Below here I intend to post my MFA essay on the anthology A Formal Feeling Comes. A few thoughts before I do so. In the essay I disagree with the criteria the editor used to select poets to feature in the anthology. Because of the criteria the editor used, the poets whose inclusion I debate are ethnic poets. I have tried, tried, tried to present this in non-offensive language, but the nature of political correctness today means that any such criticisms can be deemed offensive. Please understand: it is not my intent to offend anyone of ethnic origin, merely to criticize the editor, who, by the way, is Caucasian.
A Formal Feeling Comes, Or Does It?
As I read this anthology, described as “Poems in Form by Contemporary Women” several questions surfaced in my mind. Firstly, to what extent should we distinguish between poems in form and poems which have form? Secondly, how rigorous should we be in applying that distinction to an anthology of this kind, assuming that there is a need for such a niche collection? And finally, to what other criteria and standards should the editors of such anthologies hold themselves?
Addressing the first concern, greater poets than I have said that all poems must have form. Devices such as rhyme (with a leaning towards internal or slant) and repetition can be employed in free verse poetry to great effect. However, for me a poem in form is one in which there is a predictable structure or pattern, and when the pattern is broken, the change itself is obvious, striking and justified.
Annie Finch has employed a broader definition of in form than I would like. One of the user-friendly features of this well-organized book is Appendix I, a Formal Key to Poems, which summarizes the form used in each piece. I was often unhappy to discover there, after reading a poem that I would call free verse, descriptions such as “Repeated elements directly follow each other” (“Mother With Child” by Lenore Keeshig-Tobias) or “Free verse, with anaphora” (“Peace #3” by Alma Luz Villanueva.)
I wish that we did not need niche poetry anthologies, but I cannot change the state of American poetry single-handedly. If you read an anthology like Best American Poetry 2005 you will find few formal poems. Various ethnic minorities are also under-represented, although I note that the ratio of men to women has been carefully balanced. This is why there are myriad anthologies called In Other Words: Literature by Latinas and A Gathering of Spirit: Writing and Art by North American Indian Women and 360 Degrees of Blackness Coming At You, all of which are other anthologies mentioned in the contributors’ notes for this one. And they are necessary, yes. But I would argue that you are most definitely required to be a Latina, or a North American Indian Woman or an African American to have your work featured in such an anthology, and it follows that the poems in an anthology subtitled “Poems in Form by Contemporary Women” should be in form.
Of course many of them are, and there are some excellent examples of formal poetry at its best. Suzanne J. Doyle’s and Emily Grosholz’ contributions tempt me to look for their books, and I will definitely try some more Marilyn Hacker and Maxine Kumin. Julie Fay’s “Dear Marilyn,” Joan Austin Geier’s “On Your 21st Birthday,” Josephine Jacobsen’s “Only Alice,” Suzanne Noguere’s “The Secret,” Molly Peacock’s “Chriseaster” and Patricia Storace’s “The Archaeology of Divorce” are worth the price of the anthology alone. As a practitioner of the art I am always on the lookout for tips and techniques. I love how Emily Grosholz intersperses trimeter lines in her blank verse to create emphasis. I wrote my first crown of sonnets after reading Hacker’s “Eight Days in April.” I want to write a paraclausithyron (lament sung before the locked door of the beloved) like Rachel Hadas.
But, I fear that Annie Finch’s criteria for assessing the merit of formal poems are different from mine. I would ask: is the subject riveting? is the rhyme scheme subtle and unforced? are the repetitions put to good use? is there closure? At the risk of being politically incorrect, I suggest Annie Finch appears to have asked, all too often: who is the writer?
Why oh why, does Cheryl Clarke deserve three poems in here, even if she is the foremost African American Lesbian poet writing today, when she produces lines like:
I’ll still follow you, primordial
thing, out of the swamp to the vague median
and beyond. Your shell is hardly cordial (what?)
and my spiky fur has gone seedy
I would similarly question the inclusion of the poems by Alma Luz Villanueva, Carolyn Beard Whitlow, Dolores Kendrick, and Lenore Keeshig-Tobias. All may be terrific free verse poets, and are, I’m sure, wonderful women. It is their place in an anthology of excellent formal verse I question. Annie Finch has gone out of her way to include well-known minority poets in this anthology by choosing quasi-formal or rare, stilted, formal poems written by predominantly free verse poets, an admirable, but in my opinion misguided, instinct.
Less admirable and equally misguided is her decision to include four of her own poems in this book, none of them particularly striking, when she restricted Marilyn Hacker and Maxine Kumin to three. Louise Bogan managed to write Achievement in American Poetry: 1900-1950 without once mentioning herself; I wish that Ms. Finch had learned such humility.
This book confirmed for me the things I love about formal poetry—clever sestinas, villanelles and pantoums; loose, slant rhyme sonnets and meticulous iambic pentameter ones; accentual poetry, ballads. It also reminded me of the things I hate: over-abstraction, iambic meters ruined by Latinate diction, forced rhyme and syntax distorted for rhyme or meter, self-conscious worthiness. I lament the fact that Annie Finch’s worthiness led her to choose poems on other than formal excellence. It means that somewhere out there, a much better anthology of this type remains un-edited. Hmm. Maybe there’s a job for me there?