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"New Formalist" vs. "Expansive"


by Caleb Murdock


We have two names going for our movement:  "New Formalist" and "Expansive".  Kevin Walzer, in his book The Ghost of Tradition: Expansive Poetry and Postmodernism, claims that "Expansive" is the name that is sticking, but that just isn't true.  I hear "New Formalist" far more often than I hear "Expansive".  Mr. Walzer, who credits the term to a 1988 essay by Wade Newman, says that it "reflects these poets' interest in expanding both the formal possibilities available to poets, and the audience for poetry in American culture."  Well, perhaps New Formalist poets do have such an interest, but then, poets of other schools have similar hopes for their own style of writing.

I think that "Expansive" is a pretty poor name for our movement, primarily because it doesn't convey its intended meaning.  Specifically, it doesn't tell the reader in what way formalist poetry is expansive.  Every time the term is used, it will have to be defined for the reader or listener indeed, Walzer devotes several paragraphs to explaining the term.  "Expansive" is the kind of word that can mean anything, depending upon the context and the supporting arguments.  In fact, most Modernists would argue that free verse is more expansive than formal verse.

As much as I prefer metered poetry, it is intellectually dishonest to give our movement a self-congratulatory name.  Were we to adopt the term "Expansive", every time we used it we would be patting ourselves on the back for being "expansive", just as the Modernists get to pat themselves on the back for being "modern" (if indeed anyone still uses that term).  Let's not confuse our preferred type of poetry with our competitive conceits.

If a politician were to coin the phrase "Expansive Politics", everyone would groan at his transparent gimmickry.  Let's leave the poorly executed strategic moves to the politicians.

We should stick with the name "New Formalist", if we need any name at all.  That term is both descriptive and accurate, in that our movement is both "new" (20-30 years old, although Richard Wilbur and many other poets never stopped writing metered verse) and "formalist".  It is a more honest term than "Expansive", which is vague and pretentious.  "New Formalist" says what it means.

Oh, yes:  The last time I saw something "expand", I had to buy new pants.  I would rather not be reminded that I can't stick to a diet!



I received an e-mail from Wade Newman telling me that "New Formalist" is a subcategory of "Expansive", and that the two terms are not meant to be competitive (the Expansive category also includes metered narrative verse in addition to New Formalist verse, which is metered lyrical verse).  Even if it is true that "New Formalist" and "Expansive" are not opposing terms, that doesn't change the fact that "Expansive" is a poorly conceived label for a poetry movement (for all the reasons given).  Why the need for such categorization?  There is too much concern for the politics of poetry.  Labels and categories can only serve to restrict any poet who pays attention to them, even when the category is meant to be unconfining.

But I now learn that "Expansive" is not meant to be unconfining.  Mr. Newman steered me to an article on the internet which says that Expansive (and therefore New Formalist) poetry is non-confessional.  Oh, now I see!  If today I feel like writing about society, I am a New Formalist poet; but if tomorrow I feel like writing about my feelings, I am not.  This must be the New Tyranny.

No thanks.  Henceforth I will use the terms "metered verse" and leave it at that.