New Formalism Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Formalism

New Formalism is a late 20th- and early 21st-century movement in American poetry that has promoted a return to metrical, rhymed verse and narrative poetry on the grounds that all three are necessary if American poetry is to compete with novels and regain its former popularity among the American people.[1]


The formal innovations of Modernist poetry, inspired by Walt Whitman and popularized by Ezra Pound, Edgar Lee Masters, and T.S. Eliot, led to the widespread popularity of free verse during the early 20th century. By the 1920s, debates about the value of free verse versus formal poetry were filling the pages of American literary journals.[2]

Meanwhile, many poets chose to continue working predominantly in traditional forms, such as Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur, and Anthony Hecht. Formal verse also continued being written by American poets associated with the New Criticism, including John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. During the 1950s, with the publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and a surge of interest in Confessional poetry, the writing and publication of formal and non-autobiographical poetry became very unfashionable.

Some attacks on traditional verse forms were politicized. Formal poetry was dubbed bourgeois, capitalist, and even Fascist.[3]

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 metre and rhyme, and was alleged by Dana Gioia to be widening the divide between poetry and the American reading public.[4]

Meanwhile, university professors Yvor Winters, Robert Fitzgerald,[5] and Elizabeth Bishop continued to teach literary criticism and the craft of poetry in the traditional way.[6]

In a 2021 interview, Gioia said that while New Formalism and the New Narrative are by far the most controversial responses within American poetry to the dominant position of free verse and confessional poetry, they are only one facet of an enormous grassroots movement. According to Gioia, "If I go back to 1975 when I was leaving Harvard, I was told by the world experts in poetry that rhyme and meter were dead, narrative was dead in poetry. Poetry would become ever more complex, which meant that it could only appeal to an elite audience, and finally, that the African American voice in poetry rejected these European things and would take this experimental form. What the intellectuals in the United States did was we took poetry away from common people. We took rhyme away, we took narrative away, we took the ballad away, and the common people reinvented it. The greatest one of these was Kool Herc in the South Bronx, who invented what we now think of as rap and hip hop. Within about ten years, it went from non-existent to being the most widely purchased form of popular music. We saw in our own lifetime something akin to Homer, the reinvention of popular oral poetry. There were parallels in the revival of slam poetry, cowboy poetry, and new formalism, so at every little social group, people from the ground up reinvented poetry because the intellectuals had taken it away from them."[7]

In what may be seen as the beginning of New Formalism, Rachel Hadas published her first chapbook in 1975, Charles Martin published his first collection in 1978, and Timothy Steele's first book of poems appeared in 1979.[8]

The Poetry Wars[edit]

New Formalism was a response to various perceived deficiencies in American poetry.

As Hadas, Martin, Gioia, and Steele were joined in print by other young formalist poets, the dispute that had begun in the 1920s and 1950s reignited and would later be dubbed The Poetry Wars by literary critics and historians of American poetry.[9]

When The Poetry Wars began, "in an ironic revearsal", defenders of free verse and Confessional poetry, many of whom were veterans of the 1960s Counterculture, "found themselves in the position of being defenders of The Establishment."[10]

The term 'New Formalism' was first used in the article 'The Yuppie Poet' in the May 1985 issue of the AWP Newsletter,[11] which was an attack on what was perceived as a movement returning to traditional poetic forms. Dawson's article accused the New Formalist poets not only of social conservatism, but also of yuppie consumerism,[12] an allegation that would be repeated many times in the future.

Despite persuasive arguments against political stereotyping of formalist poets by Progressive poets Paul Lake in the 1988 essay, Towards a Liberal Poetics[13] and A.E. Stallings in the 2010 essay Afro-Formalism,[14] Dana Gioia wrote in 1987, that, "for many writers the discussion between formal and free-verse has become an encoded political debate."[15]

Therefore, the Poetry Wars continued, poets who wrote free verse and Confessional poetry were stereotyped as social progressives, anti-racists, and as New Left socialists.[16] New Formalist and New Narrative poets,on the other hand, were stereotyped as old money White Anglo-Saxon Protestant preppies and as Anglophiles filled with hatred of the American Revolution and nostalgia for the British Empire.[16] American poetry in traditional verse forms was, according to poets and critics who believed in "The Free Verse Revolution", reactionary, Eurocentric, un-American,[17][16][18] white supremacist,[16] and even fascist.[19]

For women formalists, the situation was complicated by accusations of betraying their gender and the cause of feminism; as Annie Finch wrote in 1994 in the Introduction to A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women, "Readers who have been following the discussion of the 'New Formalism' over the last decade may not expect to find such a diversity of writers and themes in a book of formal poems; the poems collected here contradict the popular assumption that formal poetics correspond to reactionary politics and elitist aesthetics.[20] The passion for form unites these many and diverse poets."[21]

Similar accusations were unleashed against minority New Formalists and, in an essay of her own, Dominican-American poet Julia Alvarez defended her decision to write in languages and verse forms introduced to the New World by English and Spanish colonialists, while simultaneously subverting them by using those languages and verse forms to, "say what's important to me as a woman and as a Latina."[22]

Early history[edit]

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.[23] 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,[24] 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,[25] and through the mid-1980s heated debates on the topic of formalism were carried on in several journals.[26] 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.[27]

In 1990 William Baer started The Formalist and the first issue contained poems by, among others, Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, and Donald Justice.[28] The magazine ran twice a year for fifteen years, with the fall/winter 2004 issue being the last.[29] The Formalist was succeeded by Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry, which is published biannually by the University of Evansville.

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 conference.

Dominican-American poet Rhina Espaillat has used her position as a teacher at the Conference to introduce her students to verse forms from Spanish and Latin American poetry, including the décima and the ovillejo. This has led to those verse forms being introduced into English-language poetry by Espaillat's students.[30]


During the early 21st century, poems in traditional forms were once again being published more widely, and the new formalist movement was winding down.

In 2001 the American poet Leo Yankevich founded The New Formalist, which published among others the poets Jared Carter[31] and Keith Holyoak.[32]

Meanwhile, the movement was still 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."[33]

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.[34] 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 Fry'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 a 2010 essay, A.E. Stallings expressed regret that the writing of formal verse in American poetry remained, "an oddly politicized choice". Stallings added that female and minority New Formalists continued to be, "criticized", as part of what she dubbed, "that false dichotomy of free verse = democracy and empowerment and progress whereas formal verse = oppression and elitism and kowtowing to dead white males."[35]

Later in that same essay, however, Stallings described listening to African-American poet Erica Dawson, "who has something like rock star status in the formal world", as Dawson described how, "A decade ago she was told at a recitation contest that 'form was dead' but now she has served as judge at that same contest. She exuded confidence and vindication, taking on the canon in her own terms."[36]

In a 2016 interview with John Cusatis, Dana Gioia explained, "Literary movements are always temporary. They last a decade or so, and then they die or merge into the mainstream. The best New Formalist poets gradually became mainstream figures. There was no climax to the so-called Poetry Wars, only slow assimilation and change. Free and formal verse gradually ceased to be considered polar opposites. Form became one of the available styles of contemporary practice. Today one finds poems in rhyme and meter in most literary magazines. New Formalism became so successful that it no longer needed to exist."[37]

New Formalist canon[edit]

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:[38]

  • 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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Robert McPhillips (2005), The New Formalism: A Critical Introduction: Expanded Edition, Textos Books. Page xi.
  2. ^ R.S. Gwyn (1999), New Expansive Poetry: Theory, Criticism, History, Story Line Press. Pages 72-85.
  3. ^ William Baer (2006), Writing Metrical Poetry: Contemporary Lessons for Mastering Traditional Forms, Writer's Digest Books. Pages 236-237.
  4. ^ Robert McPhillips (2005), The New Formalism: A Critical Introduction: Expanded Edition, Textos Books. Page xi.
  5. ^ William Baer (2006), Writing Metrical Poetry: Contemporary Lessons for Mastering Traditional Forms, Writer's Digest Books. Page 237.
  6. ^ Dana Gioia (2021), Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer's Life, Paul Dry Books. Pages 32-58.
  7. ^ Conversations with Tyler: Dana Gioia on Becoming an Information Billionaire (Ep. 119) April 7, 2021.
  8. ^ William Baer (2006), Writing Metrical Poetry: Contemporary Lessons for Mastering Traditional Forms, Writer's Digest Books. Page 237.
  9. ^ Quincy R. Lehr, The New Formalism - A Postmortem, The Rain town Review, Volume 9, Issue 1.
  10. ^ Brendan D. King (March–April, 2020) The Saint Austin Review, The Poet and the Counterrevolution: Richard Wilbur, the Free Verse Revolution, and the Revival of Rhymed Poetry.
  11. ^ Thompson, Nigel S., 'Form and Function,' P. N. Review, 154; the Associated Writing Programs article was written by Ariel Dawson
  12. ^ Lake, Paul, 'Expansive Poetry in the New Millennium', a talk delivered at the West Chester Poetry Conference on 10 June 1999.
  13. ^ Toward a Liberal Poetics, (Threepenny Review, Winter 1988).
  14. ^ Afro-Formalism by A.E. Stallings
  15. ^ Gioia (2002), Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture, page 30.
  16. ^ a b c d Ira Sadoff: Neo-Formalism: A Dangerous Nostalgia, The American Poetry Review, January/February 1990.
  17. ^ Dana Gioia (2002), Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture, Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Pages 29-30.
  18. ^ James Matthew Wilson (2016), The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking, Wiseblood Books. Pages 95-96.
  19. ^ William Baer (2006), Writing Metrical Poetry: Contemporary Lessons for Mastering Traditional Forms, Writer's Digest Books. Pages 236-237.
  20. ^ R.S. Gwyn (1999), New Expansive Poetry: Theory, Criticism, History, Story Line Press. Page 167.
  21. ^ R.S. Gwyn (1999), New Expansive Poetry: Theory, Criticism, History, Story Line Press. Page 169.
  22. ^ R.S. Gwyn (1999), New Expansive Poetry: Theory, Criticism, History, Story Line Press. Pages 171-172.
  23. ^ The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics E. P. Dutton & Company, New York, 1968. A few years later Turco published a college textbook which presented poetry from the writer's perspective and emphasized the use of formal elements, this was Poetry: An Introduction through Writing, Reston Publishing Co, 1973. ISBN 0-87909-637-3
  24. ^ Timothy Steele in an interview mentions both Don Stanford at The Southern Review and Tom Kirby-Smith at The Greensboro Review. He also mentions Robert L. Barth's press and his series of metrical chapbooks.
  25. ^ 'The Year in Poetry' was contributed by Lewis Turco from 1983 to 1986.
  26. ^ for example, see Salmagundi 65 (1984) with Mary Kinzie's piece "The Rhapsodic Fallacy," (pages 63 – 79) and various responses; Alan Shapiro's piece "The New Formalism," in Critical Inquiry 14.1 (1987) pages 200 – 13; and David Wojahn's "'Yes, But ...': Some Thoughts on the New Formalism," in Crazyhorse 32 (1987) pages 64 – 81.
  27. ^ Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms edited by Philip Dacey and David Jauss
  28. ^ "Back Issue Orders". Archived from the original on 2006-09-12.
  29. ^ "Current Issue". Archived from the original on 2006-09-12.
  30. ^ Nancy Kang and Silvio Torres-Saillant (2018), The Once and Future Muse: The Poetry and Poetics of Rhina P. Espaillat, University of Pittsburgh Press. Pages 85-86.
  31. ^ Five Poems at The New Formalist
  32. ^ Four Poems at The New Formalist
  33. ^ N. S. Thompson, 'Form and Function,' P. N. Review, 154.
  34. ^ French, Amanda Lowry, Refrain, Again: The Return of the Villanelle, a doctoral dissertation, August 2004, page 13. Archived July 21, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  35. ^ Afro-formalism by A.E. Stallings.
  36. ^ Afro-formalism by A.E. Stallings.
  37. ^ John Zheng (2021), Conversations with Dana Gioia, University Press of Mississippi. Page 213.
  38. ^ Schneider, Steven, 'Defining the Canon of New Formalist Poetry', Poetry Matters: The Poetry Center Newsletter, West Chester University. Number 2. February 2005

Further reading[edit]