Friday, May 25, 2012

On Form



In a recent interview (found here) Kalamu ya Salaam asked Amiri Baraka a few questions about form. An excerpt follows;

BARAKA:What became clear to me is that if you adopt a certain form that form is going to push you into certain content because the form is not just the form, the form itself is content. There is content in form and in your choice of form.

SALAAM: Is there content or is there the shaping of content?
BARAKA: No, I'm saying this: the shaping itself is a choice and that choice is ideological. In other words, it's not just form. The form itself carries...


SALAAM: If you choose a certain form, then the question is why did you choose that form.


BARAKA: Exactly--Why did you choose that form?--that's what I'm saying. That's the ideological portent, or the ideological coloring of form. Why did you choose that? Why does that appeal to you? Why this one and not that one.

I was surprised at Baraka's answer, but I was equally surprised that Kalamu didn't challenge his response. Baraka is of course a legendary writer in multiple genres, but that doesn't make him right about everything. There are several aspects of his response that I want to question;

The idea that form IS content

The idea that form is content is an empirical statement that is relatively easy to confirm or refute. If this statement is true, then once one knows what form a poem is, then one knows the content. So if I tell you that my new poem is a Pantoum, what is the content? What if it's a Haiku, or sonnet, or even more interesting what if it isn't a traditional received form, but rather an orignal one that I created? The answer is obvious, knowing that a poem is a Pantoum tells you nothing at all about the content of the poem, except how it is organized. Knowing a poem is a Haiku lets you know that nature images will be involved in the poem, but still tell you nothing at all about the poem's actual themes, is it about solitude or amazement, for example? Even a form like the sonnet which was traditionally about love, stills only allows one to make an educated guess about the poem's actual content. Unless one is prepared to interpret Baraka's response in some figurative or metaphorical way, it must be considered demonstrably false.
The idea that form has an ideological coloring.

This is actually the more interesting of the two statements, the idea that form or choice of form has an ideological coloring. And while I agree with Baraka on this, I don't think that this is as simplistic as it seems. One can argue that if a poet chooses to write in a traditional form with content that is standard for that form, that the poet is conforming to the Status Quo. But it is also true that a poet can write in a form in a manner that is not traditional, for example Claude McKay's use of the sonnet for "If We Must Die" or Gwendolyn Brooks re-imagining of the sonnet in "First Fiddle, Then Fight." There is also the question of more subtle inversions like for example William Shakespeare's use of imagery traditionally used to describe women that he employs to honor a pretty young boy in his sonnets. Shakespeare pulls this off so well that many readers even now still don't notice that he is addressing a boy and not a woman. Is this a subtle stab at the heteronormativity that ruled in his day? If so, his choice of form is indeed ideological, but not in the way that one might suspect. We also must ask what is the ideological coloring of a form the poet themself has created? Is this a push back against the Status Quo? Or is the poet conforming by writing in any form at all. We should keep in mind that Free Verse is itself a type of form, give that it has certain strictures it must follow; no meter, no consistent rhyme scheme, to name just a couple. Until next we meet, may all your potatoes
be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon)


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