Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form

Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form

Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form

Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form


Questions of Possibilityexamines the particular forms that contemporary American poets favor and those they neglect. The poets' choices reveal both their ambitions and their limitations, the new possibilities they discover and the traditions they find unimaginable.

By means of close attention to the sestina, ghazal, love sonnet, ballad, and heroic couplet, this study advances a new understanding of contemporary American poetry. Rather than pitting "closed" verse against "open" and "traditional" poetry against "experimental,"Questions of Possibilityexplores how poets associated with different movements inspire and inform each other's work. Discussing a range of authors, from Charles Bernstein, Derek Walcott, and Marilyn Hacker to Agha Shahid Ali, David Caplan treats these poets as contemporaries who share the language, not as partisans assigned to rival camps. The most interesting contemporary poetry crosses the boundaries that literary criticism draws, synthesizing diverse influences and establishing surprising affinities. In a series of lively readings, Caplan charts the diverse characteristics and accomplishments of modern poetry, from the gay and lesbian love sonnet to the currently popular sestina.


The challenge to contemporary poetry would seem
to be a pair of unhappy alternatives: either to contrive
new schemes of empirically meaningful repetition that
reflect and—more importantly—transmit the color of
contemporary experience; or to recover schemes that have
reflected the experience of the past. To do the first would
be to imply that contemporary experience has a pattern,
a point that most post-Christian thinkers would deny. To
do the second would be to suggest that the past can be
recaptured, to suggest that the intolerable fractures and
dislocations of modern history have not really occurred
at all, or, what is worse, to suggest that they may have
occurred but that poetry should act as if they have not
… [W]e yield now to the one demand, now to the other,
producing at times a formless and artistically incoherent
reflection—accurate in its way—of some civil or social or
psychological reality, and at times a shapely and coherent
work of art which is necessarily an inexact report on the
state of affairs, not to mention the state of language and
meaning and coherence, in our time.

—Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form

CONTEMPORARY METRICAL VERSE SURPRISES MANY LEARNED READERS simply by existing. For all the reasons that Fussell summarizes and for a great number more, much of the liveliest recent scholarship concludes that literary and cultural history dooms this poetry to failure, irrelevance, or political and aesthetic conservatism. “[T]he pentameter is a dead form,” Antony Easthope notes, “and its continued use … is in the strict sense reactionary.” Many other commentators agree, calling contemporary “neo-formalism” “a dangerous nostalgia,” “the new conservatism in American poetry,” and a Reaganite “return to old values.” Despite these admonishments, poets continue to write metrical verse; during the last two decades especially, a wide variety of American . . .

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