an old unpublished essay !!
What is Form in Poetry ?
"Form". The word does what it says. Faring forth from its opening "f" and curling around the double fortification of lips and teeth until sealed by its moated "m". Form does what it says. Form is that which does what it says.
Form is shape and pattern. At its simplest, form is iteration: repetition, rhyme, and the variations (reiterations) offered by the opportunities of echo. Shape emerges from iteration: fractal, stochastic, and flexible. Shape and pattern respond to every demand: form is nothing but infinite flexibility and responsiveness. The great works of music grow from a single bar of melody into huge, variegated mountains of sound, carrying all the emotional, thematic, and generic weight in the universe.
Traditionally, there have been two broad attitudes toward form. The romantic attitude and the classical attitude correspond to what might be called a structural (or biological) and a logical (or mathematical) approach, respectively. The romantic understands form as a natural growth, a structural necessity, like an unusual shell curling around a single muscle of Spirit. The classicist or neo-classicist understands form as generic perfection: a simultaneous harking-back and making-new. The Classics are considered perfect models, shards of a Golden Age toward which the classicist aspires to return, by recreating a design equal to and worthy of its predecessors (and progenitors). I call this a "logical" approach because error is eliminated by the standard set by the notion of perfection. Thus to create, or recreate, a classical work is a task requiring objectivity above all.
These attitudes persist to the present day. Poets who aspire to innovation repeat the neo-Romantic dictum that "form is only an extension of content". Poets who respect the logic of form insist on contemporary versions of traditional models for rhyme, meter, and stanzaic design. Rather than falling into two simple camps, however, poets engage in all manner of cross-breeding: innovative poets invent new formal constraints which have their own strict logic; traditional poets incorporate popular lingo and newsworthy subject-matter.
These two traditional attitudes to form, so often contrasted with each other, share a common underlying trait: they are impersonal. Underlying the Romantic position is a biological concept of form: the poem grows organically from the seed of inspiration into a full-blown flower. Beneath the Classical position lies the relentless logic of perfection: the poem aspires to the condition of its models.
If we think of form in terms of semantics, or semiotics - as a kind of signal - we come closer to the personal impulse which motivates form and formal choice. Consider the most basic signal: the dot-dash-dot underlying both the telegraph and the computer. Think of a form - say the sonnet, or the epic poem - as only half of this basic signal: as a dot, or a dash. This is the conceptual status of the formal model as it awaits fulfillment in the poet's composition, which still lies ahead, not yet carried out. The poet is very well aware that his or her concept of "the sonnet" or "the epic" is incomplete, personalized, inchoate, based on partial hearing and permeated with subjectivity, shaded by personal motives. She hears only half the signal. The work undertaken is a process of generating another half-signal, to create a semiotic or communicative equilibrium - to send a message, to fill an imaginary conch with sound.
Thus, the impulse underlying form is neither structural nor mathematical, biological nor logical. It is semiotic, semantic. It is an impulse to communicate with someone. The sonnet and the epic can be considered sub-genres of the personal letter, the epistle.
Michael Riffaterre, in Semiotics of Poetry(1), configures poetry as a semantic game: the seamless unity of the poem is organized around a hidden message, called the "hypogram" (always a prior text, or even a single word). The poem is double-talk: a dream-work, fabricating a false empirical or representational "meaning" which nevertheless points toward its hidden parabolic significance. From his conclusion:
This seesawing from one sign value to the other, this alternating
appearance and disappearance of significance. . . is a kind of
semiotic circularity characterizing the practice of signification
known as poetry. In the reader's mind it means a continual
recommencing, an indecisiveness resolved one moment and lost
the next with each reliving of revealed significance, and this it is
that makes the poem endlessly rereadable and fascinating.(2)
With regard to the internal semiotic form of poetry, its esoteric significance so to speak, Riffaterre's analysis is apt and precise. But if the completed shape of a poem is only a periphrasis - however harmonious and holistic - then the ur-form underlying every poem is the riddle. It certainly may be true that every poem harbors a riddle, a semantic mystery to be puzzled out by the reader. But what about its exoteric character? Beethoven's Eroica or late quartets may indeed be expansions of a single melodic phrase, just as poems may be periphrases of a single ur-word; but the emotional impact comes not from the structure or logic of the form itself. It's not the riddle that moves us: the riddle acts like suspense in a dramatic plot. It's a necessary structural feature, a vehicle for emphasis. What moves us is the way the structural, formal features reach toward and into us, freighted with a communication.
The fact that a message is hidden may increase the power of its impact; but a message may also be hidden in plain sight. This is the role of the large, generic, traditional forms of art and poetry: to hide their message in plain sight. The poet writes a new sonnet or a new epic poem not simply in order to compete with or complete again a perfect model, nor to fulfill some inherent formal and organic necessity of either spirit or content: the poet recreates these forms in order to send a message to someone: a signal, full of wind and rain - full of sound and fury (signifying something).
1 Michael Riffaterre, Semiotics of Poetry, Indiana Univ. Press, 1978
2 ibid., p. 166