New Formalism

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A movement in American poetry of the 1980s and 1990s that returned, after the prolonged dominance of free verse, to traditional metres, stanza forms, rhyme, logical syntax, and comprehensible narrative or discursive exposition. There were a number of distinguished ‘old’ formalist poets writing at that time, including Anthony Hecht, Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, and Donald Justice (of whom the last three contributed to the inaugural issue of the Neoformalist magazine The Formalist in 1990); but the label was applied to recently emerging poets who had been born after 1940, especially to Timothy Steele, Dana Goia, Gjertrud Schackenberg, Mark Jarman, Brad Leithauser, Marilyn Hacker, and Vikram Seth, most of whom published notable collections in the mid-1980s. The movement's origins may be traced to the launch in 1980 by Jarman and Robert McDowell of The Reaper, a magazine dedicated to formal verse and narrative verse (the movement overlaps with a revival of narrative verse sometimes called the ‘New Narrative’). There followed two significant anthologies, Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (ed. P. Dacey and D. Jauss, 1986) and The Direction of Poetry (ed. R. Richman, 1988), along with some critical defences of the Neoformalist position, most notably Goia's essay ‘Notes on the New Formalism’ (1987), in which he declares ‘the bankruptcy of the confessional mode’, and Steele's book Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (1990), which regrets the wrong turn taken by modernism. An important later anthology is Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism (ed. M. Jarman and D. Mason, 1996). For a fuller account, consult Robert McPhillips, The New Formalism (2005).

Subjects: Literature.

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