by Jonathan Holden
University of Arkansas Press, 1999
Paper: 978-1-55728-569-0 | Cloth: 978-1-55728-568-3
Library of Congress Classification PS310.S34H65 1999
Dewey Decimal Classification 811.50927

Our appreciation of American poetry is as influenced by the personas presented in the poems as by public perception of the poets themselves. Emily Dickinson peeking from behind a doorway with large dark eyes is an indelible image superimposed over her spare, enigmatic poems. The grand gestures of Walt Whitman's voice have much to do with our reading of "Song of Myself." And we cannot hear "Mending Wall" or "Mowing" without thinking of the image of the rustic, sly farmer-poet that Robert Frost so carefully cultivated. The moral authority of the poet reveals itself through the poems as well, and it is crucial to the meaning of the poem, Holden argues, if art is to elevate life. Part 1 of The Old Formalism,"The Practice," is a close study of some of the conventions and developments in contemporary American poetry, with such topics as "sex and poetry" "rhetoricity," and "sensibility." Holden shows lucidly how character—or lack of it—is revealed in poetry. In "Personae," the second part, he gives a studied reading of a group of several admired poets, such as Richard Hugo, Mary Kinzie, Ted Kooser, and William Stafford. Holden uses biographical references and personal contacts with the poets to strengthen the notion of character revealed in poetry. This book takes a decided stand in the ongoing debate of the past two decades about the relationship of American poetry to American culture. In an age when image dominates word, and the business of poetry is nearly as celebrity-laden as Hollywood, Holden takes us past the media glitz, backstage where the poems are waiting to be read. Quite simply, in a clear, incisive manner, he teaches us how to read well again.