“River Road”

By Richard Foerster

Texas Review Press, Huntsville, Texas, 2015

72 pages, trade paperback, $8.95

Back when I was an undergraduate — which seems more and more like a bygone era — I remember getting on the wrong side of the authorities at one point when I engaged in a minor semester-long tangle with my 18th-century English literature professor. We disagreed about the poetry. He, naturally, regarded the period as a literary pinnacle, while I was, well, still exploring my options.

Undoubtedly (I remember saying to his exasperated face one day after (uncouthly, I’m sure) disrupting class again), Pope handled the conventions of English meter and rhyme better than almost anyone you can think of. And you could say similar things about William Collins’ facility for creating a depressing mood. Maybe it was William Cowper that set me off, not sure — but I objected to calling his long, wandering poem that opens with the sentence “I sing the sofa,” great.

My relief in the course ran to Christopher Smart, a sort of proto-Old World Allen Ginsberg except possibly nuts, whose “Jubilate Agno” has a section that begins, “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey” and launches full-throttle into enumerations of his cat’s worshipful behaviors toward God. Excellent stuff! The professor thought it almost too unrespectable to mention in class.

Much later, I realized that a good deal of this tangle involved personal taste, not objective quality. There is a lot to admire in the formal skill of Alexander Pope.

Some American poetry of the late 20th century, it seems to me, found a groove similar to that of the British 18th century. Like Dryden and Pope, who in a sense honed the energetic extravagances of (for example) Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne and Marvell into a highly refined literary language, America’s post-Vietnam era poets were in the settling dust of the energies of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Louise Bogan (a Livermore Falls native), to name a handful, as well as the Beat poets. Their poetry made inventive uses of everyday speech in open forms (that is, poetry without pre-set rhythm and rhyme schemes) and influenced even the more formally conventional verse of poets such as James Merrill, William Meredith and W.S. Merwin. By the mid-1980s, a reaction to what we might call the excesses of open form, or “free verse,” returned the attention of some university-based poets to traditional forms. This came to be known as the “new formalism.”

The new formalists in one sense revised the open-form uses of speech phrasing back into traditional forms, subtler in diction and tone. Their poems are characterized (very generally speaking) by sober, objective moods and painstaking control of syntax and grammar.

So this is an oversimplified summary of the context the poetry in “River Road,” by York resident Richard Foerster, occupies historically. The poems in this collection (his seventh) provoke feelings of sober objectivity in the exploration of sharply focused emotional moments (often, and mostly subtly, involving homosexual love), and food, flowers, gardens and nature in their personal, philosophic and sometimes cosmic aspects.

Foerster isn’t, strictly speaking, a new formalist. None of these poems works conventional rhyme schemes, for example. But they show a strong influence of the strand of American poetry that includes Merrill and developed among new formalist writers. Most of the poems in “River Road” adhere to tightly made line and stanza structures, including a couple with traditional sonnet divisions.

Moreover, in the foreground of every poem is the language (the form) itself. In other words, when reading, your attention focuses almost more on how the words work than on what they’re saying. Every sentence is tautly controlled; precise; impeccable in syntax and grammar; deft in the 20th-century convention of assigning just the wrong odd word to just the right place.

Most interestingly (to me, at least), many passages are constructed from pileups of modifying phrases and clauses, a device known technically as hypotaxis. It’s maybe the chief characteristic of the high literary diction of our time. An example comes from “In Joe’s Garden”:

… we stoop and groan through this brief

reprieve, hauling tarps of dead uprooted stalks,

the after-fire of goldenrod and black-

eyed Susans, weedy opportunists of neglect

that blurred the shapeliness of once

well-established beds

Reading carefully, you see that these lines begin with a simple sentence (“we stoop and groan”), add to it a modifying phrase (“through this brief / reprieve”), then add a specifying phrase to that, and another to that, and so on. This sentence would sound very odd if spoken in everyday conversation. It uses a highly refined version of English to create a heightened effect. It’s our contemporary version of high poetic diction.

There is a lot to admire in Richard Foerster’s skill with English, which accounts, at least partly, for why seven collections of his poetry have been published and he’s won a number of respectable literary awards over the last four decades.

Underneath the sober moods and intricate syntax of these poems, though, something elemental is trying to escape, I think. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned. But it seems almost exposed in uncharacteristically terse, yet still beautiful lines like these from “Ouroboros”:

… Sit long enough

and a kingfisher will dive

then shimmer up, fulfilled,

and a whirlwind of midges mating

in a shaft of sunlight will explode

like galaxies in all directions

when a dragonfly darts through their core

Not sure.

“River Road” is available from online booksellers and Texas A&M University Press. Let me know if your poetic era gives you a different take.

Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections every other week. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].