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New Formalism

This article is about late 20th century movement in literature. For mid-20th century style of architecture,
see Modern architecture#Mid-Century.
New Formalism is a late-20th and early 21st century movement in American poetry that has promoted a
return to metrical and rhymed verse.
Origins and intentions
The term 'New Formalism' was first used in the article 'The Yuppie Poet' in the May 1985 issue of the
AWP Newsletter,[1] which was an attack on what was perceived as a movement returning to traditional
poetic forms; the article accused the movement's poets not only of political conservatism but also yuppie
materialism.[2] New Formalism was a reaction against various perceived deficiencies in the practice of
contemporary poets. In his 1987 piece "Notes on the New Formalism," Dana Gioia wrote: "the real issues
presented by American poetry in the Eighties will become clearer: the debasement of poetic language; the
prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode; the inability to establish a meaningful
aesthetic for new poetic narrative and the denial of a musical texture in the contemporary poem. The
revival of traditional forms will be seen then as only one response to this troubling situation." [3]
Despite the formal innovations of Modernism as exemplified in the work of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound,
and the widespread appearance of free verse in the early decades of the 20th century, many poets chose to
continue working predominantly in traditional forms, such as Robert Frost as well as those poets in
America sometimes associated with the New Criticism, including John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn
Warren and Allen Tate. During the 1960s, with a surge of interest in Confessional poetry, publication of
formal poetry became increasingly unfashionable. The emergence of the Language poets in the 1970s was
one reaction to the predominance of the informal confessional lyric. But language poetry was another step
away from the traditions of metre and rhyme, and was seen by some [who?] as widening the divide between
poetry and its public.[citation needed]
Early history
An early sign of a revival of interest in traditional poetic forms was the publication of Lewis Turco's The
Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics in 1968.[4] In the early 1970s X. J. Kennedy started publishing the
short-lived magazine Counter/Measures which was devoted to the use of traditional form in poetry. A few
other editors around this time were sympathetic to formal poetry, [5] but the mainstream was against rhyme
and meter.
One of the first rumbles of the conflict that was to provide the impetus to create New Formalism as a
specific movement, came with the publication in 1977 of an issue of the Mississippi Review called
'Freedom and Form: American Poets Respond'. The late 1970s saw the publication of a few collections by
poets working in traditional forms, including Robert B. Shaw's Comforting the Wilderness, (1977),
Charles Martin's Room for Error, (1978) and Timothy Steele's Uncertainties and Rest (1979). In 1980
Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell started the small magazine The Reaper to promote narrative and
formal poetry. In 1981 Jane Greer launched Plains Poetry Journal, which published new work in
traditional forms. In 1984 McDowell started Story Line Press which has since published some New
Formalist poets. The Reaper ran for ten years. Frederick Feirstein's Expansive Poetry (1989) gathered
various essays on the New Formalism and the related movement New Narrative, under the umbrella term
'Expansive Poetry'.
From 1983 the onset of "neoformalism" was noted in the annual poetry roundups in the yearbooks of The
Dictionary of Literary Biography,[6] and through the mid-1980s heated debates on the topic of formalism
were carried on in several journals. [7] 1986 saw the publication of Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate: A

Novel in Verse and the anthology Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms.

In 1990 William Baer started The Formalist and the first issue contained poems by, among others,
Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, and Donald Justice.[9] The magazine ran twice a year for fifteen years,
with the fall/winter 2004 issue being the last. [10] The Formalist was succeeded by Measure: A Review of
Formal Poetry, which is published biannually by the University of Evansville.
Current activity
Since 1995, West Chester University has held an annual poetry conference with a special focus on formal
poetry and New Formalism. Each year the Robert Fitzgerald Prosody Award is awarded as part of the
By the end of the 20th century, poems in traditional forms were once again being published more widely,
and the new formalist movement per se was winding down. Annie Finch's edited essay collection, After
New Formalism: Poets on Form and Narrative (1999), which moved formalist concerns into a wider and
more diverse poetic context, may be seen as marking the end of the first phase of the movement.
Since then, the effects of new formalism have been observed in the broader domain of general poetry; a
survey of successive editions of various general anthologies showed an increase in the number of
villanelles included in the post-mid-'80s editions. [11] The publication of books concerned with poetic form
has also increased. Lewis Turco's Book of Forms from 1968 was revised and reissued in 1986 under the
title 'New Book of Forms. Alfred Corn's The Poem's Heartbeat, Mary Oliver's Rules of the Dance, and
Stephen Frye's The Ode Less Travelled are other examples of this trend. The widely used anthology An
Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art (University of Michigan
Press, 2002), edited by Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes, defines formalist poetry as a form on a par with
experimental, free verse, and even prose poetry.
In 2001 the American poet Leo Yankevich founded The New Formalist, which published among others
the poets Jared Carter,[12] Keith Holyoak,[13] and Joseph S. Salemi.[14]
Interest in the movement and in formal techniques continues, as the West Chester conference
demonstrates, but the movement is not without its detractors. In the November/December 2003 issue of P.
N. Review, N. S. Thompson wrote: "While movements do need a certain amount of bombast to fuel
interest, they have to be backed up by a certain artistic success. In hindsight, the movement seems to be
less of a poetic revolution and more a marketing campaign." [15]
New Formalist canon
The 2004 West Chester Conference had a by-invitation-only critical seminar on 'Defining the Canon of
New Formalism', in which the following anthologies were discussed: [16]

Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism edited by Mark Jarman and David Mason, 1996.
The Direction of Poetry: An Anthology of Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in the English
Language since 1975, edited by Robert Richman

A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women, edited by Annie Finch, 1993

A movement along similar lines is starting in Ireland with the Rhymers Club movement based around
Tullamore and featuring writers such as Toms Crthaigh, Anthony Sullivan and Ken Hume. The main
journal associated with it is Cartys Poetry Journal.