Saturday, December 09, 2006

the papers

Ideas of Form in 20th-C. Poetry:
What We Talk about When We Talk about Form

Wednesday, December 27—5:15-6:30 p.m., 309 Philadelphia Marriott

"Formal Fictions, Formal Anxieties"
Anton Vander Zee

Despite the waning and waxing of critical interest, ideas of form have occupied an absolutely central place in the 20th-c. poetic imagination. To put it another way, regardless of critical trends, high-theoretical maneuvers, and ideologically driven acceptance or refusal, an unprecedented privileging of formal ideas persists in the work and thought of 20th-c. poets.

Indeed, the most important poetry of the 20th c. can be said to display either of the following traits, and often both simultaneously: a penchant for developing expansive and strong claims for what form can or should do, coupled with a deeply rooted formal anxiety about such claims. These traits are not unique to 20th-c poetry; they could be traced to the romantics and perhaps even earlier. But the level of concern, not only with formal innovation and the subsequent resistance it engenders, but with the ideas that drive and justify these formal negotiations, has peaked in the past century.

In the realm of criticism and formal aesthetics, interest in ideas of form over the past decade or so prevailingly have begun from higher-order ideas, working down from there to the artistic work itself. The results are often provocative and illuminating readings of certain poets. But when the scattered, idiosyncratic, contradictory, partial and local ideas that course through the work of poets themselves are corralled into a more sensible bigger picture, we begin to lose something crucial: namely, the scattered, idiosyncratic, contradictory, partial and local ideas that drive aesthetic production regardless of these more refined interventions. On the side of the artwork, the level of formal anxiety that these competing, and often self-critical, ideas of form engender is only fully available when we begin to zero in on certain key moments in the past century where these ideas of form began to take shape. My paper, then, will suggest an approach that builds off of recent work seeking a viable historical-formalist methodology—a path between the often partisan concerns of formalist and new historicist criticism. My contribution to this effort is to suggest the value of a rigorous historicization of the idea of form itself. Such an approach proceeds with heightened attention to these lower-level instances of formal interest and anxiety that comprise, and have the potential to tell a very different story about, 20th-c. poetry.

If time permits, I hope to turn to Muriel Rukeyser’s “Third Elegy. The Fear of Form” from her 1939 collection A Turning Wind. This poem navigates a complex field of often contrasting aesthetic ideals: formal construction, expressive urgency, organic form, and the possibility of a politically progressive poetics. Despite the very thin critical commentary on the elegy, it is a poem that comes boldly into view when attempting to provide an anatomy of formal ideas which might gesture beyond and problematize the more established critical fault lines that so often frame our work.

"The Concept of LIterary Form; or, Back to the Drawing-Board, Everybody" David J Gorman

Form is one of the most basic--and least dispensable--concepts in literary study. However, as is not uncommonly the case with ground-floor notions of this kind, there is no consensus on how form is to be understood. Hence my call for a general return to the drawing board in order to reflect on this topic.

The first half of this presentation will be taken up with criticism of various half-baked ideas that are put forward in place of a thoughtful analysis when attempts are even made to explain what literary form is, or what counts as a formal feature of (for instance) a poem. Many of these ideas seem to derive from the New Criticism, though I would scarcely blame New Critics for their inadequacy.

In the second part of my talk, I turn to explicate what seems to me the most plausible conception of literary form available, which I find implicit in the work of the Russian Formalists. I do not aim to exalt the Russians, however. Rather, by trying to work out a coherent, viable explanation of the intuitive notion of form used--willingly or not, explicitly or not--by everyone who studies literature, I hope to provide a basis for a restored sense of form in contemporary criticism. This seems an important job given the current situation in criticism, dominated as it is by approaches that treat literary works solely as documents, as if they were not also compositions.

3) "Ruses of the Sign: Poetic Form, Ordinary Language, and Artifice in Recent American Critical Discourse," Andrew Eastman

The present paper seeks to provide a critical overview of the uses of the notion of form, and more particularly, poetic form in contemporary critical discourse. Form and poetic form are basic, and taken for granted, in numerous important critical works of the last twenty years: witness Donald Wesling, The New Poetries: Poetic Form since Coleridge and Wordsworth; Mutlu K. Blasing, Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry; Joseph M. Conte, Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry. In another not unpredictable twist, poetic form has been reconceived, in the writings of Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff, as “artifice”, a notion serving to define a postmodern poetics against the alleged modernist emphasis on the natural. The various uses of the notion reflect, not only controversies about verse form and the language of poetry which agitated the 1990s, but the problem of how to talk about form in the wake of radical questioning of the early twentieth century dogma of organicism.

I argue that if the notion of form appears so prominently in the writings of these ideologically diverse critics, it is because all adopt a rhetorical approach to poetry: at stake, then, in contemporary uses of the notion of poetic form is the relation between rhetoric and poetics. By rhetoric, I understand primarily the rhetoric of figures, an approach to the poem in terms of pre-existing units which transcend the discourses in which they appear. Rhetorical approaches, consequently, make form what distinguishes poems from an alleged linguistic norm, the always hypothetical “ordinary language”.

As such, the critical accounts studied here raise the problem of whether form in the sense of deviation is a sufficient criterion for poetry. Rhetorical approaches are grounded in the sign theory of language, whose fundamental principle consists in the heterogeneity of thought and language, form and content. To the extent that such approaches separate out what they represent as the formal aspects of texts and judge their compatibility with meanings, they show themselves incapable of theorizing what, I argue, drawing on the work of the French linguist and poet Henri Meschonnic, might more usefully constitute the object of a poetics, the recognition of specific ways of saying in discourses, and the historicity of the semantic values which they produce.

The present paper’s critique of the notion of form and its use in contemporary criticism thus returns to Saussure, whose work in linguistics may be understood as a radical questioning of the notion. Saussure’s theory of language tends to replace the notion of form by the concept of system, the notion of meaning by the correlated concept of value—while structuralism, misreading Saussure, sought to reintroduce form by confusing system with structure. Applying Saussure’s concepts to discourses, Henri Meschonnic argues that a text’s relation to other texts is inseparable from the internal systematicity through which it defines its own values; specificity being at the same time a criterion of literary value.

The history of poetry shows abundantly that the specificity of a language does not depend on deviation from common usage. In contrast with rhetorical approaches, the concept of the poem as system does not presuppose a distinction between the poem and ordinary language, since all discourses are systems. But whereas non-literary discourse is inscribed within a situation, poems, according to Meschonnic, have that degree of systematicity which allow them to pass from one situation to another, to organize other situations. A system, in Saussure’s conception, is dynamic. Whereas the concept of form supposes a process of taking form, and so a state of completion, wholeness and fixity, a poem as system of discourse is defined by its capacity to transform itself.

A system of discourse would then be one whose various linguistic dimensions—rhythm, meter, grammar, syntax, sound patternings—function inseparably and determine each other mutually. I will take two examples—Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and an extract from Susan Howe’s The Midnight—to indicate how formal approaches may be usefully contrasted with an account of the poem as system, with the aim of showing that the latter has more to tell us about how a poem may be seen as a form of life.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

about the blog...

This blog has been created to share information about the upcoming panel at MLA 2006: "Ideas of Form in 20th-C. Poetry: What We Talk about When We Talk About Form."

Wednesday, December 27: 5:15-6:30, 309 Philadelphia Marriott