Form Fatigue?

Anahid Nersessian

There’s a famous crack about formalism in Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution: “Having counted the adjectives, and weighed the lines, and measured the rhythms, a Formalist either stops silent with the expression of a man who does not know what to do with himself, or throws out an unexpected generalization which contains five per cent of Formalism and ninety-five per cent of the most uncritical intuition.”

There’s a less famous rejoinder to Trotsky in Geoffrey Hartman’s 1966 essay, “Beyond Formalism”: “Our modern formalist is more sophisticated than this literary quasi-scientist but the remedy would seem to be the same. What is needed for literary study is a hundred per cent of formalism and a hundred per cent of critical intuition.”[1]

I’m of two minds about this sort of thing. On the one hand, when there is so much institutional pressure on criticism to justify by quantifying itself—to count, weigh, and measure its impact both on higher ed and public life—it’s a thrill to see Hartman come out swinging for the virtue of undefended intuition. On the other, the recent uptick of literary critics calling for a reinvigorated formalism—sometimes in the name of getting the discipline back to brass tracks, sometimes in the name of turning away from history and politics—makes me wonder what’s lost when form becomes the only game in town. After all, form is a newcomer to the literary-critical scene. Look to the OED or to Google Ngram and not until the very end of the nineteenth century will you start to see the word used consistently in relation to literature, let alone (as it now functions) as a shorthand for “the aesthetic.” Look to writing about literature from before the end of the eighteenth century and the form of formalism is nowhere to be found; you’ll have to turn to art history, perhaps to Lessing’s Laokoon (1766), for that. What Virginia Jackson says about lyric poetry seems also to be true about form: you can thank the Romantics for it.[2]

Does it matter? It does if, when we’re using form to represent the core of what criticism is about, we’re accidentally scrapping our disciplinary inheritance, tossing aside everything people did with literature before they had form to do it with. As form muscles its way center stage, it pushes aside or, more often, assimilates terms like trope, figure, genre, meter, and prosody, which for a time comprised the principal working vocabulary of literary studies. You are much more likely, now, to hear a sonnet called a form instead of a genre, and if you pick up an essay about apostrophe or Byron’s use of ottava rima chances are high that it will call itself a formalist analysis. None of this is bad in itself, but again, I’d like to suggest that an excessive reliance on the language of form is accelerating the loss of other words and the concepts attached to them, much in the way that, as Jackson suggests, an excessive idealization of the lyric made other kinds of poetry—elegy, epic, satire, didactic verse, verse fable, locodescriptive poetry, etc.—disappear, or else become impossible to recognize.

Fans of form’s resurgence sometimes point toward the ease with which the term allows us to speak in the same breath about the literary and visual arts, to conceive a text as something that has a shape—“a material and outward form,” in Lessing’s words—the same way a sculpture does. Unless you’re a die-hard for the doctrine of medium specificity (and Lessing was), this shouldn’t bother you too much. It certainly doesn’t bother me, but I’d like to close this short post with a poem from Jen Bervin’s 2004 book, Nets, a poem that is evidently attuned to both lexical and visual modes of representation but to which the rhetoric of form seems not to do enough justice:

Bervin sonnet

Bervin’s poem is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, and it isn’t.[3] Almost the whole of the original text has been bleached into near-invisibility, what remains—the words “extreme” and “trust” in line 4, “to make” in line 8, and “having” and “extreme” in line 10—laid bare through a process Jasper Johns memorably calls “additive subtraction.”[4] You can say that the leftover words divulge a form hidden within the form of the sonnet itself: an X cut into a plane, the strings of the net that sieves the rest of the sonnet away, a negation, maybe, of Shakespeare’s content by Bervin’s, or an attempt to direct your attention (X marks the spot); and you can say that without a close attention to the visual form of the poem this divulgence would be invisible, too. You would be on solid ground, but you would also be missing something, namely that the X in 129 is adapted from the syntactical figure of chiasmus, or crossing. Typically, chiasmus entails inverting the word order of two clauses that share the same words—“So the last shall be first and the first last,” “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life,” “It is no tale; but, should you think/Perhaps a tale you’ll make it”—but the words can be different: “Who dotes yet doubts, suspects yet fondly loves!”[5] Here, they’re both the same (extreme/extreme) and different (trust/having), but Bervin has also added a pivot to her chiasmus by featuring “to make,” which stands as the spoke on which her cross is balanced; this chiasmus, then, not only crosses but stands ready to twirl, even though the exemplary motion of the Shakespearian is supposed to be the volta, the one-way flip or turn. It is as though the infinitive lodged in the poem’s dead center sets it up for infinite rotation, just the kind of head-trip on which, the poem says, both lust and its indulgence sends us all.

There’s more to say here—about Bervin’s figuration of format, about how the poem uses figure to re-materialize what it also elides, about the historical significance of chiasmus to biblical hermeneutics and whether that’s at issue in this context—but my point is simply that talk of form will barely scratch the surface of this Erased Shakespeare Sonnet. We need the whole bag of tricks, from the meticulous taxonomies of classical rhetoric to Hartman’s one hundred percent intuition, to read well and deeply. “When we write poems,” Bervin writes in her “Working Note” to Nets, “the history of poetry is with us.” When we do criticism, why not keep it equally close at hand?

[1] Geoffrey Hartman, “Beyond Formalism,” MLN 81.5 (1966), 542-556, 555.

[2] See Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[3] Jen Bervin, “129,” in Nets (Berkeley: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004).

[4] Jasper Johns, quoted in John Cage, “Jasper Johns: Stories and Ideas,” in A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings by John Cage (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), 73-85, 75.

[5] Matthew 20:16; Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Part I, in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978), 146-202, 155; William Wordsworth, “Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman,” in The Major Works, ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 79-80; William Shakespeare, Othello, in The Complete Works, second edition, ed. John Jowett, William Montgomery, Gary Taylor, and Stanley Wells (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 3.3.174-5.


Anahid Nersessian is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her first book, Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment (Harvard) was published in March 2015.