The Piety of Formalism?

Way back in 2008 I reviewed one of Dana Gioia’s books. I just edited it. (My writing was a bit more straight-laced back then—and wordier.) And that was because, while noodling around The American Conservative (the closest I get to visiting an alien planet and/or parallel universe) I discovered a new article about Dana Gioia. The article was — odd. Like a couple articles I’ve read there, it managed to make the article’s ostensible subject matter yet another opportunity to piously reflect on the “The Church” (to be fair, the conservative site doesn’t hesitate to lay into conservative commentators). They’re not solely a right wing propaganda outlet.

But back to Dana Gioia. Schmitz, the writer of the article, Dana Gioia’s Timeless Piety, likes him because:

Gioia’s characteristic virtue, like that of Aeneas, is piety. (….) The pious man worships God, serves his country, and honors his mother and father. He remembers the dead. “To name is to know and remember,” Gioia writes in one of his finest poems, and here he repeats the refrain: “Oblivion can do its work elsewhere. Remembrance is our métier. After all, our Muse is the daughter of Memory.”

I’m not sure whether Gioia would necessarily go along with that interpretation, but it suits Schmitz’s narrative. And then Schmitz makes the assertion that has done more to ruin traditional poetry (let alone classical music) than any critique that I know of:

His unpolemical formalism is in part a way of keeping faith with the literary traditions that have shaped and sustained the West, expressed in their highest forms by Homer, Virgil, and Dante. Gioia is Latin not just as an ethnic matter, but in his commitment to an ancient civilization. He is a faithful steward of what Pope Benedict XVI describes as “the treasures of worship and culture … accumulated by the Romans.”

He enlists “Formalism”, or the formalist writer, into the conservative cause. But the more one drills down into this belief, the more insubstantial it becomes. George Gordon Lord Byron had nothing good to say about the the church or its pieties—and he was a blue-blooded formalist. Keats was more a Deist than a Theist (some say a pantheist) and detested the clanging of church bells. Milton is the only poet one could call pious, and Milton rejected the strict formalism (the closed heroic couplets) considered (by conservative Restoration poets) the true analog to the great poetry of classical Greece and Rome. He wrote blank verse instead. No one really knows where Shakespeare came down (some speculate he was Catholic) but he too paid no mind to the classical obsessions of his peer, Ben Jonson, who insisted plays be written according to the “Classical Unities” (and huffed and puffed when bored audiences didn’t appreciate the effort). So if, anything, the great formalist of the past weren’t exactly faithful stewards of worship and culture.

But Schmitz has this to say about piety: “Today the word “piety” is used to describe hollow and sentimental shows of belief. In its ancient and proper sense, however, piety is a noble thing, a disposition of reverence toward those to whom we owe gratitude.”

And this is how literature gets dragged into the mud pit of identity politics—both on the left and the right. The “left” by asserting that a given work’s “canonical status” is primarily a reflection of the author’s gender, skin and entrenched social hierarchies (that art has no intrinsic claim to greatness beyond this); and the “right” by identifying the formal structures in “canonical literature” as intrinsic to great art and as the embodiment of the social hierarchies (formal “structures” in politics and religion) they wish to preserve and reinforce. And then there are the politicized poets and authors who reinforce these associations insofar as it benefits them.

All I can say is: Good grief.

6 responses

  1. April is poetry month at The New Criterion, also a “conservative” publication with a penchant for formalism. Their poetry editor says they look for poems “attentive to form…but not necessarily formalistic…but use language in a way that shows the poet knows about those things…and understands how verse moves and words sound…”

    Sound like your kind of conservatism?


  2. I see Salemi as among the varieties of witness you find in any cause. Were you and he Protestant, he’d probably be a Free Will Baptist and you the Presbyterian, yet both of you would likely share a similar abhorrence for the snake handlers of the Holiness movement (also Protestant). And there may well be many other existential intersections you share with him—favorite sports teams, family concerns, work & taxes, etc. But, true, as regards gun control, you’d be well advised to keep the small talk to weather.


    • It’s the degree to which formalism has been made a partisan flag. Has this happened in other arts? It’s as if someone decided that oil paints were Conservative and water paints Liberal. Conservative/Authoritarian governments have always, historically, divided art between the decadent (the new) and the “right-minded”—usually a propagandist mix of nationalism confused with poorly understood “traditional” art.


  3. Being unfamiliar with your complaint’s backstory I googled up this: It’s complicated, to say the least–and one reason I find it difficult to be categorical about my judgments. I see a lot of Republicans that live like Democrats and a lot of Democrats that live like Republicans. There are people who agree with my political views and some who differ, and yet those who differ can be more compatible to me existentially having faced the same challenges and obstacles. The New Criterion for example may be a repository of intellectual conservatism, but I would have had to spend the last 40 years of my life in a library to talk shop with them and they’d probably still mistake me for one of their groundskeepers. On the other hand, I think you could hold your own with them quite well over martinis and they’d find you a social if not entirely political pleasure. I reckon the upshot of what I’m saying is be open to surprises.


    • I don’t doubt there are arch-conservatives who also like hamburgers, but my issue is with the absurdity of making an artistic medium a partisan flag. Both the Right and the Left have done it as regards formal poetry and free verse. I’m not a subscriber to #bothsidism but in this case it applies.


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