Skip to end of metadata
Go to start of metadata

In Tuesday's class, I suggested that one reason for the general trend in our culture away from the use and appreciation of highly formal literature may be the general cultural trend away from the belief that the cosmos itself is ordered in any formal or intentional way. A sense of the universe as more or less random produces both a literature and a reading public inclined to regard spontaneity as more "natural" than elaborate design.

Two key words in the above observation are "general" and "trend." Plenty of poets still write sonnets, haiku, and other kinds of poetry involving more or less tight constraints on the manner of the poet's self-expression. And plenty of people still believe in an ordered universe. But that large numbers of people have turned away from both highly and self-consciously ordered poetry (and art generally) and confidence that the universe follows a divine "plan" seems undeniable.

Still, I certainly don't want to suggest that the general trend in our culture's cosmic thinking wholly explains the change in our aesthetic preferences. Nor would I deny - just the opposite, in fact - that much poetry that seems at first glance like more or less natural and direct speech is in fact more ordered than it appears. In fact, language by its nature is ordered, as our discussion of Carroll's "Jabberwocky" revealed.

So, in the spirit of maintaining a sense of complexity about this whole issue, let me suggest another reason for our movement away from formality in poetry and an example of the order we might easily overlook in supposedly "natural" language.

Earlier ages seem to have been more comfortable than our own with the idea that form enables self-expression at the same time that it constrains it - perhaps even that it enables self-expression by constraining it.

Thus, Alexander Pope wrote in his poem "An Essay on Criticism" (1711), which as the title suggests is an essay in verse form:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.

The remarkable idea expressed here is that it is actually easier to write or move when following pre-established rules or steps. We tend not to think this way any longer (again, "tend" is meant as an important hedge word here).

This change itelf cries out for explanation. I won't offer one here but merely suggest that the change has less to do with our assumptions regarding the cosmic order than with our assumptions regarding the social one.

Despite this change in our assumptions about the relationship of rules to self-expression, we routinely express meaning through form in our everyday speech, as Lakoff and Johnson document in Chapter 20 of Metaphors We Live By ("How Metaphor Gives Meaning to Form"). Among their examples, a favorite of mine is the difference in meaning between "He is big" and "He is b-i-i-i-i-i-i-g," illustrating the "metaphor we live by" that "more of form is more of content."

One consequence of the fact that we use form at the same time that we distrust it: we keep on dancing but often with little or no awareness of the steps we're following.