By Steven Ratiner. Steven Ratiner is a poet and teaches .
The Christian Science Monitor
THE question of form sometimes masks a deeper struggle over the very purpose of the modern poem.
To begin: We're really not talking here about form versus - what, formlessness? More accurately, the debate concerns the viability of old forms versus new - and which critical authorities will be allowed to arbitrate.
For many, the affection for older literary models combines the love of the well-crafted object with the reactionary desire to preserve what was from the ferocity of what is becoming. Could anyone really prove that the controlled cadence of a line of iambic pentameter is intrinsically more beautiful than a jazz trill or a cry from the city streets? The crucial issue is how we will recognize the truest poets as they emerge from the cacophony.
The poet Karl Shapiro made a simple but startling observation when he said that "poetry is not a way of saying things, it's a way of seeing things." The emphasis in contemporary verse has shifted from poetry, the object, to poetry, the action - the art of language working itself out amid the unfolding of a moment. The very act of reading the poem demands a new response to the world and the common tongue. We are measuring more than the beauty or accuracy of the language - whether the poem moves us from presence into possibility.
Charles Gullans, an English professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, is one of a new coterie of "formalist" poets that includes Timothy Steele and R.L. Barth. In the title poem of "Letter from Los Angeles," Gullens describes the luxuriance of the California landscape. I pick the fruit from branches in full bloom, From rind and flesh, from stamen and corolla, The pungencies of fruit and flower invade My senses with their vegetable contagion Until I almost sleep within their bright, Alluring indistinction, almost merge With the corrupted and corrupting season.
What the poet offers is, not nature, but the idea of nature. The garden lushness is almost obliterated by the professorial tone and the coldness of the blank verse. The world is mere backdrop, a paper-thin projection that gives the poet an excuse for his real preoccupations - the self and the erudite dance of ideas.
If the poet finds little mystery in nature, the human landscape fares much worse. The predominant tone of the book is one of ironic detachment as he floats through various social milieus in a series of poems called "Los Angeles Place Names." A self-appointed scourge, he proceeds to damn each scene for its shallowness and gaudy materialism. It's too easy a target, and the social criticism is weakened by an undercurrent that feels a great deal like envy. I'm left with the feeling that Gullans takes on poetry's formal mask as a way of severing the mind from the body, of intellectualizing and thus hiding from the deeper challenges within his writing. It's hard to be moved by a poem when so little of the poet's life is risked or revealed.
The very opposite is true in Seamus Heaney's substantial body of work. Frequently in his new "Selected Poems" we see the poet return to quite traditional styles and stances, only to spring from them into a passionate and thoroughly contemporary exploration of his Irish homeland and the embattled territory of the human spirit.
Despite his many poems about Irish history and politics, Heaney is at heart a nature poet. But his is not the picture-postcard vision of the Irish landscape. Nature is seen as primal source, as the storehouse of ancient myths, voices, mysteries. In the opening poem of his lovely sequence "The Glanmore Sonnets," he writes: Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground. The mildest February for twenty years Is mist bands over furrows, a deep no sound Vulnerable to distant gargling tractors. Our road is steaming, the turned-up acres breathe. Now the good life could be to cross a field And art a paradigm of earth new from the lathe Of ploughs. …