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 Republican 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 Republican 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 Republican 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 sort of playing Devil’s Advocate here) counts 40/60 less then solidity. Republicans and their empty spectacles throw the whole thing 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 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.