Poet, translator, essayist, librettist and anthologist, Annie Finch has
made her mark in late 20th century poetry as an advocate for the
cause of formal poetry, and for
her own power within form. Equally important, she has identified and articulated
a new concept of women's poetry
which is separate from, though not at all antithetical to, feminism.
Finch was born 31 October 1956 in New Rochelle,
NY, into a poetry-loving family—her parents met at a lecture series on
Shakespeare by W. H. Auden. Her mother was a
poet, and from Annie’s early childhood, both parents read and recited poetry to
her. She was educated at Yale, the University of Houston, and Stanford, where
she received her Ph. D. in 1991. Her first, self-published poetry collection was
The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982—republished by Salt Publishing,
2004), and the first for which she gained wide recognition was Eve (1997).
She joined the faculty of Miami University, Miami, OH in 1996.
Finch traces her inclination toward formalism
to the poems her parents read her, then to courses at Yale in Anglo-Saxon and
medieval poetry, linguistics, and poetry in both modern and ancient languages.
But as she began to develop as a poet, her feminist perspective made her deeply
suspicious of form as a patriarchal construct. Women poets of a previous
generation, like Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov and Diane Wakoski, had defiantly
broken from the formal tradition, as the mid-20th
century explosion of powerful female voices coincided with the heyday of free
verse. Finch's own early work was Beat-inspired, street inspired, rhythmic
performance poetry. The Encyclopedia of Scotland was
originally presented as a perfomance piece with music and movement.
But Finch found herself more and more drawn to
the earliest traditions of English language poetry, and the power inherent in
formal poetry. She began not only to work in form herself, but to seek out what
she discovered was a burgeoning interest in form by women. The result was her
anthology, A Formal Feeling Comes (1994), which ignited controversy, but
established a powerful new set of possibilities for women poets.
More recently, she has turned her attention to
the reclamation of the concept of the "poetess," a 19th
century term which was scorned as demeaning in the mid to late 20th
Century. Finch sees the work of poets like Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent
Millay and Emma Lazarus as representing an important tradition which she calls
"sentimentist," and distinguishes from the male-dominated Romantic tradition,
which in its focus on Nature and the world outside the poet (including that of
the spirit and religion) over the centrality of the poet’s sensibility.
In her own poetry, Finch explores the tensions
of a modern sensibility steeped in a profound awareness of tradition, not only
in her use of forms – particularly meter – but also in her subject matter.
Eve combines scholarly and cultural acquaintance with the women of myth and
powerful immediate awareness of the contemporary situation of women in the world
as it slouches toward the 21st Century. Her myths are often not the
most familiar to the Western reader, and this allows her to create a reality of
her own, not tied to the immediate present but not anchored in a recognizable
historical past, either.
In Eve, and continuing through her
subsequent books, Season Poems (2001) and Calendars (2003), Finch
has continued to explore all the possibilities of form, which she defined in her
introduction to A Formal Feeling Comes as “structured
(not decorated) by the conspicuous repetition of any language element." Her
rejection of decoration, and her intense concentration on what language can do,
gives her an unlikely kinship with language poets like Bernadette Mayer
and Ron Silliman, whose work she admires for the pure physicality of its
approach to language, and its ability to separate totally, not partially, from
the rhythms of metric verse. In fact, in her continuing role as one of the
champions of form in poetry during the late 20th and
early 21st centuries,
work with music includes the libretti for Three Mothers, an trilogy of
chamber operas with music by
Deborah Drattell. The first of these, Marina, was premiered by American
Opera Projects in New York
(2003). She has translated a range of poetry, most significantly the 16th
century French poet Louise Labé.
Further Reading. Selected Primary Sources:
Finch, Annie, Eve. Brownsville, OR: Story Line Press, 1997. ----,
Calendars. Dorset, VT: Tupelo Press, 2003. ----, ed., A Formal
Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women. Brownsville, OR: Story
Line Press, 1994. ----, “The
Poetess in America.” Able Muse (Winter
2002). Selected Secondary Sources: Maas, Tomma Lou. “Multiformalism: an interview with Annie
Finch.” Poetry Flash 263 (1995): 1. Gwynn, R. S.,
interview. Able Muse (Winter 2002).