Glossary Home Movements

New Formalism

New formalism, also known as neo-formalism was a movement of late 20th early 21st-century American poetry. It was a reaction to the innovations of Modernist poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. 

Writers who considered themselves part of the New Formalism movement promoted a return to structured poetry that utilized rhyme schemes, metrical patterns, and complete narratives. These writers believed that returning to the traditional elements of poetic composition would heighten the American peoples’ interest in literature.

The popular contemporary poet A.E. Stallings commented on the conflict between modernist poets and New Formalists. Particularly when it comes to female and minority New Formalist writers. She noted that writing with a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern is an “oddly politicized choice” and that minority groups are often “criticized.” This statement alludes to a debate between poets and novelists that has been ongoing for decades and has been described as the “Poetry Wars.” Stallings described it, from her own perspective as: 

that false dichotomy of free verse = democracy and empowerment and progress whereas formal verse= oppression and elitism and kowtowing to dead white males. 

Or, to put it in other terms, because formal verse has a long history primarily punctuated by the successes of white male poets, contemporary writers who use traditional poetic forms are sometimes criticized for that choice. In some writers’ eyes, the choice to use traditional forms is the same as uplifting and continuing the dominance of white male voices in literature. 

Despite this opinion, today, it’s common to see free verse and formal verse utilized by the same writers to varying degrees. New Formalism is no longer as contentious as it once was. Formal writing is usually seen published next to modernist, free verse, and experimental poems in literary journals from around the world. 

New Formalism definition, writers, and literary examples

New Formalism Definition

New Formalism was a movement in America that included poets who sought to return to the traditions of the past. This meant a return to recognizable rhyme schemes, the use of meter, narrative structures, and an end to the experimentation popular among their contemporaries. 

The New Formalist writers of late 20th early 21st-century America were uninterested in and discouraged by the popularity of free verse and the experimental styles of Modernism. They disagreed with the notion that structured poetry was somehow disingenuous or lacked truth. Poets who were part of the New Formalist movement attempted to reinvigorate poetry by utilizing rhyme, structure, and other traditional elements. 

On the other side of the argument, modernist and contemporary writers who respected and looked up to the progress made by authors like Walt Whitman believed that the New Formalist poets lacked creativity, perspective, and ambition.

New Formalist Writers 

Below are a few of the most important writers of the New Formalism movement in American literature:

  • Charles Martin 
  • Dana Gioia 
  • Mark Jarman 
  • Brad Leithauser 
  • Molly Peacock 
  • Mary Jo Salter 
  • Phillis Levin 
  • Marilyn Hacker 

Examples of New Formalism Literature 

The End of the World by Dana Gioia 

‘The End of the World’ is a great example of a New Formalist poem by one of the most important writers of the movement. The poem begins with these lines: 

“We’re going,” they said, “to the end of the world.”   

So they stopped the car where the river curled,   

The poet uses a rhyme scheme of AABB CCDD throughout the five-stanza poem. This simple and effective rhyme scheme compliments their use of quatrains and clear, easy-to-read language. Although poems that utilize rhyme schemes and metrical patterns are generally seen as simpler and less effective than modernist, free verse poems, this could not be further from the truth with Dana Gioia’s work. He ends the poem with: 

I looked downstream. There was nothing but sky,   

The sound of the water, and the water’s reply.

North-Looking Room by Brad Leithauser

Brad Leithauser is one of the most important writers of the New Formalist movement in American poetry. His ‘North-Looking Room’ begins with: 

In a seldom-entered attic

you force a balky door,

Throughout this piece, the poet uses examples of perfect rhymes, but the tom does not conform to a specific structure. Here, readers can see elements of modernist writing, such as the uneven stanzas and the break between the first and second sections of the poem. Literary devices like enjambment, caesura, and imagery are also used skillfully. Here are the concluding lines: 

we lose the light most dim, most clear—
a reprimand no breeze can shake.


What is the difference between formalism and new formalism?

Formalism” is a term used to describe examples of poetry that utilize a specific form—for example, a consistent rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, such as iambic pentameter. The term “New Formalism” is used to describe a specific movement in American poetry that sought to return to its more formal traditions. It occurred in the late 20th and early 21st-centuries. 

What is the main idea of formalism?

When it comes to criticism, formalism is used to describe a formal approach to analyzing literature. A critic highlights the poet’s use of a form above all other elements they utilize.

What are the characteristics of New Criticism?

New Criticism shares some attributes with New Formalism. Critics who adhere to the principles of New Criticism focus on the formal elements of the work they are analyzing. They also spend more time highlighting the writer’s use of metaphors, paradoxes, and other literary devices rather than focusing on the writer’s use of experimental techniques and the content of the poem.

Related Literary Terms 

  • Dirty Realism: a literary movement of the 20th century in North America. The movement’s authors use concise language and clear descriptions of the darkest parts of reality.
  • Futurism:  an avant-garde movement that originated in Italy in the 20th century. It was part of the broader Futurist art movement.
  • Genre:  a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
  • Fugitives: a movement comprised of a group of poets and scholars from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, in the mid-1920s. 
  • Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused in Europe and North America.
  • Experimentalism: one part of Modernism and postmodernist literature. Writers take risks, try strange new techniques, and attempt to create something that’s never been seen before. 

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