Wednesday, February 07, 2007

New Forms?

As someone who runs a reading series called Emergent Forms, I might seem to have a personal stake in answering Tony's questioning of the value of poetic stances that privilege "a hyper-generation of new forms." Actually, I think he's got some interesting points. I'm particularly interested in his suggestion that "the unquestioned exaltation of the creation and innovation of new forms--this discovery and accumulation of new forms as its own self-legitimacy--is another symptom of a modern move towards professionalization and specialization." I don't believe that this is what the Williams- and Oulipo-based traditions he mentions have really been all about, but I do think that a certain contemporary reception and recycling of those traditions, within a certain set of academic and professional contexts, in many way fits the picture Tony paints. It doesn't matter whether you learn in a creative writing workshop to write in iambic pentameter or in New Sentences; as long as either method is treated as an end in itself, and to the extent that students are taught that the mechanics of composition are more important than the experience created by the work, the results will be stultified. By extension, if one somehow picks up the idea that creating new forms is nothing more than a matter of inventing different ways of producing strings of language, it can only lead to boredom and cynicism.

Part of the problem, I believe, has to do with how we understand new, and another part has to do with how we understand forms. As has often been pointed out, Pound's (or Tching Tang's, or whoever's) injunction to "make it new" does not mean to reinvent the wheel every time you write a poem. The original image associated with this phrase was that of the (same) sun rising every morning, always new. The wording could just as easily be "make it fresh," or "make it seem as though new." It's more about what the reader is enabled to perceive than it is about the writer's use of novel formal techniques. Which brings us to forms. One way of thinking about forms is as fixed patterns or procedures, as in any of countless guidebooks to "poetic forms." This is a perfectly useful concept, and there's nothing wrong with the inventing or re-using of such forms: the sonnet, the mesostic, the exquisite corpse, the limerick, the Google-sculpture, etc. Any programmatic poetics founded solely or chiefly on the "hyper-generation" of such forms, however, must be superficial in the extreme.

Another sense of forms is that of shapes or bodies in their capacity as things-becoming-apprehended, becoming-determined. Plato's definition is somewhat relevant here: for him a form is the necessary condition for an object's existence, the "idea" without which the particular object cannot be conceived and therefore cannot come into being. But I'm thinking of something yet more tangible. I might say: I saw a form coming out of the mist. What is it that I've seen? The actual body, or a hazy complex of perceptions that precedes it? Both, of course. But we are able to consider the complex of perceptions "on its own," and when we do that we are engaging with form in the sense that I feel is most of interest to poetry. Forms in this sense are near-physicalizations of possibility, not yet quite frozen into fact, but charged with fact's imminence. Skillfully enjambed line breaks, for instance, dramatize moments of formal pre-cohesion, and in so doing, effectively cause such cohesion. But again, this example should not be taken to imply that form as I'm discussing it here is a mere matter of craft or "versification"; the same sensation of becoming-apprended can be a function of any level of the poem as a whole or in its parts, depending on the situation.

From this point of view, all worthwhile poetry is about the generation of new forms. Sir Philip Sidney wrote in his Defence of Poetry that the poet, "lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like." Here, adding new forms to nature has nothing to do with coming up with new stanza arrangements or rhyme schemes; it is about causing things to exist that didn't exist before. All other, more specific formal concerns--whether to write a villanelle or to use for one's poem only the words that appear on one page of Das Kapital--are purely instrumental strategies.


phaneronoemikon said...

I think this is brilliantly argued,
and except for the fact that i had a "comedy fit" spasm after I encountered the Tching Tang remark
wherein my brain started to talk
in a bad parody of a burroughsian
"chink" laundroman saying:

"You make new, NOW!
You make nEW!"
Oh, so tawdry, so old, delapdate,
please make very crishp, noo,
noo-ooh?.." etc..

it all went pretty well. I especially agree with Sir Philip
Sidney's remark which states
pretty clearly the "worlding"
potential of language. I love the Monty Python sketches that use Sir Philip as a character.. I can't remember exactly but I think it has something to do with pornography.. seems like it was funny.

the other part i liked was:

and to the extent that students are taught that the mechanics of composition are more important than the experience created by the work, the results will be stultified.

on one level i agree with this, but then again a bunch of stultified, tweedy individuals
in a room can be a pretty surreal
experience, maybe even more surreal
than a gathering of well-meaning people who "get it"..

i think greater than any prescriptive debate might be
a teaching of the dynamic of context, and how context is always going to be part of the experience. It's like take the most "boring bad" poetry you
can think of and have some
psycho pink mohawk wearing punk
recite it in a frighteningly
distorted voice and you have
a completely unique thing which uses the poem but which is obviously a decontextualisation.
i guess that kind of thing is tangential..

To close I would bring in the Bacon I guess:

"For it would be very difficult to generate new species, but less so to vary known species, and thus produce many rare and unusual results. The passage of the miracles of nature (i wrote nasture) to those of art is easy; for if nature be once seized in her variations, and the cause be manifest, it will be easy to lead her by art to such deviation as she was first led by chance."

I think this is a good way of showing how the entire creative manifold is related and conflated
[in form] through technology, through consciousness as technology.. What I find remarkable about the passage is that Bacon is essentially positing an Ontic nature, a thrown nature,
and saying that nature itself is a "chance operation" that art can only mimic and mutate..

You sort of get the image of a kline bottle, or an op-amp feedback leg, or distortion filter on a guiter..

I just can't see why anyone would want to argue with your logic on this one Kasey. It seems perfectly sound according to your own parameters..


Henry Gould said...

Fascinating post, Kasey.

I agree with you that this is an area which is ripe for new exploration.

When I start thinking about "form", I run into paradoxes. If the most striking & unique characteristic of poetry is a certain molten-lyrical expressivity - its kinship with song - then formal structures might have to be investigated as outgrowths or offshoots from this fundamental expressive state -the "poetic fury", as the old poets used to call it - the ecstatic state of singing.

Form seems like the result of a creative compromise (an invention) between social occasion and lyric fury (poetic exhaltation, demonic possession, whatever you want to call it).

Wade said...

What constitutes a new form anyway? Much of what I see described as new forms of poetry doesn't seem all that new. And isn't the writing of any poetry about the generation of new forms for the language

Wade said...

Sorry Kasey. Can you tell I didn't read your whole post before I commented.

Carry on.

Nada said...

Agreed: brilliant.

Life without chimerae is not worth living.