- On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word
Arguably, the poetic question that continues to exercise poets and literary critics more than any other is the ancient one of whether poetry should be “for” or “about” anything other than poetry (politics or morality, say, or any referents in the material world). Leighton’s On Form bids not so much to settle this astonishingly — some would say, exasperatingly — long-lived dispute as to frame it in a way that’s fresh for being so fundamental. Instead of focusing on widely noted twentieth- century flare-ups (in the 1930s or the last few decades, for example), Leighton turns back to the actual “art for art’s sake” provocation so cunningly fluttered, beginning in the nineteenth century, by aestheticism. Considering early avatars and usual suspects (Keats, Tennyson, Pater, Stevens) but also later metamorphoses (Sylvia Plath, W. S. Graham, Anne Stevenson, Roy Fisher), Leighton argues that the problem of poetry’s for-ness or about-ness is posed by the very notion of “form,” which moves promiscuously between inside and outside, immaterial and material, incipient and realized, writing and written-about, absence and presence, death and life. Some will miss attention to more avant-garde or “open” forms in modernist and contemporary poetry here, and it must be said that Leighton repeats her key ideas, albeit with intriguing variations, from chapter to chapter. There’s no denying the brilliance of her close readings, however; nor is it possible to come away from her book without a changed understanding of form’s meanings and of the persistence of aestheticism’s tropes in a line of poetry and poetics that continues to the present. [End Page 502]
Douglas Mao, professor of English literature at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of Solid Objects: Modernism and the Test of Production and Fateful Beauty: Aesthetic Environments, Juvenile Development, and Literature, 1860–1960, as well as coeditor of Bad Modernisms.