We were blessed the presence of James Matthew Wilson yesterday to the U., he of FOUR VERSE LETTERS--our latest chapbook in the Christian series. I liked his work very much, though it did bring the old free verse vs. formalism specter to mind. I brought up Whitman after the reading, asked him about what has been called "gentrification," about how the choice of forms so often seems to break down along economic lines? He kind of went off. Personally I have no answers, and I know that any discussions here will involve a lot of ridiculous generalizations; but I know, too, that the fault line does seem to show up, a perhaps disturbing fact, given our Catholic concern for the poor.
Some elitism reared its head, and I was disappointed by that. But perhaps I was too pointed for my part too. I like formalism myself, have written a lot of well-received sonnets and more recently some Francis "Fioretti" poems which, I think, when they are finished, will last. And I do like James' work. It reminds me of Dana's in that it saves the "New Formalism" from the tepidity and flatness of people like Nemerov and the rest of that first wave through a personal investment; that is, it is confessional to some extent. Very nice poetry, and I felt happy to be included in the audience.
Just as an aside, I've always disliked "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter." It's insistence on stoicism seems inhuman to me. A little girl is dead. If you do not cave inside (at least to some degree), are you alive?
As for myself, I feel torn. I like the free verse that comes through in my Francis "Three Companion" poems and in the in-your-face Liguori death poems. but the more confessional stuff really irritates. They are anti-poetic and Beat, yes, but I rankle at the line/form struggles. The major advantage to formal verse is, of course, that you know what's required: iambic, rhyme or no. Everything follows, but with free verse all bets are off; and unless you write with the free verse ease of someone like Janet McCann, the hills slide. In the case of those poems, they're all flat, narrative, prosaic in some insufferable way. It's probably all neurosis on my part, but though I keep the poems, I don't like them all that much.
What's the deal with the fault line? I don't know for sure, but I suspect it might have something to do with the herd mentality and the halo effect. Conservative Catholics especially seem to want to move toward the polished mahogany of old European money, and with money comes refinement, behavior. An agglutination occurs, all the issues start binding together. The blue-collar person feels like Whitman at the Eucharistic gates.
Of course none of it (the -isms) matters. What will always matter, as Eliot said late in life when he praised Frost, is the poetry. I like James's poetry, though his attempt to "answer" Eliot is a reach. In a way it's like trying to answer Shakespeare. Eliot had the depth and passion of a great artist, whatever his pose; James, like the rest of us, has to prove that he has the same.