Virginia Woolf reads K. Silem Mohammad

Formalism Doesn’t Kill People

A curious poem this morning. You will note the title above from a poet I have never met. Strange tensions from the beginning. I am assuming, given the tone of the poem that the poem in question isn’t what the poet thinks of as “formalism.” I’m thinking too that Eliot might signify formalism. Eliot, Yeats, Byron, and down. Though what might formalism mean now? And please, tell me poets aren’t writing the same as the old poets? What would be the point in that? Though with all of these many poets zinging lines toward each other in the air, with a click, what does being a poet even mean?

But back to the poem, which suggests, if I’m reading my irony correctly, that formalism is the opposite of this poem. This poem starts with a series of observations. Small ball-bearings that go forward and backward.

a brave vastness (faith)
dovetails with concerns
of what music is

A poem like a necklace, gathering momentum. About nothing it might seem. Tiny snapshots calling out to each other. A world I have no idea how to enter. A scrambled world of anachronism and quotation marks. Tonal. Exemplary. But I like the “brave vastness” contrasted with “faith,” clearly lacking, and mocking. I like dove tailing in with concerns and music—a natural pairing? What a strange meshing together of words without, it seems, attention to meaning:

thinking being analogous
to “breakthroughs”
turns them into formalist armatures

abstract or optical effects bend words
to painting’s non-retrospective
melting plaid center

It does make one reconsider each word. “Armature,” for example, a word that has morphed from meaning “armour,” or “arms,” from the Latin armatura, to suggest a motor, or coils in a motor, how they are structured one assumes, to create energy. So the poem once again, speaks to the aspects of formalism, which clearly is suggested here relies on structure to create coherence. The “abstract or optical effects” create these non-retrospective melting plaid centers. The poet does seem to shake out these words and render them fresh, crisp, more themselves if that is possible. What is a plaid centre? An intersection? A meeting place? Something non-retrospective must be non-representative, the new formation playing on the many layers of realism and romanticism laden with the word “representation.” As I once said of Donne, this poet “leaps into poetry the shortest way.” This poet offers a new kind of poetry: punctuated, severed. The old associations having been lopped off. No whiff or romanticism here. And yet I feel something under the posturing, some kind of earnestness that seems profoundly familiar. As if, by squinting into the future we had seen such poetry occurring. And we had, without knowing it, been longing for this very thing.

Where at first I felt lost facing lines such as “sense of the Infinite/an image obtains a moss,” I quickly became excited. “An image obtains a moss,” is an unusual construction, but it is very clear too: and not stagnant. I am reminded of the pompous American who liked to eat and produce words at an alarming rate and was quite full of herself. Gibberish yes, but not without intelligence. Made me feel seasick to read her. As if suddenly I was floating high above, looking down at my ridiculous, grounded self. Look up, look up! I wanted to shout—Words need not be anchored.

Now, if it would only own that it takes itself a tad more seriously than it wants us to think…and if only formalists would take themselves a little less seriously. Good lord, as if they are out in the trenches protecting poetry from the senseless hordes of avant-garde flarfists…as if lyric poetry is at all under threat!