ECSTATIC OCCASIONS, EXPEDIENT FORMS 65 Leading Contemporary Poets Select And Comment on Their Poems Edited by David Lehman Macmillan. 256 pp. $19.95
ADISTRUST OF received forms seems endemic to American poets," writes David Lehman in his afterword to this poetic-cum-critical anthology, in which 65 contemporary poets (64 American, one British) select and comment on one each of their poems. From Emerson and Whitman to Pound and Ginsberg, the history of American poetry bears him out: for whatever reason -- whether as a declaration of independence from British precedent, or as a response to the vastness and openness of the continent, or as an expression of pantheism or modernism -- American poets have preferred to pioneer new forms, or disrupt old ones, rather than work within given conventions. For each new generation, it's been a matter of honor to find different ways of departing from already-departed-from tradition.
Or so, since the 1960s, we have been encouraged to think. In truth, there has always been a strongly traditional counter-tradition, epitomized by Robert Frost's remark that free verse is "like playing tennis without a net" and by Eliot's insistence that "no vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job." Lately, as we move into a period of reappraisal, it has become possible to quote such remarks without holding them up for ridicule; they are quoted again here. David Lehman, a poet himself and editor of a standard work about John Ashbery, is by no means reactionary. But the arrival of his anthology, and the thrust of what it contains, are evidence of a swing back to what some would call "formal conservatism" and others "the paradoxical liberation of restraint."
As that last word implies, it's hard not to connect shifts in poetic fashion with those in sexual morality. The '50s generation quietly observed the rules, or tried to: "formal" was how you dressed when you went dancing, how you behaved during courtship, and how you wrote your poems. The stresses of such formality brought the spectacular revolt of the '60s, when moral barriers were overturned, metrical laws defied, and "free verse" and "free love" were the slogans: anything went, and all you needed to be a good person and a good poet was (another buzz-phrase) "sincerity". The present generation, represented by the younger poets in Lehman's anthology, is a post-AIDS generation, sceptical of sweet freedom and excess. They resent the '60s for having allowed, as William Hathaway puts it, "hip pedants . . . to mock Tennyson's meters or Shelley's hyperbole for the entertainment of schoolchildren. Nobody who really loves poetry wants to blast away its history." Several of them describe how they learned to kick their prejudice against rhyme and meter, which they'd been encouraged to believe were fuddy-duddy constraints. "Form" is no longer old hat: it's back in use again, and very necessary, like the condom.
An anthology such as Lehman's -- which takes its title, incidentally, from Marianne Moore: "Ecstasy affords the occasion and expediency determines the form" -- is an invitation for poets to sound off or examine their navels (or entrails), and the prose is often more inspirational than the poetry: Frank Bidart, for instance, has a long and interesting essay, "Thinking Through Form," which dwarfs the accompanying poem. Inevitably, perhaps, many contributors choose to show their proficiency at unusually demanding forms: there's an abundance of sonnets, double sonnets, "mirror" sonnets, villanelles, pantoums (which have the advantage, John Ashbery jokes, "of providing you with twice as much poem for your effort, since every line has to be repeated twice"), sestinas, and abecedaria. The overall impression is of a great deal of high-flown theorizing about poems which "discover their own form in the act of composition," and yet of disappointingly little hard evidence of what this means.
IT'S A USEFUL and entertaining anthology nonetheless, and not only because of Lehman's concluding glossary of technical terms. In general, the shorter and lighter the poem, the more insightful the prose comment. Amy Clampitt confirms her standing with a gentle but accomplished piece of California-Japanese pastoralism. Louis Simpson is full of good sense as he shows how, in his poem "The Precinct Station," form meets the demands of honesty as well as fiction. Brad Leithauser, though not the briefest poet in the book (that honor falls to Dave Morice with his six-word, four-line Alaskan drinking song), is enjoyably frank about the "aimless wordplay" which gave rise to his 13-word sonnet about post-coital tristesse ("Why/do/you/sigh,/roar,/fall,/all/for//some/hum/drum/come,/ -- mm?/Hm . . . "). Edward Hirsch contributes a fine poem about basketball, clearly and unpretentiously analyzed. Joyce Carol Oates and Molly Peacock both seek "delicacy" in their poems, Oates as she watches a fish's backbone being lifted free of the cooked flesh, Peacock as she describes a woman masturbating.
This would have been a better anthology if more leading poets had responded to Lehman's invitation and if those who did respond had chosen their best work rather than their most ingenious. But it does at least confirm the presence of the Generation Who Grew Up and Learned to Respect Rhyme and Meter. Whether it also confirms, as Lehman believes, "the healthy state of contemporary poetry" is less certain. The new ethic seems to be, not that form is bad, but that it's something to be dipped in and out of as convenient (Rosmarie Waldrop, speaking for several others: "Since I make the rules, I also feel free to break them"), and never mind the inconsistencies. Stranded between the "mechanical" and the "organic," with Frost's tennis set up at one point but down the next, we're no less confused about form than we ever were: there may still be some waiting to do before we get the poetry we think we deserve.
Blake Morrison, literary editor of The Observer (London), writes regularly about modern poetry. His books include "The Movement" and "Seamus Heaney."