FORM AND MEANING IN LITERATURE

A Study of Form as Micro-Structure



1) Some years ago I was on my way to a literature class walking along with a mathematician and a painter, when we happen to mention the idea of form. We all reacted immediately with fervor, the concept was important to all of us, obviously, but we never stopped to try to explain to the others exactly what we were thinking of, and as the years have passed, I have come to the conclusion that we were talking about entirely different things. I have observed that when people talk about form they are generally talking about a variety of things, so perhaps this would be a convenient point at which to pause, and make sone definitions and clear the air.

2) Form, as I am going to define it for my special purposes, is the reality-linked part of a thing which occupies space or dissipates energy in the real and manifest world. A sculpture has mass, lives in three dimensions at least, a quartet puts very complicated energy into the elastic air medium over a measured period of time, a poem seems perhaps less physical, but when read is just as energy-fulfilling as music, whereas when printed in black and white, it has a different identity in two dimensions. Form is physical in one way or another, it IS rather than it REPRESENTS something, and it must be taken exactly on this basis, being right there in front of you, or sounding exactly so, or sequencing these and those sounds out of a reading voice as the artist scored then.

3) People often use the word form for the structure or sequences of meaning. This should be harmless in itself, but people become fascinated by the structure of meaning, and often forget to look at or listen to the "form" in my sense at all. Form is the great blind spot in modern artistic perception, a great deal of attention is paid to meaning and the structure of meaning, and even such claptrap as the meaning of meaning, while form is ignored or seen as the kitchen maid who chopped up the onions and set the table. There is a considerable Classical predisposition toward this view, in Lucretius and Horace we clear about the relative roles of the useful and the decorative, the utile and the dulce, and like true Romans they always ended up preferring the useful. Americans understand this practicasl poreference well, but what about the possibility that at least half the real essence and value of a work of art lies in the dulce....?

4) Much of this mal-disposition comes from language itself, which codes us a lot of grunts and hisses and coughs, and makes them "mean something", at which point the exact nature of the carrier signal fades into forgetfulness. Language in its basic, communicative aspects is a process which opts for meaning, using the formal elements as signaling devices which carry the meaning from mouth to ear. As soon as we get the meaning, we can forget the form, But there are many exceptions: The ancient art of the consummate storyteller who spellbinds by a fusion of storyline with the presence of live words, the joke which works well with just these words and no substitutions, and of course the poem. Poetry is essentially a different kind of experience from communicative language, because it always must BE first, and only then tell something but it may also not tell something, and sometimes its telling something may be part of its physical being. Certainly that is part of the reason why people still have such trouble understanding Ezra Pound and his poems, which often let conventional meaning evaporate and finally speak for those who can understand, in pure form.

5) I have in my hand a piece of tough, greenish paper measuring about two by six inches. A child can tell you what it is, it's meaning is clear: It is One Dollar. I can make several equations with it's meaning, that is I can buy various things with it on it's face value, and this is really all I ever have to think of when pulling it from my wallet onto the counter. This is the "meaning" of the bill, but when I look at it carefully, and note all the little unnoticed details on this scrap of paper, then I am beginning to deal with "form". It does actually say FEDERAL RESERVE NOTE on top, arid it has numerals for "1" in the corners, in two sizes to be sure, each circled with a device of a different sort. George Washington's face is familiar enough, but not the frame of his portrait which defies verbal description. But this is all nothing compared to the reverse side, with its Great Seal on the right, still sporting anachronistically thirteen states' stars, no great surprise when compared with the leftside pyramid appearing from no historical context, a section curiously missing at the top replaced with a little triangle framing a squinting eye glowing happily between a Latin comment above and a Latin comment below, neither of which seem particularly relevant to the eye on the pyramid More "ones ", figured and lettered in case anyone was illiterate, and a lot of detail which I've just been examining with a Nikon 80x microscope, detail designed as foil to the forger in pre-photographic days. In God We Trust, and in the Federal Reserve system ---- all this on that paper and more if we had time, and all you said was "one buck...."

The one dollar value is the meaning and everything else that I've been noting is in the realm of form. It appears there is some sort of antipathy between meaning and form, now you see the one and now the other. But the way it turns out, it is mainly the meaning which we are conscious of, and the form is discarded like the cob when we have finished munching off the kernels of sweet corn.

6) What can you get from the coefficient of meaning? Philosophy. --- And what can you get from the form? The rich experience of having dealt with another mind in the arena of art.

7) Of course preoccupation with form can go too far and we could well end up with a healthy yearning for an idea, one good thought. But that is not the way our modern world goes, academicians follow the Hellenistic Greek Longinus who declared that the great idea was the thing, and that form was the cloak of allurement which made the great idea acceptable if not interesting. The logical Romans and the logical Renaissance men found nothing odd about this, and our pedagogues who are neo-Classicists at heart, have established neo-Longinism as a way of reading poetry. A common sense view would hold it that a reasonable amount of idea-quotient coupled with a reasonable amount of form-consciousness would make a reasonably good poem, and it sometimes does work out that way. But we often prefer work which has a high idea-content, because it is easier for philosophy-oriented teachers of literature to deal with it in an authoritative and convincing manner.

8) But when the form dominates, we are in trouble. Vergil wrote Latin from the form side, he writes an Aeneid with story line and history sense and political propagandizing, but first and last, it is the inner and intimate sense of form which catches you at each line and threads you on to the next and the next. There is something uncanny about this, some have called it Vergil's magical art of writing between the lines, others breathe out a few phrases and listen to what they have said. If you read the Aeneid as a story, you will end up dry and shallow, if you look to the form you will have a book good for a lifetime of subtle reading..

9) If we have trouble seeing Vergil's close dealing with form, what are we going to think about Pound, Joyce or Dylan Thomas? The easy answer it to look for hidden "great idea" cleverly concealed by the writer as a test of your ingenuity. Better is perceiving the form in word, sentence and page, letting it soak into your mind, until the form-sense begins to give you clues about what is on the other side of the dollar bill: Meaning.

10) For a moment let us be practical. How are we going to perceive form, is it a mystical sense than comes on you in deep meditation? Does it appear to geniuses alone? No, the path is direct, natural and the same as the nuts and blots of language we have been using since infancy. Start with the sounds, letters of the alphabet or phonemes as you will, notice that they have very different characteristics. The vowels are strong, loud, long and very musical as the Sound Spectrogram readout clearly shows, and they dance in a linguistic ballet from the tight, tense frontal vowels back through the mouth to the dim and deep back vowels. Even stronger and longer and more musical are the nasals, and the liquids (-1- and -r-), which establish heavy, murmurous and almost chocolaty if not ominous ambiances. Quite different in kind are the consonants, which are abrupt out-spurtings of sound from closed passages in the back or the front of the mouth; they are short, not easy to hear, crisp and sharp. Thinner and weaker than these but very remarkable in their airiness, are the breath or the air-sounds, which range from hisses and sibilancies to thinly disguised fricatives. Each of these four classes of sounds have a spectrum in its group, each is radically different from the others. These are the sound-spectrum with which the poet paints.

11) Such sounds are strung like pearls on a string through time, and each phrase will show similarities and symmetries, and well as the kind of directioning which the composer calls voice-leading. The poet's voice does lead with meaning, but the selection of sounds in series is his orchestration.

12) Music is for poetry the best teacher, since music does not in the strict sense have anything like "meaning", and the form, as seen in texture, orchestration,,melody line and sequencing is really all that there is. Perhaps the nearest thing to meaning would be the melody, and often un-musical persons will hear nothing more than the melody-line and hum it back to you as equivalent to the piece. The strange thing is that this humming of the tune is seen as a harmless simplification among musicians, but it's parallel, humming the theme of the poem, is very much the usual tune of teachers of literature. In schools we teach the themes, which we seem to think are the aim and purpose of poetical writing, and when the material is not amenable to this kind of analysis,. we set it aside as less interesting, minor, or not in the mainstream. If we think of colleges are preparatory schools for positions in industry and business, there is a crude sense to this kind of analysis, since in business it is the final meaning, the bottom line, which really counts, and form is relegated to the advertising department to be fancied up for maximum sales. But if we are speaking of art and the inner strivings of the spirit which make men and women search for personal forms in which to adumbrate half-conceived truths, then this insistence on the single-minded analysis of literature as meaning, or in a time frame, the structure of meaning, becomes an act of real falsification, since it not only says that meaning is kind, but it denies that there are other factors subtly exercising mysterious forces at the same time.

13) How do we proceed to get back to the full spectrum,how do we divest ourselves of blinkered critical vision which gives us meaning alone when we read? I am going to be practical and succinct, and say some very simple things that can easily be done:

a) Listen to a lot of music, get someone to show you ALL the simultaneous things which are going on. This will take time if you don't have a musical education, but do pursue it. Mix in with the music readings of poets and actors reading sincerely, as a starter I suggest any readings of his work by E.E. Cummings, Sioban McKenna reading parts of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, and anything read by Dylan Thomas. Listen again and again, memorize every intonation, take plenty of time, bore yourself if necessary.

b) Now get any competent introductory text on phonetics and get a sense of what the sounds are like, in what parts of the vocal apparatus they are formed, and how the human ear and brain work. Try to ignore the formal overdose of nomenclature which phonetics always seems to sport, but remember there is sense in it all, sound-sense in fact, and take possession of this for your own uses.

c) Now restrict your reading to almost zero. We have all been forced to read everything from biology textbooks to Sophocles at the rate of some forty pages an hour or more. We must stop this completely for a while, and read single pages, and if possible parts of pages. Memorize some paragraphs or even pages, not because memorizing is a worthy sign of zeal, but because it is the sure way to burn something into your brain. Burned in, forgotten, and recalled by the subtler processes of the unconscious integrator, you will now be ready to see form.

d) For form is the sum total of the myriad ways in which combinations of sounds, rhythms, likenesses and discords, empty spaces, louds and softs, and other things too. It takes the full use of your rather remarkable brain so walk slowly in such unfamiliar territory and keep note of what you are getting into.

14) When you feel something exciting happening, when you notice little nodes of occurrances seeming to happen together in an agitated way, then the form will be speaking through to you. Now join this up with the meaning which you will have been perceiving all along, since meaning is much easier to grasp for those with our modern education. Even un-obvious meaning is fairly obvious after all. Never think that we can get away from meaning, it is everywhere and second nature to human brains. It is Form which we must strive after, since the world we live in has sacrificed so much in its racing need and constant desire to be explicit. Form is different, it is always totally implicit.

15) We must never think that the form is there to amplify and decorate the meaning, since form may work with the meaning or it may work in a quite contrary direction, as a counterfoil against the meaning.. As I said, the great master of "form as against meaning" is that Vergil, who has a curious way of sabotaging his purpose with a breath which seems to float in to us somehow from nowhere. Take the phrase SUNT LACHRYMAE RERUM, which is not really "God, the inherent sadness of things....". It doesn't really say that or anything like that, but it does implicitly breathe something ineffable sad, and it does it entirely through the graded nuances of Form..

Why does it work so powerfully ? (I have to speak to those who know a great deal of Latin, I am afraid. You can't get any of this in translation!) It took me time to divine, one day long ago, the ascending scale of the vowels, which as they reach the ladder top, fall off with a thud, along with the syllabic rhythms of the words, with the two gut-Roman words (sunt and rerum) sandwiching a very fancy imitation-Greek word (lachrymae) which turns out,with its two letters not in the Roman alphabet, to be a real Roman word under its doll's clothing.

When I saw all this display, too fast to be the author's conscious plan and at the same time too subtly woven not to be a part of his inner mind, and felt it all as poetry rather than grammar --- I saw the door into the poet's mind opening and I was welcomed into a very special and private place in which to read Vergil the master. Reading the words years later I still feel a shudder, there are things which don't wear out with use.

They wear in, and that is what poetry is all about.

16) Perhaps the best test case would be the culmination of James Joyce's development as it finalized in Finnegan's Wake. For whatever reasons, artistic, psychological or even psychotic as some have maintained, Joyce does things with the Meaning Level which make the book "unreadable" to most readers of English prose. The words can be normal English, or they can be Joyce-twisted English, they can fall into regular sentences, or they can display themselves in marvelously contorted fashion on the page. There are here meanings behind what we normally call "meaning", but they are hidden, secretified, and not to be grasped in the usual fashion. There are keys to open some of the secret doors, many scholars have unraveled individual sentences and parts of chapters, rivers, washerwomen, earwigs, garbled telephone numbers in French. But the deciphering does not give us back a great deal of meaning, because Joyce wanted to hide things from us, and much of what he hid is not to be revealed.

Why this dishevelment of meaning, these contortions, these riddling paragraphs? Because Joyce is involved with sound, rhythm, the configuration of musical wording, all things which lie in the realm of Form. Meaning is the coat-hanger, a somewhat twisted old-fashioned wire coathanger, on which he hangs his many-colored coat of infinitely finely threaded form. So I know to read Joyce from the form end first, I intone his words aloud, read the words again and again with different interpretations, as I would approach Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, stretching for the wide range of what the form will let me do with itself. I put William York Tindall's book (A Reader's Guide to Finnegan's Wake) on the back burner, and open my well worn out Viking Press edition of the Wake to page 556, and read for the thousandth entirely different time "Night by silentsailing night, when Infantina Isobel.... " in infinite tones of voice and delight, down to "...now evencalm lay sleeping." I do sense, rather than understand, Isobel's person, her retrogression through churchly stages, her inner self with wildwood's eyes and primarose hair, in mauves of moss and daphnedews........things to see in the mind's eye while hearing in the inner ear. I let the meaning come to me when it is ready, while I sing and hear the sounds in their exact order, their complex rhythmic and euphonic display.

Why all this, and why done in this difficult way? Because Joyce has learned in his blindness that it is the ear which reaches the soul first, and word-weaving will be the work of his last years. When weaving you attend woof and warp, while the overall design slowly appears as if by itself. Great control of meaning-design is something he finally learned to let go, and plunged into sound-wording devised by a mind seeking in blindness new ways to see. Hear! Dark hawks hear us!......... Far calls. Coming, far! End here.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris