"The Invisible Orders that Sustain
Us": Robert Richman on Versification
Copyright © David Caplan 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
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?
What do you think is the most common misconception about versification?
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?
Why do you think that so many contemporary poets have chosen to write in traditional forms?
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 movementoften 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 isor 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?
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?
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 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?
How did you learn to write poetry?
"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: