Tag Archives: Extreme Formalism

Review: ‘Extreme Formal Poems – Contemporary Poets’, ed. Beth Houston

Beth Houston has compiled an excellent anthology of formal verse (i.e. poems that use traditional structures of exact rhyme and tightly controlled meter; typically in familiar forms like the sonnet, villanelle, ballade, etc, but sometimes in a nonce form, a form specially created by the poet for that particular poem, and then rigorously maintained for all its stanzas). What is unusual in this day and age is these are all contemporary poets, for the most part American, though with half-a-dozen who at least started out in the UK. (In the interests of disclosure: two of my poems are in this book, and I am one of the non-Americans.)

The poems range in a variety of moods through a whole host of modern topics. With examples from first stanzas only, we have a flippant take on nature:

The female fly is nearly chaste.
She hasn’t any time to waste;
Her life’s a span of weeks, not months,
And so she copulates just once.

– Max Gutmann, The Fly

a rueful look at the military:

You’ve made us proud–the prosperous and free.
It doesn’t matter that a GED
was all the education you could get,
or that you signed up on a drunken bet.

– Barbara Loots, Thank You For Your Service

lighthearted memories:

In sloppy FM waves nostalgia rolls:
I wanna hold! You are the sunshine of!
Each oldie on the golden dial extols
Your soul, your body’s curves, your rockin’ love.

– Chris O’Carroll, Classic Hits

Villon-reflecting reflections on time and mortality:

Where are the flushed and frantic teens,
The hormones’ fevered ebbs and flows?

(Fire buckets, water, verbal screens.)
The girls–good grief!–that parents chose
And others–how the mind’s eye glows!
Who floated inches off the floor?

(Flout censor’s ruling–fish-net hose.)
With dodo, great auk, dinosaur.
– Jerome Betts, Ballade of Inevitable Extinction

pastoral descriptions of nature:

On moorland, on meadow, from dark sky I’m falling,
through peat, into pavement, I’m seeping, I’m sinking.
Above me the crows and the curlews are calling,
and of me the hares and the horses are drinking.

– Tim Taylor, Water of Holme

witty observations flavored with wordplay and interior rhymes:

I’m far from young enough to know it all.
With age my inner sage has paled and died.
My dimmer, dumber cerebellum’s fall
Leaves ever-clever youth aloof and snide.

– Susan Jarvis Bryant, I’m Far From Young Enough

But what you don’t get from the openings to the poems is that most of them pack a punch at the end. There will be a twist to the story, or a summation that recasts everything in a different light, or a straight-out contradiction of what the reader was being led to expect. The poems may be extremely formal. They are also extremely good.

The only regret I have is that some of the very best contemporary formal poets are missing: both the publicity-prominent (e.g. A.E. Stallings, Amit Majmudar, Gerry Cambridge, Wendy Cope) and the more reclusive (Pino Coluccio, Rose Kelleher, Marcus Bales). But happily there are still 37 excellent and prize-winning poets in Beth Houston’s well-selected anthology. So the good news is that a great many superb formalists are writing today, and–believe it or not–this looks like a Golden Age for formal verse. And ‘Extreme Formal Poems‘ is a very good manifestation of it.

My own favourites: ‘To Myself In 50 Years Time’

Old fool! You really think yourself the same
As I who write to you, aged 22?
Ha! All we’ve got in common is my name:
I’ll wear it out, throw it away,
You’ll pick it up some other day….
But who are you?

My life’s before me; can you say the same?
I choose its how and why and when and who.
I’ll choose the rules by which we play the game;
I may choose wrong, it’s not denied,
But by my choice you must abide….
What choice have you?

If, bored, I think one day to see the world
I pack that day and fly out on the next.
My choice to wander, or to sit home-curled;
Each place has friends, good fun, good food,
But you sit toothless, silent, rude….
And undersexed!

Cares and regrets of loss can go to hell:
You sort them out with Reason’s time-worn tool.
Today’s superb; tomorrow looks as well:
The word “tomorrow” is a thrill,
I’ll make of mine just what I will….
What’s yours, old fool?

This poem, first published in Snakeskin No. 147, September 2008 and recently reprinted in the Extreme Formal Poems Contemporary Poets anthology edited by Beth Houston, is symptomatic of my constant concern with mortality. It was also a way to be provocative: under the guise of insulting myself, I got to insult all older generations. And it was also an exercise in poetic structure: each stanza presents an aspect of the superiority of present youth over future age. (Premise and conclusion aren’t necessarily made as statements, many times rhetorical questions are used instead.) The structure of each stanza is to begin with pentameters for a sense of reasonableness in the first three lines, pick up the pace for the next two lines, and end with a short punchline. Aggressive and effective.

Yes, I wrote it when I was 22. I don’t know if I will be able to concoct a suitably terse and dismissive answer when I’m 72. But it’s a favourite poem of mine, and I owe it a response.

Photo: “Day 005: The child is father to the man.” by JesseMenn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

‘Old Sailors’ – one poem, two forms

Two tars talked of sealing and sailing; one said with a sigh
“Remember gulls wheeling and wailing, we wondering why,
“And noting bells pealing, sun paling — it vanished like pie!
“And then the boat heeling, sky hailing, the wind getting high,
“And that drunken Yank reeling to railing and retching his rye,
“John missing his Darjeeling jailing, and calling for chai?
“While we battened, all kneeling and nailing, the hurricane nigh,
“And me longing for Ealing, and ailing?”
His mate said “Aye-aye;
“I could stand the odd stealing, food staling, not fit for a sty,
“And forget any feeling of failing, too vast to defy –
“Home-leaving your peeling-paint paling too far to espy –
“All because of the healing friend-hailing, the hello! and hi!
“And, with the gulls squealing, quick-scaling the mast to the sky.”

That was the original version, published in Snakeskin. Two sailors talking, each with a long, rambling reminiscence. When I submitted the poem to Beth Houston for consideration for the ‘Extreme Formal Poems: Contemporary Poets‘ anthology she was assembling, she suggested reformatting it to break each line between the two talkers, leading to a rapidfire (and constantly interrupted) flow of memories.

Two tars talked of sealing and sailing,
One said with a sigh:
“Remember gulls wheeling and wailing—”
“We wondering why—”
“And noting bells pealing, sun paling—”
“It vanished like pie!”
“And then the boat heeling, sky hailing—”
“The wind getting high…”
“And that drunken Yank reeling to railing—”
“And retching his rye!”
“John missing his Darjeeling jailing—”
“And calling for chai—”
“Us battening, kneeling and nailing—”
“The hurricane nigh!”
“Me longing for Ealing, and ailing—”
“This mate said ‘Aye-aye’—”
“I’d stand the odd stealing, food staling—”
“Not fit for a sty!”
“Forget any feeling of failing—”
“Too vast to defy!”
“Home-leaving your peeling-paint paling—”
“Too far to espy—”
“Because of the healing friend-hailing—”
“The hello! The hi!”
“And, with the gulls squealing, quick-scaling—”
“The mast to the sky.”

Here the two sailors alternate every half-line. (I’m having difficulty insetting the second half in WordPress, the way it shows up in the printed book.) Beth Houston made a couple of other editorial changes, in part to create better sense within this alternation (for example, the original break of ‘His mate said “Aye-aye” is modified to “This mate said ‘Aye-aye’—”) and in part because her Extreme Formalism manifests in rigourous syllable-counting, and she ruthlessly eliminates the occasional excess syllable at the beginning of a line which I allow for conversational flow.

But I find it interesting to see essentially the same poem structured in two different ways. Does it make a difference? Does the new variant lose the “good nautical rhythm” and “finely composed wordy-whirlwind of images” that others have commented on, or does it enhance them? Is version preferable to the other? Does one read more easily, or is one more vivid, or is one easier to memorise? I’m stuck on this, and need outside opinions. I would truly appreciate a comment below from anyone reading this.