|home store about|
Photo: Jeffrey Cantrell
Counterbalance Poetry is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Your donations are gratefully accepted and are tax deductible to the extent allowed by law.
Annie Finch earned her BA magna cum laude from Yale, her MA in creative writing from the University of Houston, and her PhD from Stanford. She teaches at Miami University in Ohio, and is the recipient of such awards as the Nicholas Roerich Fellowship. She has also been a finalist for the Yale Series for Younger Poets and the Nation Poetry Series, among others.
She is the author of four books of poetry, including Eve, from Story Line Press in 1977, and Marie Moving: An Epic Poem, also from Story Line. Her books about poetry include The Ghost of Meter, An Exaltation of Forms, and A Formal Feeling Comes. She has collaborated on several works: “A Cantata for My Daughter,” written with Stefania de Kennessey, was performed by the Women’s Choir of New York in 2000, and “An opera on Marina Tsetyaeva, written with Deborah Darttell, was performed by the Da Capo Opera Company, also in 2000. She has also worked with puppeteers for the play The Mermaid, which premiered in fall 2002 in Cincinnati. Her collaborations – with visual as well as performing artists – arise from her dedication to bringing poetry to life in three-dimensional forms for a wider audience.
She is recognized and admired both as writer and as scholar; Carolyn Kizer refers to her as “a shining light.” Through her scholarship, her writing, and her founding of the Women Poet’s list-serve, Wom-po, Annie Finch has emerged as a writer who values community, lively discussion, and the power formalism can bring to the voices of poets.
Noted as a scholar for her depth of research and perception, Ms. Finch began her studies of formalism in the mid-1980’s. In an interview with Tomma Lou Maas, she talks about “having an identity crisis as a poet who has been raised on free verse and was finding herself irresistibly drawn towards writing in meter.” Sitting in a workshop, looking at lines by Emily Dickinson, she had a moment of epiphany, seeing that Dickinson could have felt meter simultaneously as a hated constraint and as a deep love and need. This led not only to developments in her own writing but also to the studies that emerged ten years later in The Ghost of Meter, which presents her theory of the “metrical code,” or the metrical encoding of meaning.
Through an examination of poems written over a 150-year period, she explores the underlying connotations of metrical patterns that can underscore the language and meaning of poems, both those written in form and those written in free verse. When the book was released, the Virginia Quarterly Review observed, “As the rift in literary scholarship between cultural studies and formalist criticism appears to widen, this brave book sets itself the ambitious task of reconciling two sides…” Timothy Morris, in his review of the book in Style, champions it as an unabashed argument for the metrical encoding of meaning…a watershed in the study of the relation of form to meaning.”
Ms. Finch describes the impact of her research in terms of the realization that “metered metrical patterns themselves have meanings.” Thus the patterns are not simply structures in which to plug words but are also carriers of attitudes toward literary traditions and toward gender. These carriers have the physicality of a heartbeat paired with cultural connotations that we often accept without realizing their significance. Ms. Finch’s studies revealed to her – and to us – that “iambic pentameter was associated with patriarchal cultures, society, traditional ways of things, and the dactylic [the three-syllable pattern with the stress falling on the first syllable] with much freer, more immediate, more unconscious, perhaps more subversive attitudes toward identity and toward culture.”
This realization of the political associations of metrical patterns led her to a stance that connects formalism to her own politics:
“Formal verse was extremely powerful in a way that reached into the roots of human need, and my politics are all about returning to human need—putting human need first. I wanted to corral the power of formal verse and open it up… By the time I finished the book, I found that there has been a real grassroots shift toward formalism among women poets, many of whom didn’t know that other poets were doing the same thing.” (Maas)
She has helped us to know what other poets are doing through community-building. She founded Wom-po to provide a venue, as it were, for women to conduct an ongoing and supportive discourse that bridges aesthetic differences and explores the powerful contributions women can make to poetry, both as individual writes and as a group. She recently described Wom-po as providing “an online model of something that is far from existing in reality, a society where women are respected as the key authorities.” I think of Wom-po as a bastion of civilized conversation that other elements in society would be well advised to emulate.
She has also helped us to know what other poets are doing by editing the anthology, A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women. Here she presents a diverse collection of works by sixty poets who approach form and its traditions, “not [as] a nostalgic return to the old forms,” she says in the introductions, “but [as] an unprecedented relationship with their infinite challenges” (6).
Meter in her own poetry serves as the navigational compass leading her into and out of that fearsome place called “I can’t think of anything to say.” Though raised to see form as an archaic non-option, she began to discover that heady paradox of working in form: focusing so closely on requirements of the form allowed the poems to slip out, to surprise, to discover, to delight both poet and reader. Because language provides the continuum from past to present, because words and their evolution are buried deeply within us, form in Ms. Finch’s work connects us with the physical power of language as well as its powers of representation and aesthetic. Also, since forms have their own histories, their own associations, they have the power to “[open] doors into the rhythms of other minds,” and this is a power Ms. Finch has embraced in her poems and collaborations (Formal 70).
In “A Reply from His Coy Mistress,” for example, she pairs Andrew Marvell’s form with her own wit and charm to point out the fallacy of his argument: “The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none I think do there embrace.” She meets his 17th century attempt at seduction with her own 21st century common sense:
Her approach to form in her 1997 collection, Eve, is more varied and more complex. In Eve, she again opens the door across time, using nine goddesses as a framework for soaring into poems that connect the mythic and the contemporary. Though the book is divided into sections, it reads as a single poem, a conversation between sensibilities such as those of the Welsh goddess Rhiannon, the Native American Spider Woman, and the ancient African goddess Nut, and Ms. Finch’s own insights about birth, life, death, and resurrection. Images of opening weave through the book, as in “Another Reluctance”:
In “Sapphics for Patience,” the openness is more intimate:
Sapphics are not her only formal link with the past. “Spider Woman” is invoked in chant form, influenced by Native American rhythms and repetitions. “Inanna,” the ancient Sumerian goddess, is evoked with a four-beat accentual line divided into two parts, a form common in Sumerian poetry. The Welsh goddess Brigid appears in a Welsh form, the Awdl Gywydd.
In a review of Eve, poet C.L. Rawlins praises the congruence of myth, form and sound in her work, stating, “What she proves here is that rhyme-and-meter isn’t just a formerly fashionable sort of bondage, the equivalent of a whalebone corset, but instead a bio-acoustic key to memory and emotion, which existed prior to the written word…” Indeed, the image that best summons for me the power of Annie Finch’s voice is one of raw sound from “Three Generations of Secrets”:
collector's corner unique, limited-edition & signed works
Broadside created by Paul Hunter/Wood Works Press for the poet’s reading for Counterbalance Poetry on Thursday, February 21, 2002. Printed from hand-set metal type on archival paper with original woodcut. Limited to 150 copies.
|Design: Hemisphere Design|