Is Form Really Irrelevant?



It is normally not in my nature to write opinion pieces. But I recently overheard a one-sided argument about this topic on a recent train journey, a topic that was already giving me cause for concern...

Two things irritate me more than most: that form in poetry is no longer relevant and that stories don't need beginning, middle and an end.

It is not, for me, a question of taking sides — about whether or not form is a good thing, that is. Rather, as we see in the energetic Angela Leighton's On Form: Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word, it is the role form plays in our understanding of the genres.

Furthermore, it is arguable that no genre is ever formless, as we see; say, in writers of free verse, who employ alternating long and short lines, rhythm even rhyme ("echo and sound-relationships," Ruth Padel calls it in her 52 Ways Of Looking At A Poem, 2004), among many other tricks that are used to make the poem hang together, give identity or make conform. Not discounting, of course, that this ability is one of the main characteristic of free verse?

At the risk of saying the obvious, not even Blank Verse is blank, for it too has its own rigid elements, rules, if you like; to which every compliant poem of the form must conforms, if ever to stand chance of winning form competition.

Writing, to me, is a way of life and one of the few things I do that gives me real pleasure and engages me so much that I sometimes forget to eat. But it is also a profession like any other profession, say, bricklaying or doctoring, that you need to learn, know and be good at. As my poetry tutor at Exeter once put it "You need to know the rules of form before you can decide to disregard them"? Furthermore, it is arguable that this fact is not limited to writing. As Steven Katz writes in Shot By Shot, 1991, his film and directing book: “Artists who are driven to rewrite the rules are never stifled by first learning the traditional techniques.” For whatever it is worth, it is my view that both he and my ex tutor are right.

It is also my view that none of the difficulties that are often associated with form is intended as punishment but rather about equipping with the know-how to say what you need to say once the form is mastered. After all, you don’t even need a difficult form, issues to do with suitability apart, as there is a large field of forms to choose from?

The same arguments apply to the story, be it short, a novella or novel. (I will leave the arguments about what constitutes a story well alone here). Yes good stories without the traditional beginning, middle and end are possible and at times very good, as is evident in some posts in Scriggler. But does that make them irrelevant? No. Not as far as I know or is concerned. Not as long as they are not simply about making the story ‘rounded’ or complete. Not as long as they represent movement, the movement that is one of the most important ways of 'journeying' a story from beginning to end or from one place to another!

It is also difficult to ague, convincingly, to my mind, that a good story, even one about, say, My Breakfast at Nora Cafe, does not need movement or beginning, middle and end, even if only through time, chronology and conclusion (not forgetting tension or expectation, of course, particularly the building of the Bomb Under the Table, as they say in Screenwriting — that trick which sustains interest with expectation, makes turn the page or keeps the finger on the scrolling bar).

Then again, maybe movement is irrelevant too? I may even have gotten it all wrong and when people say there is no need for ‘beginning’, ‘middle’ and ‘end’ what they mean is that there is no need for introduction, consolidation and conclusion, that any story can begin anywhere, end anywhere or simply left hanging at will?

I know that being an expert on form does not necessarily make you a good writer, on its own; not without talent, good imagination and confidence; the type of confidence that gives the ability to push boundaries or the belief that someone, somewhere would like and read you.

That form is irrelevant disturbs me because of the implication that it is entirely possible to learn to write well without due regard to it. Maybe it is, for me, about taking sides after all?

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