Douglas Basford

for Frances

Welcome to the inaugural issue of Unsplendid: An Online Journal of Poetry in Received and Nonce Forms! We hope that you will find the work here as vibrant, sharp, and passionate as we have. Here you'll find the startling virtuosity of Daniel Groves and Greg Williamson. The former's keen ennui observes both an entourage of men on machines and the setting sun as deus ex machina. In the latter's encyclopedic sonnets we are pushed to the limits of specialized knowledge, awash in trivia gleaned from every source (Greg's a big fan of Cecil Adams's The Straight Dope)—reading these I almost feel like we're headed for a Darwin Award death, each one of us, or something even more ignominious or anonymous, whichever is worse. Watch Jennifer Reeser's tormented lover split asunder a sonnet into hemistichs, the combined caesurae becoming that "cut from which I never could recover." Here you'll see Jill Rosser's mastery of the villanelle zero in, as she does in "Sugar Dada" elsewhere, on the limits of human action and self-recognizance. Alicia Stallings's "Sabbatical" puts the marvel in Williams's "machine made of words." Geoff Brock takes on the begged question: what do we do when we remember? Before I get carried away, better to say a few words about our project...
        Unsplendid, we believe, is a dazzling new cabochon on the Web's necklace: there are not many websites at present devoted to new poetry in received forms, and many of those that are are either sputtering to a halt, cursed with unattractive websites, behind the curve in some way, more interested in reviewing books of "formal" poetry than publishing new work, or some combination thereof. We view this venture not as a partisan-like imposition of a particular aesthetic, but as establishing something akin to the radio station that "listeners" will turn to when they are in the mood to "hear" top-notch poetry written in meter and traditional or nonce forms. (Note to self: podcasts in the future...)
        Being cognizant of a groundswell of interest in formal poetry—even outside of Johns Hopkins and Ohio State, our main bases of operation, now veritable swarming nests of formalists: Greg Williamson, Andrew Hudgins, Henri Cole (soon to join OSU's permanent faculty), Mary Jo Salter and Brad Leithauser (both joining JHU's permanent faculty), Kathy Fagan, Joseph Harrison, John T. Irwin, and their students—we want to publish poetry and translations of poetry in received forms and nonce forms, reviews, and essays indicative of the best that's being done now, as well as some neglected work of the past. But this begs the question, from whence this groundswell? Why now, a decade and more removed from the protracted and nasty "poetry wars" between the New Formalists and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets? Of course, many of the poets we are publishing have been writing in meter and rhyme since their earliest days, and the extrusion of New Formalism into the present is easy enough to see. Is this a resurgence of interest beyond even those developments? We believe so.
        Although I'm somewhat reluctant to call in the heavy (and perhaps ungainly) artillery, hearing in my ears the reverberations of Larzer Ziff berating quoters of Emerson for assuming a facile universality between historical periods, here's T. S. Eliot, in a late interview:

After a period of getting away from the traditional forms, comes a period of curiosity in making new experiments with traditional forms. This can produce very good work if what has happened in between has made a difference: when it's not merely going back, but taking up an old form, which has been out of use for a time, and making something new with it. That is not counterrevolution. Nor does mere regression deserve the name. There is a tendency in some quarters to revert to Georgian scenery and sentiments: and among the public there are always people who prefer mediocrity, and when they get it, say, "What a relief! Here's some real poetry again." And there are also people who like poetry to be modern but for whom the really creative stuff is too strong—they need something diluted. (Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Second Series)

Eliot's complaint about "Georgian scenery and sentiments" finds its echoes in Peter Campion's review of A. E. Stallings's Hapax in a recent issue of Poetry, but Peter and Alicia have found a place in our journal, both being, in my estimation, bearers of the same torch. For them, as for other poets we seek to publish, something has happened "in between," and they are "making something new" with verse in received and nonce forms. Let's not forget Pound's source of his (in)famous dictum, "Make it new": the ideograms inlaid in Confucius' bathtub, a commentary on which I'll yield to Dana Levin. Ultimately, I suppose, if there's anything unstintingly polemical about Unsplendid, it's that it eschews dilution.
        My fellow editors and I are not unhealthily obsessed with received and nonce forms. If anything, in our own reading and poetic practice, we might be said to abide by Sarah Gorham's claim that many poets are "decamped" these days, a comment that finds another historical echo in Eliot, as he was discussing Pound's free verse:

Pound's use of this medium has shown the temperance of the artist, and his belief in it as a vehicle is not that of the fanatic. He has said himself that when one has the proper material for a sonnet, one should use the sonnet form; but that it happens very rarely to any poet to find himself in possession of just the block of stuff which can perfectly be modelled into the sonnet. ("Ezra Pound: His Metric and His Poetry," 1917)

The sonnet now having been stretched, recast, masticated, and so on for some 90 years further, I think it might be safe to say that poets—even those as unlikely to write in received form as William Matthews, David Lehman, Ann Lauterbach, Frank Bidart, Stephanie Strickland, Gerald Stern, and others—are finding themselves "in possession" of "just the block of stuff" ideally suited for a sonnet. Poets are, perhaps, more willing to accept the sonnet form than in previous years. Indeed, at the Folger Shakespeare Library's Celebration of the Sonnet to kick off National Poetry Month, three poets of significantly different constitution and aesthetics, Henri Cole, Phillis Levin, and Molly Peacock, all affirmed the psychological shape of the sonnet as its most persistent draw on the contemporary poet's imagination, even if the other "rules" could be dispensed with.
        The draw of meter and rhyme, or of the shape of received forms, however, can't be reduced to matters of psyche or ear. When she visited my Intro to Poetry course's last class meeting at Johns Hopkins in late April, Elizabeth Hadaway, the author of a bright, pleasurable, and sharp-tongued collection, Fire Baton (U of Arkansas), explained her seemingly incongruous relationship to form: she's an avowed feminist, feels intimately tied to iambic pentameter, and her top five favorite poets of all time are Marlowe (as a teen, she wore a locket with his picture), Shakespeare, Herbert, Donne, and—after some hemming and hawing—Herrick. To her ear, her Appalachian ear (and that's Appa-latch-an, not Appa-lay-chan, as she browbeats well-meaning but gaffe-making NPR announcers here), the language of her family, their stories, their accent and syntax, all recall 17th-century British language and folklore, preserved in the relative isolation of the mountain culture. The Tennessean foothills exerted their pull on me too, only after I took up literature at Michigan, gravitating towards Robert Penn Warren and Faulkner in a fit of nostalgia for a culture I'd never wholly been a part of. I also found English Renaissance extraordinarily vibrant, whereas my peers took a snoozed after Ralph G. Williams's aisle-galloping lectures on Dante until Marjorie Levinson doled out Marxist interpretations of Wordsworth. Could it be that because of Appalachian context alone we both have our ears attuned to that ancient music? Is it that we both yearn for something counter to contemporary TV culture? We ran out of time before we could touch even a fraction of these questions' implications, and I'll have to concede here, too.
        The origin of this journal lies in connections with individual writers like Elizabeth Hadaway, Jill Rosser, Greg Williamson, John Poch, my fellow editors—Erin Sweeten, Natalie Shapero, Jason Gray—and others, and as well in a sputtered book project. Inspired by the work of many of the authors that do and (we hope) will grace these our pages, I had started to contact poets about Make It Ill, an anthology of poetry in received forms, the title taken from the last line of one of Karen Volkman's sonnets. After only two email messages, I was warned off the project by a well-established poet who said that he had tried to publish an anthology of contemporary sonnets he had compiled, to no avail. Perhaps by the time I managed to amass my own the publishing climate would have changed, but I thought it unlikely. And so, recognizing the great resource that the Internet now offers the writing community worldwide, I turned to the Web. Cut out the middle man, if you will.
        One of the writings that most influenced my eventual culling together the people and resources for Unsplendid was Ira Sadoff's essay, "Neo-Formalism: A Dangerous Nostalgia" (first published in a 1990 American Poetry Review but now available on Al Filreis's extensive and ground-breaking course website at Penn). An attack piece, to be sure, but I read it as coming from loyal opposition, giving me a wealth of ideas about how to justify writing in form, and above all, how to practice it. Sadoff deftly parses a single anthology edited by Robert Richman, The Direction of Poetry, as indicative of one-track-mindedness, if not an even more sinister posture:

I would argue, neo-formalists have a social as well as a linguistic agenda. When they link pseudo-populism (the "general reader") to regular meter, they disguise their nostalgia for moral and linguistic certainty, for a universal ("everyone agrees") and univocal way of conserving culture.

We are certainly hoping to make received and nonce forms more popular—too often they are dismissed outright even before the first line is read—but we probably don't see the form itself as a yearning for a "moral and linguistic certainty," though it is possible to take, as does Jenefer Robinson in her Deeper than Reason (Oxford), all artistic form as compensation, even a coping mechanism yielding a stability denied along other avenues. Mindful of Sadoff's warning that "Neo-formalism shares with other contemporary poetic 'movements' formal solutions to perceived weaknesses of American poetry," we whole-heartedly embrace his insistence that poets should integrate "form with vision."
        We expect that the poets we publish will come at received and nonce forms from varied points of origin, varied aesthetic, theoretical, and political stances. At one extreme the ever-Yeatsian Allen Grossman opines, and convincingly so, in Summa Lyrica that meter is the surest communicator of care, that desire to keep the other present. At another, occasional sonneteer Rachel Loden sneers "There's nothing cornier than meter." On the one hand, Richard Wilbur: "The strength of the genie comes from being in a bottle." On the other, Charles Bernstein's hyperironic pastiche Nude Formalism that takes, say, a villanelle as a kind of procedural and arbitrary linguistic game at best, like writing without the letter "e" anywhere in your text. Whatever the point of origin, whatever the "vision" is, exactly, we'll leave to the poets and poems themselves to define. To paraphrase Pascale Casanova, the "world republic of letters" will determine its own course, and we editors play but a small role. And we do so knowing the terror of historical judgment, or even contemporary contempt, such as that which Byron so gleefully dumped on his "scribbling crew" that was churning out "sonnets on sonnets... and ode on ode":

Thus saith the Preacher: "Nought beneath the sun
Is new"; yet still from change to change we run:
What varied wonders tempt us as they pass!
The cow-pox, tractors, galvanism and gas,
In turns appear, to make the vulgar stare,
Till the swoln bubble bursts—and all is air!
Nor less new schools of Poetry arise,
Where dull pretenders grapple for the prize:
O'er taste awhile these pseudo-bards prevail;
Each country book-club bows the knee to Baal,
And, hurling lawful genius from the throne,
Erects a shrine and idol of its own;
Some leaden calf—but whom it matters not,
From soaring Southey down to grovelling Stott.

May History look fondly on our venture (as the "Baltimore School," an Italian editor's term for our kind, merges into a chorus of other voices), and may our peers offer steady commentary to keep us honest, à la Horace's Ars Poetica:

                        Mediocribus esse poetis
Non Dii, non homines, non concessere columnae,—
[Not gods nor men nor booksellers allow poets to be mediocre]

I suspect, indeed I pray, that our journal will be neither "universal" nor "univocal" in the pejorative sense of those words, but uniformly good readin' instead.
        I couldn't very well conclude this note without thanking those who are working on and supporting our venture in their many capacities: in particular, my fellow editors whom I can't praise enough, Erin Sweeten, Natalie Shapero, and Jason Gray; our advisory/contributing editors Greg Williamson, Jill Rosser, John Poch, Robert Pinsky, Phillis Levin, and Geoffrey Brock; and others too numerous to name here and unknown to me who are spreading the word. I also wish to thank the Santa Fe Art Institute for providing me with the time to put the finishing touches on the first issue. My warmest gratitude I reserve for my wife, Frances Gage, who has been indefatigable in her support of my writing and in encouraging me to take risks—my efforts in building, maintaining, and promoting this journal, this forum for exchange about the numerous and varied intersections of poetry and life, I dedicate whole-heartedly to her.
        Enjoy and be well!


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