The term 'New Formalism' was first used in the article 'The Yuppie Poet' in the May 1985 issue of the AWP Newsletter, which was an attack on what was perceived as a movement returning to traditional poetic forms; the article accused the movement's poets not only of political conservatism but also yuppie materialism. New Formalism was a reaction against various perceived deficiencies in the practice of contemporary poets. In his 1987 piece "Notes on the New Formalism," Dana Gioia wrote: "the real issues presented by American poetry in the Eighties will become clearer: the debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode; the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative and the denial of a musical texture in the contemporary poem. The revival of traditional forms will be seen then as only one response to this troubling situation." For women formalists, the situation was complicated by gender; as Annie Finch wrote in 1994 in the Introduction to "A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women", "Readers who have been following the discussion of the "New Formalism" over the last decade may not expect to find such a diversity of writers and themes in a book of formal poems; the poems collected here contradict the popular assumption that formal poetics correspond to reactionary politics and elitist aesthetics ... The passion for form unites these many and diverse poets."
Despite the formal innovations of Modernism as exemplified in the work of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and the widespread appearance of free verse in the early decades of the 20th century, many poets chose to continue working predominantly in traditional forms, such as Robert Frost as well as those poets in America sometimes associated with the New Criticism, including John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. During the 1960s, with a surge of interest in Confessional poetry, publication of formal poetry became increasingly unfashionable. The emergence of the Language poets in the 1970s was one reaction to the predominance of the informal confessional lyric. But language poetry was another step away from the traditions of metre and rhyme, and was seen by some[who?] as widening the divide between poetry and its public.
An early sign of a revival of interest in traditional poetic forms was the publication of Lewis Turco's The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics in 1968. In the early 1970s X. J. Kennedy started publishing the short-lived magazine Counter/Measures which was devoted to the use of traditional form in poetry. A few other editors around this time were sympathetic to formal poetry, but the mainstream was against rhyme and meter.
One of the first rumbles of the conflict that was to provide the impetus to create New Formalism as a specific movement, came with the publication in 1977 of an issue of the Mississippi Review called 'Freedom and Form: American Poets Respond'. The late 1970s saw the publication of a few collections by poets working in traditional forms, including Robert B. Shaw's Comforting the Wilderness, (1977), Charles Martin's Room for Error, (1978) and Timothy Steele's Uncertainties and Rest (1979). In 1980 Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell started the small magazine The Reaper to promote narrative and formal poetry. In 1981 Jane Greer launched Plains Poetry Journal, which published new work in traditional forms. In 1984 McDowell started Story Line Press which has since published some New Formalist poets. The Reaper ran for ten years. Frederick Feirstein's Expansive Poetry (1989) gathered various essays on the New Formalism and the related movement New Narrative, under the umbrella term 'Expansive Poetry'.
From 1983 the onset of "neoformalism" was noted in the annual poetry roundups in the yearbooks of The Dictionary of Literary Biography, and through the mid-1980s heated debates on the topic of formalism were carried on in several journals. 1986 saw the publication of Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse and the anthology Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms.
In 1990 William Baer started The Formalist and the first issue contained poems by, among others, Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, and Donald Justice. The magazine ran twice a year for fifteen years, with the fall/winter 2004 issue being the last. The Formalist was succeeded by Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry, which is published biannually by the University of Evansville.
Since 1995, West Chester University has held an annual poetry conference with a special focus on formal poetry and New Formalism. Each year the Robert Fitzgerald Prosody Award is awarded as part of the conference.
By the end of the 20th century, poems in traditional forms were once again being published more widely, and the new formalist movement per se was winding down. Since then, the effects of new formalism have been observed in the broader domain of general poetry; a survey of successive editions of various general anthologies showed an increase in the number of villanelles included in the post-mid-'80s editions. The publication of books concerned with poetic form has also increased. Lewis Turco's Book of Forms from 1968 was revised and reissued in 1986 under the title 'New Book of Forms. Alfred Corn's The Poem's Heartbeat, Mary Oliver's Rules of the Dance, and Stephen Frye's The Ode Less Travelled are other examples of this trend. The widely used anthology An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art (University of Michigan Press, 2002), edited by Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes, defines formalist poetry as a form on a par with experimental, free verse, and even prose poetry.
Interest in the movement and in formal techniques continues, as the West Chester conference demonstrates, but the movement is not without its detractors. In the November/December 2003 issue of P. N. Review, N. S. Thompson wrote: "While movements do need a certain amount of bombast to fuel interest, they have to be backed up by a certain artistic success. In hindsight, the movement seems to be less of a poetic revolution and more a marketing campaign."
The 2004 West Chester Conference had a by-invitation-only critical seminar on 'Defining the Canon of New Formalism', in which the following anthologies were discussed: