I have been writing a study of the forms of recent innovative poetries (mainly British but with some international poets), which is underlined by a conception of form itself, that emphasises form not as a vessel to contain its contents, but as a readerly process of forming which is already meaningful, and which brings the text into existence. I have been using this blog as a machine for thinking through some of the implications of this, by posting early thoughts, dry-runs, practice-led spin-offs, some recovered earlier texts, some discarded passages, and even a few completed fragments of the book. Here’s a summary of the main argument which lies behind many of the existing posts.
Instrumentalist studies of literature abound, which offer readings in terms of socio-historical, contextual issues, ‘issues’ of gender, sexuality, space, place, spectrality, etc. However, to successfully engage in the reading of poetry – and particularly the reading of ‘difficult’ contemporary poetry – means to necessarily engage with the forms of the artifice employed and (at a level of some remove) with the notion of ‘form’ itself. There are, of course, readings of poetic form, but they either tend to cling to the vestigial decencies of New Critical practice or are technical, as in most work on prosody, which seems a descendent of even older philological scholarship.
The study of what has come to be called ‘linguistically innovative poetry’ has not been given to instrumentalist readings, as it happens, but there has yet to be a study which combines the already close textual reading common within this field with the work of the so-called New Formalist critics, who have spearheaded a cleansing operation within the field of Romantic Studies, where New Historicist and other contextual methods, once held sway over the corpus. The leading theorist of this group, Susan J. Wolfson, states: ‘My deepest claim is that language shaped by poetic form is not simply conscriptable as information for other frameworks of analysis; the forms themselves demand a specific kind of critical attention.’
My approach derives from my axiomatic contention that poetry is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form. Instead of an historical reading of the kinds of alternative British poetries under the label ‘linguistically innovative’ (my previous volumes The Poetry of Saying (Liverpool University Press, 2005) and When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry (Shearsman, 2011) offered this and more), this investigation argues that the attention of any formal study of contemporary poetry must be dual. It must focus on form in the technical sense, on identifiable forms in play (enjambment, line, rhythm, rhyme, etc.), and on form in a general, more performative sense, that prioritises acts of forming and our apprehension of their coming to form. Forms and forming I call this pair for ease. Associating one with the other, Derek Attridge in The Singularity of Literature argues that form is the force that stages a performance of any text: we need to apprehend ‘the eventness of the literary work, which means that form needs to be understood verbally – as ‘taking form”, of “forming”, or even “loosing form”’, but he insists that the devices of artifice ‘are precisely what call forth the performative response’ of any engaged reader, directly connected to the event of singularity which is the irruption of an inventive otherness in our productive reading.
Both types of form are capable of carrying a semantic or cognitive charge, demonstrating that forms think. They contain or envelop meaning(s) of knowledge(s) and might show how new meaning and (non-propositional) knowledge might be formed and formulated. As such, aesthetic form carries a force operating on the individual (or collective) reader or viewer, which – in the case of poetry – means that the reader is the site where such meanings are staged by form, so that reading is formulating form, and formulating it into fluxing semantic and cognitive forms as a ‘performed mobility’. Wolfson even writes that literature lovers ‘respond to forms as a kind of content’. Formal considerations of both kinds (forms and forming) are engaged by active reading and enact meanings that moderate, exacerbate, subvert (and on rare occasions reinforce) the kind of extractable meaning that Forrest-Thomson and Attridge both decry as ‘paraphrase’. If apprehension of form is not, or not only, a matter of collecting the devices of poetic artifice, of forms, but a question of entering into the process by which the text finds form in our reading, as forming, there can be, strictly, no paraphrase; indeed, paraphrase, a mode by which meaning is supposedly skimmed off the surface of reading as a residue or even an essence, or worse, a ‘political’ slogan, is a violation of the processes of forms forming. Paraphrase is amnesia of form.
Although ‘the vitality of reading for form is freedom from program and manifesto, from any uniform discipline,’ as Wolfson has it, this volume will demonstrate how ‘issues’ may be read in literary works, ‘through’ form and not as an avoidance of it. ‘Formalist’ has a bad press when it seems to imply autonomist or aestheticist remove, but a poem is opened up to the world only through its form. While there will be some contextual information presented, thinking about poems and thinking about form, particularly through its evanescent cognitive content, will be the main focus.
My previous studies have taken historical and ethical approaches to these writers and my criticism has always been informed (tacitly) by my own work as a poet, and by my interest in poetics as a speculative writerly discourse. I have a particular interest in the wily and even self-deceptive way writers talk to themselves through poetics, and this requires a reading that does not reduce its conjectural nature and function to intentional statements or ersatz literary criticism. Poetics arises as an incidental activity of poets throughout and will be addressed directly as text in several parts. Theorised close reading might be a thumbnail description of my method. I have decided to extend the range of my coverage of British poets and have not pursued some writers (Tom Raworth and Iain Sinclair, for example) whose work I have analysed in previous books and articles. Another aim of the book is to demonstrate the formal range of linguistically innovative poetry.
Readers of this book (and these posts) will find a challenging thesis about form (taken dually as identifiable devices of form and processes of forming) that may well influence their reading-processes on a permanent basis. This will be combined with discussions of important British (and some other) poets, most of whom are relatively well-known, others of whom are still emerging. The originality and marketability of the book is that it combines a summary of formalist and aestheticist thinking that is currently fashionable in one area of literary studies (Romanticism) and applies it to another (contemporary poetry) which has not hitherto been overly invaded by this mode of enquiry. It will therefore be of interest to those studying literary theory as well as those studying contemporary poetry. Its interest in form will draw in readers who are following theorists as various as Derek Attridge, T.W. Adorno, as well as the New Formalists and other aesthetic theorists, particularly those who argue the case increasingly for a cognitive function in formal elements.
What follows is a list of contents with raw links (and references to a number of offline and print sources) to relevant pages on Pages. The final book may differ considerably from these passages, but you could read through the posts to get a glimpse of the rough thinking. Or scroll back through Pages’ pages until you reach August 2013. Or dip and sample. Or even follow a link and lose yourself.
The Meaning of Form
Introduction: Form’s Mordant Eye
See the above text and the first paragraph or two of this essay on John Seed:
Here are some posts grappling with the question of the cognitive function of form (some of which are linked to later chapters as well since this is a matter of conclusions as well as introductions):
See review of On Form by Angela Leighton, Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, Vol 3: No 1, March 2011: 63-66.
Chapter One: Convention and Constraint: Form in the Innovative Sonnet Sequence
See the 14 posts under that title that deliberately mime the structure of the sonnet. Very early thinking, very playful. Here’s a sonnet made of links:
Chapter 2 Artifice, Artifact and Artificer: Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Christopher Middleton
See ‘Linguistically Wounded: The Poetical Scholarship of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’ in ed. Turley, Richard Margraf, The Writer in the Academy: Creative Interfrictions, Essays and Studies 2011. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011: 133-55. [article, published] and parts of ‘Poetics as Conjecture and Provocation: an inaugural lecture delivered on 13 March 2007 at Edge Hill University’, New Writing. Vol 5: 1 (2008): 3-26.
Chapter 3. Rosmarie Waldrop: Form, what one can work on
Some introductory remarks about her poetics:
Chapter 4. The Trace of Poetry and the Non-Poetic: Conceptual Writing and Appropriation in Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place and John Seed
Chapter 5. Stefan Themerson: Iconopoeia and Thought-Experiments in the Theatre of Semantic Poetry
See ‘Stefan Themerson and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry’. in eds. Blaim, Ludmiły Gruszewskiej, and David, Malcolm (eds.), Eseje o Współczesnej Poezji Brytyjskiej i Irlandzkiej, Volume 5: Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Gdańskiego,Ludmi: 245-262.
Chapter 6. Translation as Transformation: Tim Atkins’ and Peter Hughes’ Petrarch
Thoughts on ‘Petrarch 3’ (and some attention to my later many versions of this one sonnet):
Chapter 7. Geraldine Monk’s poetics and performance: Catching Form in the Act
Read these posts on Monk’s poetics text Transubstantiation of the Text:
These posts are on music (and on an abandoned project on poetry and jazz) and on Monk’s collaborations with Martin Archer and Julie Tippetts:
Chapter 8. Meddling the Medieval: Caroline Bergvall and Erín Moire
A game of two halves:
Chapter 9. The Making of the Book: Bill Griffiths and Allen Fisher
On small presses (part of my Keynote Talk to the Small Press conference in Salford, which does not survive into the book):
On Bill Griffiths’ The Book of the Boat:
On Fisher’s Proposals:
Chapter 10. Translation as Occupation: Simon Perril and Sean Bonney
A game of three halves it seems:
Chapter 11 and Conclusion: Form, Forms and Forming and the Antagonisms of Reality: Barry MacSweeney’s Sin Signs
The Theory of Form, Autonomy and Art:
On Barry MacSweeney’s works of the 1970s:
For a general resumé of everything I’m up to, research-wise, watch the video at the bottom of my work webpage, here. Scroll down to find it. It’s only 2 and a half minutes long. I can’t embed it here, for some reason.
For a piece on the nature of POETICS read an early version of The Necessity of Poetics at
If anybody wants to contact me about matters relating to these posts (or others!) my institutional email is firstname.lastname@example.org.