A poet friend of mine wrote in an email, “What I’d really like to do is write GOOD (extra special stress on that four-letter word) formal poetry all the time.”
This gave me food for thought. I’ve always considered all good poetry to be “formal,” but—while I’ve written my share of poems in traditional forms—I long ago gave up any ambitions in that regard. As a rule I don’t see much poetry in traditional forms that does much for me—current poetry, I mean. The Greats are the Greats and still a delight to read. But contemporary formalist poetry is by and large pretty musty stuff—gleemen as opposed to poets, to borrow Robert Graves’s distinction.
But I have to admit that my prejudice is partially against the forms themselves. If I never read another villanelle my life I’ll be quite content. Ditto sestinas. The clockwork of Pope’s couplets always gave me the creeps. The ballad is possible, but has been ably adopted by songwriters, and as far as I’m concerned they can keep it. Only the sonnet seems really vital, and only Hayden Carruth seems to have written really interesting ones—although Bill Knott has given the form an exciting surrealist spin with his quatorzains. There’s also Mark Jarman, of course, but his earnest Christianity annoys the hell out of me.
Essentially my sympathies lie with the journey Bly, Merwin, Wright and others of their generation made from traditional forms to open forms—comparable, in my mind, to the shift from the inherited forms of classical music to the improvisational exaltations of jazz. It’s not that the latter excludes the former, but it enlarges the project to encompass more of our lives. Anyway, traditional form is not something I can go back to as a reader or back on as a writer. I’ll always prefer Ammons to Wilbur, Rich to Stallings, late Wright to early Wright.
Needless to say, these aren’t feelings one can choose to have.