This morning, I walked to Dundas Aqueduct and noticed – as I walked down and under the structure – that many of the stone blocks used are covered in what look like ‘hieroglyphs’: stonemason marks you can only see when you get up close to it. There are some that are like arrows with two directional parts, some like TV aerials, ships’ masts. I can only describe them in terms of simile, because stonemasonry is not a ‘language’ I speak, a form in which I’m conversant. And what could be more solid a form than stone?
If you look up ‘Form’ on Wikipedia, its broader definition is given as, ‘the way something is or happens’. Dundas Aqueduct only took on the form of its classical, canal-bearing splendour, because a (doubtless) huge group of stonemasons and navvies all spoke in this particular language: form begets form. An abstract language led to something that couldn’t be more tangible. But is a poem, or a novel, or a film, less tangible to we language-based beings than this bridge? That Wikipedia page might well say ‘the way anything is or happens’. That really is an expansive idea…
Speaking of expansive…In Buddhism, the idea of Emptiness, Energy and Form – the three kayas of Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya – is central (I think across all different branches of practice, although I’m no expert). We perceive these as separate, whereas they are actually the same thing. Emptiness – the blank page – is filled with the Energy of writing, which takes on the form of the written (whatever that form might be). Then you can screw it up and start again. Or redraft it into a different form. But there would be no poem without the empty page, or the act of writing. They’re indivisible. The alphabet is a form; without shared understanding – like the stonemasons – these symbols in which I’m writing mean nothing. Our social system(s) have form, our homes and lives and ideas. The way anything is or happens.
In poetry - the form in which I most often write (well, texting is probable the form in which I most often write) – one might think of it as the structure the work takes on, or is given. Poetry, to me, should feel like a climbing frame. One may write in ‘free verse’ (although what’s it free from?) or set out to write a sublime Sonnet, or mucky limerick. Indeed: why does one so often seem to be considered ‘sublime’ and the other so often ‘mucky’? (And I’ve got the Penguin book of limericks; it rarely returns anything too profound, but it’s a great form for wit and humour.)
Perhaps there’s a tension between these two: if you set out to write in a given form, it will affect the way an idea or emotion emerges; but if you set out just to write, then the idea or emotion therein might take on quite a different quality. Sometimes, it’s better to contain it; others, just to let it contain itself. But to write ‘without form’ surely we need – paradoxically – to be aware of form too, or it would just come out as, sort of, noise…And maybe that’s what our emotions are without language: noise. (Sometimes they’re still noise with language.)
This is one area where, for me, the spiritual, philosophical, practical and creative all intertwine. There is nothing without form: even the blank page, with its potential for creation, even the social situation in which creative writing takes place.
A quick search for ‘Form’ shows just how much it crops up in language. One of the most intriguing examples for me was that a hare’s ‘nest’ is called a ‘Form’. So inspired by a book I’m reading at the moment (Uncreative Writing, by Kenneth Goldsmith), I’m starting a sequence of poems called Searching for Form, wherein I’m going to take some of the myriad entries for ‘Form’ on Wikipedia and other sites, and simply tinker with the content on some of the entries, to shift their form (form-shift, like shapeshift?) into a poem. The first one here is a reworking of the text from a wildlife website, wherein a hare’s ‘form’ (the name for its nest) is described. I’ve edited the sentences down, changed some syntax, and shifted the address to a direct one (to the hare? to the reader?). I’ve included the original text beneath my reworked version. Is this ‘writing poetry’, or ‘managing language’? Is there really any difference…?
Final thought: I listened to a programme about Bob Cobbing this morning, from Radio 4 a while back. Cobbing really pushed the form of poetry, using concrete poetry techniques, sound poetry, nonsense, visual poetry, performance, recording, ritual, procession, all sorts. But many in the poetry ‘Establishment’ (there’s a form indeed) considered it too ‘way out’, too radical, too ‘un-formed’ perhaps.
But who decides what poetry’s form is? Who can say that managing language, or bringing in other artforms or influences, or patch-working from other texts, ‘isn’t poetry’? Contemporary visual art – ever since Duchamp popped a urinal in a gallery and signed it – has long cottoned on to the idea of placing the ordinary on a plinth, or in a frame, changing its context and, in doing so, its form. By simply calling it art…Such is the power of naming.
So then: ceci n’est pas une poème?
Rest. Scrape away
the vegetation. Lie down
on bare earth. Where
you have been,
a shallow depression
is made. A bit deeper,
a bit wider. This
is your form.
You will often make it
in the shelter
of a grass tussock
a rock for protection
from these winds.
In this form
you are giving birth.
Now: line it with fur,
plucked from your
own coat. This
is your form.
Original text from http://www.countrysideinfo.co.uk/devon_bap/hare.htm
“When a hare rests, it will usually scrape away the vegetation and then lie down on the bare earth. Where a hare has been lying, a shallow depression is made, which is a bit deeper and wider at the back than at the front. This is known as a ‘form’. They are often made in the shelter of a grass tussock or a rock which will give some protection from the wind. Forms which are used to give birth to young may be lined with fur which the mother has plucked from her own fur coat.”