Spring 1991 • Vol. XIII No. 2 Nonfiction |

Heirs and Heirlooms: The Legacy of Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill

Of the "new" Formalism, as of the New Historicism, it may be said that new presbyter is but old priest writ large: which means, first of all, that form and formalists we shall have always with us; and second of all that the "newness" of the formalism has been a construction of the critics rather than of the poets. And two larger ontological questions follow from this supposedly novel phenomenon: What determines "formalism" in poetry? And how do we recognize it? Unless we agree with the late Justice Potter Stewart on the matter of pornography, refusing to define it, but knowing it when we see it, then the formal boundaries of poetry may be as variable as the dimensions of Procrustes' bed. To begin: some statistics. In order to measure the absolute or even relative quantity of so-called formal verse during the past forty years, I returned to past volumes of Poetry magazine—a periodical whose catholicity of taste bears emulating—to see what might be gleaned from its pages. I acc

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Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University and the editor-in-chief of Southwest Review.

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