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Expansive Poets, Classical Poets, and the Future of Poetry

by Michael Curtis

Modern poetry is not—it is neither poetry nor modern.  Poetry is words lined in measure, of some three seconds length, the length of breath, and this is true across cultures throughout history, as Frederick Turner demonstrated in “The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time” (Published in Poetry, 1985).  We might say, “meter and rhyme awaken the mind, in accent well timed the body finds pleasure in measure.” Finds pleasure in the creation of endorphins, and this is why unremarkable thoughts well-patterned are superior to remarkable thoughts unpatterned: the body remembers one, forgets the other.

Modern is a word constructed in the 19th century, popularized by Jonathan Swift and meaning, “just now.” The “modern” is old, more than a century old—not now—and it is tired and it is boring and it is dull and it is government-supported and this is why the modern exists.  Without the insulin of government funding of modern poetry magazines, associations, and professorships, modern poetry would have passed on, long ago.  Progressive government hobbles the modern classical by favoring the antique modern.

Sometime around 1975, two generations ago, poets honored their bodies and minds by writing in verse, the natural language of poets.  These poets expanded the potentialities of poetry by liberating themselves from the constrictions of academic impositions, the common diction, the pedestrian experience, the adolescent observation, the will to nonsense.  These poets, the expansive poets, did, as poets have always done, invented stories, developed dramas, discovered parables, narrated the tale of ourselves by continuing The Great Conversation with the ancients, with all those of our classive type … Homer to Chaucer to Pope to Frost to you and your readers.

The classical poets have inherited the victories of the expansive poets, enjoyed the expansive liberation from the narrowing academy.  Classical poets are the expansion of poetry into the future.  Picture this, a telos, an accurate aiming toward the mark:  The mark, “Beauty, Goodness, Truth.”  The arrow, “Poetry.”  The archer, “Consciousness from the Beginning of Time.”  The arrow’s path, the “Measured Breath of Each Poet” along the flying course from feather through point, past string to power released, projection into air.

Do you see that arrow, barely left the finger’s tip and already it is a tradition.  Some 7,000 years since the oceans have settled, since civilization beyond habit, since Homer and Abraham, since the Axial Age which has turned us from a people of caves to a people who walk among the stars.  Much here in the future to anticipate as by tradition we project into Beauty, Goodness, Truth.  Some mere 3,000 years ago Homer spoke through others into you.  Imagine what through you will in 3,000 years be spoken into others … what 30, 60, 600 thousand years from now will be spoken in the tradition we begin.

Best, I think, to take the long view.  Best to understand that we are in the early days of history.  It will be good to continue our expansion into a classive future.  It is in our nature to speak in meter, in rhyme.  It is in the nature of man to experience pleasure consciously in the unconscious pattern of all that is.   We remember our pleasures and repeat them as we ascend into tradition.  The “modern” is a fad because it is merely forgettable talk.  The classical is a tradition because it is memorable speech.

For too many years talk, not speech, has been taught in schools, and has been forgotten, despite the billions wasted in public school training.  No one, beyond university professors, recalls unrhymed, unmetered words.  And anyway, there was little in modern talk worthy of remembrance.  Give me Salemi’s sharp wit when life’s scales have lost their balance; give me Susan Jarvis Bryant’s gentle wisdom to measure out the days; give me Sally Cook when I would be warmed in humanity, give me Mortensen and Moore, give me the poets of the past century neglected, and give these all into the schools with Yeats and Tennyson, with all those who prepare youth for citizenship, who prepare innocence for challenges of body, mind, soul.

Not long ago, an expansive, classical poet, Dana Gioia, attempted by conference and program to formalize in schools a return to instruction in memorable verse, with much notoriety and some little, short-lived success, because poets, alike everyone, fractionalize.  Differing interests, opinions, ambitions.  Seems to me that the civilization sustaining tradition of classive poetry can be reintroduced to adults, introduced to youths through curriculum packages made available to home schools, one-room schools, parochial and private schools in search of lesson-packaged inspiration.

Those with a knowledge of neglected poets and the early expansive days might cooperate with socially engaged classical poets to briefly narrate the true, unbroken tradition of classical poetry of the past 150 years.  A brief, accurate, engaging and entertaining history untainted by wiki progressivisms is much needed, and would be useful in telos, redrawing toward the target, hitting the mark in the center of the bullseye.  From there, the themes, topics of The Great Conversation, the poems that we classives in common share, the poems that allow us to speak with Homer, with Shakespeare, with one another.  If we do not introduce youth to The Great Conversation, the table shall grow silent, the children, hungry.

We are the keepers of tradition, made strong by the expansions of half-a-century.  True, there are few particulars we share in common, though we all share in the nature of Beauty, Goodness, Truth.  I am sure you have your opinion, as who in a house of representatives does not, and yet I expect we agree, that the wealth of poetry gives value to society, that a house divided against itself cannot stand, that we must stand together if our house and the houses of our neighbors are to stand.

And then, the curriculum can be sold … a reward for good behavior, the virtue of economic liberty, providing to others the good we create.  Or, the curriculum can be funded by private grant, a prince, or volunteers, and then be freely, generously dispersed.  However accomplished, it is now for us to honor our parents by extending to our children the wealth of parents before.

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The term, “expansive poetry” was first employed by Wade Newman (circa 1980); the recognition of its theoretics was outlined by Frederick Feirstein, Frederick Turner, and Dick Allen at a meeting in New York City’s Minetta Tavern (1981); Dana Gioia opined that the movement grew naturally, without need of alignment.  Expansive poets of the Minetta Tavern included Newman, Feirstein, Turner, Allen, Gioia, Christopher Clausen, Emily Grosholtz, Mark Jarman, Phillis Levin, Charles Martin, Robert McDowell, Richard Moore, Frederick Morgan, Molly Peacock, Louis Simpson, Timothy Steele, and others.

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Frederick Turner, when editor of The Kenyon Review (1978-1985) published early, expansive poetry.
New work of expansive poets was collected by Dick Allen and published in Crosscurrents, 1989.
“Expansive Poetry: Essays on The New Narrative and the New Formalism”; an anthology of essays; Frederick Feirstein, editor; Story Line Press, 1989.
Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter; Timothy Steele; The University of Arkansas Press, 1990.
The Formalist: A Journal of Metrical Poetry; founded and edited by William Baer, 1990 – 2004.
Poetry After Modernism, Robert McDowell’s Expansive Poetry-oriented anthology, 1991.
Can Poetry Matter: Essays on Poetry and American Culture; Dana Gioia; Graywolf, 1993.
A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women;  Anne Finch; Story Line Press, 1994.
West Chester University Poetry Conference; founded 1995 by Michael Peich and Dana Gioia; annually since founding.
Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of New Formalism; Mark Jarman and David Mason, editors; Story Line Press, 1996.
Expansive Poetry Online; Arthur Mortensen, editor; established 1998.
The Ghost of Tradition: Expansive Poetry and Postmodernism; Kevin Walzer, 1998.
The New Formalist; Leo Yankevich, editor; established 2001 (end date, circa 2012)
Mezzo Cammin; established, 2006 (exclusive to female poets).
The Pennsylvania Review; Leo Yankevich, editor; pre 2011 to 2018.
TRINACRIA; Joseph Salemi, editor; 2009 to 2018.
The Society of Classical Poets; Evan Mantyk, editor; established 2012.

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Counter/Measures; a journal of metrical poetry, X.J. Kennedy, from the early 1970s … often cited as a precursor of Expansive new formalism.
The Lyric Magazine; founded in 1921; the oldest magazine in North America devoted to traditional poetry.
Annie Finch, R.S. Gywnn, and others, have written on expansive poetry.

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Michael Curtis is an architect, sculptor, painter, historian, and poet, has for more than 40 years contributed to the revival of the classical arts. He has taught and lectured at universities, colleges, and museums, including The Institute of Classical Architecture, The National Gallery of Art, et cetera; his pictures and statues are housed in over four hundred private and public collections, including The Library of Congress, The Supreme Court, et alibi; his verse has been published in over twenty journals; his work in the visual arts can be found at TheClassicalArtist.com, and his literary work can be found at TheStudioBooks.com.


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5 Responses

  1. James Sale

    An excellent piece of work, Michael, and there are many things to take from it; but the most important is to stand together against the forces of unremarkable thoughts and unpatterned words – the 80% of non-poets writing today. I like to think, however, that as the prophet Elijah took pity on himself and bemoaned his fate, the Lord reminded him that he had kept 7000 men (and women too) who had not bowed the knee to Baal. We need to activate the consciences of these people who can still hear the Spirit of goodness, truth and beauty, so that great poetry can be a force again!

    Reply
  2. Margaret Coats

    Thank you, Michael, for this informative sketch. I’d like to point toward other trends that support poetry in a broad way.

    One is the existence of big commercial poetry websites such as poemhunter and poetrysoup, where writers at any level may freely post their poems online, without the attention of an editor. Of course this includes anything anyone may call “poetry,” but I have found a great deal of writing in traditional forms, and some of these sites have poets classify their poems by form, so that readers and other aspiring poets can easily find sonnets, villanelles, or rondeaux. The quality of formal poetry is mixed, with better writers often going on to establish their own websites or publish freely available e-books.

    Another trend is that homeschooling programs (and other alternatives to government schools, including some charter schools partly supported by state or local governments) tend to value poetry highly, having children memorize formal poems even before they are able to read well. This concern with poetry complements traditional instruction in grammar, composition, and literature overall, and therefore children often have volumes of verse among their schoolbooks, in addition to books for the study of language and literature. And courses in speech, preparing students for public speaking on varied occasions, are an important elective in high school.

    As you note, Joseph S. Salemi’s TRINACRIA had a break in publication from 2018, but returned in 2021.

    Reply
  3. Mike Bryant

    Mike, this is a great essay and I like your writing style. The body really does remember rhythm and rhyme because of the rapture they create. I think our minds are made for poetry. I think it is amazing that Evan chose “Rhythmic, rhyming, and rapturous” as a motto for SCP… it does fit perfectly with your essay.
    And yes, expansive or classical or formal poetry is memorable… and memorizable as well… if that’s even a word. I was thinking of some of the formal poems I read in my youth and I can remember word for word a couplet here or there, but I cannnot remember more than a phrase of the most famous of the modern imagist or “poor me” poetry out there.
    I have my father to thank for my love of poetry and of words.
    You’re right. We owe our children this structure, this rhyme, this rhythm, this history, this almost forgotten knowledge… this rapture.

    Reply
  4. Jack Dashiell

    How and why is the government supporting the free verse poetry magazines? I stand against these imitative spectrum magazines that almost all follow the same old course. They seem as adamant to never change as I’m adamant to change them.

    Reply

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