The Fortunes of Formalism

[A] de-emphasis in the academy in recent years on the formal elements of poetry, in favor of the social, legal, historic, and cultural background to literature, has meant that even doctoral candidates in English need not concern themselves overly with poetic form. Another quick but, I think, telling example: I was serving on a panel of poetry judges, and as the panel proceeded to deliberate, one judge, a university professor and poet, chimed in to say that I and another of our colleagues seemed to be paying a lot of attention to the language in the poems. It was never entirely clear to me what was meant by this statement, but I suspect that the implication was that, in carefully examining a poet’s deployment of words, I had failed to give proper weight to the poet’s biography as it was suggested by the poems. —David YezziThe Fortunes of Formalism (New Criterion)

I teach blank verse (iambic pentameter), and required my Intro to Literary Study students to write sonnets. The poets in the class overwhelmingly prefer free verse, but enough “got into” the exercises that I consider the experience a success.

I’m a much better poetry editor than a poet. When I do write verse, it’s solely to play with form. That’s almost the opposite of the student poets whose feeling gush forth into their keyboards.

Students in my upper-level Media Aesthetics class have started exchanging glances and smirking every time I bring up T.S. Eliot — a formalist who knew the rules well enough to break them to pieces when he needed to. (“Wallala leialala” anyone?)