BOOKS The New Formalism in Texas BY DAVE OLIPHANT No Word of Farewell Selected Poems: 1970-2000 by R.S. Gwynn Story Line Press 167 pages, $16.95. A ustin-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 poetcritic 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 FarewellSelected 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 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 Francois 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 vis cerally 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 Daryl Hines, and Stanley Kunitz \(orientalized as 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 Millennium” includes this especially witty example of his writing in the stanza entitled “Upon Demi’s Breasts” \(a remake, like most of his epigrams, of thy breasts, my Demi, like a bough / 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 8/3/01
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