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  • Introduction
  • Edited by Frances Ferguson and John Brenkman

For the 2013 gathering of the English Institute, the notion of form was the topic of general conversation. As had been the case with the topics of previous years—text, reading, genre, among them—the notion of form recommended itself for its centrality to literary and literary-historical discussions and for the range of perspectives that the speakers seemed likely to register in discussing it. Form and formalism may for a time have been associated almost exclusively with New Criticism and the notion of sharply bounded texts (mainly poetic texts), but the speakers and the participants responding to their talks demonstrated how far from inevitable that association is.

One of the ironies of the deployment of the notion of form is that it could have come to represent the replication of fixed forms even as the emergence of formalism in the eighteenth century sharply opposed itself to an art that had defined itself in terms of rules. The painterly and poetic traditions that had been academic, in that a painter or a poet learned by copying the masters, began to break with academicism and attention to rules under the pressure of a formalism that Kant’s Critique of Judgment epitomized. Pierre Bourdieu may have questioned whether formalism actually escaped rules of art, but as T.J. Clark suggests in the common text for the 2013 meeting, “More Theses on Feuerbach,” formalism projects the possibility of the discovery of form in the “human-sensuous activity” of artistic making and the apprehension of both human art and nature rather than the application of formula.

A second irony is that the recently renewed interest in questions of literary form has proved quite amorphous. Perhaps, though, that has been the predicament and vitality of the topic all along. Georg Lukács inaugurated modern literary theory with a collection of essays called Soul and Form, a title that would be impossible today unless it were for a critical reflection on jazz. Among theorists preoccupied with form, there is a recurrent conflict between nonformalist and formalist conceptions of form: Bahktin as against Shklovsky; Jameson as against [End Page 313] Frye; or the Barthes of S/Z over against the Barthes of “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative.” There is also a conflict, cutting across these competing methods, between form as a feature of literary works and form as constitutive of literary works. The New Critics are often the benchmark of formalism in American discussions, but they did very little to illuminate literary forms compared to the Russian Formalists or, say, Lévi-Strauss and Jakobson’s classic essay on Baudelaire’s “Les Chats.” And yet even the surest markers of literary forms fail to define form when it comes to actual works. The form of the sonnet, for example, is readily defined by the number of lines and the stanza organization, but does that account for a particular sonnet’s form any more than a rectangle accounts for a painting’s form? Vertical for portraits, horizontal for landscapes! And, finally, is formalism itself based on the idea that literary works are purely form, or on the idea that the vocation of literary criticism lies in formalization, that is, in its capacity to create categories at a level of abstraction applicable to the widest variety of literary phenomena?

The essays that the keyword form elicited from the participants in the English Institute jump into this fray and admirably do not get bogged down in definitions or quibbles. They are also remarkably free of merely axiomatic assertions but instead take the question of form as truly a question. Each of these scholars delves into his or her concrete field of research to see what light that question itself might shed.

Meta Ewa Jones, in her essay on the poetry of Natasha Trethewey, lays out a variety of ways in which we might understand the term form. She particularly focuses on “that which holds shape and that which holds, or captivates our visual attention” in thinking about Trethewey’s Storyville cycle of poems, Bellocq’s Ophelia,” as a proof text to capture “what is appealing and appalling within the iconography...