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Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms


The revolution is over. The war has been won. As Stanley Kunitz has said, "Non-metrical verse has swept the field." A casual survey of our country's leading journals, prize-winning collections of poetry, and the annual Pushcart Prize selections will reveal how overwhelmingly successful the free verse revolution has been. In fact, free verse is now so dominant that a half dozen recent anthologies--most notably, Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey's excellent Naked Poetry and its companion New Naked Poetry--are devoted to poems in "open forms." And all other recent anthologies contain so few examples of traditional verse that they are virtually indistinguishable from the anthologies devoted to free verse. Free verse was once revolutionary, but it has long since become the fashion. Given this fact, it is easy to understand why the young poet Barton Sutter has said, "The most radical poem a poet can write today is a sonnet."

Radical or not, sonnets--and virtually every other kind of formal poem--have been written, and written well, throughout the contemporary period. Free verse may have "swept the field," but many poets have continued to write in traditional forms. By doing so, they have kept vital a way of writing that has had value for centuries but has met with misunderstanding and hostility in this century. It is the purpose of this anthology to demonstrate that poetry in fixed forms continues to have value and relevance. Rhyme, meter, and pattern have lost their hegemony--and that is good--but they have not lost their effectiveness. Indeed, it would be unaccountable if these devices, which have enriched poetry for hundreds of years, had suddenly lost their value.

It is not the purpose of this anthology, however, to suggest that formal verse is superior to free verse. There is no need to claim for formal verse more than is its due. Nor is there any need to deny or diminish the great achievement and continued promise of free verse. To do so would be to ignore much of our century's finest poetry. Despite their proponents' battle-rhetoric, traditional and free forms are not the two scales of a balance, the ascension of one depending upon the decline of the other. The strongest poetry can be written, we believe, when all options, formal and free, are open to the poet. When one option is discredited, as free verse was earlier in this century and as formal verse is now, poetry runs the risk of becoming limited and narrow. American poets were right to rebel against "the tyranny of the iamb." But "freedom" can tyrannize as much as the iamb, and therefore our principal aim in compiling this anthology is to help foster a more balanced view of poetry, one that recognizes that both traditional and open forms are indispensable resources for contemporary poets. We hope to accomplish this aim by doing for contemporary traditional verse what Donald Allen's New American Poetry and Berg and Mezey's Naked Poetry and New Naked Poetry did for contemporary free verse: provide a showcase for its practitioners' finest work. By doing so, we hope to encourage future anthologists to present a more balanced picture of this period's poetry, one which would highlight the finest achievements in both free and formal verse. And we also hope that the anthology will help instruct poets, and students of poetry, in the techniques of formal verse, so that the beauty and power of traditional forms will not be lost to future generations.