it affords. On that note, I should restate my own essential agreement with Ponick. If the ambitions of the “expansive” movement have been lost, only to be replaced by versified versions of some of America’s more popular free verse poets, then I agree something has gone wrong with a promising project. However, even such versified lyrics are prima facie better than free verse. In the worst case scenario Cunningham intimates: better all verse and no poetry, than none of either.


Part III: James Matthew Wilson discusses poetic grammar and expression, while examining the deficiencies of free verse.

About James Matthew Wilson

James Matthew Wilson is Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. His poems, essays, and reviews appear regularly in a wide range of books and journals, including, most recently, The Dark Horse, Pleiades, and Modern Age.
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