Mark Jarman is a poet associated with the new formalism — a movement of contemporary poets who have returned to the use of many elements from poetry’s past; their poems often include metre, rhyme and symmetrical stanzas — but don’t use archaic language, or awkward inverted sentence structures in order to make a poem rhyme. Like Richard Wilbur, who continued writing with formal rhythm and rhyme when others were exclusively writing free verse, newer poets such as Dana Gioia and Mark Jarman seek to maintain that tradition. Jarman co-edited the influential 1996 anthology Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism.
He has taught at Vanderbilt University in Nashville since 1983, where he is the Centennial Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing. His ninth and most recent collection, Epistles was published by Sarabande Books in 2007.
As the journal Image has said, Jarman is courageous, in that he is not only “a champion of the formalist tradition in poetry” which is diametrically opposed to the prevailing trends of recent decades, but he is “unafraid to place [his] religious faith and doubt at the center of his work”. His collection Unholy Sonnets (an uneasy echo of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets), from which the following poem is taken, respects the traditional sonnet structure, and yet is open to its potential variations.
And if when he returned he found his mother
Behind the stone that rolled away for him,
Her muscles limp, her memory grown dim,
Unable to respond when he said, “Mother?”
And if he even recognized his mother,
Her outer light and inner light both dim,
Would he do for her what had been done for him?
Would God’s son give a new life to his mother?
I think he would balk. And I know why.
And I know this will sound unorthodox,
For she, like any mother, would have given
A kidney if she could have or an eye
To see her boy alive. The paradox
Is that he’d rather see her safe in heaven.
Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca