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"The Invisible Orders that Sustain Us": Robert Richman on Versification
David Caplan, interviewer

Copyright © David Caplan 1997
Received: 29 May 1997; Published: 1 June 1997

Poet, editor, anthologist, Robert Richman has played several leading roles in the movement known as the new formalism. As the poetry editor of "The New Criterion," he has offered a friendly venue for some of the strongest contemporary poets writing in traditional forms and meters. Richman continued this work in his 1988 anthology, The Direction of Poetry, which, as its introduction rather defiantly announced, featured only recent verse in strict rhyme and meter. This year Copper Beech Press released Richman's first book of poetry, Voice on the Wind. The book comes praised by Elizabeth Spires and Donald Justice who celebrate Richman for writing "poems based on honest observation and intent on getting at something like the truth."

Richman lives in New Jersey with his wife and three daughters. According to his request, the interview was conducted through correspondence.


I'd like to begin with a broad question. As the name and subject of this magazine is Versification, it seems relevant to ask what "versification" means to you. How does your view of the subject inform the choices you make as a poet, editor, and anthologist?

Versification to me means writing poetry with the necessary heightened attention to form. To others it may mean metrical poetry strictly, but that isn't my definition of the word. Versification as I understand it always comes into play when I consider poems—the more attention a poet pays to versification, generally speaking, the better the poem, and the better the chance of getting accepted.

What do you think is the most common misconception about versification?

That it is easy to master.

Your 1988 anthology, The Direction of Poetry caused quite a stir. In it you claimed that the book "celebrates the most important group [of poets] to have emerged in the last fifteen years." Almost ten years have since passed. Have the members of the group fulfilled the promise you predicted? What, if any, general changes have you noticed in their poetry?

The younger poets in the anthology continue to write well; those who mainly wrote in meter haven't yet abandoned it. I wish I could say all of the followers of the younger formal leaders (Gioia, Leithauser, etc.) were as good as these undeniably excellent poets are. But then maybe they haven't been on the scene long enough.

Why do you think that so many contemporary poets have chosen to write in traditional forms?

Many of them write out of a heartfelt, noble desire to reinvigorate these forms for their particular generation. A minority of mediocrities jump on the bandwagon because of all the publicity traditional forms have had lately. In this case, publicity is a double—edged sword.

As you are well aware, the group of poets that your anthology featured have inspired reactions ranging from celebration to denunciation. Critics have called this movement—often referred to as the "new formalism"—as "old formalism revisited" and a "dangerous nostalgia." Also, its members have been called "Reaganities." I was hoping you could respond to these criticisms. What is—or perhaps was?—new about "new formalism"? How does it differ from fifties formal verse and the Movement of Gunn, Larkin, and Amis? Finally, how would you characterize the politics of traditional poetic form?

The nice thing about the New Formalism is that it appears to encompass lots of different politics. It's hard to make generalizations about which politics go with which formal choices, though it is hard to imagine a Reaganite follower of Allen Ginsberg.

When explaining why you excluded from The Direction of Poetry what you called "free verse 'sestinas,' 'pantoums,' and 'sonnets," you argued that the popularity of these forms shows "that the entire conception of form has been corrupted." This seems to me a very provocative and interesting point. Might you elaborate on it?

Back then, at least, every time I opened an anthology or a magazine there would be either a mocking pantoum or mocking sestina by a language poet or a surrealist, or a very bad one by a well—intentioned formal poet.

As more and more poets are writing in traditional forms again, what do you see as the future of versification? Are there particular forms or attitudes that you think will be increasingly important?

One thing I hope is that the younger poets who choose to write in form do so with the conviction and care that will make whatever future reaction to formal verse as feeble as possible.

One of the main controversies in contemporary poetry is the predominance of writing programs. What do you think about this situation? Is the collective influence of writing programs positive or negative? If an aspiring poet were to ask you, would you encourage him or her to attend an M.F.A. program?

My feelings about writing programs are mixed. Yes, there are far too many students in them, and yes, the corruption of teachers choosing their students for awards is loathsome, yet some undeniably good writing has emerged from them. And the younger poets writing the best critical prose oftentimes come from them. The "critics" of the Ph.D. programs, on the other hand, by and large are jargon—speaking theoreticians who are inured to any true aesthetic sense.

How did you learn to write poetry?

By reading constantly—this maintains standards—and by learning the virtue of patience—i.e., trying not to foist unfinished poems on the world.

"Meter," you have written, "may be a powerful and effective means to an end . . . but is not an end to itself." I was hoping you would let me cajole you into using your own poems as an example of this idea. Which ends does meter serve in your work? If you don't mind taking requests, I am particularly curious about "The Skater," the last poem in Voice on the Wind, which ends rather beautifully:

The moment passes; the skaters leave
Their trails in the ice; but suddenly I see
Visions of other children in different latitudes,
under different stars—
And I think of the invisible orders that sustain us.

And through it all, these children's souls—
Hallowed, inaccessible, alone.

Some lines scan in the fragment you quote, but most don't. I wanted the ghost of pentameter to be present, without being too much in the reader's face. I don't know if I succeeded. In the other truly metrical poems in the collection, on the other hand, I very much do want the beat, as it were, to be almost visibly apparent. In "Possession" and "The Fossil" this is what I aim for.

I still think that anyone whose uses meter as an end in itself is not doing right by it. The poets who are guilty of this sin are better off forgetting all about metrical issues for a few months and firing up their imagination (which is meter—free) by reading some great writing—prose or poetry.

ISSN 1546-0401