Reading its subtitle, I almost returned the book to the library shelf without opening it: A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women (edited by Annie Finch, Story Line Press, 1994). I pegged it for yet another ghettoized anthology that diminishes poets by treating them not as writers but demographic case studies. Finch includes much that is “formal” only according to the most elastic of definitions, and many of the legitimately formal poems are not very good. Being female and writing what Finch calls “poetry that foregrounds the artificial and rhetorical nature of poetic language,” are no guarantee of first-rate poetry.
I was pleased, however, to discover that Finch had included two poems and a brief prose apologia by Helen Pinkerton. In the latter, she defends her own poetic practice and offers a grim assessment of much recent verse:
“My view of form is that it is essential to the art of poetry, both in meter and in rhetorical structure. I have always written in standard English meter, never abandoning it for variations into accentual or syllabic meters, still less for so-called `free verse’ or lineated prose. Since about 1950 poetry as an art has nearly been destroyed by the almost universal loss by readers and writers of the perception of the standard English metrical line, as practiced by poets from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Frost, Robinson, Bogan and Winters. Whether poetry as an art can be recovered is questionable, but true recovery can only be based on recovery of the metrical line.”
Over time, after much reading and self-examination, I’ve come to accept Pinkerton’s precepts. There’s a price to be paid for writing “free verse.” Finch selects two poems by Pinkerton from her “Bright Fictions” series, first published in `The Harvesters’ and Other Poems on Works of Art (R.L. Barth, 1984): “On Dorothea Lange’s Photograph `Migrant Mother’ (1936)” and “On Vermeer’s `Young Woman with a Water Jug’ (1658) in the Metropolitan Museum.” Here is the former, dedicated “(to my Aunt Nora)”:
“Remembering your face, I see it here,
Eyes weary, unexpectant, unresigned.
Not wise, but self-composed and self-contained,
And not self-pitying, you knew how to give
And when to take and, waiting, not despair.
During bitter years, when fear and anger broke
Men without work or property to shadows
(My childhood’s world), you, like this living woman,
Endured, keeping your small space fresh and kind.”
In a conversation I had with Pinkerton this week, she several times scorned self-pity as the least dignified of emotions, and praised a poet of her acquaintance for overcoming this defect of character in middle-age. The woman in Lange’s photograph, Florence Owens Thompson, was thirty-two years old and the mother of seven when the picture was taken in Nipomo, Ca. Pinkerton sees in the prematurely aged face of Thompson a memory of her aunt’s stoicism and good nature in difficult times. One can readily imagine the stridently sentimental political statements many poets, female and male, formal and “informal,” would impose on Lange’s picture.
Finch includes in her anthology “Time and Music” by Pinkerton’s friend Janet Lewis, who also contributes a three-paragraph essay, “A Kind of Celebration,” which begins like this:
“In the beginning poetry can be a kind of celebration that calls for a certain formality and enhancement of emotion. It is not a prose statement. And as a creation it demands music of its own, or in itself. Just as there are dance forms the body is happy in, I think there are forms, such as the sonnet, the villanelle, and the other stanza forms, in which the language is happy. And the mind is happy to find these forms in language. They are artificial like dancing but they do something for the emotions, for it gives us pleasure to move in these forms.”