I recently proposed that form is shareability—those features that make a given verbal or visual or aural artifact shareable.
I related it to Kenneth Burke’s phrase “structural assertion,” a way of recognizing that form is involved in any artifact — the tax code, for instance — but that the structure of some artifacts (poems, pop songs, films, paintings) asserts itself more strongly, stakes its claim on our attention more enticingly, and thereby possesses a greater degree of shareability.
Obviously this definition cannot withstand scrutiny: what we call “content” is eminently shareable, as I prove every time I can’t remember a precise quotation but manage to get the gist across. In my own work, form is what keeps my poems from being prose broken up in lines. As a practical matter, one can of course distinguish formal elements from contextual ones: rhyme, meter, enjambment, sonic effects, and the like. But the problem, by now familiar to everyone, is that what is said and how it is said are not truly separable. The relation of form and content is like that of space and time rather than that of water and glass.
FWIW, I think about what Frank O’Hara said a lot: “My formal ‘stance’ is found at the crossroads where what I know and can’t get meets what is left of that I know and can bear without hatred.” I don’t understand that, but sometimes I understand it.
Michael Robbins is the author of Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012) and The Second Sex (Penguin, 2014). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Harper’s, Boston Review, and elsewhere; his critical work in Harper’s, London Review of Books, The New York Observer, the Chicago Tribune, Spin, and several other publications. He is currently at work on a critical book, Equipment for Living (forthcoming from Simon & Schuster). He earned his PhD in English from the University of Chicago and teaches creative writing at Montclair State University.