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  #1  
Unread 05-14-2022, 06:01 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Default The meaning of form

So, I'm guessing this is a very old discussion on the Eratosphere, and I'd be very happy for folks to link to threads on the topic. For now, I mostly want to say that Sarah-Jane raised some very interesting points (I thought) in a discussion about ghazal, haiku, and sonnet in particular, which I think could certainly be teased out via links to old threads or contributions to this one.

The thesis basically is that different forms have A) different places in the ecosystem and B) different ways of looking at the world that they impose on their practitioners.

Cheers,
John
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Unread 05-14-2022, 07:25 AM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
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I think of each poetic form as a key. They open up different doors. So when a new form is invented or passed from its original inventor or culture to the world at large, new doors are opened. Sometimes the wider culture does not understand the meaning of the key to the original culture, so it cannot unlock the same doors. What happened with the ghazal when it first was popularized was unfortunate, but I don't think that that means that people should stop writing ghazals. They are a key to understanding and respecting the original culture, too. I think people pay much more attention to Near Eastern cultures when they understand and appreciate their literatures, and they won't do so if the literatures are unavailable to them because the poetic forms of that culture are not understood or known. Any form can be used in multiple ways, and all forms will be used badly, as well as brilliantly. But I am on the side of broadening access and understanding, not telling people "you will never understand, so don't even try."

Susan
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Unread 05-14-2022, 08:28 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Thank you, Susan! I think your key metaphor is both resonant and apt. A single key will not unlock four different houses, you need different keys for that, and that's one good reason they exist. There I see thesis B: forms as new avenues for looking at the world.
But you also make a fundamental point, I think, about thesis A: these "houses" are the different civilizations of the world, to which these forms are organic. And just as the sonnet tells us something fundamental, both about late medieval Italy, and about renaissance and Romantic Europe, so the haiku does for (late medieval I think) Japan, and the ghazal does for centuries of Islamic art.
Which brings up the appropriation question - it seems ever-present these days. And it seems to me, Susan, that you argue further, in an answer to appropriation, that there are few better ways to understand the nuts and bolts of a form than by trying it out ourselves: ghazal, haiku, villanelle, sonnet, triolet, sestina. To do so is not imperialism, it is respect. It matters that we recognize the world's different civilizations in their otherness, just as we recognize different people in their otherness (as I hope I am doing in this comment). If we want to do so, we can do far worse than engage willingly with the challenge that a poetic form imposes.
A sidebar: you've both convinced me, for my part, to be less hasty to dismiss Western ghazals. I'm sorry to say I dislike bandwagons, on principle, but this is not a kimono Wednesday event, and if it were, would that be reason to condemn the Boston Museum of Fine Art? Or did people actually learn the tiniest bit about how kimonos are worn in the process? Which I think would be a good thing.

OK, enough from me. Sarah-Jane's original comment was in her ghazal thread on Metrical, also worth a look IMO. But the topic may well be endless.

Cheers,
John
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  #4  
Unread 05-14-2022, 08:55 AM
Yves S L Yves S L is offline
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Sequences, variations, cycles, beginning middles and ends, ratios, rhythms, layers, and patterning, and emotions exist in Nature and exist in Nature first before before they exist in human cultures, and between Nature and human cultures are the laws of human psychology used in writing material that does not bore people: The ABA form, of introducing an idea, introducing another idea, and the bringing the first idea back is something more basic and central but underlying the sonnet form, though that to me is specifically more the mental pattern of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, with specific ration given to each part of the. The mistake of the modernist and post-modernist is to think that everything arbitrary and up to whatever system a creator wants to impose on his materials.

It has been worked out (that appears to be the general consensus) that about 3 minutes is good for a pop song, and the climaxes of those songs occur in specific ratios relative to the pieces length and the climaxes exist within certain patterns. Yeah, one can talk about what the 3 minute pop song says about present Western industrial culture and the manifestations of capitalisms, but that to me is not really about form, it is a kind of humanities type analysis which attempts to situate the 3 minute pop song in the kind of analyses that humanities typically does of situating something within the language of pre-existing theoretical lenses and perspectives that have been taught in a school.

It is not really possible to understand a culture without living in it, or at the very least thoroughly immersing yourself within the culture and its people, of living out a culture within oneself, and even then, one's perspective will never be similar to the natives of that culture, of those born into it, but merely more useful than folk who do not make similar efforts. Because if one does not consider how Nature is itself structured, and how the human mind, especially emotions, itself is structured based on the principles of how Nature is structured, then I do not get what real-world context would be in place to situate the expressions of human cultures; one would be applying theoretical tools which just happen to exist at the moment, instead of principles that apply for all time.

But then I always say that a culture's music will tell you more about the culture directly, because that more clearly encodes the emotional patterning of the people's, both what they express and what they are willing to accept, without the layers of intermediary interpretation that text requires: similarly, it is often not the words someone is speaking that describes their personality, but the emotional tones they express while speaking, the pitches describe so much!

Last edited by Yves S L; 05-14-2022 at 09:12 AM.
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  #5  
Unread 05-14-2022, 09:16 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Hi Yves,

Thank you! I think you make a series of fundamental points here. First, that pattern is not a human invention, but omnipresent in Nature, in a variety of ways - tension and release, repetition and novelty, and of course numerical or geometric pattern. Second, that certain forms are resonant, almost independently of social context - one might almost call them natural forms, like the three-minute pop song. Third, that culture raises a whole new set of interesting questions, separate perhaps from form: which is, I think, to what extent can we move from one cultural matrix to another one? You make this point - "even then, one's perspective will never be similar to the natives of that culture, but merely more useful than folk who do not make similar efforts" - with which I can only sympathize, having spent a couple of decades growing up abroad (mostly in the UK) and then 45 years studying and publishing in French, despite to this day being obviously foreign to Frenchmen with a keen ear.

I guess I'd say a couple of things. Other people are, I think, ultimately unknowable; but culture is patent, it exists in public and private interaction with others, and as such, can be known. I think it's a continuum, as you also suggest, Yves - when I left the UK in 1993 I was functionally English, just as I was functionally American on leaving the US in 1973. That being said, most people won't put in those years of labor. But even putting on a kimono is more than many Westerners would do or think of doing: a new culture is a continuum, and immersion begins at the shallow end. I'd add that A) I'm sidestepping the appropriation question and B) in learning a foreign language, there's a moment it *clicks*, it begins to make sense, and cultures may offer something analogous. I understand the French better when I see why they may think of Dunkirk as a betrayal. Or Mers al-Kebir, for that matter!

Yves, you also make a point about the social context for form, suggesting I think that much if not all of that discussion has little bearing on the form itself. That I think is a fruitful topic for discussion.

Cheers,
John

Update: we cross-posted but I believe your additional argument continues these broad lines.... but I'm going to stop resuming people's arguments, I think that misses the point of polyphony.

Last edited by John Isbell; 05-14-2022 at 09:21 AM. Reason: cross-posting
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  #6  
Unread 05-14-2022, 02:37 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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I wonder if I could restart this thread by asking why we in the Western tradition feel so comfortable using medieval forms but hesitate with non-Western forms that are contemporary? Is it because any medieval person who might be offended by this appropriation is long dead? Or is it because the Western Middle Ages "belong" to Western writers as the non-Western world does not? And if so, how so?

Cheers,
John
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  #7  
Unread 05-15-2022, 01:00 PM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
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John, I think you are beating a nonexistent horse with your discussion of appropriation of poetic forms. Why would anyone at any time feel insulted instead of flattered that people of other cultures admire their poetic forms enough to imitate and share them? Are the Malays insulted that pantoums have become popular in other languages? Are the Japanese insulted that haiku are known worldwide? Europeans who admired and imitated the Provencal and Italian innovation of the sonnet were not defaming the originators of it, not were they claiming that they had invented it, though they sometimes adjusted it to make it a better fit with their own language, such as the Shakespearean sonnet.

Susan
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  #8  
Unread 05-15-2022, 03:38 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Hi Susan,

I guess my answer has various parts. As to appropriation, I agree, you'd think folks would be glad to see tools they invented - which after all poetic forms are - being used by folks worldwide, even if for radically different purposes. Thus, here's Beethoven's Ode to Joy sung by 10,000 Japanese singers, which I played to my German classes to show them he belongs to the planet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ayw4l58IWb8 . Moreover, I Googled and found no online sign of offense at appropriation of non-Western verse forms, ghazal or haiku in particular. However, this is emphatically not the case in the Boston MFA kimono story: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/ou...o-event-314534 . The question then might be, what's the difference? And that question I think bears consideration. Is it just that one has an easy visual? Is a kimono not just a tool much as a haiku is?

So that's part one. Part two remains the question: how do different forms shape our seeing and understanding of the world? Sarah-Jane had some provocative thoughts on what the ghazal and the sonnet impose on their practitioners., and I for one would certainly welcome thoughts on what writing a villanelle, a sestina, a triolet, does to the universe of thought we inhabit. Is it narrowed? Expanded? What is the meaning of form?

I think that's about it. Thank you, Susan, for redirecting this thread (here's hoping it gets some traction, I think the questions merit it!).

Cheers,
John

Last edited by John Isbell; 05-15-2022 at 03:40 PM. Reason: for for
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  #9  
Unread 05-15-2022, 04:06 PM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is offline
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John asks "how do different forms shape our seeing and understanding of the world?"

Even though I don't understand the question, I'll answer it. Forms don't shape our understanding except to the extent that they are a vehicle for the poet's expression. Different forms have different expressive capabilities. You wouldn't use a limerick the same way you use a sonnet. You write a limerick because you have something to say about a girl from Nantucket, and a limerick is better at that than a sonnet. The limerick doesn't "shape" your understanding of the girl from Nantucket. You chose the limerick because it was the right "shape" for your purposes.
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  #10  
Unread 05-15-2022, 05:04 PM
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Jayne Osborn Jayne Osborn is offline
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Quote:
I for one would certainly welcome thoughts on what writing a villanelle, a sestina, a triolet, (my bold) does to the universe of thought we inhabit. Is it narrowed? Expanded?
Hi John,
When it comes to this particular form the one below, by David Anthony, is my all-time favourite. For me, it's a perfect match of form and content, which is another topic we've debated here many times.

Mother’s Day

I hold the phone remembering —
no need to call today.
Routine’s my life raft; as I cling
I hold the phone, remembering
a loss. It is a cruel thing,
this trick the mind can play.
I hold the phone, remembering.
No need to call today.

I think forms are a bit like recipes. The 'ingredients' are often the same, or similar, yet the end results can be vastly different. Just take lasagne, for instance, compared with spaghetti bolognese; pasta, meat, sauce... but very different meals. Likewise, rhyme schemes, repeating forms like triolets, villanelles and pantoums give us varied end products while the main components are basically the same.

So why do we choose to write a sonnet or sestina, say, over any other form on a particular occasion? Content comes into it, naturally, as do personal preferences; I know several Sphereans who hate villanelles (I love 'em!) ... but hey! I'm veering off on a tangent, sorry - this isn't about why we choose to write a poem in a certain form.

TBH, I've lost sight of (and don't fully understand) your original question: what [does] writing a villanelle, a sestina, a triolet, [do] to the universe of thought we inhabit. Is it narrowed? Expanded?

I'll think on it some more... meanwhile, it's bedtime - somewhat awkward with my right arm in a plaster cast, as is typing with one finger of my not-dominant hand!

All the best,
Jayne

Last edited by Jayne Osborn; 05-15-2022 at 05:10 PM.
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