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Introduction to "Essays from the English Institute" (with Frances Ferguson)
Originally Appeared in: ELH: Volume 82, Number 2 | Published: Summer, 2015

For the 2013 gathering of the English Institute, the notion of form was the topic of general conversation. As had been the case with the topics of previous years—text, reading, genre, among them—the notion of form recommended itself for its centrality to literary and literary-historical discussions and for the range of perspectives that the speakers seemed likely to register in discussing it. Form and formalism may for a time have been associated almost exclusively with New Criticism and the notion of sharply bounded texts (mainly poetic texts), but the speakers and the participants responding to their talks demonstrated how far from inevitable that association is.

One of the ironies of the deployment of the notion of form is that it could have come to represent the replication of fixed forms even as the emergence of formalism in the eighteenth century sharply opposed itself to an art that had defined itself in terms of rules. The painterly and poetic traditions that had been academic, in that a painter or a poet learned by copying the masters, began to break with academicism and attention to rules under the pressure of a formalism that Kant’s Critique of Judgment epitomized. Pierre Bourdieu may have questioned whether formalism actually escaped rules of art, but as T.J. Clark suggests in the common text for the 2013 meeting, “More Theses on Feuerbach,” formalism projects the possibility of the discovery of form in the “human-sensuous activity” of artistic making and the apprehension of both human art and nature rather than the application of formula.

A second irony is that the recently renewed interest in questions of literary form has proved quite amorphous. Perhaps, though, that has been the predicament and vitality of the topic all along. Georg Lukács inaugurated modern literary theory with a collection of essays called Soul and Form, a title that would be impossible today unless it were for a critical reflection on jazz. Among theorists preoccupied with form, there is a recurrent conflict between nonformalist and formalist conceptions of form: Bahktin as against Shklovsky; Jameson as against Frye; or the Barthes of S/Z over against the Barthes of “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative.” There is also a conflict, cutting across these competing methods, between form as a feature of literary works and form as constitutive of literary works. The New Critics are often the benchmark of formalism in American discussions, but they did very little to illuminate literary forms compared to the Russian Formalists or, say, Lévi-Strauss and Jakobson’s classic essay on Baudelaire’s “Les Chats.” And yet even the surest markers of literary forms fail to define form when it comes to actual works. The form of the sonnet, for example, is readily defined by the number of lines and the stanza organization, but does that account for a particular sonnet’s form any more than a rectangle accounts for a painting’s form? Vertical for portraits, horizontal for landscapes! And, finally, is formalism itself based on the idea that literary works are purely form, or on the idea that the vocation of literary criticism lies in formalization, that is, in its capacity to create categories at a level of abstraction applicable to the widest variety of literary phenomena?

The essays that the keyword form elicited from the participants in the English Institute jump into this fray and admirably do not get bogged down in definitions or quibbles. They are also remarkably free of merely axiomatic assertions but instead take the question of form as truly a question. Each of these scholars delves into his or her concrete field of research to see what light that question itself might shed.

Meta Ewa Jones, in her essay on the poetry of Natasha Trethewey, lays out a variety of ways in which we might understand the term form. She particularly focuses on “that which holds shape and that which holds, or captivates our visual attention” in thinking about Trethewey’s Storyville cycle of poems, Bellocq’s Ophelia,” as a proof text to capture “what is appealing and appalling within the iconography of the female body” (411). In Jones’s account form is not merely a concern for poets. It involves the shaped language of derogation that captions someone as “mongrel” or “mulatto” and the “historical and linguistic deformation” (408) that is involved in “seeing blackness” even in the lightest skinned black body. Jones points to the ways in which Trethewey analyzes the workings of the visual claims that the photographs of a light-skinned black sex worker in Lula White’s Mahogany Hall make—namely, that the sex worker “must learn to be watched” and must learn to undergo the inspection in which a customer (or a father) would search for evidence of blackness in white appearance. “Racialization” thus becomes a visible formal process, an optical quandary” chargeable more to the spectator than to an intention on the part of the young woman under inspection. Trethewey, in developing an ekphrastic poetry based on Bellocq’s Storyville photographs, grants her character Ophelia a persona and a voice that use the enclosures of different specific poetic forms drawn from regional, national, Western, and global traditions to “respond to overexposure” and to allow Ophelia an antidote to what Trethewey has said she gave to Ophelia: “the feeling of being on display” (415). And the formal repetitions that the poetry is able to effect enable Trethewey to counter the endings that involve loss by creating a corrective circularity in memory, in the elegy.

Jones mentions Meredith Martin’s account of a generally received notion of the progress of poetry from complex and fixed forms to free verse in order to highlight the kinds of freedom that Trethewey is able to achieve by insistently using a variety of recognizable tightly worked poetic forms. Martin, in her discussion of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, “his 1842 collection of poems written as if they were lost Roman ballads,” focuses on the tensions between the histories of poetry that we tell ourselves and the information that specific verse forms may give us. Although there were no fewer than sixty-three editions of the Lays published between 1842 and 1939, Matthew Arnold dismissed the poems in Macaulay’s volume as defective, a judgment that resulted in the deaccessing of Macaulay’s poems from the literary canon. Yet Martin aims, in her essay, to recapture the ways in which these poems and their erasure index our contemporary understanding of poetic form. Just as a scholar like William Jones was pressing the ancient similarities between Indian and European language and literature, Macaulay sought to uncover links between the progress of Rome and the progress of England. In writing his lays in illustration of his understanding of Saturnian meters, which he took to be ancient Roman balladic meters, he produced poetry that was both consciously anachronistic and chauvinistic. As the ballad “came to be coded as a communally felt phenomenon,” its strong rhythms were seen to absorb even supposedly unsophisticated auditors—children, the working classes, rural villagers, and colonial subjects—into an account of national and martial culture so thick as to be absorbed virtually with mothers’ milk. Martin illustrates some of the disputes that developed around the rediscovery of the ballad by pointing to the ways in which nineteenth-century writers argued about what ballad meter actually was. Citing Robert Southey and his observation that a ballad line of fourteen feet was too long for a printed page, Martin calls attention to the evolving description of ballad meter as a combination of eight-foot and six-foot lines. 

It is this attention to modern conventions of print that drives Ardis Butterfield’s discussion of medieval texts that do not dispose themselves on the page and sort their words into prose and poetry. She finds in “stubbornly handmade” medieval writing a further illustration of Virginia Jackson’s argument that Emily Dickinson’s writings became lyric poems through the mediation of practices of print and criticism that represented them as lined poetry rather than random jottings. Focusing on texts that move from unrhymed prose to rhyming lines without sharply setting the two off from one another, Butterfield highlights how written lines did not mean what they seemed to be saying but were, rather, acting as verbal cues for the tune. She concludes by observing how thoroughly accounts like George Saintsbury’s—that the ballad is “the most definitely English … of all English meters”—represent an influential literary historical fantasy. She agrees with Martin that the lay is “always a fantasy form,” and “the ballad doesn’t have a folk” (361).

While Butterfield focuses on the ways in which medieval writing did not observe the same divisions between poetry and music and between poetry and prose that modern print follows, Simon Jarvis challenges the notion that such a distinction reliably operates. Beginning with a discussion of J. L. Austin’s essay “Pretending,” Jarvis ranks it “with the best of twentieth century comic prose” (365). Setting aside the word “form” altogether, Jarvis aims to make us see the work that prose rhythm does in creating the kinds of tonal effects that Austin achieves. Jarvis zeroes in on distinctions that Austin makes among the different tones in which particular sentences may be uttered:

It’s going to charge! (a warning);It’s going to charge? (a question);It’s going to charge? (a protest)

As Jarvis observes, “what interests Austin is that the illocutionary force of an utterance can in cases like this depend upon cadence” and the way that the pitch of voice operates effectively as a tune. And what interests Jarvis in his turn is the extent to which Austin develops a conjectural historical narrative in which an explicit performative (of the form “I promise that I will … “) is said to have developed out of the primary performative (of the form “I will … “). Austin produces the historical narrative, Jarvis observes, in supreme indifference to its explanatory uselessness as he is trying to identify the importance of tone, cadence, emphasis. Austin’s supererogatory history and his recourse to the notion that “poetry is a subset of fiction, that words spoken or written in a poem are self-evidently not serious” (370) attract Jarvis’s attention, and lead him to discuss Wordsworth’s “Surprized by joy … ” as an example of a poetry that can scarcely be said to be unserious. (Here he challenges the New Critical doctrine that ascribed all poems to speakers rather than to poets, along lines that Ralph Rader did.) Thus claiming that poetry may be seriously rather than merely fictitiously meant and appealing to Simon Goldhill’s claim that the democracies of Greece made prose “the medium for authoritative expression, the expression of power” (373), Jarvis goes on to explain why auditors and readers might resist the incursion of poetic effects into prose as part of an undemocratic regime of writing. “Some marvels of prose rhythm, in fact, seem most decisively to operate not by directing performance, nor even by withholding such directions, but by organizing themselves so as to incriminate performance itself, so as to make any imaginable performance, even a silent hallucination of one, a violation of what is written” (374). In Beckett’s Company he finds a prose unsullied by punctuating commas that might invite the listener to a certain understanding, and he shows the difficulty of deciding whether Beckett’s writing, with its oversong and undersong, is rhythmic prose or prosy poetry. For his final suggestion is that our ways of distinguishing between poetry and prose and of discouraging the “poetic” elements of rhythm and rhyme in prose have blinded us to the continuing operation of strongly rhythmic prose. “It can’t really be argued,” he concludes, “that strongly rhythmic prose, far less than strongly rhythmic speech, has fled to the margins of our culture: they are, at its centres, ubiquitous” (381).

Even as Jarvis shows how productive it is to analyze form without using the term form at all, Sandra Macpherson in “A Little Formalism” seeks or, in her words, wishes for “a genuinuely formalist critical practice” (385). She probes a wide variety of projects that seem to promise that and finds instead how tenaciously they fight against such a formalism in the very name of form or formalism: the New Formalism, the New Materialism, Object-Oriented Ontology. She first revisits the English Institute’s own 2009 conference on genre, where she finds that that term is variously yoked with form, distinguished from form, or identified as form: “it occurs to me that this lack of clarity might be a peculiar feature of our own discipline—odd given that form is arguably the only expertise our discipline can lay claim to possess” (388). In between the two Barthes mentioned above is the Barthes of Mythologies, whose innovative fusion of structuralist linguistics and Marxo-Brechtian ideology critique has inspired and served as a model for many trends in literary and cultural studies, and Macpherson teases out the fluctuating senses of form deployed by Barthes. She is sharply skeptical of that part of Barthes’ legacy which engages form in order to show that it actually leads to history or to ethics or to politics. By the same token, she finds moments in Barthes (“The World as Object”) where an object’s form stands out against its usefulness, and that comes closer to the formalism she seeks; it also anticipates object-oriented ontology’s endeavor to conceptualize objects’ form without reference to their human use or appearance to the human mind. Some such account of form and formalism is, Macpherson writes, “a version of the little formalism I seek: a strong (that is, ontic) materialist formalism” (397). The latter part of her essay engages the work of Graham Harman and Timothy Morton, questioning the tendency for even object-oriented ontology to evacuate its formalism and claim to posthumanism by reintroducing a kind of ethical and ecological hopefulness into its leveling of the human and nonhuman. Even as her wish remains as yet unfulfilled, Macpherson lays out the demanding requirements of a posthumanist, materialist formalism.

The polarity between Clark’s appeal to human-sensuous activity and Macpherson’s call for a conception of form that holds good even on the assumption of human extinction suggests the philosophical extremities to which the question of form gives rise. So, too, the polarity between the richly historical texture of formal analysis in Jones, Martin, and Butterfield and the radically formalist analysis of Jarvis exemplifies how critical practice, not definition, is where the question of form is most fruitfully fought out.