On Form – critical essay

Article Posted in: Essay

On Form
by – Srinivas S
published in Vol. IV, Issue. XXXVIII-IX, March-April 2018 


When it comes to art or writing, form and content are often introduced as opponents in a debate, as though one were meaningful without the other. It is, for example, a self-evident truth that form without content is an empty receptacle. On the other hand, content without form is analogous to a message without a messaging channel or a messenger. The debate is, therefore, more meaningfully recast as a dialogue focusing on what form really means in the context of language in general and writing in particular.

Poetry naturally occupies a central place in such a dialogue because of two reasons. Firstly, a large amount of critical commentary on form has, in the past, been directed towards poetry. Secondly, the poetry of the present-day is, especially if one goes by the words of poets themselves, largely free. Between the formal norms of the past and the (relative) freedom of the present ‘falls the shadow(s)’ of a between-dialogues silence, which needs to be illuminated and understood. To do so, it is necessary to inquire into the essence of form.

In simple terms, form may be defined as the packet in which content is wrapped. Given this definition, words such as happiness (English), sandosham (Tamil) and khushi (Hindi) are all linguistic packets in that they wrap the non-linguistic content that is a certain emotional state. Any logically possible and meaningful combination of words in any human language may, therefore, be said to exemplify form at a very basic level. It is arguably trivial to speak of freedom from form at such a level because to do so would be to speak of freedom from writing; from language itself.

Even at higher levels, however, freedom in writing makes sense only as freedom from specific aspects of form. To wit, a poet who is not aware of the metrical fetters of poetry cannot be argued to be free of them. Conversely, poets who are aware of them can play around with metre (as Edgar Allan Poe famously does in The Raven) or, abandoning it altogether, inject their verses with rhythm in other ways. History also suggests that literary movements are in the main responses to extant writing conventions and practices. The Romantic Age with its relative laissez-faire attitude towards form, accompanied by the recognition and celebration of inviolate individual authority, is, for example, often seen as a reaction to the strong Neo-classical preoccupation with it.

A rebellion against, lassitude towards, or freedom from certain aspects of form does not, however, entail that form is being cut down to size. For, it is entirely plausible that when some formal features of writing are discarded, by design; others might come to take their place, by accident. Poets who want to wish away meter might, as indicated in the previous paragraph, still endeavour to keep their poetry rhythmic. The devices they use to achieve that end may not be uniform, and may not succumb to established formal labels. Still, there can be no denying that their function – making a poem sound like a poem – has decidedly to do with form; and so does the compartmentalisation of writing into different genres.

While the boundaries defining literary genres have always been rather fuzzy, just like those enforcing the distinction between the humanities and the sciences, the tacit acknowledgement that two pieces of writing belong to the same genre (or not) is an acknowledgement about their form, rather than their substance. Even in today’s world, where those boundaries are fuzzier than ever, if one is able to make a distinction between a prose poem and a straightforward piece of prose, as people seem to be able to do, it is a testament to those aspects of form which have settled below the thresholds of consciousness but which still assert themselves as we go through texts. If such assertions cannot be becalmed, it is difficult to downplay, let alone dispute, the importance of form in writing.

About the author:

Srinivas currently teaches English at the SSN College of Engineering, Chennai. He is a theoretical linguist by training and is interested in the phonology of Dravidian languages, linguistic typology and models of prosodic structure. Away from academics, he dabbles in poetry and writes an essay or two.

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