Multiformalisms: Annie Finch in Conversation
by Tomma Lou Maas
First published in Poetry Flash, November 1994
TOMMA LOU MAAS: This year, in 1994, you had two books on poetry published--The Ghost of Meter and an anthology which you edited, A Formal Feeling Comes -- Poems in Form by Contemporary Women. Both of these books focus us as readers and writers back on the formal traditions. Would you tell us about these two books and why you undertook them?
ANNIE FINCH: I undertook each of these books as a way of trying to understand myself as a poet and to outline a context in which my own passionate needs for writing certain kinds of poetry would make sense. I got the idea for The Ghost of Meter book in 1984 or '85 sitting in a poetry workshop at the University of Houston. I was having an identity crisis as a poet who had been raised on free verse and was finding herself irresistibly drawn towards writing in meter. Sitting in the workshop staring at a poem of Emily Dickinson that we were discussing, I suddenly realized that the lines "the feet mechanical go round/ of ground or air or ought /a wooden way regardless grown /a quartz contentment like a stone . . . " could be seen as referring to Dickinson's feeling about meter as a constraint, as something that she hated and felt shackled by, but at the same time needed and loved and was drawn to. This resonated so deeply with my own ambivalence--my love-hate relationship with meter at the time--that I was extremely excited and realized that this was something I could dive into and follow through.
MAAS: What do you mean by a love-hate relationship with meter?
FINCH: The love for me comes first (but maybe it does in any love-hate relationship). As a poet I love meter. Or to speak more broadly, not necessarily meter, but regular recurrence of stress, or rhythm, or repetition--sound repetitions, physical repetitions. This is something that I have felt as part of my body, part of my ear, part of my psyche since I was a child. The hate was--that as a sophisticated, over-educated, literary person who had been trained to believe that meter was wrong, that it was constricting, artificial, limiting and politically passe, I hated it intellectually.
MAAS: Why do you think that was?
FINCH: One is trained out of meter. Also, as a woman I think I had an extra measure of hate or suspicion toward meter; I associated it with the patriarchal tradition. I thought that this could have been Dickinson's problem with it also, and when I did the research for the book, it turned out that this seemed to be the case--that she did associate iambic pentameter with patriarchal concepts and with oppression, but on the other hand also with power and literary authority. What I didn't anticipate was that there was a whole other rhythmic pattern in Dickinson and other poets--the triple rhythms, the dactylic rhythms, I call them.
MAAS: These are some of your favorite meters, aren't they?
FINCH: Yes. Now I am doing a lot of work with them in my own poetry, and I've discovered I've had to train myself out of iambs and train myself into these other rhythms. I'm finding it exhilarating and liberating; I think I write in a very different way when I write in those meters.
MAAS: What do you find the triple rhythm does differently for you than the heartbeat rhythm of the iambic pentameter?
FINCH: It's hard to say exactly what it's doing, but whatever it's doing allows me to write in a way that seems to come directly from my chest, rather than from my brain. It's more soothing, almost more hypnotic. I use a four-stress line rather than a five-stress line now writing in triple meter; I suppose it relates to the Anglo-Saxon line. To me the falling aspect of it, the dactylic, the trochaic aspect, is very important. It is a more laid-back rhythm; it's a more rolling rhythm than iambic.
MAAS: It frees you?
FINCH: It frees me. The iambic seems to be moving forward and always pushing forward, which I find constricting; and the dactylic seems to be laying back.
MAAS: How did the poets you looked at in The Ghost of Meter use these meters?
FINCH: The poets I looked at were all poets who were writing in free verse or at least in metrically variable verse during the 19th century when metrical patterns were much more flexible than they had been previously. And I found that for these poets, metered metrical patterns themselves had meanings. Metrical patterns signify in a physical, unconscious way different attitudes toward cultural traditions, different attitudes toward literary traditions, and different attitudes, perhaps, toward gender. What was particularly fascinating, if not surprising, was that similar patterns appeared in poets from Walt Whitman to Audre Lorde--similar attitudes towards iambic meters and dactylic meters. The iambic pentameter was associated with patriarchal cultures, society, traditional ways of doing things, and the dactylic with a much freer, more immediate, more unconscious, perhaps more subversive attitudes towards identity and towards culture. Each poet has a different take on them, different ways of relating to meter, but the basic patterns were really in place and are consistent throughout Whitman, Dickinson, Crane, Audre Lorde, Anne Sexton, Charles Wright and many contemporary poets also.
MAAS: One doesn't think of Whitman or Audre Lorde as writing in metrical form, yet you found these repetitions of certain rhythms in their poetry. Apparently you also found these repeated rhythms in many contemporary women poets in your book A Formal Feeling Comes. What do these books have in common?
FINCH: In both cases I was looking for form in a place where a lot of people wouldn't look for it. In The Ghost of Meter I looked for form and meter in free verse, and in A Formal Feeling Comes I found form in poems that some people would say were not formal. And in both cases I was trying to find a place for myself as a poet. One of my primary motivations to editing the anthology originally was a political one. I felt torn between the supposed conservative reactionary, nostalgic ethos that "formal" poets were supposed to participate in, and my own feminist and revolutionary (in my own subtle way) politics. This conflict didn't seem right. I felt that formal verse was extremely powerful in a way that reached into the roots of human need, and my politics are all about returning to human need--putting human need first. I wanted to corral the power of formal verse and open it up for purposes other than just the conservative maintenance of whatever power hierarchies exist. I started out feeling as if I were the only woman poet around who was a feminist writing in form. By the time I finished the book, I found that there has been a real grassroots shift towards formalism among women poets, many of whom didn't know that other poets were doing the same thing. Their poems include chant forms used by Native American poets or those used by a poet like Alma Luz Vullanueva, poems that often wouldn't have been thought of as formal poems. But the chant is an extremely formal poem; the chant is as much a form as the sonnet, and the blues is as much a form as the villanelle. Sonia Sanchez is not usually thought of as a formal poet, for instance; yet for her writing the blues, or writing haiku, is an extremely important aspect of poetic power.
MAAS: So could you say that through your books, The Ghost of Meter and A Formal Feeling Comes, you have discovered that form has always been with us? Would you say that these repeating metrical rhythms are prevalent in many poets today as well as in many poets of the past?
FINCH: Yes to both questions. Since the Modernist revolution, the dogma that "form is reactionary and limited, and unimaginative" has been so prevalent that I think it has blinded poets and readers to the many kinds of form that are living and vital and that are changing and growing.
MAAS: A Formal Feeling Comes was just off the press when you went to the Associated Writing Programs Conference in Phoenix in April. Tell us about that.
FINCH: I went down to the conference not having seen a copy of the book yet, and there was a panel scheduled for discussion about the book at the conference. The day before the panel I saw the book for the first time, and so did several of the contributors; it was an exciting way to see it. The attendance at the panel was very healthy, quite large, and the audience was enthusiastic. People were extremely open to the book, and they talked about wanting to use it in teaching. I really hadn't known what to expect because there has been such a prejudice against "formalism," and I didn't know whether people were ready to see a new perspective on what form can be and what form can do.
MAAS: But it seems they were ready.
FINCH: They were ready. And they are ready, and the book is doing very, very well. It is being reviewed now in a wide range of publications.
MAAS: Who is going to use it in their classes? Do you have any indication?
FINCH: Poets who teach creative writing and poetry writing are going to be using it. Possibly some people will be using it for contemporary literature classes, or women's literature classes.
MAAS: Why would a professor use this book in teaching literature?
FINCH: For Women's Literature I think this book is crucial because it makes a link between what women poets are doing now and what women poets did for centuries before Modernism, which was to write in form. Women poets have generally been more conservative metrically and formally than male poets. If you compare Emily Dickinson's poetic revolution to Walt Whitman's poetic revolution, you will see what I mean. She remained metrical--she remained within the confines of a certain metrical tradition, though she chose a very unorthodox one, whereas Whitman just exploded out of meter completely. For whatever reason--I discuss this in The Ghost of Meter at some length--women have tended to write in more formal ways. Some of the theorists of women's writing have suggested that this is because they value accessibility; they value community; they value tradition and connecting, rather than a more individualistic and anarchistic attitude. And it is true, in my opinion, that formal verse tends to reach out quite powerfully within communities.
MAAS: Would you say that perhaps formal verse, contrary to what people may think, is a freeing form rather than a constraining form?
FINCH: Well, for me it certainly is. That could be because of my historical situation right now. If you've been brought up with something, then of course, it tends to feel constraining. And having been brought up with free verse, I think I share with many other poets a sense that free verse can be constricting.
MAAS: You talk about how a certain rhythm comes right out from inside you. So maybe as you have matured through life you have picked up these rhythms, and now you want to put them forth.
FINCH: I think it is possible that I have picked up certain rhythms at certain times. Many poems with triple rhythms were part of my childhood, and that could be an important reason. But I think that form is liberating in a more general way also. Adrienne Rich has an essay called "Format and Form" where she talks about the importance of formal verse for oppressed groups of people; it is important in connecting people with their traditions, their histories. That can be a very, very liberating thing for people who feel cut off from their own traditions and their own roots. I think that's true of women poets, as this anthology shows.
MAAS: How would a student who has not been trained in poetics use your book? How could they put it to good use?
FINCH: The book has an index of forms which makes it user-friendly for people who aren't familiar with poetic forms. I would hope people would browse through it looking for poems that draw them and catch their eye. In this book those poems could be in any form from a chant to a pun poem to a pantoum, to blues, to sonnets--rhymed or unrhymed. Then once having found a poem or poems that grabs them, the reader would then look up the form in the Form Index to see what kind of poem it is, and could then use the other index to see what other poems in the book are in the same form. I would hope that this would lead the person to further exploration in other books, and eventually to becoming more empowered by becoming more familiar with the tool box of poetry--the tools of poetic craft in the traditional sense of the word.
MAAS: Let's move into the idea of America's poetic tradition. We have two camps presently who are not willing to sit around the fire together. Could you comment on the bringing together of these two camps, or are we as different as we think?
FINCH: I think the main reason for the schism between formal poetics and free verse poetics is the belief that formal poetics has to be European, for whatever reason. "Formal verse" is usually held to mean forms that come from English or perhaps from French or Italian. And this makes formal verse seem rather like it has its head in the sand, as if it is unaware of all the other poetics all over the world, and unaware of all the other powerful aspects of American culture that are non-European. This is actually not true at all. American poetry has been enriched by forms from a multiplicity of cultures, both foreign influences that have come into our poetry and also influences that have been suppressed, like the blues or Native American chant. If formal verse were redefined, one might use the term "multiformalism" to refer to the poetics of repetition as opposed to any particular unit of repetition or particular kind of meter. Poets might discover that there is less of a gap between formal verse and free verse than they think. Walt Whitman's poetry, for instance, is formal in many of the senses of the word, not only because he uses meter but because certain passages are repetitious in the same ways that Native American chants are repetitious and Whitman probably got this from the Old Testament, which comes from the Hebrew tribal poetics. These are universal human, cultural richnesses, and I think it is cutting off poetry's nose to spite its face to try to divorce free verse from formal verse. The best free verse depends on formal verse; the best free verse poets for generations have been trained in formal verse and were very conversant in formal verse, and the best free verse plays off of metrical and rhythmic patterns. I think most people have been stuck because they haven't been able to come up with a definition of "form" that is inclusive. I call the definition that I used in editing the anthology "conspicuous repetition." My working definition of formal verse is "poetry that is structured by repetition, of sounds--like rhyme or alliteration; syllables; rhythmic patterns like meter; phrases, refrains, stanzas; any of these repeating elements. The term "conspicuous" does rule out experiments that don't appeal to the physical body and aren't obviously accessible to the ear.
MAAS: Would you say that William Carlos Williams' unrhymed iambic pentameter poem, "The Red Wheel Barrow" is really a poem written in form, though it isn't written on the page with the traditional lines?
FINCH: It's been said that that is just a couple of lines of blank verse. This brings up a very interesting point. Free verse does tend to be more visual, and I think it is not really fair to say that "The Red Wheelbarrow" is blank verse, because so much of that poem depends on how it looks on the page. For me, free verse is very much a visual, meditative experience, and formal verse is more of a physical, aural, experience.
MAAS: Would you say that form "plucks" an inner string and free verse isn't plucking the emotion so much as communicating it visually?
FINCH: To me, free verse may be more an object to contemplate, and formal verse may be more of an instrument that plays on you. People have often been suspicious of formal verse for just that reason, because it has an hypnotic effect; it tends to numb the brain a little bit. It can be used as a rhetorical or a propaganda tool, and it can hypnotize a poet to write lines and lines and lines of tripe that, otherwise, they might not let themselves write. But given all these dangers and weaknesses, the power has not gone away. The power for formal verse is still there and can still be tapped in spite of those weaknesses.
MAAS: Do you have a sense of the direction of our poetic future?
FINCH: I imagine that the future will have a much larger metrical vocabulary than the recent past has had. In The Ghost of Meter I present the idea that the free verse phenomenon, which is unprecedented in any literature, was--in a sense--a way of clearing the decks, a way of freeing the ear and the body to hear other rhythms besides just the iambic. The iambic had a stranglehold on poetry for quite a while. At one point in the mid-nineteenth century, it was a very daring innovation to substitute an extra syllable in the middle of iambic line; William Cullen Bryant argued passionately in one essay for the privilege of substituting an extra syllable in a line of iambic pentameter. Now after decades and decades of free verse, poetry is open to many more rhythms: iambic rhythms, triple rhythms, rising and falling rhythms. I am writing in all kinds of meters that were not possible for serious poets to write in until recently. I think this is an era of great possibilities for formal verse and also for free verse, since poets can draw consciously on the patterns of different meters and their connotations, and use those connotations and those rhythms as tools to make better poetry of both kinds.
MAAS: How do you envision that reconciliation could come about? How would we expand our thinking?
FINCH: Well, as in many situations, knowledge is better here than ignorance. Now that the worst backlash against meter is over, maybe it would be possible to educate young poets--and young readers--to understand and hear different rhythmic patterns. The simplest way to teach that might be through formal verse. This would make reader and poets infinitely better equipped to deal with free verse if they chose to as well as to continue to appreciate formal verse.