Annie Finch is a traditionalist. Not in the way the word is commonly used—to indicate restriction, lack of innovation, stick-in-the-mudness—but in a strange experimental way. “Tradition,” which descends from trans- (over) and tradere (give), usually denominates respect for the past and a corresponding wariness of originality. But the word has another, wilder meaning: describing the act of giving oneself over, to powers beyond the self and the ego. An oracle, an ecstatic maenad: that is the kind of traditional poet Annie Finch is.
Borrowing an adjective from ecology, we could call Finch a Deep Formalist. “Formal”: a ball gown and tuxedo come to mind, attire uncomfortable and constricting, designed to impress. Classy, right? But no: the word “formal” derives from a proletarian source, for in Latin it described the molds used by potters and other artisans in producing wares for the market. Tradition pulls in two directions: form as elite awareness of poetic precedent, form as over-decorous commonness.
Confusion over the politics of form especially impacts women poets, some of whom accept Adrienne Rich’s stricture that “the master’s tools will not demolish the master’s house.” But are form and tradition necessarily opposed to expressing what has previously been excluded from culture? Must formal poetry be conservative—or worse, linked to repressive politics, following its Latin meaning of “to keep watch together,” apparently against barbarian invaders?
Finch says no to both questions. She has edited a collection of essays (After New Formalism: Poets on Form, Narrative and Tradition) and an anthology of women’s poetry in traditional forms (A Formal Feeling Comes); she has also published a scholarly book on form (The Ghost of Meter). In her own poetry, she employs sonnets and litanies and ghazals, as well as her own invented nonce forms. Finch, at the forefront of the re-evaluation of traditional form in poetry, uses poetic structures to distract monkey mind so that wild mind sings through.
Finch does what Rich said cannot be done: uses the master’s tools not to build new rooms onto a decaying mansion, but to frame a new home for a radical, earth-honoring worldview. Or perhaps the image needs altering in Finch’s case, for she embraces convention (a word whose roots mean “coming together”), because she finds rhyme and meter rooted in the oral tradition with its pagan proletarian values. She takes back the master’s tools by remembering that they were, from the first, tools of the common folk.
Finch’s new book, the tightly composed lyric sequence Calendars, shows an embrace of traditional subject as well as form. Just as she uses form to question as well as engage tradition, she uses the apparently simple framework of the calendar to interrogate how linear structuring of time limits our awareness. In her earlier book, Eve, Finch offered a feminist revisioning of the title character as well as alternative images of goddesses such as Welsh Rhiannon, Mexican Coatlique, and Irish Brigid. In her new volume, Finch uses as a narrative spine the calendar, moving from the darkness of winter through the abundance of harvest.
The book is woven around a sequence of linked seasonal poems: for the Celtic holidays of Imbolc (when spring is “in the belly” of winter) and Lammas (“loaf-mass,” the harvest feast), and for the pre-Celtic solstices and equinoxes. Other poems twine about, reflective of seasonal themes though never in an obvious way; winter brings weak sun breaking on precious china, summer visits with “something waiting to run out on us.” Within this calendric framework, Finch shows herself a traditionalist of yet another sort, embracing ancient imagery that she envigorates with her certain imagery.
Finch’s poems have a strange density about them. Even when brief and oblique, they feel rock-hard, so well-worked is each line. In her short address to T.S.Eliot’s wife Vivienne, Finch repeats variations of the opening line “your gray dress stings, in the canopied dawn,” alternating with parenthetical commentary on the prophet Cassandra who “is gaunt, very strong, as loud as a gong” until the two images coalesce in a last line that reveals angry commonness behind pearly reserve. In a tiny six-line poem, “Desire for Quiet,” Finch lays down a spine of rhyme that she breaks against a violent image of dark inner spaces filled with “dry grass tipped by brutal flowers.”
Calendars is a book that rewards rereading, for Finch’s beauties reveal themselves slowly. Though a casual reading finds little to stumble over—Finch sounds approachable, even conversational—the book’s deeper beauties await that second and third and fourth visit. This is a book that will last.