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New Formalism

During the Cold War, Free Verse poetry was popular as it allowed for more freedom with meter and rhyme. However, in the late 1970s through the 1990s, a new group of poets sought to return to traditional forms of poetry that included meter, rhyme, and aesthetics. This new group of poets is known as the New Formalists.

New Formalism, Open book, StudySmarterNew Formalism Poetry is a literary movement that focuses on traditional forms of poetry, pixabay.

New Formalism Poetry

New Formalist poetry looked to the past. New Formalists, rather than follow in the footsteps of counterculture poetry movements such as Free Verse and Confessional Poetry, wished to follow in the footsteps of formal poets. This meant that New Formalist poetry greatly valued meter, rhyme, stanza rhyming, and even the aesthetic appearance of their poetry. New Formalism poetry was a reaction to the rapidly changing literary styles of the 20th century.

The Poetry Foundations of New Formalism

New Formalists are considered to have emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, but the foundations for the movement were set as early as the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968 Lewis Turco, an American poet published The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics (1968), which was a formalist handbook on how to construct poetry.

In the 1970s, many poets such as Robert B. Shaw and Charles Martin began to publish poetry books that were traditional in form and strayed away from popular free verse poetry. In 1980, a magazine called The Reaper was put together by Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell to promote formal poetry. This allowed for New Formalist to become a recognized poetry movement.

The New Formalism Movement

The 20th century saw a lot of diversity and change in American poetry. In the 1920s, poets began to write in free verse such as Ezra Pound and T.S Eliot, and by the 1950s Confessional Poetry made an appearance with poets such as Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsburg. Traditional forms of poetry could still be found such as the poetry of Robert Frost and Anthony Hecht and the New Criticism movement of poetry.

From the 1980s on, New Formalism was established as a literary movement and more New Formalist poetry magazines and books were published. They faced a lot of criticism but the movement went into the mainstream in the 21st century and many poets today still write with a large emphasis on a traditional form.

Characteristics and Elements of New Formalism

New Formalism, architectural plans, StudySmarterMuch like architectural plans, New Formalist poets valued structure and form in their poems, pixabay.

New Formalist poetry differed depending on the author, but the main defining feature of a New Formalist poem is the use of structured meter, rhyme, and stanzas.

Meter refers to the rhythmic pattern of a line of poetry. An example of a meter is iambic pentameter, which is stressed and unstressed syllables in groups of five.

The type of meter and rhyme depended on the poet as well as the structure of the stanza. This meant the poet spent a lot of time formulating the aesthetic and structural quality of the poem as well as the contents.
Pity the beautiful,
the dolls, and the dishes,
the babes with big daddies
granting their wishes" (Pity the Beautiful, Stanza 1).

"Pity the Beautiful" by Dana Gioia (2012) has a rhyme scheme of ABCB.

In this excerpt from Dana Gioia's poem "Pity the Beautiful", we can see a typical New Formalist structure. Gioia places great emphasis on the end rhyme of the second and fourth lines of the poem (dishes, wishes).

New formalists also used common literary devices such as metaphor, enjambment, allusions, and sound devices within a formulaic structure.

There was a vase

that held the world’s riches, but it wasn’t cheap.

It cost a dime — and this in a time and place

when dimes were sizable, especially for

a girl of eight whose construction-worker father

was unemployed. The old metaphor..." (A vase, Stanza 1-2).

In Brad Leithauser's poem "A Vase" from Poetry magazine (2013), Leithauser uses a formulaic structure of 3 line stanzas with an ABA CDC rhyme structure. He also uses enjambment which is the continuation of a sentence over multiple lines/stanzas of poetry.

New Formalists also preferred to write in narrative structures rather than free verse lyricism. A poetic narrative structure tells a story, with a beginning, a conflict, and a resolution. There will often be a fully developed plot with fully developed characters with narratives.

In Mark Jarman's poem "Ground Swell" from Questions for Ecclesiastes (1997) a clear narrative structure can be found. The poem is about the narrator choosing to write about his experience in the summer he was about sixteen years old. The beginning starts with a description of himself as a fifteen-year-old, continues on to explain the conflict of the discomfort and awkwardness of the age, and it resolves with finally being recognized by someone older and cooler.

New Formalism, Open book with animated characters, StudySmarterNew Formalist poetry is often written in a narrative structure with a fully developed plot, pixabay.

Literary Criticism: New Formalism

New Formalism has been heavily critiqued by many. In 1985 the Association of Writers and Writing Programs wrote a piece in their May issue stating that New Formalists promoted social conservatism and an elitist sense of capitalism. Many critics, especially those who saw the breakdown of traditional forms as more inclusive to minority writers and audiences, believed New Formalism only supported patriarchal and white supremacist views on literature.

Many New Formalists have spoken out against this criticism. Annie Finch, an American New Formalist Poet, has spoken out against the critique stating that New Formalism can be used to reclaim elitist language by minority groups1.

Annie Finch is considered a very unique New Formalist poet. Many New Formalist poets focused on contemporary life. Finch's poetry focused on themes such as feminism, witchcraft, goddesses, and spirituality.

Julia Alvarez, a Dominican American New Formalist, believes that using the structured language of the English and Spanish colonizers is a form of rebellion, especially as her poetry focused on what it means to be a Latina woman.

New Formalism was seen as inherently political, with many believing it was for elitist, white populations and against the Free Verse Revolution, however, many New Formalists have pushed back against this notion.

Examples of New Formalism

New Formalism, Open book, StudySmarterThere are many New Formalist poet examples, pixabay.com

Many New Formalist poet examples include Dana Gioia, X.J. Kennedy, Brad Leithauser, Marilyn Hacker, A. E. Stallings, and Leo Yankevich.

Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia was born in Hawthorne, California in 1950 and became associated with the New Formalist movement in the 1980s. Dana Gioia has written five poetry books, multiple volumes of literary criticism, and many literary anthologies. Gioia has been interviewed by many journals and magazines, and he defends New Formalism.

Stand in a field long enough, and the sounds
start up again. The crickets, the invisible
toad who claims that change is possible,
And all the other life too small to name.
First one, then another, until innumerable
they merge into the single voice of a summer hill" (Becoming a Redwood, Stanzas 1-2).

Notice the rhyming stanza structure, the ABB CDD rhyme scheme, and rhythmic meter pattern in Dana Gioia's poem "Becoming a Redwood" (1991). These qualities make this poem a prime example of New Formalist Poetry.

Brad Leithauser

Brad Leithauser is a New Formalist poet born in 1953 in Detroit, Michigan. Leithauser has written seven poetry collections, many novels, essay collections. He's also edited volumes and an anthology.

In some heavy clouds out flight

was a passage through blindness

but everything white, not dark.

Their dense centers were strangely

turbulent; the wings rattled

as we rose to a brilliance,

whiter yet, into the clear" (Alternate Landscape, Stanza 1).

Can you identify key characteristics of New Formalist poetry in Brad Leithauser's poem "Alternate Landscape'"(1976)?

A. E. Stallings

A. E. Stallings is a New Formalist poet from Decatur, Georgia, born in 1968. Although considered a New Formalist poet, Stallings is known for creating a grey area within her poems between free verse and formal poetic structures. She applied her classical studies training, incorporating many mythological allusions into her work. Stallings has written countless poetry books and has been awarded many prizes. She was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2019.

We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query—
Just for a couple of years, we said, a dozen years back.
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.
We dine sitting on folding chairs—they were cheap but cheery.
We’ve taped the broken window pane. tv’s still out of whack.
We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query" (After a Greek Proverb, Stanzas 1-2).

Stallings' poem "After a Greek Proverb" (2012) is New Formalist in its structures. It has a regular rhyme scheme and rhyming stanza structures. However, metrically Stallings plays out around with the rhythm, which isn't a common characteristic often found in New Formalist poetry.

New Formalism - Key takeaways

  • New Formalist Poetry is a literary movement that grew in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s in America.
  • It rejected the popular free verse and Confessional Poetry movements and returned to more traditional poetic structures.
  • Key characteristics of New Formalist Poetry include meter, rhyming stanzas, a regular rhyme scheme, and attention to the poem's aesthetic value. They are also narrative in structure.
  • New Formalism has been criticized for being elitist and conservative, but many New Formalist poets like Annie Finch and Julia Alvarez have defended their work as New Formalist poets. They use New Formalism as a reclamation of language by minority groups.
  • Some New Formalist poets include Dana Gioia, X.J. Kennedy, Brad Leithauser, Marilyn Hacker, A. E. Stallings, and Leo Yankevich.

1. 'Giving Back the World its Lost Heart', Able Muse Magazine, Critical Issue May (2002). Interview by R.S. Gwynn.

Frequently Asked Questions about New Formalism

New Formalism is a literary movement that focuses on traditional forms and structures of poetry. 

New Formalism is a literary movement that focuses on traditional forms and structures of poetry that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s. 

The main idea of New Formalism is to return to traditional forms of poetry and reject free verse, which had become the more popular type of poetry. 

New Formalism is a literary movement within poetry that focuses on traditional forms and structures of poetry that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s. 

New Formalists promoted a return to traditional forms of poetry including meter, rhyme, and rhyming stanza structures. 

Final New Formalism Quiz


What was New Formalism a reaction to?

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Free verse poetry and Confessional poetry.

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When was New Formalism popular?

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The 1980s and 1990s.

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When was the foundation set for New Formalists?

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The late 1960s and early 1970s.

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What are some defining features of a New Formalist poem?

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The use of structured meter, rhyme, and stanzas.  

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Did New Formalists prefer narrative structure or lyrical structures?

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Narrative structures

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What was the main criticism of New Formalist poetry?

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Many critics believed that New Formalist poetry, was socially conservative, elitist, capitalistic, and supported white supremacy and the patriarchy.

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How have Annie Finch and Julia Alvarez defended New Formalism?

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They believe that New Formalism can be used as a reclamation of language by minority groups.

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Can you name a few New Formalist poets?

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Dana Gioia, X.J. Kennedy, Brad Leithauser, Marilyn Hacker, A. E. Stallings, and Leo Yankevich.  

Show question


Why is the New Formalist poetry of A.E. Stallings unique?

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Stallings is known for creating a grey area within her poems between free verse and formal poetic structures. 

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What is a poetic Narrative structure?

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A poem that has a beginning, a conflict, and a resolution as well as a fully developed plot and characters.

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