Thursday, November 20, 2008

Form is a four-letter word

The philosopher cannot easily comprehend that the artist passes, almost with indifference, from form to content and from content to form; that form comes to the artist with the meaning that he wishes to give it... -- Paul Valéry

What is form? Why might form matter? Why does this word continue to worry our accounts of art? The word is utterly familiar, yet also unspecific, abstract, aloof. In literary criticism at least, it tends to figure without articles, not as a form or the form, or even the form of, but just "form" - as if it were one of those "essential Forms" which Plato placed beyond the world of passing appearances, "unchangeably in the same state for ever." Somehow this platonic problem, of form which is both "essential," yet becomes visible or "manifest" in "material things," transfers to the word itself. It is an abstraction from matter, removed and immaterial; but it is also subtly inflected towards matter. As a word it holds off from objects, being nothing but form, pure and singular; at the same time, its whole bent is towards materialization, towards being the shape and or body of something. Form, which seems self-sufficient and self-defining, is restless, tendentious, a noun lying in wait for its object. -- Angela Leighton, On Form

Poems.--Ghost of a mountain | the forms seizing in my body, as I passed, became realities--I, a Ghost, till I had reconquered my Substance |. -- Coleridge, Notebooks

Here, formal and struck into a dead stillness,
The voyage sails you no more than your own.
And on its wrought epitaph fathers itself
The sea as metaphor of the sea.

-- W.S. Graham


Stephen said...

"Every force evolves a form."
-- Mother Ann Lee

Don Share said...

What a funny pen-name for Guy Davenport!

Stephen said...

You're telling me. But she did say it first. He has that great essay . . .

I found tonight a used In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, and bought it, to do the right thing.