Form and Formlessness in English Language Poetry
University of Western Australia
“Form” is a small word with large and fundamental meanings, and it has uses in every aspect of life. It is not just in art that “form” refers to structure, the patterning which provides not only recognisability but meaning itself. Any situation or event in which we cannot find the connections that constitute a pattern is meaningless. When we learn something about it we are in-formed. Poetry is the literary genre with the longest history, and it is also the genre with the most elaborate structures – that is, evidences of form. Those forms range from the large, such as the designation of poetic genres such as elegy or ode, to the small, such as the metre in a poetic line. In this talk I will trace the changes in attitude to form through the history of English language poetry, and attempt to relate these attitudes to the broader philosophical beliefs prevailing when the poetry was written. In its early centuries English language poetry adhered to fairly strict line and stanza forms, but over time these have loosened to the point that there is now a strong move towards “prose poetry”. Why is this so? What are the strengths and limitations of both formal and informal poetic styles? I aim to reflect on these questions and draw on my own work – which includes both formal poems and free verse – to also consider whether the value of form depends on a poem’s subject-matter and attitudes.
DENNIS HASKELL is the author of 8 collections of poetry and 14 volumes of literary scholarship. He is the recipient of the Western Australia Premier’s Prize for Poetry, the A A Phillips Prize, an Honorary Doctorate of Letters, and Membership of the Order of Australia for “services to literature, … to education and to intercultural understanding”.