Ending up in Form?

In his introduction to A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, Anton Vander Zee reminds us of an argument made by Stephen Cushman, among others, that (perhaps) “American poets since Whitman have tended to “overvalue the
formal aspects of their art, investing those aspects with tremendous significance” (6).

Vander Zee’s introduction is a worthy read in its own right, and I’m being reductive in not mentioning his nuanced discussion of how form must be engaged with “the world around the poem” (21); he does, after all, take James Longenbach to task for not attending to that world in The Art of the Poetic Line.

Mentoring Ph.D. students teaching composition, I was once accused of focussing too much on technique (on form), and not enough on the ethics and politics of the writing classroom. It might be fair to level the same accusation against the poetry classes I help shape. And yet I can’t see form as being separate from the social groups and environments it reveals. It seems to me that unless we are talking about form, we can’t be meaningfully talking about politics, ethics, or social responsibility. William Carlos Williams’ refusal to write with someone else’s mouth (in his case, refusing, then, to write sonnets) and Countee Cullen‘s insistence on a subversive need to write sonnets are both markers of the fact that when we investigate the form of our engagements with the world, we are investigating the purpose and flaws in our engagements with the world. It’s like the above picture: the politics of a dam cannot be disconnected from the artificial incursion into geological space, which is itself a series of incursions.

What am I missing? Where am I overvaluing form without knowing it?

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