Expansive Poetry
Contemporary Visions in a Traditional Frame
by Arthur Mortensen



For those lovers of poetry who feel that most contemporary authors merely rearrange prose on paper, what some are calling the Expansive Poetry or the New Formalist movement should provide a welcome alternative. This movement's practitioners—like Timothy Steele, Dana Gioia, Mary Jo Salter, Wiatt Prunty, Emily Grosholz, Rachel Hadas, Frederick Turner, Frederick Feirstein, Mark Jarman, Dick Allen, Robert McDowell, and Charles Martin—have, for some twenty years, sought to restore the art by using meter, rhyme and stanza, and by putting narrative at the heart of poetry, whether in dramatic monologues, novels in verse, pure narratives, or science fiction epics.

This movement did not come about by accident but through the willingness of a few editors to publish poetry written in meter instead of prose, as well as stories in poetic form of a breadth far beyond the confessional. One was X. J. Kennedy, a widely published poet who could no longer get editors to consider his work. Dismayed by their contempt for meter and form, he founded Counter/Measures, where he put some of his starving poems along with those written by others. The magazine didn't last, for love alone is a poor financier; yet it provided proof that its contributors weren't martyrs in the wilderness but grouped in a common cause. While the martyr's pose may offer pleasure for some, and in certain circles is qualification for a grant, suffering is not a motivation for Expansive Poets. Instead, they enliven poetry with techniques abandoned by such modernists as Pound and Eliot, and barred since the 1960s by their disciples.

"What words float up in another's thoughts
surface as soon in mine, unfolding there
like paper flowers in a water glass. . ."

So wrote Richard Wilbur in "The Mind Reader" (1976). And it is true that a serendipitous meeting of minds was indeed occurring around the country at about that time. As editor of The Kenyon Review in the 1970s, Frederick Turner became one of the first in decades, besides Ted Weiss at Quarterly Review of Literature, to accept narratives.

The re-introduction to poetry of wider contexts for narratives is a central issue of Expansive poetry. In a recent discussion, Dick Allen said: "With contemporary confessional poetry, it's difficult to tell what century it was written in. We want to write from the context of our times." Reflectively, he added: "We love the art of poetry; we like its content to be comprised of significant things of our time; and we like its sound."

The movement is not monolithic. Intentions vary, but there are common themes: "Over the past two decades the only kind of [long] poem taken seriously… was the sequence: a series of lyrics thematically rather than dramatically organized… The narrative and dramatic poem, with developed plot and character, was discarded… in the same way that Aristotelian drama was shoved aside for Theater of the Absurd…" Frederick Feirstein wrote in The Kenyon Review in 1983 ("The Other Long Poem"). Feirstein also said that "it's impossible to develop a book-length narrative without meter and call it poetry rather than prose fiction. The conflict of opposites between the metrical line and the prose rhythm of natural speech sustains and poetically mirrors the tension in the dramatic structure itself…"

In Expansive poetry there is no prohibition against rough stories, but there is an effort to show something beyond the immediate, whether a spiritual search or the fulfillment of a dream. And as well, there is an emphasis on approaching narrative as what unfolds, step-by-step, not to be hidden in fragmentation and unidentified voices. With a background in science, Frederick Turner suggests that poets ought to look at what neurological science reveals as common threads of expectation, perception and expression. Meter, line and stanza may have been developed to fit the ranges of human hearing and perception; to write with them may be the only way to communicate in verse.

Dana Gioia agrees that poetry's authors must restore old techniques and tell stories again to give it both life and an audience, but feels that the capture of the poet by most creative writing programs strangled the art—Gioia is now occasionally teaching himself to help correct this situation. He eschews the grand design of epic poetry, however, preferring to work Robert Frost's path in shorter poems with detailed events and well-drawn characters, an approach as familiar to American poetry before 1950 as to paintings by Edward Hopper. He has no wish for philosopher kings, but he does convey through poetic means those stories rarely told. "Speaking of Love" ends with the following: 

And so at last we speak again of love,
Now that there is nothing left unsaid,
Surrendering our voices to the past,
Which has betrayed us. Each of us alone,
Obsessed by memory, befriended by desire,  

With no words left to summon back our love.
    —from “Speaking of Love,” Gods of Winter
Dana Gioia (Graywolf, 1993)

To use poetic means to tell stories of both joy and tragedy lies at the heart of Expansive Poetry, whose writers insist that stories be told with intelligible means, and preferably out loud. These poets employ meter, line, stanza, and rhyme, not for decoration but to convey meaning in performance. With clear diction, their views unobstructed by the glass of rigid ideology, they risk telling stories again, and by that to revive an art whose power to allow individuals the experience of a common heritage has always been its greatest gift. They are getting an audience at readings throughout the country, and spreading the word through conferences as well, including the Sewanee Writers' Conference and "Form and the New Narrative" held annually at West Chester University. To find their work, as well as that of other poets returning to traditional poetic forms imbued with contemporary content, start with the journals Hudson Review, Sparrow, The Formalist*, The Lyric, Edge City Review, Blue Unicorn, and Hellas, or, from England, Orbis, and from Scotland, Dark Horse. Two notable book publishers supporting this movement are Story Line Press and the Poetry Series from Johns Hopkins University Press. Well known senior poets who have provided inspiration and have acted as models are Pulitzer Prize winners Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, Anthony Hecht and Mona Van Duyn. While the future of poetry is always in doubt, for conveying our time and place using time honored poetic forms, it is heartening to know that so many contemporary poets are reaching to the past for established Western art forms in order to expand those forms into a positive future for the art.

Arthur Mortensen is a poet, who has been published in Sparrow, Edge City Review, The Lyric and others. He is the publisher of Somers Rock Press, of the journal Pivot and the Web magazine "Expansive Poetry & Music Online."

Copyright © Arther Mortensen, all rights reserved