Responding Formally: A British Poet Replies to American Women Formalists

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Stella Pye

Responding Formally:
A British Poet Replies to
American Women Formalists



As I come from the North of England, I was familiar with the poetry of Tony Harrison who—like me—comes from a Northern working class background and yet who uses sonnets and other stanza forms to write about it. But the real poetic revelation for me was to discover Annie Finch’s 1994 anthology A Formal Feeling Comes (Story Line Press, 1997) when I was working on a Creative Writing doctorate, and wanted to respond in kind to these women poets writing in form. So here I will consider selected poems from Finch’s anthology along with their authors’ position statements and attempt to determine what their use of form implies about their self-presentation before giving my poetic response. By the same token, my formal responses have implications for my own self-presentation.
  Helen Pinkerton says of meter and rhetorical structure:

      My view of form is that it is essential to the art of poetry, both in meter and in rhetorical structure. I have always written in standard English meter, never abandoning it for variations in accentual or syllabic meters . . . (Finch, p.188)

This is a confident statement from a poet who clearly perceives herself to be working within established traditions. Here is the Pinkerton poem I wish to consider:

      On Dorothea Lange’s Photograph “Migrant Mother” (1936)
      (to my Aunt Nora)

      Remembering your face, I saw it here,
      Eyes weary, unexpectant, unresigned.
      Not wise, but self-composed and self-contained,
      And not self-pitying, you knew when to give
      And when to take, and waiting, not despair.
      During bitter years, when fear and anger broke
      Men without work or property to shadows
      (My childhood world), you, like this living woman
      Endured, keeping your small space fresh and kind.

Finch describes this poem as blank verse, where to my eye and ear, there appear to be irregular features, which could derive from the different stress patterns of British and American English. Pinkerton’s statement about “never abandoning [standard English meter] for variations in accentual or syllabic meters” may be valid. But I wondered that in opting for less rigid stress patterning, her questioning is conveyed less strictly, thereby while self-presenting as a formally adept poet she also shows a more tender social conscience. I selected Helen Pinkerton’s poem because it reminded me of another visual image of a working-class woman. Charley Toorop is a Dutch artist famous for her portraits of working class women (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam). I chose her 1943 portrait to let the sitter remonstrate with me.

      Lines on Charley Toorop’s Portrait of a “Working-Class Woman” (1943)

      They think they know me best, who know me least.
      This English poet, writing of me now,
      and only born in 1943,
      has given me blank verse, because, she thinks,
      it “captures best my blank expression.” Has
      she seen what I have seen? Art critics, too,
      I’m “oversized”—is my perspective wrong
      for such a subject? Have they lived my life?
      She claims to know me least, who knows me best,
      this artist, who ennobles my Van Gogh
      Potato Eaters’ type of bulbous nose
      and gnarled arthritic fingers (painted bronze).
      She’s covered half of my left hand to make
      the viewer ask the question “Why?” No ring?
      No fingers even? Mangled? Did I work
      on dams or drains? What am I doing here
      out-staring attics, skeletons of roofs?
          What do I see or . . . do I see at all?

I have given the woman a strictly measured voice with which to treat art critics with contempt, and to praise Toorop’s thought-provoking portrait. “Thought-provoking,” because by keeping something hidden, Toorop turns visual art into veiled interrogation.
  In her article “Housekeeping Cages,” Julia Alvarez makes the important point that housekeeping skills are inherited crafts of which women can be proud:

      Sometimes people ask me why I wrote a series about housekeeping if I’m a feminist. Don’t I want women to be liberated from the oppressive roles they were meant to live? I don’t see housekeeping that way. They were crafts we women had, sewing, embroidering, cooking, even the lowly dusting. (Finch, p.16)

Alvarez’s rationale for using couplets in her poem “How I Learned to Sweep” is “since you sweep with a broom and you dance—it’s like coupling.” If we examine extracts from her poem, in which the speaker sweeps as she watches television coverage of the Vietnam War, we see a danse macabre. Alvarez presents herself as a subversive poet using “kitchen sink” as a medium with which to indict the war itself, and inherent apathy towards its media coverage. She provides a different spin on feminist perceptions of “oppressive roles,” as do I in my responding poem, “Ironing and Watching the News.” Here is the poem and my response:

      How I Learned to Sweep

      My mother never taught me sweeping. . . .
      One afternoon she found me watching
      t.v. She eyed the dusty floor
      boldly. And put a broom before
      me, and said she’d like to be able
      to eat her dinner off the table
      . . . .
      I watched a dozen of them die . . .
      as if their dust fell through the screen
      upon the floor I had just cleaned.
      She came back and turned the dial;
      the screen went dark. That’s beautiful,
      . . . .
      that’s beautiful,she said, impressed,
      she hadn’t found a speck of death.


      Ironing and Watching the News

      So long ago, I can’t remember now
      exactly when I learned to iron, or how
      to starch a shirt. I might have watched my mum,
      or Grandma Needham taught me to become
      an expert with the “smoothing iron.” Was starch-
      ing done in dolly tubs? I’ll Google-search.
      These days, it’s second nature, it’s a breeze—
      could do it in my sleep—like shelling peas.
      I iron them once when they’re still damp, and then,
      quick squirt with Robin Starch, and iron again.
      It’s not a craft exactly, but a skill
      acquired from years of practicing . . . but still
      it’s satisfying, somehow, all the same,
      to take a pride in household tasks’s not tame.
      “White Widow” spider wearing white hijab,
      so crisply ironed, and linked with al-Shabaab.

I agree with Alvarez that inherited household skills are a “craft,” and like Alvarez, I use heroic couplets in this poem to ennoble these tasks. This “kitchen sink” poem could be read as a sixteen-line sonnet with the turn in the final couplet indicting terrorism, particularly when perpetrated by women against women. I ask how could a woman wander into a crowded shopping mall on a Saturday for the sole purpose of slaughtering other women and children.
  Jane Greer would undoubtedly support Alvarez’s and my subverting “kitchen-sink.” In her article “Art Is Made,” Greer says “No subject is taboo,” (Finch, p.79), and I wonder whether using an identifiable form is a way of breaking taboos. Thus, my next poem summarises Greer’s stance, and examines how she puts her motto into practice in her poem “Rodin’s Gates of Hell.” But first here is my response to the article:

      Lines on Greer’s article “Art Is Made”

      Greer’s motto states: No subject is taboo,
      but poetry is art, and art is made.
      The gist is an analogy she drew
      with “murder mystery”; with form an aide-
      mémoire, where rhyme and meter give a clue
      to sounds and rhythms which ensue. That said;
      the poet’s task to satisfy, and too,
      confound that expectation, is obeyed.
      She claims that poets who refuse to use
      a rhyme scheme somehow manage to degrade
      their craft; a world of words from which to choose
      refused. Her manifesto is displayed
      in “Rodin’s Gates of Hell.” Nothing subdued
      about the subject matter. Unafraid
      to tackle figures whom somehow [she] knew,
      Francesca, (lust, unfaithfulness), who paid
      the price with Paolo, arms and torsos spew
      from bilge, their bodies, once conjoined, unmade.
      Her rhyme schemes satisfy/confound. There’re few
      who’d think of frozen/treason, for the shade
      of Ugolino gnawing son anew.

I had intended to produce a twenty-four line poem in abab quatrains in keeping with those of Greer in “Rodin’s Gates of Hell,” but opted instead for simple a-b rhymes to allow “rhyme and meter” to provide clues to ensuing “sounds and rhythms.” The poem ends abruptly at line twenty-one, leaving the poem in midair, like Ugolino, with the shocking image of him eternally gnawing his son’s body. I now attempt my own response to the grizzly sculpture. Here is Greer’s poem followed by my response:

      Rodin’s Gates of Hell

      This is too tall, dark wave of soul
      tossed up against a molten wall,
      blown out by some vile secret hole,
      sinners spilt by the bilge of Hell,
      half-melted in fire where time has frozen.
      Starved for the firm flesh of his child,
      Ugolino in highest treason
      breaks his fast but is never filled,
      love eating love, time out of time.
      Back-to-back bronze unrelenting,
      lovers suffer, their once sublime
      bodies grown muscle-bound with wanting.
      Paolo and Francesca fall
      eternally though they cling and clamber,
      lust and unfaithfulness a pall,
      passion their torture to remember.
      Torsos and arms I somehow know
      are thrust, broken, from the black gulf;
      heads of the damned emerge from shadow,
      ghosts of all sorrow, of myself.
      Shades of each other’s shadows quicken;
      by their sad breath the bronze is tarnished.
      Still, great unpeopled breakers beckon.
      This is too large. And too unfinished.


      Lines on Rodin’s Gates of Hell

      Their necks and shoulders an unbroken line:
      three twisting shades point severed arms to where,
      inscripted in the frieze, the warning sign—
      Abandon hope, all ye who enter here
      presides above The Thinker (high relief,
      bas stabilized), above a tumbling mass
      whose forms contort the structure. Some believe
      The Thinker’s Dante. Others, Rodin cast
      himself as poet/sculptor. Maker all
      the same, of metaphors for punishment.
      Again, it could be Adam and the Fall
      from grace, who contemplates abandonment
      in anatomical distortion. Forms
      discarding rules of form, and thus, inform.

This was not intended to be a sonnet, but once again, the poem seemed to come to a natural conclusion earlier than Greer’s “Rodin’s Gates of Hell,” having covered the “sculptor/poet/maker” concept with Rodin’s, Greer’s, and my own use of form.
  Kelly Cherry also finds her poems “finding their own way through the use of form” (Finch, p.39). Consider the opening and closing four stanzas of “The Bride of Quietness” along with her statement “Flashlight on the Map.”

      Poetic forms, established or nonce, are like maps of places no one’s ever been . . . If the writer knew in advance what she would find on her journey through the poem, she would not bother to make it. But she doesn’t know; she never knows; she knows only that the form is there like a flashlight or a map and that she will see what that form reveals and go where the form takes her.

      The Bride of Quietness

      My sculptor husband, when he was mine, possessed
      Electrifying energy, humor,
      The vital heat of violent force compressed . . .
      Contraries in a controlling frame. Few more

      Creative and compelling men could fire
      The clay I scarcely dared to call my soul.
      Shapeless, lacking properties of higher
      Existence, it was perfect for the mould

      He cast me in: classic receptacle,
      A thing for use, but full of elegance,
      An ode to Greece, forever practical,
      Tellingly patterned with the hunt and dance.

      My lines were lies, and yet he seemed to see
      Aesthetic validation in my form.
      I asked him not to draw away from me.
      He said he feared he might commit some harm.


      That beauty held no truth for me, nor truth
      Beauty, but I was made as much of earth
      As I had been, barbaric and uncouth,
      Enjoined to rhythm, shiftings, blood and birth,

      And void of principle. He said he’d father
      No children. I could hardly help knowing
      That he’d be wrong to trust me any farther.
      By sunrise it was clear he would be going

      Soon. Now from time to time I see him here
      And there. The shoulders have gone slack, the eyes
      Conduct a lesser current and I fear
      That when they catch me spying, it’s no surprise

      To him. He always found poetic justice
      Amusing, and he knows I wait my turn.
      The artist dies; but what he wrought will last
      Forever, when I cradle his cold ashes in this urn.

Cherry presents herself as an erudite, formally aware poet, using the poem for purposes of poetic justice. Consider line four: “Contraries in a controlling frame,” the title and internal quotations from Keats, and a possible allusion to Lady Macbeth. The “Bride of Quietness,” the Grecian urn, bides her time, and Nemesis does not appear until the final stanza. In response to Cherry’s poem, I avenge the silenced sitter in Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess.”

      The Last Duchess Speaks Up

      Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness
      that’s me—as he would have it said,“’tis I”—
      he didn’t understand my joyousness,
      assumed his name was all I cared for. Why?

      The clue lies in my adjective, his “last.”
      does that suggest he’s made the same mistake
      before . . . and was it only in the past?
      So tell me, what impression does he make?

      That’s my last duchess painted on the wall.
      He speaks in couplets, as his state dictates;
      Looking as if she were alive, I call. . . .
      How does he stress his first line? If he weighs

      the accent on That’s my last duchess . . . might
      it sound “correct” or, would he stress the That
      and last as lesser mortals might feel right?
      Perhaps no “cut-and-dried” aristocrat?

      A product of his time. A paradox;
      a tyrant who loves beauty all the same,
      who calls that piece “a wonder.” Orthodox.
      Possessive. I’m an object. Have no name.

      He asks the agent of the Count Wilt please
      you sit and look at her, amenable,
      admires my joyous blush, implies I tease—
      he found my nature quite untenable.

      Enough to wear his favor at my breast,
      it should have been enough for me, he thought.
      I prized a sunset more than any crest,
      for nature’s fruits and beauty, he cared naught—

      and yet: he treasured language, took great care
      with words; his euphemisms, gave commands . . .
      avoiding truth with choice of terms and, where
      I am, he knows the agent understands.

      A connoisseur of art, and yet: he flaunts
      his task (convince the agent of his worth
      to wed the fair young daughter), proudly vaunts
      the sculpture Neptune, taming sea—his wrath

      implied, should she, like me, not quite submit—
      commissioned work exclusively for he.
      In contrast with the sculpture, a conceit,
      Fra Pandolf’s fresco looks as fresh as me.

This response shares common features with Cherry’s poem in its quatrains, enjambments and intertextual quotations. The speaker’s seemingly even-handed assessment of the Duke is based on Angus Calder’s formal analysis of Browning’s poem, and my own close reading. (“Reading Gender in Poetry,” Literature and Gender [London: Routledge, 2002, p.49].) The Duchess, like Cherry’s protagonist, is given the last triumphal word. Unlike Cherry’s speaker, the Duchess appeals directly to her readers and listeners, draws them in, asks them questions. This encourages the formation of allegiances, and asks us to reconsider her portrait, the freshness of which speaks silent volumes. Thus, the speaker may not be as even-handed as she might appear.
  Marilyn Hacker’s article in the anthology “Meditating Formally” makes for heartwarming reading:

      When I see a young (or not-so-young) writer counting syllables on her fingers, or marking stresses for a poem she’s writing, or one she’s reading, I’m pretty sure we’ll have something in common, whatever our other differences may be. (Finch, p.87)

Hacker’s crown of sonnets, “Eight Days in April,” traces the course of a lesbian affair in the springtime of her speaker’s life. My initial response had been to write a crown of “heterosexual reminiscences” following my own preference. For me the challenge was not one of formal technique, rather one of reticence and an inability to write openly in an erotic mode, unless it was in a lighthearted manner for comic purposes. Thus a single sonnet seemed adequate for the task. “September” is an apt title, given my age, and the intertextual quotations from Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXVI and Hermann Hesse’s “September” seem appropriate. Hacker’s sonnets with c-c-d-d-e-e rhyming sestets are emulated, in that they synchronize with the steady cardio rhythms embodied within the sestet. I will set my poem “September” against one of Hacker’s:

      Eight Days in April (Sonnet 6)

      Your face blazing above me like the sun-
      deity, framed in red-gold flames, gynandre
      in the travail of pleasure, urgent, tender
      terrible—my epithalamion
      circled that luminous intaglio
      —and you under me as I take you there,
      and you opening me in your mouth where
      the waves inevitably overflow
      restraint. No, no, that isn’t the whole thing
      (also you drive like cop shows, and you sing
      gravel and gold, are street-smart, book-smart,
      laugh from your gut) but it is (a soothing
      poultice applied to my afflicted part)
      the central nervous system and the heart.



      She’s had her former decades, former loves.
      The garden mourns, the flowers fill with cold rain,
      and summer shivers in its chilled domain
      for her, too tiring now to make new moves
      for after all, there’s nothing left to prove,
      can’t countenance “no venture, so no gain.”
      She’s had her share of rapture, share of pain,
      knows all about remover to remove.
      The garden need not mourn, nor flowers fill
      with rain, nor summer shiver in its chill
      domain. Her heart beats now an even pace,
      no lurch to see his unexpected face,
      no loss of power of speech, no muttering,
      no verbal diarrhea, no stuttering.

Finally, where Hacker presents herself as a poet using a specific form to break down barriers associated with that form, Judith Barrington is an extreme example of a poet using a particular form to take control of traumatic circumstances. After her mother drowned, Barrington found the villanelle the only means suitable to confront her anguish. She says:

      . . . I do not think I could have written that particular piece without a strict form. The boundaries—the finite patterns that could not spill out into the unknown—provided a framework that I needed for the subject. I also think that the villanelle itself was important to the subject—I couldn’t have used just any tight form. I had always thought that the shape of the villanelle, with its repeating lines that come together at the end, suggested both tides and circles. . . . (Finch, p.25)

Here is her sixth poem in the sequence:

      Villanelle VI

      When I stand on the shore, I wonder where you are
      somewhere in that fathomed room behind
      the waves, like doors that slowly swing ajar.

      Dappled stones at my feet are smeared with tar.
      Sucked by the undertow, they jostle and grind
      while I stand on the shore, wondering where you are.

      Beyond the raging surf, beyond the bar,
      in your green chamber you hide, forever blind
      to the waves like doors that slowly swing ajar

      inviting me in, enticing me from afar,
      but their curling crests are an unmistakable sign
      I should stay on the shore and wonder where you are.

      Your voice in the wind doesn’t say where you are
      and I listen less and less, resigned
      to those waves like doors that slowly swing ajar.

      Will the light of the crescent moon, the northern star
      create a pathway we both can find
      as I stand on the shore wondering where you are,
      and the waves like doors slowly swing ajar.

I was so moved by Barrington’s bravery, that the only fitting response to her villanelle was homage.

      Lines on Judith Barrington’s Villanelle VI

      Her mother drowned, she wrote a villanelle.
      Not any form would do, the scaffolding—
      repeated lines, like tides—an apt farewell

      of waves and cycles, moons and ocean’s swell,
      restraining framework for her suffering.
      Her mother drowned, she wrote a villanelle

      of standing on the shore, compelled to dwell
      by waves like doors ajar that slowly swing,
      repeated lines, like tides an apt farewell.

      In fathomed rooms her mother lies, she tells
      of won’dring “where?,” recurring questioning.
      Her mother drowned, she wrote a villanelle

      of chambers where her mother hides, repels—
      although enticed—the thought of following.
      Repeated lines, like tides, an apt farewell,

      of waves and cycles, moons and ocean’s swell,
      not any form would do. This scaffolding.
      Her mother died, she wrote a villanelle’s
      repeated lines, like tides. An apt farewell.

In responding formally to selected poetry in Finch’s anthology, I found that whatever our cultural and linguistic differences, experimenting with poetic formal equals freedom; not a “lockdown” but a process of unlocking. I am deeply grateful to the poets I have included here and hope I have responded well to them. It has been a truly creative and revelatory experience.