The Unbearable Stiffness of Formal Poetry and Writing for the Page

Bird Cage Theatre by Loren Javier
Bird Cage Theatre by Loren Javier, via Flickr

[Helen Vendler] knew about gardens and nightingales, Grecian urns and Christian theology, but not about hip-hop or comic books, and these provide the material, or at least the glue, for many of today’s poems. Poetic subjects, voices, diction, and tone change. And forms, like subjects, change as well.

“Has Poetry Changed? The View From the Editor’s Desk,” Willard Spiegelman

An essay in the Spring issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review by the editor of Southwest Review, Willard Spiegelman, makes some compelling points about how poetry has changed over the years. While the second half derails a bit, offering a lukewarm defense of formal poetry (“Perhaps it would increase an appreciation for poetry’s difficulties.”), the first half is an interesting read for its insights into the challenges old-school editors and critics face in grappling with the work of younger poets, and Spiegelman offers some telling anecdotes on how submissions have changed over the past 20+ years.

His basic premise syncs pretty closely with my own experience, having belatedly connected with poetry via contemporary voices I wasn’t exposed to in grade school, where “the canon” is forced down your throat with little context beyond “these are the greats!” Willie Perdomo and Patricia Smith were the first two poets who had a notable and lasting impact on me, starting in the late 90s when they were more likely to be dismissed as “slam poets” or “urban poets,” and continuing today after both have been embraced, to varying degrees, in more traditional circles, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine Smith ultimately being officially canonized as one of our generation’s best.

Interestingly, Spiegelman nails the underlying problem with poetry in general, though he seems to imply it’s a flaw related more to a poet’s level of experience with form rather than an inherent flaw in poetry in general, but especially that written for the page:

When a poet has fulfilled all the formal schematic requirements, she may have composed a sonnet, but not necessarily an interesting poem. She has neglected the tropes for the schemes; the language is flat, the sentiments banal. Nothing in it surprises; she has forgotten the metaphors.

While formal poetry has never been my cup of tea, the vast majority of poetry — formal and free verse, written and oral — actually bores me to tears for the exact reasons Spiegelman notes.


The poetry slam scene was a gateway drug for me, a vibrant, energetic forum that welcomed all voices and styles, wherein the “competition” was a ruse, and connecting with audiences and getting them excited about and engaged with poetry was the real point. Philosophically, at least. In reality, it was/is as much a mish-mosh of good, bad, and subjectively terrible as any literary journal (and often even more pretentious), but there was undoubtedly something special about getting on stage, reading a poem out loud, and getting immediate feedback, good, bad, or indifferent.

Hearing a poet read their own work is always a revelatory experience, and reading out loud was always part of my own editing process. A first draft wasn’t complete until it had been tested on an open mic, or at least read out loud in a workshop. I do the same thing with essays and fiction (aka, talking to myself while I write!), needing to taste the words in my mouth, ensuring they’re effectively communicating what I want to say and not getting tripped up in flowery language or smoke and mirrors vagaries.

Even the best poems die a little bit on the page, embalmed and stripped of context; but read aloud, even if the poet isn’t a great performer, they tend to have a spark that cannot be replicated in print.

For several years, the slam scene was my creative outlet, both as a writer and an organizer, and besides meeting and working closely with a number of up-and-coming contemporaries (particularly Roger Bonair-AgardLynne Procope, and Marty McConnell, among others), my own tastes and writing (and performing) style evolved over time. I was especially fortunate to be able to visit various parts of the country at the peak of my “slam career,” and mingle with poets from all over the world every summer at the National Poetry Slam, exposing me to topics and styles that, contrary to popular belief, didn’t have an outlet of note in the chaotic New York City poetry scene, and I’d eventually even come to love the canonized likes of Charles Bukowski and Langston Hughes, too.

During my short-lived online literary journal experiment (Spindle), and a few years later, introducing poetry to Horticulture magazine, I read hundreds of poems, most written by people who’d clearly never read them out loud and/or were guilty of focusing too much on schematics over metaphors, and it ultimately soured me on poetry in general.

In a Twitter discussion yesterday, I “joked” that “I find 93.7% of poets and poetry annoying and pretentious,” including half of my own work.

Despite the “loudpoet” moniker, I typically hesitate to refer to myself as a poet (and “retired poet” sounds pretentious and misleading), as I haven’t written a new poem in years; rarely do public readings of my own work; and, most egregiously, can’t bear to attend a poetry reading for longer than 30 minutes without comparing everything I hear to the poets I came up with, usually not favorably.

[Not coincidentally, I’m also awful at promoting my own work, thus the belated and buried reference edited in after the fact.]


 Even now, most online literary magazines are comprised of static text organized into distinct quarterly or semi-annual “issues,” complete with tables of contents. Sometimes they’re even organized to look like print publications, with animated “page turning” effects. All of these aspects are unnecessary holdovers from print culture. Reading these magazines, I sometimes feel like I’m watching a silent film where the camera is fixed in place and the actors, because they are trained for the stage, gesticulate wildly and unnecessarily. Watching old films like that drives me nuts. I want to scream, STOP! What are you doing?!?! Stop waving your arms like that! There’s so much more that film can do!!

“How I learned to stop worrying and love online publishing,” Sean Bishop

All that being said, whenever I think about myself in a publishing role and all of the possible genres and/or communities I might focus on, I’ll be damned if more than half the time it doesn’t come back to poetry!

I’ve often said poetry is the one form that could benefit the most from digital platforms, not simply to reach wider audiences than is typically possible via minuscule (and expensive) print runs, but to completely rethink what a poem is and how it’s presented, much like good spoken word and performance poetry do in the physical world.

Coincidentally, at the same time I was reading Spiegelman’s thoughtful essay, I got an email from my webhost that my domain was automatically renewed for another year, and, inevitably, the wheels start turning again.

All these amazing digital opportunities for poetry and so few are tackling them, largely because there’s really no money there. Arguably, though, there’s no money there because poetry lives on the periphery of our culture, and on the rare occasion it breaks through, it’s usually gimmicky and short-lived.

*cough* Def Poetry *cough*

In a world where a silly photo-sharing app that makes pictures look old is deemed worth $1B, surely there’s a $1M angle for poetry that speaks to a broader audience without dumbing it down or sacrificing metaphor for mediocrity?

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One thought on “The Unbearable Stiffness of Formal Poetry and Writing for the Page

  1. Thanks for that, Mr. Gonzalez — this article, and your perspectives on poetry, really resonate with me.

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