THE question of form sometimes masks a deeper struggle over the very purpose of the modern poem. To begin: We're really not talking here about form versus - what, formlessness? More accurately, the debate concerns the viability of old forms versus new - and which critical authorities will be allowed to arbitrate.
For many, the affection for older literary models combines the love of the well-crafted object with the reactionary desire to preserve what was from the ferocity of what is becoming. Could anyone really prove that the controlled cadence of a line of iambic pentameter is intrinsically more beautiful than a jazz trill or a cry from the city streets? The crucial issue is how we will recognize the truest poets as they emerge from the cacophony.
The poet Karl Shapiro made a simple but startling observation when he said that ``poetry is not a way of saying things, it's a way of seeing things.'' The emphasis in contemporary verse has shifted from poetry, the object, to poetry, the action - the art of language working itself out amid the unfolding of a moment. The very act of reading the poem demands a new response to the world and the common tongue. We are measuring more than the beauty or accuracy of the language - whether the poem moves us from presence into possibility.
Charles Gullans, an English professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, is one of a new coterie of ``formalist'' poets that includes Timothy Steele and R.L. Barth. In the title poem of ``Letter from Los Angeles,'' Gullens describes the luxuriance of the California landscape.
I pick the fruit from branches in full bloom, From rind and flesh, from stamen and corolla, The pungencies of fruit and flower invade My senses with their vegetable contagion Until I almost sleep within their bright, Alluring indistinction, almost merge With the corrupted and corrupting season.
What the poet offers is, not nature, but the idea of nature. The garden lushness is almost obliterated by the professorial tone and the coldness of the blank verse. The world is mere backdrop, a paper-thin projection that gives the poet an excuse for his real preoccupations - the self and the erudite dance of ideas.
If the poet finds little mystery in nature, the human landscape fares much worse. The predominant tone of the book is one of ironic detachment as he floats through various social milieus in a series of poems called ``Los Angeles Place Names.'' A self-appointed scourge, he proceeds to damn each scene for its shallowness and gaudy materialism. It's too easy a target, and the social criticism is weakened by an undercurrent that feels a great deal like envy. I'm left with the feeling that Gullans takes on poetry's formal mask as a way of severing the mind from the body, of intellectualizing and thus hiding from the deeper challenges within his writing. It's hard to be moved by a poem when so little of the poet's life is risked or revealed.
The very opposite is true in Seamus Heaney's substantial body of work. Frequently in his new ``Selected Poems'' we see the poet return to quite traditional styles and stances, only to spring from them into a passionate and thoroughly contemporary exploration of his Irish homeland and the embattled territory of the human spirit.
Despite his many poems about Irish history and politics, Heaney is at heart a nature poet. But his is not the picture-postcard vision of the Irish landscape. Nature is seen as primal source, as the storehouse of ancient myths, voices, mysteries. In the opening poem of his lovely sequence ``The Glanmore Sonnets,'' he writes:
Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground. The mildest February for twenty years Is mist bands over furrows, a deep no sound Vulnerable to distant gargling tractors. Our road is steaming, the turned-up acres breathe. Now the good life could be to cross a field And art a paradigm of earth new from the lathe Of ploughs. My lea is deeply tilled.
We are able to plant our feet firmly in both the freshly tilled meadow and his inner landscape. The intelligence of the sequence lies in its sense of discovery, not its design. Heaney's language is sensuous, richly textured, and often dramatic - never mere disguise or dazzle. In both open and formal verse, he is judicious in his craft but more rigorous in his self-examination.
In ``From the Frontier of Writing,'' when he makes a border crossing into Northern Ireland and sees the soldiers ``... eyeing with intent / down cradled guns that hold you under cover,'' it becomes clear the poet is also questioning the way his commitment to his art sometimes wars with his political conscience. When he pushes ahead ``... a little emptier, a little spent / as always by that quiver in the self, / subjugated, yes, and obedient,'' we too now have a stake in the outcome.
Perhaps most moving in Heaney's recent work is his ``Clearances,'' an elegiac sequence of poems written for his mother. Again within the crisp confines of the sonnet, the poet's mixture of music and spirit is expansive, sure of its reach and profoundly human in its intention. He affirms an unspoken bond between mother and son with a poem about the most prosaic of memories: peeling potatoes together. With family gathered around her death bed, he writes: ``I remembered her head bent towards my head, / Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives - / Never closer the whole rest of our lives.''
Heaney's body of work may appear grander in scope than Donald Hall's, but I see them as parallel creations with a great kinship in their spirit and lyricism. There are few recent American poets who have explored a landscape as thoroughly and with as much psychological depth as Hall. Moving back to his grandparents' farmhouse in New Hampshire, the poet has been able to wed the life of the land, the spirit, and the community into a single vision. And even in his hard-edged poems of despair and mortality, his work carries an underlying sense of celebration.
In ``Great Day in The Cow's House,'' Hall's matter-of-fact portrait of the barn juxtaposes the Holsteins' spring freedom with the death of the farmer who tends them.
Now in April... he unchains the cows one morning after milking and lopes past them to open the pasture gate. Now he returns whooping and slapping their buttocks to set them to pasture again, and they are free to wander eating all day long. Now these wallowing big-eyed calf-makers, bone-rafters for leather, awkward arks, cud-chewing lethargic mooers, roll their enormous heads, trot, gallop, bounce, cavort, stretch, leap, and bellow - as if everything heavy and cold vanished at once and cow spirits floated weightless as clouds in the great day's windy April.
Hall's imagery is so tactile, his spirit so encompassing, we are wholly engaged by his small dramas - not unlike those that form the passages of our lives. His recent ``Old Poems and New'' is crowded with small and large delights, exquisite meditations on baseball, seasons, the names of horses, and the work of men.
But most impressive of all is his book-length poem, ``The One Day,'' quite likely his masterwork. If an argument needed to be made that poetry needs new and freer forms to contain the diversity of thought and experience peculiar to our age, ``The One Day'' is all the proof one could ask for.
When the book was first published, I heard Hall read the poem in its entirety. For two hours, the experience was like sitting, head back, in a planetarium, watching vast constellations of thought shift, collide, then settle into place. Greater, perhaps, than the wonder of Hall's achievement was the fact that such a complex vision could so easily captivate its audience. What can you expect of poetry when we've accustomed the mind to routinely consume wars, earthquakes, and sitcom laugh-tracks in one sitting? Yet the fierce beauty of Hall's poetry is still capable of cutting through our defenses, making us want to share in the redemption that is all art's implication.