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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Dear Wikipedia, I object--

Among the many bothersome or dreadful things presenting themselves to my mind in 2020--global, national, and personal things--is the fact that Wikipedia still determines that I am a New Formalist. I noticed this claim some years ago. Perhaps many years ago. In fact, dear Wikipedia, I wrote you about this wee but annoying issue back in February of 2016.

But having accidentally fallen once more into my Wikipedia page by clicking heedlessly on a link, New Formalist glared out me from the little box in the upper right, even though I backtracked as quickly as possible. At the time (whenever it was) that someone made that minor yet preposterous claim, I hadn't the vaguest idea what a New Formalist might be. I certainly was part of no supportive group of poets. How can a writer be a part of a group or movement she knows nothing about? 

These days, I know a good many more poets, yet I still don't know who might be regarded as part of this group that could have been supportive of my writing yet obviously was not. For I would have noticed--years ago--that I was well supported or even minimally supported by other writers. Might I have been a part of some jolly bunch of poets, sailing the seven seas in joy, and not have noticed? My dear Wikipedia, I very much doubt it.

You see, I've never been the least bit good at making "contacts" that might "help me." And I certainly was never embraced by a literary movement. A person notices when she is embraced, whether by a friend or a pushy stranger or even by a whole great big Literary Movement with capital L and M.

The only favor I can recall being done for my poetry was when the late Louis D. Rubin, Jr. asked to see my first poetry manuscript and then sneakily mailed it off to Louisiana State University Press. And they took it, the mad things! Once. I didn't sell enough copies of my first book to be loved by them eternally. If only I had been part of a Literary Movement, you are probably saying to yourself, my dear Wikipedia!  See, you almost admitted the truth there for a moment. But I don't think the book broke 400 copies, way back when. Unfortunately, Claire (I wish I had named it Snow House Stories and Other Poems, as I first intended) hopped around the press like the proverbial hot potato after its first editor took leave to take care of his ailing mother, abandoning my baby. Books need one consistent editor the way a baby needs one consistent mother. (I had two for my first six months of life, but that's another story.) I'm still grateful to Louis for surprising me with that submission. I'd give a great deal to have a chat with him, right now.

What is this New Formalist business? People who write in form who come later than others who write in form? Keats is later than Milton. Pope is later than Shakespeare. People who write in form are simply poets.

That's not what you mean, though... 

Don't tell me. I could just look it up on Wikipedia, but I won't.

No doubt it's the pesky people who tired of the light constraints of free verse and leaped back into terza rima and sonnets and metrical lines and even rhyme. Like me, yes. But evidently they mustered together and created a movement. An actual Movement. Please do not tell me about it. I do not even wish to know. I just wish you, Wikipedia, to delete that bit of illusion, that claim with its air of importance. (Oh, yes, I,  I, I, belong to a Literary Movement. Nope. Never happened.) Perhaps the assertion rises to the level of the currently popular genre, fake news... Except poets are rarely news. I expect Ezra Pound was the last to provide anything we could classify as news, and that wasn't good news.

I may know people who think of themselves with that label. I suppose it is possible. But I don't know who they are, and I don't intend to find out. For me, there are good and memorable poems, and then there are the other poems. The latter no doubt are just as important to their makers as the good and memorable ones are to theirs. Some poems are mayflies, some are mighty Methuselahs. Hoping to catch the next poem as it streams through my mind (mind? spirit?) is what matters to me. I hope it's what matters to most poets (whether they write in form or in some Ivar-the-Boneless manner), though I have encountered poets who had something else entirely in mind.

So dear, sometimes-helpful Wikipedia, note this: People who write in form are merely poets. That's how it has been for thousands of years. And this person--me--who became bored by free verse* long ago is merely a maker of poems and stories, and not part of any movement. And that is all.

I expect you won't do anything about this. After all, it has been more than four years since I wrote you, and I still have this peculiar mark on my forehead. I'll try again in 2024, if the world and I last so long.

See you then!

*I should say that I do have a manuscript that you might call free verse... It combines influences from several distant traditions. Cultural appropriation, you might say, if you were unwilling to accept that the history of literature is a Silk Road, rejoicing in foreign spice and barter and ingenious theft.


  1. Oh, my ... well, we know that English departments began insisting upon labels half a century ago ... it was if we needed to make literature more scientific with its classifications and charts .... one could be called worse than NF ... and there is this:
    Keep smiling ....
    Best wishes from the Gulf coast curmudgeon ..l one who survived the English departments.....

    1. I rebel against categorization! However, you are right, Tim. Could be more annoying. Could have more labels, I suppose.

      Yes, genre labels are a bit pseudo-scientific. And odd at the moment when there is so much mash-up work.

  2. I think the solution here is to create a Wikipedia account, or have a family member or a friend create one, and go in and edit your own entry. I hope you'll still speak to the rest of us now that you've become famous enough to have your own Wikipedia page!

    1. You are hilarious! There has been one for a while, despite my persistent obscurity... I know one person in the UK who wrote part of it...because he told me afterward. I don't know about the New Formalist business. Who did that?

    2. I have a friend who was involved for a while in maintaining Wikipedia entries for subjects that interested him, including the town where his family came from in Ireland. Through him, I learned that there are quite a few people for whom creating and maintaining Wikipedia entries is an avid hobby. If you go to the Wikipedia page about you, notice that there's a "view history" tab on the top. It allows you to see the handles of who created the page and who's edited it since its creation. The annotations go back to 2006 and represent their own arcane jargon, but you can see who did what, and in some cases you can contact the people who've edited the page over the years.

      In all seriousness, you might want to ask on Facebook or Twitter whether you have fans, friends, relatives, or acquaintances who are Wikipedia users. If so, someone should be able to edit anything that's inaccurate or unwanted.

      I do think much of your poetry is in the tradition of the New Formalists, but I usually associate the New Formalism with the 1980s and 1990s--Richard Wilbur, Dana Gioia, et al. I see it as a movement that brought renewed respect to poetry in identifiable forms and broadened the range of what editors considered publishable, but I'm inclined to wonder if it's still a "school" anymore...

    3. Yes, it seems silly to talk about it as a school these days. People just write poems, and sometimes they write in form, as people have done for thousands of years.

      I did once write them, bugged about some other thing, I guess--but then they just stick it on the Talk page. Bleh. So now I just stick to being vaguely bothered and then forget about it.

  3. Heh. I would say, count your blessings: as categories go it seems like a pretty harmless one :-)

  4. I looked up formalism elsewhere other than Wiki. Since you spend a good deal of energy disestablishing yourself from formalism and adding that you prefer darkness to knowing, I won't irritate you with what I found. But based on one of the two meanings I'd say your inclusion was intended as a joke. Worse still, an academic joke, thus unbearably tedious.

    But there is another side to all this. Groupings are not necessarily the decision of those who are grouped. They may be imposed, frequently by lazy journalists (and I should know!) or by even lazier academics. I doubt, for instance, that the great Johann Sebastian ever described the Mass in B Minor as the greatest piece of baroque music ever written. For one thing he was too busy proceeding towards his final opus number (somewhere north of no. 1080, confusingly labelled BWV and thus mis-linked to a brand of automobile fashioned in Bavaria) and, for another, making sure he didn't die before the baroque period came to an end. Are you following me?

    Coming closer to home (ie, your metaphorical home, bailiwick or profession) tell me why Keats wasn't a Georgian poet. He could have been double-Georgian, being born during the reign of G.III and dying while G. IV was still enthroned. Another bit of careless grouping which ignores the Occam's Razor principle - in resolving conundrums go for the likely explanation.

    Coming even closer to home I could say R. Robinson belongs to the Hereford School of Novelists. Heavy irony given my unprofitable - and brief - association with the Groves of Academe. But in dishing out groupings there is no obligation to tell the truth and I'd opt for the Oxbridge School. If you're gonna lie, lie big.

    1. Perhaps it is the fact that time appears to speed up... but neither Keats nor Bach had to put up with people sticking labels on them. They could wait until safely dead and unable to fend off persecution by academic categorizers.

      Maybe the illusion of time speeding up is just Wikipedia, which ghoulishly jumps onto any notable death within the hour.

      I'm off to lunch in the little city of Oneonta... more anon.

    2. Keats... I expect it was his kinship with the sensual, with natural imagery, with melancholy attitudes, with love of classical Greece, with the exotic and romantic, with medievalism, with the primacy of imagination, and with sentiments and the emotional that linked him with the second generation (Shelley, Byron) of Romantics particularly and with Wordsworth and Coleridge.

      The latter part of the Neoclassical era definitely overlapped and competed with the Romantic, and they both were highly influenced by the classical world, but I think you'd have to say that the Romantics rebelled a bit against reason and Enlightenment ideas and poets like Pope and Dryden... Gray might be a tad more congenial to them, I would suspect. Then there's the curious case of Blake, who I think of as Romantic but pops up in Neoclassical lists.

      I think that the term "Georgian Poetry" was thoroughly claimed not by neoclassical categorizers but by more modern ones and points more to George V. (Not being able to keep royalty in my head, I had to look up which George it was.) So that means Lawrence, Brooke, Graves, Sassoon, de la Mare etc. The name being used that way is really because of the series of "Georgian Poetry" anthologies...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.