Follow by Email

Friday, June 06, 2014

Robert Sheppard: If form knows – if forms know. The Cognitive Claims of Poetry (The Meaning of Form)

A Picasso work of forms and forming

The manuscript of my book The Meaning of Form is finished in draft (and earlier versions are contained on this blog). It ends triumphantly with these words:

The critical function of art is born in the instant its form de-forms and re-forms in front of us, in our forming activities, as precisely the representation of freedom that Adorno describes. Political formally investigative poetry will both say and not say, modified by formal resistance and interruption…. If form knows – if forms know anything, they know at least to do these things.

The notion that form is cognitive runs deep in my thinking, found its expression in my autrebiographical un-writings (to be published as When (link here. Just click for the pdf.)) in which I end the book with sentences collecting ideas about the piece’s title, ‘Work’, with:

Works his way through us. Inserts phrases from lost works, odder than odd, not negative capability or uniform finish. Rainbow weather falls, drops silver light, splashes around her face. Form thinks. Taut shoulder blades delineate. She delivers herself, a working sketch for full invasion, occupation. Weird with work, no one listens…

Even René Van Valckenborch wrote the following (and I used this piece as a part of my presentation of my ideas on form at Bangor University, televised to Aberystwyth), in his Walloon poem ‘poetics’ from the (typically) tripartite work called ▲


the poem that is
au sujet de au sujet de
the matter that forms the

forms that matter this
tracing of the poem
is the poem

the poem opens
nothing &
that settles it (& us)

that’s something at least
what the shaping thinks
what the soundings think

what the words do not think
as they rattle around the mind
making a racket we

do not think & just as we
are ready to go
it offers a making

we cannot resist
the vintage tin in the loft
containing the relic we cannot

see the ashes that will never
glow again a beloved
consuming object that rustles

it is the poem entire & shut & open
Had the poem been in ‘my’ voice rather than one of his, I might have made the final line ‘it is the poem entire and shut’ or ‘it is the poem entire and open’. But the idea dramatises the theory or conjecture that I had been absorbing and including in subsequent re-writings of my ‘Introduction’, ‘Form’s Mordant Eye’. It is an issue raised by Peter De Bolla’s book Art Matters, and I say so:

Peter de Bolla’s Art Matters (2001) gives quiet but unwavering voice to his ‘mutism’ (de Bolla 2001: 5) before the ‘affective’ qualities of great artworks (a painting by Barnett Newman, a recording of Bach by Glenn Gould, and a Wordsworth poem). (de Bolla 2001: 8) He avoids the potential fixity of aestheticist questions such as ‘What is art?’ (de Bolla 2001: 11) in favour of flexible explorations of his hospitable ‘sense of wonder’ (de Bolla 2001: 16) before these works (which is to be distinguished from effects of surprise, shock or sensation) through ‘the materiality of an affective response’ to them. (de Bolla 2001: 138) …. Derek Attridge [in The Singularity of Literature] is able to tame wonder into the model of a process that is less mute abandonment to form, and more openness to the otherness of form as a forming staging process (along with a commitment to critical commentary that is far from ‘mute’). More importantly for this study, De Bolla poses questions arising from this ‘radical singularity of aesthetic experience’ (de Bolla 2001: 137) which include: ‘What does the text know of this, what does it know that the reader (as yet) does not, perhaps cannot?’ (de Bolla 2001: 120). What does any artwork know, a knowledge that even its creator might not possess?

Importantly, de Bolla conjectures whether the cognitive values of artworks derive from their formal material properties during his encounters. ‘I have asked if my responses give me knowledge,’ he muses. (de Bolla 2001: 134) His useful general answer is in the affirmative, but it is tempered by his suggestion that ‘what is required … is a radically different conception of knowledge….’ (de Bolla 2001: 134):

This kind of knowledge would not be exclusively the property of an agent, not something I own or could be said to be familiar with. It would also be within the artwork, something, as it were, known to it. Although it makes no sense to talk of this as propositional knowledge, it is equally unsatisfactory to dismiss out of hand the sense of knowing that is made apparent to me in an aesthetic encounter. I prefer to call this knowing rather than knowledge since it is more like a state of mind than an item of knowledge. (de Bolla 2001: 135)
That’s one way of putting it and this preference for knowing over knowledge fits my own borrowings from Attridge which favour ‘forming’ over ‘form’. Or at least I prefer to think in those processual terms while wishing to acknowledge the presence of these processes in actual forms, in elements of identifiable poetic artifice (as in analyses like Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s). I try to define this knowing in a non-propositional way, thus:

Robert Eaglestone, in ‘Knowledge and the Truth of Literature’ … contrasts two modalities of truth, cognate with these revised senses of ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowing’. On the one hand there is propositional truth, ‘often identified with scientific understandings of the world. Assertions made under this way of understanding truth can … be proved or disproved.’ (Eaglestone 2003: 152). On the other hand, there is existential truth, an unfolding cognitive growth, one indeed associated with works of art and with Heidegger’s essay ‘On the Origin of the Work of Art’…. As with truth, so with knowledge; it can be either propositional or existential, knowledge or knowing.  
This won’t stop the flow of aestheticist thought and Michael Wood launches into the debate by directly referring to de Bolla:

Michael Wood, in his Literature and the Taste of Knowledge (2005), admits to finding ‘the truly haunting question’ de Bolla asks, ‘What does this painting know?’ the beginning of his own quest into cognitive-aesthetic values. (Wood 2005: 8) While meditating a great deal on fictional forms … he does pay attention to poetry (and to ‘small’ as well as great art), but his conjecture that ‘if literature knows something, or knows of something, then we shall need at some stage to ask what literary forms know or know of’, suggests that the artwork is concealing its knowledge rather than per-forming it for us in the activity of reading. (Wood 2005: 135-6) What Wood attempts to model here is knowledge inside forms, in the sense of inside poetic artifice, rather than de Bolla’s ‘knowing’ which inheres within the qualities of acts of aesthetic forming. In both cases something is firmly in the object, rather than in the encounter with the object, although de Bolla admits to only having access to the ‘art-ness’ of the artwork itself (de Bolla 2001: 135) through ‘the distinctiveness of our aesthetic responses’ (de Bolla 2001: 138). The facticity of the artwork and therefore of its existence in form is central to the experience. But Wood is clear on his conception of the formal as knowledge-in-forms by his choice of exemplar, Empson’s ‘Missing Dates’: ‘I’m hoping that the villanelle will stand in for other forms, and for a whole set of formal questions…. My hunch is that the villanelle may well know quite a lot about things like love, loss, repetition, design, language, memory, longing’. (Wood 2005: 136) In this view, literary forms per se carry occluded knowledge but discussion of this, conjectural and tentative, is deferred. A central distinction between forms and forming is simultaneously clarified and clouded.

Thus I continually re-assert my theme. This ties the cognitive to the conjectural with the use of that word ‘My hunch’, which I don’t (yet) emphasise in my –  a note is immediately inserted into the manuscript ‘Wood = “my hunch” = conjectural’ for later revisions – you can see that I’m thinking these things, forming them, in fact, as I go along, the book writing me, not the other way round, though that’s to jump forward too quickly… The actual identification of where actual forms on the page ‘think’ is rare. In fact, it occurs notably in the first chapter, not on the villanelle but in one of the other forms that it ‘stands for’, in Wood’s speculation, in the (innovative) sonnet (again parts appeared on this blog, beginning here). I note a fairly obvious but useful example in relation to the sonnet ‘frame’ (a word I use to avoid using ‘form’ is too many different ways):

A ‘prescribed form’ whose ‘duration as well as the structure of the whole poem is predetermined,’ as Michael Spiller puts it, the sonnet is asymmetrical like the haiku, the turn torques the discourse after midpoint….Even in this abstract frame one can see how this Petrarchan form at least ‘thinks’, at least in terms of its predisposition to contentual structure, with its ‘consequentiality of thought’. Turning to the Shakespearean sonnet frame, Spiller detects a contrasting cognitive structure: ‘When the final couplet became popular in English sonnet-writing, the alternative 4+4+4+2 grouping emerges, to drive British poets into a rhyming couplet ending, with strong pressure towards epigram or witticism.’ (Spiller 1992: 5) …. Sonneteers ‘respond(ed) to forms as a kind of content’, to adapt a remark of Susan Wolfson. (Rawes 2007: 214)

However, back in the introduction (we have flipped forward as though using the index) I face another take on the cognitive value of form, Simon Jarvis’ readings out of Adorno. I talked with Jarvis a little about this at the Long Poem Conference at Sussex, goading him towards definitive utterance on the subject. I think I understand now the power of ‘hunch’ and the conjecturality of this theory a little better. I write:

In his article ‘Prosody as Cognition’ (1998) …he conjectures: ‘It would be possible to begin thinking about the birth of prosody only upon condition that we stopped thinking of the bodily, and the musical, as the non-cognitive vessels for a cognitive content.’ (Jarvis 1998a: 11) Form (or one aspect of it, its containing qualities) would no longer be a body disembodied from meaning. Jarvis asks us to ‘imagine’ ‘a study of [John] Wilkinson in which it could be understood how the most helpless scraps of print or chatter, are made prosodically animated’ (Jarvis 1998a: 12) but offers few clues as to how this ‘materialism of the beautiful’ could come into being, one whereby we might come ‘to understand a single affective duration not as the endless repetition of an instantaneous passage from being into nothing, the foundation of any possible ontology. In the printed melody of verse is heard … news that such experience is.’ (Jarvis 2011: 13)[1] The tortuous syntax betrays the political and philosophic force that is exerted upon this aspiration, the conditional imagination that promises political utopia, even if it is Adorno’s aesthetic utopia ‘draped in black’. (Adorno 2002: 135) Taking the cognitive qualities of form more generally, Jarvis states: ‘Art thinks historically, and that what it knows, when it thinks well, is natural-historical experience.’ (Jarvis 2011: 7) His first axiom is that ‘technique is the way art thinks’ (Jarvis 2011: 7). … In other words, ‘technique knows something about the world. Yet it knows it, Adorno suggests, just by the most obsessive, and perhaps even the most fetishistic and solipsistic, absorption in its own proper stuff,’ that is, in its form. (Jarvis 2011: 7)

I don’t return to this in the analytical chapters (and it is probably at this point in the introduction that I might add to my theories of cognitive form) although I later take on Robert Kaufman’s sense that lyric makes the conceptual in poetry sing (in relation to Erin Moure); and makes the songlike parts of lyrics operate as though they were conceptual, but in fact they are not. Quite. He says: Lyric’s special formal intensity … arises from lyric’s historically constitutive need to stretch in semblance, via its musicality, the very medium of “objective” conceptual thought, language – to stretch language quasiconceptually, mimetically, all the way toward affect and song but without relinquishing any of the rigor and complexity of conceptual intellection, so that in a semblance-character vital to the possibility of critical agency, speech can appear as song and song can legitimately seem to be logical, purposeful speech-act’. (Kaufman 2005: 212) (Note this is another tortuous sentence, under pressure of the complexity of its thought; this prose seldom sings. I know it’s best to pause here and read it again.)

My final chapter perhaps should pick up some of these themes a little more than it does at the moment, and doubtless will in revision. This last chapter (in rough outline here and here and here) does come back to these issues in the context of a stronger reading of Adorno, and takes on the issue of cognition again. Paraphrase (which in one of my few rhetorical flourishes I call ‘amnesia of form’) is derided, but I look back to the introduction and I refer to

a speculative question that has haunted this study: what is it that form knows? [I quote Jarvis again and continue:] Adorno’s answer to the cognitive question is more determined, and perhaps less dramatic, than the speculative questioning of Peter de Bolla or Michael Wood (since they defer to a Heideggerean unfolding of truth that would have been anathema to Adorno). Adorno argues that cognition is historical and is part of the sedimentation that fills form rather than in its materials and contents. Additionally, it is part of the critical function of the work of art itself. Form is cognitive: forms are agents of cognition; acts of forming are cognitive events. Again, the heresy of paraphrase with respect to the literary arts is inadmissible in theory, ineffective as practice, as we have seen in the poetic theory of Veronica Forrest-Thomson. ‘The cognitive import of a poem,’ writes Jarvis, ‘could never adequately be settled simply by paraphrasing it, since the constellation of individual elements in the work of art is essential to the distinguishing of those elements from merely empirical material, to their having a cognitive import at all.’ (Jarvis 1998: 145) Rarefied though these distinctions are, they rescue cognition for form (and from content), and confirm the role of poetic artifice in contributing to the totality (though not necessarily unity) of the poem. The distinction relies upon the critical function … but it also relies upon artistic autonomy, which in turn, fuels the critical function: ‘The autonomy of art contains the categorical imperative: things must change,’ says Marcuse. (Marcuse 1978: 13)

The triumphant return to Marcuse’s rallying cry (itself a mental return to 1980 when I first read it, something that keeps happening as though intellection were habitus, and which I acknowledge in my introduction) prepares the last chapter (theoretically) for that final rallying cry of my own: If form knows – if forms know anything, they know at least to do these things,’ i.e. Adornoesque and Marcusean categorical imperatives. But the form of this maintains a conjecturality that I keep expressing in the final chapter. (This is why it might be useful to return in that chapter to Wood’s word ‘hunch’.)

Excerpting the argument as it surfaces across the piece as I have here for you, makes it appear to me stronger than I thought it, which is pleasing, and although Wood and Kaufman deserve their re-appearance in the final chapter, if even only as footnotes (pause to put another slip of paper into the manuscript for when I return to it), the whole holds together. The thesis on form forms.

Perhaps I have reached a point of rested totality and should approach the rare moment of violent calm experienced by one of René Van Valckenborch’s own fictional poets, Lucia Ciancaglini (1968-2010), whose poetry I’m currently …. no, it’s too difficult to explain, check it out here!):

& I rest all morning nestling my lava java
an empty sleeve salutes the cosh of exclamation
& cogs within cognition spit forth these forms

There comes a point where the thesis of a book is clear and it only muddies the water to introduce another ‘front’. Imagine if, in the middle of writing The Poetry of Saying, I’d read any of the post-2000 books listed below (the Attridge probably is the world-changing volume) and the formalist argument of my current project had overthrown the ethical thinking of that volume? Perhaps neither book would have seen the light (the second hasn’t, of course, except on this blog). But my reading of Lambros Malafouris’ How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement (Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2013) ‘threatens’ that kind of disequilibrium. (The book has many other qualities too and multiple implications for my criticism and poetics.) In short – I haven’t finished reading it yet – it raises huge questions about the unexamined term used (and used crucially) throughout this post: cognition. More positively it might (at least) offer a sense of what cognition is; at most, it might, in answering the question where cognition is or may be, furnish a materialist answer to how literary form may be said to be cognitive that may support (or augment, but hopefully neither attenuate or negate) the argument as I have developed it above.  When I commented that ‘the book [was] writing me, not the other way round,’ I was already beginning to consider how things shape my mind.

To be continued here.

And if you want to read a description of, and access every post via links relating to, my The Meaning of Form project click here

For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

Works Cited

Adorno, T.W. eds. Adorno, G., Tiedemann, R., trans. Hullot-Kentor, R., Aesthetic Theory, London: New York: Continuum, 2002.
Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
De Bolla, Peter. Art Matters. Cambridge, Mass and London: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Eaglestone, Robert. ‘Critical knowledge, scientific knowledge and the truth of literature, in Joughin, John J., Malpas, Simon, eds. The New Aestheticism. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003: 151-66.
Forrest-Thomson, Veronica. Poetic Artifice. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978.
Jarvis, Simon. ‘Prosody as Cognition’.Critical Quarterly, Vol 40, 4: 3-15, 1998a.
Jarvis, Simon. Adorno: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998b.
Jarvis, Simon. ‘Why rhyme pleases’, Thinking Verse 1, n.d.,%20Why%20rhyme%20pleases.pdf
(accessed 7th March 2011)
Kaufman, Robert. ‘Lyric’s Constellation, Poetry’s Radical Privilege’, Modernist Cultures 1:2 (Winter 2005): (accessed 12 August 2013)
Marcuse, Herbert. The Aesthetic Dimension. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1978.
Sheppard, Robert. A Translated Man (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2013)
Sheppard, Robert. When: Life-writings and Unwritings (forthcoming)
Spiller, M.R.G. The Development of the Sonnet. London: Routledge, 1992.
Wolfson, Susan J. ‘Afterword: Romanticism’s Forms’ in Rawes 2007: 213-224
Wood, Michael. Literature and the Taste of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[1] See Wilkinson’s own take on rhythm in his ‘Cadence’, in his The Lyric Touch. Cambridge: Salt Publishing 2007: 143-7.