father was a bibliophile with a great flair for the dramatic. He
had a phenomenal collection of books including shelves and shelves
of volumes about Dante, Blake, and Eliot. His favorite poets included
Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Shakespeare, Crane, Valery, and Yeats.
To this day, when I think of Herbert's "Love (II)," Crane's
"Voyages," Hopkins' "Windhover," or Yeats' "Sailing
to Byzantium," poems he never tired of reciting or reading
aloud, not to mention "The Night Before Christmas," which
he read brilliantly every year, the words in my mind are indistinguishable
from his delivery of them.
I began memorizing my own favorite poems as a young child, starting
with De la Mare's "The Listeners" and Robinson's "Luke
Havergal" and then Keats' odes, curled up with my fast-tattering
copy of Oscar Williams' Immortal Poems of the English Language.
I published my first poem, in ballad stanzas, at age 9, and when
I began to discover my own early influences they included not only
the poets my parents loved but also Tennyson, Dickinson, Whitman,
Dylan Thomas, cummings, Frost, and, not least, Bob Dylan.
At Yale in the late 1970s, I focused consciously on educating myself
as a poet. I was especially affected by the cadences of Anglo-Saxon
and medieval poetry and by Edmund Spenser, still one of my favorite
poets. I will never forget Professor Louis Martz's course on Modern
Poetry, and a brilliant course in Versification taught by Penelope
Laurans, which certainly changed my life. I was also drawn to learn
everything about the English language I could, which is why I studied
linguistics, French, German and Latin as well as Greek, Anglo-Saxon,
and, eventually, a little Old Norse, and I was lucky enough to spend
whole semesters reading Beowulf, Chaucer and Homer in the original
But this was the heyday of Deconstruction, and at the same time,
in my poetry workshop with John Hollander, and in compelling lectures
about Poststructuralist theory from professors like Harold Bloom
and Paul DeMan, I was also learning about the provisional nature
of language and poetic tradition.
the early 1980s, in New York, I absorbed the aesthetics of the St.
Marks Poetry Project and the Nuyorican performance poetry scene,
which appealed to me because of its drama, energy, and accessibility.
I was reading Frank O'Hara and Hart Crane as well as the lushest
"decadent" poetry--Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, Swinburne.
My first book of poetry, self-published around that time, was an
experimental, rhythmic performance poem with stream-of-consciousness
free-verse techniques inspired by the Surrealists and the Beats.
I performed this piece in New York and elsewhere with an eclectic
band including electric guitar and bagpipes.
Somehow, the more I learned about poetry, the more I wanted something
different than I was finding within the confines of any one contemporary
school. Partly by design and partly through happenstance, I continued
to explore the parameters of different approaches to poetry. As
if attempting to meld high academic poetics and the performance
poetry aesthetic were not enough of a challenge, I then moved to
a new poetic milieu, enrolling in the graduate creative writing
program at the University of Houston. There, the ruling free-verse,
confessional plain style completely dominated the workshops. Classes
at Houston nurtured my lifelong love for Renaissance poetry while,
in the workshops, I learned some valuable lessons about accessibility
and idiombut most of all, I reinforced my knowledge about
how to keep an independent mind.
Then I went to Stanford for a PhD. During my last few years there,
I devised my own course of doctoral study in the history and theory
of English-language prosody, an invaluable course of reading that
built on my background in Versification at Yale and allowed me to
read everything from Gascoigne to Bridges to Saintsbury to Attridge
At Stanford, I continued my work in verse drama, which I had first
written for my Masters thesis with Ntozake Shange, and developed
an appreciation for the work the language poets were doing in the
little magazines and performance spaces of San Francisco. Marjorie
Perloff was at Stanford, and the Wintersian tradition of formal
poetics was dormant; it was the late 1980s when the language poets
were coming to ascendency in California, and a very interesting
time for a poet to learn to think about poetic language in new ways.
Now when I teach contemporary poetry, I divide it into four tendencies:
formalist, oral tradition-performance, mainstream free verse, and
experimental. I feel lucky to have encountered firsthand so many
influences from these four divergent kinds of poetry. In my own
work, I like to think, these different approaches have brought me
back full-circle, yet in a new way, to the poetry I loved first,
and best, when I was young.
S. Gwynn: When did your awareness of a women's formalist
aesthetic begin to develop? It's clear in your introduction
to A Formal Feeling Comes that there were (and perhaps still
are) general feelings that, to use your own words, "traditional
poetic form is a troubled legacy" for female poets. I think
particularly of your citation (from Diane Middlebrook) that the
admission among women (in this case Plath and Tillie Olsen) to a
love of the poetry of Teasdale and Millay could only be confessed
as a guilty pleasure. Have we gotten beyond that kind of "closeted"
admiration of form?
Finch: When I started to write seriously again in form in
the late 1980s, my childhood admiration for poets such as Millay
came back to me, and I felt the irony of being a woman poet who
had been cut off from my own creative roots by my education. I
started to edit A Formal Feeling Comes as a sort of trial
balloon, to see if there were any other women out there who identified
as women poets and yet were compelled to write in form.
I had no idea of the strength of the impact AFFC would have; it
is now in something like its eighth printing. But nowadays, it
still seems to me that the unique voice of the women's poetic tradition
has had little influence as yet on contemporary poetry. Most magazines
committed to formalist poetry are overwhelmingly male-dominated,
and the kinds of poems women can publish there are still quite limited.
At the same time, most magazines committed to women's poetry still
limit themselves to free verse.