This Is Not a Manifesto
by Quincy R. Lehr
Back in February, Poetry ran a series of “manifestos”
in honor of the centenary of Marinetti and his friends issuing the manifesto
that launched Italian Futurism. The preview email from Poetry seemed to
think these were a pretty hot commodity. That several of the manifesters (if
that’s the right word) read their pronouncements at New York’s
Museum of Modern Art on a doubtless rather snazzy
afternoon reinforced the impression that the “manifestos” might be worth a look.
If nothing else, the likes of something called the “Hate Socialist Collective”
rubbing shoulders with langpo impresario Charles Bernstein and formalists A. E.
Stallings and Joshua Mehigan offered, at least, the possibility of a good brawl,
and I, like many poets of American extraction, enjoy a good bout of blood sport
on the slopes of Parnassus.
But no such luck. The promised “controversy” simply failed to
materialize. The junior faculty members of the Hate Socialist Collective
demonstrated that they had, at least, mastered the art of breaking wind at the
dinner table, a needful skill to be sure, but nothing they said hadn’t been said
in a more provocative and interesting way by someone from France at least thirty
years previously. Alicia Stallings’s contribution concerning rhyme was
predictably witty and wise … and might have raised a few eyebrows in the early
1980s. And I could go on, but perhaps shouldn’t. I wasn’t provoked, and, all
told, the whole thing felt a bit as if the participants were playing at
the art of provocation.
And then it hit me, and in a Vision, no less.
While perhaps it is unfashionable in this enlightened age, an
Angel of the Lord descended unto me, flanked by all nine Muses and, strangely,
the members of Mötley Crüe. (Still haven’t figured that last one out.) I was
eating a sandwich and watching a re-run of Sanford and Son, if memory
serves. Upon seeing the Angel and his retinue, I no doubt quaked as one does in
such circumstances, but being unsure of the broad etiquette when faced with such
a Divine Presence, I said, “’Sup?”
The Angel leaned in close, about a foot too close for comfort
when one is a heterosexual male and the Angel is, even with the angel-ness
factored in, a dude in a shiny white robe, and he said, “There is no Revolution,”
And the Muses echoed, “Yea verily.”
Awestruck and trembling, I replied, “Revolution in regards to
“Poetry, you idiot,” said the Angel. “And no
“Poetry? I hate that faggot crap!” said Mötley Crüe skinsman
and legendary wild man of rock Tommy Lee, but we all ignored him, because the
outburst was a bit rich coming from a man in spandex trousers.
Naturally, I pondered what the Angel had said. We really
haven’t had a new movement in poetry pop up in about thirty years—“flarf”
shouldn’t count—and at the same time, American poetics have to a remarkable
degree fossilized into what appear to be more or less permanent factions. There
is plenty of good, exciting work coming from all sorts of quarters. Even if one
sits through enough sessions of the dreariest open mike in New York City, one will eventually hear some of the good
stuff. But the plenitude of schools of American poetry, each with its own rather
strictly defined parameters and alliances, has meant that there are more ways to
be a careerist placeholder than, perhaps, ever before. And one doesn’t so much
get absorbed into the mainstream as represented by a member in the creative
writing faculty some place or other. This is certainly true of New Formalism,
now at least a quarter of a century old and the movement with which this journal
[The Raintown Review] (by default more than anything else) is frequently associated.
I have never been comfortable in the “Formalist” camp, for a
variety of reasons. New Formalism, for all of its insistence that meter and
rhyme and so forth are ideologically neutral, nonetheless tended to take on a
distinctively conservative cast. And not only on the aesthetic level, but the
political level as well. The web page of the now-defunct Formalist
includes not only endorsements from prominent poets, but also from the likes of
Lynne Cheney and right-wing commentator Michael Medved. And indeed, while the
poetry in that magazine managed a contemporary diction, and some poems within
its pages were quite good, the journal had more than its fair share of Greek
goddesses in diaphanous robes, as well as an absolute ban on naughty words.
The result of this hasn’t been so much a censorship of poems
as a tendency to promote work that favors poise over passion, the well-worn
themes over the unconventional. And while “New Formalism” managed to carve out a
space within a free verse-dominated poetry scene, it nevertheless developed its
own traits—not all of which had anything in particular to do with meter, rhyme,
and the rest per se. Those traits included, with numerous exceptions,
1. A tendency toward the “canon poem”, that is, a poem,
often in sonnet form, that gussied up a canonical myth, literary figure, or what
have you in modern garb, or, alternately, rattled off yet another dramatic
monologue, filling, like Spinal Tap, a “much-needed void” in the classic
Political quietism, save in fairly elliptical form, with
the exception of right-wing polemic, which often thumped along in singsong
Especially in the early years, too many poems grousing
about how the Free Verse Establishment sucked and didn’t appreciate the authors
of metrical verse. These still appear from time to time, and they are the rough
equivalent of a variety of water-cooler gossip.
A tendency to view the dark outlook, the extreme
situation, the personal note, and the strong emotions as things to be avoided at
all costs. To a degree, this was an understandable reaction to post-confessionalist
poetry, but it was nevertheless an overreaction.
And then there are the middle-brow pretensions of New
Formalism, the reach toward the “man in the street” (whom Sid Vicious rightfully
described as a “c**t”). Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin famously found their
stride—and their popularity—when they started ignoring the audience and doing
what they thought was funny. But too often, American proponents of
metrical verse have argued that it sells. And the “man in the street,” dreadful
bore that he is, has been quite happy to ignore it, anyway.
And underlying this all, to one degree or another, was a sense
of the “Tradition” and the past—real or mythic—more generally. Now, this is fair
enough, of course, and the poems in the main formalist anthologies (Strong
Measures, Rebel Angels, A Formal Feeling Comes) were not
simple, B-grade rehashes of the days of yore, contrary to what many of their
detractors said at the time and still say now. But, looking back at those
anthologies, one almost feels as if many pieces were selected to represent this
form, that meter, to preserve and rehabilitate a series of prosodic tricks of
the trade. But where the revival of meter and rhyme and all the rest in American
poetry is concerned, we’re past the quarter-century mark, and who really gives a
damn that Diane Wakoski said some stupid crap about metrical verse being the
poetic wing of Reaganism over twenty years ago?
Good poetry and bad poetry do not fall on a left-right axis.
Nor is the bulk of what appears in the formalist journals programmatically
right-wing. But it too often lacks outrage, a sense of moral commitment, shock
at injustice, and of life in both its highest and lowest forms. In short,
it lacks risk. It plays to its audience’s expectation of what a poem should
look like—nicely dressed, the sort of poem you’d let go out with your daughter. There are simply too many Grecian
maidens discussing Petrarch while playing croquet with the neighbors. Just as
the “avant-garde” of American poetry has sought to play the outsider role in
rather comfortable environments, New Formalism has frequently portrayed itself
as an unjustly ousted Establishment.
While the prejudice against metrical verse remains in certain
quarters, it’s all a bit of a laugh really. Rehashing the same dull argument
about the value of traditional prosody has long since gotten tedious, and we
probably just have to wait for the naysayers to die. Far more damaging to poetry
of any stripe is playing to some “movement” or other that has already developed
its own orthodoxies (by no means absolute, to be sure), playing it safe, writing
what will be published. The only dangerous thing at present to each and
every one of the Lilliputian Establishments spread across the archipelago of
American poetry is to play to none of them.