The 2017 Graduate Symposium
Sestinas. Sonnets. Ballads. Villanelles. Many poetic forms are governed by strict rules that determine the number of lines or feet, or that have intricate patterns of repetition and rhyme, rules that many students view as arbitrary, out-of-touch relics of a constraining past.
“Flexible Forms,” the 29th annual English department graduate symposium, was designed as a provocation, a chance for students to rethink their preconceptions of form. Forms are more than rules for rote memorization: their very structures give shape to ideas. The repetition in the villanelle or sestina can perform circularity or obsession, while the Petrarchan sonnet can dramatize the slow, methodical consideration of a problem. And while some poems carefully adhere to all expectations and rules, enshrining fixity as part of their poetic project, others break or bend the structure, emphasizing its flexibility. This breaking of the established rules is often in service of social or political ends, as it can enact the breaking or bending of societal strictures for which the poems themselves often explicitly advocate.
The study of form, then, is hardly an apolitical escape from the examination of gender, culture, or politics, but rather a vital component of that same project, as the papers from this symposium demonstrate.
“Flexible Forms” addresses literary works ranging in time from ancient Greek and Indian works to modern songs, ranging in scope from 14 lines to an 80,000-page webcomic, and including a wide variety of genres (elegy, epic, narrative) and poetic forms (ballad, sonnet, heroic couplet). This broad selection itself highlights the flexibility inherent in the very notion of studying form. The papers’ conclusions likewise show the multifaceted nature of form’s engagement with social and political issues, as they demonstrate how form can comment on everything from women’s artistic abilities, to empathy and compassion, to political protest and revolution.
The first panel includes papers whose literary works have an antagonistic relationship with form. Sarah Pepe’s paper examines Andrew Hussie’s webcomic Homestuck. In this gargantuan work of digital metafiction, characters are literal captives to narrative convention, and this paper shows the ways that characters as well as audiences must struggle to break free from those confines. Form itself is practically the enemy against which all must struggle and ultimately triumph. Victoria Prashad’s paper examines two Sylvia Plath poems that likewise have a rather antagonistic relationship toward form. Prashad reads “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” as elegies that refuse to mourn in the traditional way: she cites the violent anger in “Daddy” toward the subjects of the elegy, and the rising of a woman rather than a man as the successor at the end of “Lady Lazarus” as examples of the poems emphatically refusing to follow expectations. The panel concludes with Melissa Rubbert’s reading of the form of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”: she argues that the poem, in breaking from traditional sonnet form by creating a new composite from fragments of Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets, is modeling the political process of reform that his political and philosophical treatises likewise praise. Despite the differences in their time periods, their genres, and the genders of their writers, the literary works in this panel all portray form as an embodiment of the establishment that must be challenged, and sometimes overthrown.
The second panel, conversely, includes papers whose literary subjects have a more congenial relationship to the forms they invoke. Kristina Ginnick’s paper examines Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19, and argues that its adherence to the form emphasizes poetry’s ability to preserve the speaker’s beloved from the ravages of time. Here, unlike in “Ozymandias,” the sonnet is not a tyrannical power in need of overthrowing, but rather the only hope for defeating the ultimate foe: Time itself. Evan Paul Eugenio Korte’s paper examines Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” a song about the plight of rural farmers that, on the surface, fully endorses the ballad’s rules as it uses the melody of an older, traditional ballad, “Pretty Polly.” Korte explains that Dylan bends this ballad tradition, however, not as metaphorical performance of political rebellion, but as a method of making his listeners empathize with the farmer. In Korte’s reading, the enemy is not the ballad form, but the listeners themselves who let such poverty exist. Jacob Hebda’s paper addresses two ancient epics–the Mahābhārata and the Iliad—and argues that, despite both works’ celebration of heroism, violence, and military matters, they both challenge the very concepts they purport to endorse, and, in the process, make possible a celebration of emotion and moral reasoning. In his view, the epic form contains within it its own critique, and these epics describe and challenge fights rather than being the form against which one must fight. The panel concludes with Allison Leshowitz’s examination of two poems written entirely in heroic couplets: Anne Bradstreet’s “The Author to Her Book” and Anne Finch’s unpublished “The Introduction.” These poems invoke the epic tradition, which was considered the literary domain of men, and repeatedly appear to insist on their own inferiority and femininity. Leshowitz argues that these women poets used this supposedly masculine form to show that women’s literary skills are equal to those of men. But unlike “Daddy” or “Ozymandias,” which more overtly attempt to overthrow the forms that constrain them, these poems hide their rebellion in subtle tweaks in the rhyme scheme and meter.
As we can see, forms can preserve or destroy; they can espouse violence and critique it; and they can be the tyrant we must overthrow or the means of unmasking the true tyrant. The keynote speech built on these issues by expanding our definition of “form” and by asking what literary forms can teach us about political action in the world. In “Formalism for Change,” Dr. Caroline Levine, the David and Kathleen Ryan Professor of Humanities at Cornell University, explains how the study of forms of all sorts—from poetic and other literary forms to social forms and structures that govern our everyday life—can help us figure out how to enact political change in our own present moment. She argues that this process requires thinking through forms of the collective, the repetitive, and the iterative rather than the singular to strive for a generalizing political formalism, which she describes as “model thinking.” The ultimate goal of this process, she explains, is to figure out what forms or political models humanities can ethically support to build a better world.
As this symposium demonstrated, forms are hardly irrelevant to life: on the contrary, forms in literature can have social and political significance, and, as Dr. Levine has argued, they can and should be a central part of our future political and social endeavors. Everything is governed by forms, and attending to the forms that structure literature can help us understand not just the forms of the past, but the forms of our present, and our future.