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"Formalism," or "academic" poetry is used to describe a kind of poetry that uses fixed rhyme and rhythm to enhance poetic meaning. This traditional style championed Pound and Eliot over contemporary William Carlos Williams, and was taught as good and correct poetry in universities (including Columbia where many of The Beats attended school).

The Beats and other anti-formalists formed their beliefs in direct opposition to these formalist ideas, holding that the traditional limitations of formalism had a restraining effect on poetry. They, in contrast, opted for a raw, unrestricted, and organic style which they felt captured poetry at its purest and most effective.