The New Formalism in Texas

Austin-born political writer and sometime poet Michael Lind has lately pointed out a fact that is fairly common knowledge: Poetry is little read today except by academics. Lind blames this situation on writers who lack a necessary grounding in the traditional forms, including especially rhymed stanza patterns. On the other hand, he praises the work of poet-critic Dana Gioia for being part of a movement known as the New Formalism that has rescued American poetry from “a gang of professors [who] hijacked” it and imposed in the place of rhyme their so-called free verse. Dana Gioia, in turn, has written in his introduction to R.S. Gwynn’s No Word of Farewell–Selected Poems: 1970-2000 that this poet, who teaches at Lamar University in Beaumont, “is surely one of the three or four finest poets associated with New Formalism” but that he is “unique among his contemporaries” in having forged “a distinctive combination of traditional form and post-modern observation.”

Whether or not one agrees with Michael Lind that the New Formalism has saved American poetry from the clutches of free verse, there is no doubt that R.S. Gwynn is an accomplished writer in such forms as the heroic couplet, the sonnet, the ballad, the villanelle, and a number of others of his own invention. Yet to fill these forms does not ipso facto guarantee that a writer will create popular or moving or intellectually stimulating poetry. There must be more than mere rhyming, more than a repetition of standard meters, more than a use of literary wit and allusion, and more than a dependence on biblical and classical analogues if a writer is to engage a reader at the level of deep emotions and enduring delight.

R.S. Gwynn can in fact appeal to a reader through more than sheer formal ingenuity. Some of the pieces in “If My Song: New Poems,” the first section of his Selected Poems, will definitely impress the reader through the poet’s deft handling of rhyme schemes that do, as Gioia suggests, combine traditional elements with the contemporary scene. However, Gwynn’s formal pieces that “cover” such works as the biblical tale of Samson and Delilah (in “Among Philistines”) and the drama of Hamlet (in “Horatio’s Philosophy”) do not plumb the depths of his subjects so remarkably as do his treatments of more personal themes. In one of his translations from perhaps the book’s weakest section, “More Light: Translations, Parodies, Verse,” Gwynn renders some lines in François Villon’s “The Debate of Body and Heart” that relate in their way to Gwynn’s own condition: “What gave you all these troubles? A bad start. / When Saturn packed my bag for years ahead / He added them. Then learn to use some art.” Facing surgery for prostate cancer, the poet mustered all his art to control not only the sonnet form in which he wrote “At the Center,” among his New Poems, but also to evoke a response in the readers through making them feel viscerally the treatment center’s atmosphere, the attempt not to think about “where you are / or how you are,” and the unspoken thoughts of those who do not ask “how long you plan to stay.”

While literary allusion in Gwynn’s “Among the Philistines” is a valid method of conveying ideas and emotions, it can be overused. Much of Gwynn’s poetry relies so heavily on literary references or “updated” renditions of classic tales that it fails to move beyond the forms he follows or the story lines he borrows. His mock-epic, “The Narcissiad,” travesties such modern American poets as Daniel Halpern, James Merrill, John Ashbery, Richard Howard (referred to as Howhard), Daryl Hines, and Stanley Kunitz (orientalized as Ku-Nitzu). Along with these contemporary figures, the poem invokes Aeneas and Turnus, Greek gods and goddesses, Alexander Pope and Dante, by way of parodying the pretensions of one strain of post-World War II American poetry. The clever writing here reveals that Gwynn has done his homework, but the mockery is mostly an insider’s view that comes to little effect. The post-modern slant is slightly present in this particular passage: “Pallas Athene, hands clasped to her head, / Escapes the roar by taking to her bed, / While pale, forlorn and sulky, Aphrodite / Slouches about in curlers and torn nightie.” Similarly, Gwynn’s “Versions for the Millen-nium” includes this especially witty example of his writing in the stanza entitled “Upon Demi’s Breasts” (a remake, like most of his epigrams, of 17th-century classical verse): “Display thy breasts, my Demi, like a bough / Hung with such fruits as only gods enDow, / Upon which I would lie my lips implanted / Against what looks as succulent as granite.” Gwynn can rhyme with the best of them and his wit is sharper than most. But he is better when he takes aim at himself, as in “Before Prostate Surgery” when he writes that not only is his member “too downcast to raise a fuss / Or much of anything,” but his “Epic intentions [have] shrunk to epigram.”

The final section of the book is devoted to early poems which appeared in his previous full-sized collection, The Drive-In, published by the University of Missouri Press in 1986 as number 50 in its “breakthrough” series. I reviewed this volume at the time and still find some of its poems quite appealing. A poem like “Mimosa,” which I once praised, does not seem to hold up so well as I remembered it, but this may be owing to the fact that the first section of the Selected Poems offers work of greater maturity and affectivity.

It is not clear to me when, in relation to Gwynn’s illness, he wrote the poems in the first section of his new book, but it is certain that a number of the most impressive pieces date from this period. The experience, as would be expected, changed the writer, causing him to look at the world more empathetically, less sardonically. He can still be cynical about the promised cures offered in “1-800,” a poem in six-line stanzas with such clever rhymes as lewd, food, screwed, money, gun he, sunny, or “Discover how today! Write this address!” chiming with Success and UPS. Only occasionally do Gwynn’s poems exhibit local settings, but “Coastal Freeze” is one of a number of pieces in the New Poems section that refer to the area where he lives and teaches, the Gulf Coast of Texas. The false hope in “Laying bets on gulf-born breezes harboring / Hopes of spring” is dashed by the cold “front’s relentless lashing” that “drains each bud- / Full of blood, / Laying low without distinction as it kills / Daffodils, / Calla lilies, bougainvillea, mustard greens.” The rhymed form of this work is a combination of a line of five trochees followed by a line of three syllables or beats. The setting can be compared with surely the most convincing poem in the book, entitled “Cléante to Elmire.” Here the coastal hurricane known as Cara brings memories of a girl of the same name with whom the speaker acted in a school version of Moliére’s French neo-classical play, Tartuffe. In heroic couplets, the poem recalls that time “Heady with epigram and foiled seduction. / It was The Coastal Players’ great production.” Remembrance of the Cara who acted the part of the faithful spouse is mixed with the reality of a marriage that brought about her murder at the hands of her ex-husband. Ironically, Cara–both the storm and the dead friend–serves the speaker in his time of sickness, in passing through the shadow of the valley of death as his “rod and staff.” All the allusions here work toward “a curious dénouement” that is truly touching in a way that most of Gwynn’s writing is generally not.

Doubt, fear, frustration and failure are constant themes in Gwynn’s New Poems, and one piece that represents these dramatically is a three-sonnet sequence, “Body Bags,” on schoolmates, two of whom died in Vietnam or afterwards by suicide. The poet recalls, in one telling image, how “A scaled-down wild man, . . . Like Dennis “Wampus” Peterson, could haul / His ass around right end for me to slip / Behind his block. Played college ball a year– / Red-shirted when they yanked his scholarship / Because he majored, so he claimed, in Beer.” Another similar piece is entitled “Randolph Field, 1938,” and this essentially unrhymed poem, set in the San Antonio airbase of the title’s name, is more direct, less allusive, and very humanly sympathetic. It concerns a father who is unable to complete his flight training and “has missed the chance . . . To burn above Berlin” like his “buddies,” who “Saunter in after class with Cokes and Luckies.”

The range of R.S. Gwynn’s writing is perhaps unmatched today on the levels both of technique and wit. But what remains more vivid for me are not the parodic epigrams, the very competent translations from the French and German, or the darkness of poems such as “Black Helicopters,” “At Rose’s Range,” and “Audenesque: For the Late Returns” with their depiction of an American siege mentality, but the poems where he delves into personal encounters with those who have suffered some setback in life. Gwynn’s own coming face to face with the possibility of death seems to have brought him to draw upon his past for a more profound poetry. Evidence for this appears in lines from “Cléante to Elmire,” where this poem attempts “To salve my wreckage and restore your face,” to bless the memory of one who failed in love or, like his father, who “Washed out a week before he gets his wings.” The first section of Gwynn’s book ends with a quiet, prayerful poem, entitled “Release,” which contrasts with many of the rather bitter pieces that precede and follow it. This poem lends not only this section but the entire book a sense of acceptance and empathic understanding that offsets the work’s somewhat oppressively biting wit, revealing another side to the writer that makes the overall volume more fully and richly humane.

Frequent contributor Dave Oliphant is the author most recently of Memories of Texas Towns & Cities (Host Publications).

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