Issues Around Formality

Formality in serious art is one of the highest expressions of individuality known to the human race. Why it should be that form and formal rigor were misrepresented in the twentieth century— from the height of individuality into a snobbish, classicist ploy, which represented high art as priggish, "Sunday School"— is because the twentieth century was essentially, to employ America as paradigmatic, a plebeian century, in which serious expressions of individuality were frowned upon in high sectors, both in America and in Western Europe. Serious expressions of individuality were largely replaced with empty spectacles, and thus the degeneration of the century into a kind of school of quietude. A plebeian century, like the twentieth largely was, regards formality in serious art as one of the gravest threats to the hegemony of homogeneity and non-individuality; and the persecution of serious individuals is de rigueur; what part of me warms to talk about this, is that the plebeian twentieth century is now over, Great God Almighty! Now that high ideals around issues of formality in art, and serious artistic individuality, are back in circulation, and the lives of serious artists and those who appreciate serious art need not be macabre (serious art does not have to be humorless, either), we can put our crosses and garlic away and look at the issues around formality which are more intriguing.

Like, for instance, who Mary Harju is— a serious formalist who I tend to think will be underrated over a long period of time, but who will nonetheless fail to drop off into nothingness. Mary is not, to be sure, dazzling the way Abby Heller-Burnham is; and, to shallower aesthetic minds, is easily dismissed as too derivative of Renaissance Humanism to be taken seriously as a major artist. Mary, to me, represents a certain class of artists— formalists— who are solid, and/or workmanlike, without being dazzling, yet whose work tends to endure while a surprising number of dazzling showmen/showgirls disappear. Yet this type of artist; and there are tons of them in different rooms at PMA (Philadelphia Museum of Art), too; have a strange karma— never to appear dazzling, but only solid; and yet to find their work enduring in a solid way, and in such a way to suggest that the expressiveness of mere formality, when executed in a rigorous fashion, is 60/40 correct as the approach to serious art in general. Innovation (maybe, and I am playing Devil’s Advocate here) counts 40/60 less then solidity. Plebeians and their empty spectacles throw the whole enterprise into the garbage, as they are taught to do in the school of quietude; but in a more liberated century, artists will have to decide for themselves what mere formality and formal rigor count for, even as I have a suspicion that Mary’s paintings may sneak up on some in an uncomfortable fashion over a long period of time.

My own approach to formality in poetry is a complex one. As of one hundred years ago, rhyme and rhyming poetry still dominated most poetry economies, both in the United States and Europe. That poetry should involve heightened language, what is commonly referred to as poetic diction, was not then in question. Century XX stripped things back so that by the turn of the century into the twenty-first, when I began to seriously publish, rhyme and rhyming poetry, and poetic diction with it, had been replaced by a hodge-podge of free verse or blank verse approaches (blank verse being unrhymed iambic pentameter, like Paradise Lost or Hyperion), and an ambitious poet was forced to make a kind, manner or form of music that would have been considered stunted from the 1920s and back. Being a student of the Romantics and Milton, I chose to address this difficulty, which takes formality in poetry and cheese-grates it, by using a technique I call "clustering"; building musical effects into poems without being obsequious (usually) to the convention of end-rhymes. 

On the other hand, when by 2018 I found myself publishing The Ballad of Robert Johnson, I felt that the time had arrived when hand-over-fist formality could again be accepted into English-language poetry, as both an expression of individuality and a rejection of what were still standardized poetry operations. The Ode On Waves, in '19, and Wayfaring Angel and On the Schuylkill, in '20, followed this through. As of '21, The Witches of South Philadelphia upped an ante of sorts by pushing formality into a textual ring with the fractures, sores, and abrasions attendant on Modern and post-modern writing; as Eliot had with The Waste Land, only heavier on the sauce about rigorous form meeting, and attempting to cohabitate with, rugged, rough disjuncture, in a collage context. Then, in '22, Elegy 702, from the Cheltenham Elegies series, assays a multitude of tasks, some about conservation of form and formality, some positing the poem as self-conscious semi-parody of form and formality, while extending the thematic range of what Keats' odal form has been willing to address, and balancing other formal approaches within that series.  

Twentieth-century avant-gardism (and I do consider Robert Johnson an adjunct to post-avant or the avant-garde) was short on discussions of formal beauty in high art. "Beauty" itself, as a manifest aim in art, was mistrusted, and gamed against heavily. In a way and on a very salient level, this travesties the entire endeavor of major high art consonance, which must include, as a component aspect, the idea that formal beauty ranks high on imperative spreadsheets, no matter what other avant-garde imperatives may ride alongside it. This game against formal beauty guaranteed that, in the twentieth century, the likes of William Blake— a comparative novice/amateur, whose worth as a higher artist is contained in a philosophical imperative and visionary stance puerile next to both Keats' Odal vision and Hyperion— could be given a higher ranking than Keats, who supersedes Blake at every point, both as formalist and philosophe.

Keats' prosody, his metrics, the formal beauty of his best poetry, is a political statement in and of itself, against society which would impinge on the individual, against individual-slandering authority as well. In a certain way and on a certain level, formal beauty in high art is the ultimate cultural statement of individuality and innovative power against authority, and an ultimate statement (also) of rebellion. By granting extreme non-homogeneity to the work, which inheres not just superficially but profoundly within the works' confines, and raises the work to a level at which history must be brought into focus by the works' grandiosity (and I do mean grandiosity against mere novelty, as mere novelty is one quagmire built into century XX avant-gardism), the work situates itself within its own transcendent mode of visualization/realization, and authority instantly cringes at having its vestments and privileges stripped from it. Century XX avant-gardism (as manifest in both artistic work and literary theory) was very secretly invested in different forms of homogenization, up to and including complicity with authoritarian governments— thus, its tendencies to de-emphasize, demean, and degrade formality and/or formal beauty.

This sense— that twentieth century avant-gardism was secretly a game against formality, and/or formal beauty, and thus posited against an important component element of major high art consonance— is what makes it so easy to dispense with. By emptying art of anything artistic, both avant-gardists and centrists proved themselves to be non-artists. They, thus, might as well have been government clerics or bureaucrats— they were there, in high art spaces, for the wrong reasons. This century, a gauntlet has already been laid down against these middling-at-best structures, welcoming formality and/or formal beauty in high art back into the fold, understanding what put amateurism in place of giftedness and inverting things back to where they belong, which is (to be frank, unfortunately blunt, and perhaps overly general) the nineteenth century and back. Rebellion in century XX avant-gardism was faux-rebellion— more in cahoots with authoritarian impulses and destructive games than not— now, we stand ready to let our own version of prosody, its masterful manifestation and enactment, to dictate terms to us about how we may cultivate any extreme form/manner of artistic individuality against the rest of the world (art-world or otherwise) which is not us, and thus make a potent political statement that there is room, in American society, for individuals to stand against the masses, and for the realization of beauty, from individuals on out, to become an event of some consequence for the whole of society at large.