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
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. …