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Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Bad Plus live in Manchester

The Bad Plus were excellent. A whole new way of using the piano-bass-drums jazz trio format (in this sense, not unlike The Necks, with their very different sensibilities): the music is carefully composed, complex, but with the energies of jazz, combined with a little punk and quite a lot of ‘prog rock’. Friends since school, they have a proprioceptive sense of one another in performance. The expanses of the music may owe to the expanses of the mid-West, as the bass player Reid Anderson attempted to explain, I think, in one of his gnomic announcements. (He said something similar in The Wire.)

Patricia and I were in the front row at Manchester’s Northern College of Music last night; I’d bought the tickets Googling the band and must have hit pre-advertising for the Manchester Jazz Festival. That probably explains why I didn’t know Alexander Hawkins was playing (free) earlier in the day, which was galling.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry new issue

The latest issue of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry is now out, featuring articles on Tambimuttu (Matt Chambers), J.H. Prynne and The English Intelligencer (Ryan Dobran), Ian Hamilton Finlay and Thomas A. Clark (Ross Hair) and Denise Riley (Samuel Solomon). The issue also features conference reports on the Allen Fisher symposium @ Northumbria (SL Mendoza), Literary Collaboration @ Edge Hill (Tom Jenks) and Nomadic Poetics @ Bangor (Steven Hitchens). The reviews section covers The Salt Companion to Maggie O'Sullivan (Joanne Ashcroft), An Andrew Crozier Reader (Alex Latter) and The Ground Aslant (James Wilkes).

You can subscribe to the print version of the journal for £18 per year. Please feel free to circulate this information widely. The website is two issues behind but can be found here:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Joan Retallack, Krzysztof Ziarek and Form

Here’s a part of the manuscript of The Meaning of Form that I am pulling from the text and relegating to a summarised footnote. This makes the introduction from which it comes less vulnerably digressive, but it’s a shame, since I think what it says is interesting in its own right.

The American poet and theorist, Joan Retallack, articulates a formal analysis of avant-garde works by Cage, Stein, Waldrop, Hejinian and others. The Poethical Wager (2003) argues, for, if not a reversal, then a revision, of Henri Focillon’s terms, and states that ‘literature is an engagement with possible forms of life’. (Retallack 2004: 146) Retallack here revives the term ‘form of life’ from Wittgenstein’s vague usage which distinguishes between the various regimes of his ‘language games’ rather than from Schiller’s aesthetics. (Retallack 2004: 23) In Leighton’s terms, life is at the heart of form. For Retallack, as a poet, ‘This is not a question of the daily habits and routines necessary to the sane ordering of any life but of the forms one chooses in one’s poesis, the making of forms of life out of words.’ (Retallack 2004: 147) She continues and introduces her central neologism: ‘If those forms are made in the course of thinking through one’s values, then it’s a matter of poethics.’ (Retallack 2004: 147) The texture of daily life, the necessity of being aware, after Gertrude Stein, ‘that it is the business of the writer to live one’s contemporariness in the composition of one’s writing’ amounts to a poetic-ethics. (Retallack 2004: 15) As Stein says: ‘Everybody is contemporary with his [sic] period… and the whole business of writing is the question of living in that contemporariness…. The thing that is important is that nobody knows what the comtemporariness is. In other words, they don’t know where they are going, but they are on their way.’ (quoted in Retallack 2004: 156) This formally investigative stance toward reality and the concomitant need to find forms to ‘accommodate the mess’ (as Beckett puts it (quoted in Retallack 2004: 147)), are interrelated in Retallack’s closely-argued essays, which amount to ‘a complex-realist aesthetic and a poethics of everyday life’ (Retallack 2004: 206), where ‘complex’ implies the Mandelbrottian fractalism of contemporary experience, and where poetics is aligned to ethics in the very act of making forms consonant to one’s values: ‘Every poetics,’ she says, ‘is a consequential form of life. Any making of forms out of language (poesis) is a practice with a discernable character (ethos).’ (Retallack 2004: 11)
Some avant-gardes – like Retallack’s – develop coterminously with theoretical developments; some theories develop in direct relation to avant-garde practice and poetics, like Krzysztof Ziarek’s. His study The Force of Art (2004) is an immersive book, not unlike the conflicting aesthetics of Ziarek’s twin heroes, Heidegger, in ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ essay and Adorno, in Aesthetic Theory and he compares the two in terms of their theories of power. Central to Ziarek’s thesis is his conception of the work of art as a force field, a metaphor Leighton traces back to at least Schiller. It is not an object but an event, and this eventness makes the artwork a ‘forcework’, in his neologism (and in a similar way to its acknowledgement by Attridge). Inhering in neither form or content, the forcework is beyond aesthetics, and presumably beyond poetics as well; the avant-garde artwork is beyond traditional aesthetic categories. No longer being an object, the work of art evades both culture and capital, though it is inscribed by both. Forcework is a non-violent power-free thrusting; it re-orients ‘aesthetic commodity’ in ‘aphesis’, a concept derived from Heidegger which is defined as ‘a letting be or a letting go’, a benign process of enhancement rather than a seizure of power. (Ziarek: 22) Enhancement is non-power, defining the forcework of art as free or ‘de-powered’, not as technocratic participant in increase and production. ‘In art … forces are “empowered” to be “otherwise” than powerful’. (Ziarek: 51.)
In the work of art, forces are no longer tethered by the social, and in a redefinition of the autonomy of the artwork, as that is theorised by Adorno, and in order to address the staticness and sense of separateness implied by Adorno’s lofty critique, Ziarek insists not only that artworks transform and re-work their forces (as Adorno would have agreed), but that they transform the ordinary relations of social power, and the receivers of the artwork can carry this non-violent, power-free relationality into social praxis (which Adorno would have found too direct a relationship under existing social conditions, although he inisisted, like Ziarek, that form was a matter of ‘noncoercion’ (AT: 7)). The event of this transformation is an interruption of the real, a rupture as the artwork works (a term Ziarek valorises over form) by its ‘modalities of relation’, not in terms of its content. (Ziarek: 28) Artworks’ ‘importance for praxis is not in the thematic critique or even in formal subversiveness’, but essentially in the forcework. (Ziarek: 60) An example of these processes is Gertrude Stein’s transformative ‘release of things from the closure of their naming’ in Tender Buttons. (Ziarek: 47) As in the strictly formalist accounts of form above, the particular moment of the reception of the event of forcework will transform our sense of judgement, will involve a qualitative enhancement, a letting be. Ziarek’s denial of aesthetics has led him to be excluded from this chapter’s argument, although his sense of art as a non-violent force is gently absorbed into it, though Susan Wolfson’s account (in Formal Charges) speaks louder.

See my critical poetics-poetry-essay ‘A Carafe, a Blue Guitar, Beyonding Art: Krzysztof Ziarek and the Avant-Garde’ in Armand, Louis, ed. Avant-Post. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2006: 264-280 for a longer response to Ziarek’s book. Avant-Post  may be read free here:

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Claude Herbert Sheppard 1924-2013: Standing by

Standing by

                                                for my father, 2nd July 1924-12th July 2013

                                                There was a time for tears,
                        When Death stood by us, and we dared not weep.

                                                                                    David Raikes

’Chuting through darkness the drop mourns itself
Morphine thickens the glassy eye farther into
Its own refractive density in this world which

Is not the case the dream-chatter of the dead
Meaningless encased in his own deafening dome
Poetry does nothing here the earpiece vibrates

Breathe shallow like aircrew watching gulls
Wheeling above long lines laid out as overhead wires
Inhaling hollow crackling rattling nothing left to say

Nobody to address mouthpiece dry and formal
The soft ‘Oh!’ coughs from the last breath a message
Elegy lost in action on the outskirts of an event

This poem will form part of the Oystercatcher Press pamphlet The Drop. See also here and here and here.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Carys Bray, A Song for Issy Bradley, Creative Writing and Southport

Carys Bray’s novel ASong for Issy Bradley was published this week by Hutchinson, and it is so far meeting with success: radio interviews, good reviews (The Times, The Guardian), soundbites of approval from the likes of Nick Hornby, and the considerable backing of the publisher’s publicity machine (which is both effective and affecting a tired-looking Carys). I knew the book was good. Ailsa Cox and I co-supervised the piece as part of a PhD at Edge Hill University, one of our literary successes (but not our only one). So it was good, before the world gets hold of Carys, that she organised a launch on her home turf of Southport (where the novel is set), in Broadhursts Bookshop in Market Street. Cakes were made carrying the book cover; Patricia thought the cakes referred to the amount of cake consumed in the novel (a bit like the Belgian food she knocked up for the launch of A Translated Man)! But this wasn’t the case. It was emphatically local and the better for that (despite the locality; see below).

Carys stood on a chair, I think, and read a short comic-poignant passage from the book. A Song revolves around the death of a child – Issy –in a Mormon family – the Bradleys and their differing reactions to that. The novel therefore is formally ‘about’ point of view and narrational voice, a good trick since at least since Browning’s The Ring and the Book, handled here with gentle experimentation. (Read my previous posts on form. I’m deliberately speaking across the almost-universal desire to see this book as a ‘woman’s novel’ or as an anti-Mormon novel. It’s not. Men are allowed to weep over this book too. Mormons are welcome to read it.)

Carys thanked a lot of people, including Ailsa and myself, and began to defend the PhD novel and Creative Writing generally, as though Hanif Kurieshi himself, the CW-hating Professor of CW, the Buddha of Kingston, were in the room. For the record: he wasn’t. The room was, however, crowded with talented writers who either teach or have benefited from studying Creative Writing: Rodge Glass, Billy Cowan, Joanne Ashcroft, Patricia Farrell, Christine Riaz, Sarah Billington, Claire Massey (now Dean?), Carol Fenlon, Ailsa Cox, just to mention some of the Edge Hill ones; I spotted Cath Nichols and Sarah Dobbs in the distance too. Luckily Prof Kurieshi wasn’t there. Somebody might have come over all Fabricant. (Topical reference.)

Carys later told Patricia that she expected to be quizzed about this issue in her high-profile interviews, but hasn’t been (thus far). Her novel is dedicated to Ailsa and myself, and I cannot thank Carys enough for that, I found that deeply affecting, and she states boldly that her novel derives from her PhD studies in the acknowledgements. You may notice how many creative writers who have benefited from the academy fail to mention the fact in their biogs and blurbs. Imagine a painter not saying he or she studied at the RCA. But then ‘writing can’t be taught’ we keep being told (when ‘bee and chicken keeping’ (one of the oddest book categories in Broadhurst’s behind Carys’ head as she read), parenting, playing the bassoon, potty-use, sexual intercourse, nuclear physics and driving a car all can, though not together, of course).

Then we are told we turn out clones of our own work! Anybody reading this will gather that there’s not a lot of commonality between A Translated Man and A Song for Issy (expect they are both made up; yes, another media obsession: Carys’ novel is ‘autobiographical’, they say, as if to diminish its originality and artifice.) Nor is there much between Ailsa’s compact, jump-cut stories (read one here) and Carys’ equally compact but proportionate prose. (I could go on to demonstrate the point with reference to Joanne Ashcroft’s new poetry, for example.)

So: congratulations Carys! (And as my colleague Rodge Glass often puts it in emails: ‘Onwards!’) Here’s an account of the novel from Carys.


Diaristic musings: A bit of work: writing exercises; looking at The Drop (to be published by Oystercatcher next year); and ‘Petrarch 3’ in manuscript; Tim Atkins’ wonderful PETRARCH COLLECTED ATKINS (did he?) has arrived….  Then up to Southport with Patricia, the weather glorious. Southport was horrible, despite the sunshine and heat. The streets were clogged with obese people, the restaurants full of porkers chomping their way through triple-decker burgers, or guzzling gallons of fish-bone soup, and lots of lame people cluttering the otherwise impressive Parisian arcades (having trouble with my own feet means I noticed the unusually large proportion of crutch or cane carrying-promenaders, a lot of them of course ‘disabled’ by obesity, it has to be said against them). The sea is a mile away over the sand, a glimmering mirage. The real ale was terrible (except in Wetherspoons, where they even had an Arundel ale). The only bits we enjoyed were the corporate and stylised cool of Pizza Express and the emphatically non-corporate old school swelter of Broadhursts Bookshop itself, which we visited, silently noting the window-display of Carys’ novel, mid-afternoon, before the launch at 5.30. I hummed and harred over an early twentieth century biography of Verlaine, written by some pompous chap in government livery, in his misty photograph, but decided (regretfully) against it.

After the reading we had a good and animated chat with colleagues, students, ex-students and friends (overlapping categories to be sure), before heading back to civilisation, Liverpool, generally, and The Lion, more particularly, with its excellent The Lion Returns ale and pork pies, its tiled décor, and the cheeky-winky eye of George Formby wishing us ‘Best Wishes’ (autographed) from the wall. George rather than Formby, I think.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Robert Sheppard The Meaning of Form: forms and forming in contemporary innovative poetry (Summary and Weblinks)

I have been writing a study of the forms of recent innovative poetries (mainly British but with some international poets), which is underlined by a conception of form itself, that emphasises form not as a vessel to contain its contents, but as a readerly process of forming which is already meaningful, and which brings the text into existence. I have been using this blog as a machine for thinking through some of the implications of this, by posting early thoughts, dry-runs, practice-led spin-offs, some recovered earlier texts, some discarded passages, and even a few completed fragments of the book. Here’s a summary of the main argument which lies behind many of the existing posts. 

Instrumentalist studies of literature abound, which offer readings in terms of socio-historical, contextual issues, ‘issues’ of gender, sexuality, space, place, spectrality, etc. However, to successfully engage in the reading of poetry – and particularly the reading of ‘difficult’ contemporary poetry – means to necessarily engage with the forms of the artifice employed and (at a level of some remove) with the notion of ‘form’ itself. There are, of course, readings of poetic form, but they either tend to cling to the vestigial decencies of New Critical practice or are technical, as in most work on prosody, which seems a descendent of even older philological scholarship. 

The study of what has come to be called ‘linguistically innovative poetry’ has not been given to instrumentalist readings, as it happens, but there has yet to be a study which combines the already close textual reading common within this field with the work of the so-called New Formalist critics, who have spearheaded a cleansing operation within the field of Romantic Studies, where New Historicist and other contextual methods, once held sway over the corpus. The leading theorist of this group, Susan J. Wolfson, states: ‘My deepest claim is that language shaped by poetic form is not simply conscriptable as information for other frameworks of analysis; the forms themselves demand a specific kind of critical attention.’

My approach derives from my axiomatic contention that poetry is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form. Instead of an historical reading of the kinds of alternative British poetries under the label ‘linguistically innovative’ (my previous volumes The Poetry of Saying (Liverpool University Press, 2005) and When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry (Shearsman, 2011) offered this and more), this investigation argues that the attention of any formal study of contemporary poetry must be dual. It must focus on form in the technical sense, on identifiable forms in play (enjambment, line, rhythm, rhyme, etc.), and on form in a general, more performative sense, that prioritises acts of forming and our apprehension of their coming to form. Forms and forming I call this pair for ease. Associating one with the other, Derek Attridge in The Singularity of Literature argues that form is the force that stages a performance of any text: we need to apprehend ‘the eventness of the literary work, which means that form needs to be understood verbally – as ‘taking form”, of “forming”, or even “loosing form”’,  but he insists that the devices of artifice ‘are precisely what call forth the performative response’ of any engaged reader, directly connected to the event of singularity which is the irruption of an inventive otherness in our productive reading.

Both types of form are capable of carrying a semantic or cognitive charge, demonstrating that forms think. They contain or envelop meaning(s) of knowledge(s) and might show how new meaning and (non-propositional) knowledge might be formed and formulated. As such, aesthetic form carries a force operating on the individual (or collective) reader or viewer, which – in the case of poetry – means that the reader is the site where such meanings are staged by form, so that reading is formulating form, and formulating it into fluxing semantic and cognitive forms as a ‘performed mobility’. Wolfson even writes that literature lovers ‘respond to forms as a kind of content’. Formal considerations of both kinds (forms and forming) are engaged by active reading and enact meanings that moderate, exacerbate, subvert (and on rare occasions reinforce) the kind of extractable meaning that Forrest-Thomson and Attridge both decry as ‘paraphrase’. If apprehension of form is not, or not only, a matter of collecting the devices of poetic artifice, of forms, but a question of entering into the process by which the text finds form in our reading, as forming, there can be, strictly, no paraphrase; indeed, paraphrase, a mode by which meaning is supposedly skimmed off the surface of reading as a residue or even an essence, or worse, a ‘political’ slogan, is a violation of the processes of forms forming. Paraphrase is amnesia of form.

Although ‘the vitality of reading for form is freedom from program and manifesto, from any uniform discipline,’ as Wolfson has it, this volume will demonstrate how ‘issues’ may be read in literary works, ‘through’ form and not as an avoidance of it. ‘Formalist’ has a bad press when it seems to imply autonomist or aestheticist remove, but a poem is opened up to the world only through its form. While there will be some contextual information presented, thinking about poems and thinking about form, particularly through its evanescent cognitive content, will be the main focus.

My previous studies have taken historical and ethical approaches to these writers and my criticism has always been informed (tacitly) by my own work as a poet, and by my interest in poetics as a speculative writerly discourse. I have a particular interest in the wily and even self-deceptive way writers talk to themselves through poetics, and this requires a reading that does not reduce its conjectural nature and function to intentional statements or ersatz literary criticism. Poetics arises as an incidental activity of poets throughout and will be addressed directly as text in several parts. Theorised close reading might be a thumbnail description of my method. I have decided to extend the range of my coverage of British poets and have not pursued some writers (Tom Raworth and Iain Sinclair, for example) whose work I have analysed in previous books and articles. Another aim of the book is to demonstrate the formal range of linguistically innovative poetry.

Readers of this book (and these posts) will find a challenging thesis about form (taken dually as identifiable devices of form and processes of forming) that may well influence their reading-processes on a permanent basis. This will be combined with discussions of important British (and some other) poets, most of whom are relatively well-known, others of whom are still emerging. The originality and marketability of the book is that it combines a summary of formalist and aestheticist thinking that is currently fashionable in one area of literary studies (Romanticism) and applies it to another (contemporary poetry) which has not hitherto been overly invaded by this mode of enquiry. It will therefore be of interest to those studying literary theory as well as those studying contemporary poetry. Its interest in form will draw in readers who are following theorists as various as Derek Attridge, T.W. Adorno, as well as the New Formalists and other aesthetic theorists, particularly those who argue the case increasingly for a cognitive function in formal elements.  

What follows is a list of contents with raw links (and references to a number of offline and print sources) to relevant pages on Pages. The final book may differ considerably from these passages, but you could read through the posts to get a glimpse of the rough thinking. Or scroll back through Pages pages until you reach August 2013. Or dip and sample. Or even follow a link and lose yourself.

The Meaning of Form

Introduction: Form’s Mordant Eye

See the above text and the first paragraph or two of this essay on John Seed:

Here are some posts grappling with the question of the cognitive function of form (some of which are linked to later chapters as well since this is a matter of conclusions as well as introductions):

 See review of On Form by Angela Leighton, Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, Vol 3: No 1, March 2011: 63-66.

Chapter One: Convention and Constraint: Form in the Innovative Sonnet Sequence

See the 14 posts under that title that deliberately mime the structure of the sonnet. Very early thinking, very playful. Here’s a sonnet made of links:

Chapter 2 Artifice, Artifact and Artificer: Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Christopher Middleton

See ‘Linguistically Wounded: The Poetical Scholarship of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’ in ed. Turley, Richard Margraf, The Writer in the Academy: Creative Interfrictions, Essays and Studies 2011. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011: 133-55. [article, published] and parts of Poetics as Conjecture and Provocation: an inaugural lecture delivered on 13 March 2007 at Edge Hill University’, New Writing. Vol 5: 1 (2008): 3-26.

Chapter 3. Rosmarie Waldrop: Form, what one can work on

Some introductory remarks about her poetics:

Chapter 4. The Trace of Poetry and the Non-Poetic: Conceptual Writing and Appropriation in Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place and John Seed

Chapter 5. Stefan Themerson: Iconopoeia and Thought-Experiments in the Theatre of Semantic Poetry

See ‘Stefan Themerson and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry’. in eds. Blaim, Ludmiły Gruszewskiej, and David, Malcolm (eds.), Eseje o Współczesnej Poezji Brytyjskiej i Irlandzkiej, Volume 5: Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Gdańskiego,Ludmi: 245-262.

Chapter 6. Translation as Transformation: Tim Atkins’ and Peter Hughes’ Petrarch

Thoughts on ‘Petrarch 3’ (and some attention to my later many versions of this one sonnet):

Chapter 7. Geraldine Monk’s poetics and performance: Catching Form in the Act

Read these posts on Monk’s poetics text Transubstantiation of the Text:

These posts are on music (and on an abandoned project on poetry and jazz) and on Monk’s collaborations with Martin Archer and Julie Tippetts:

Chapter 8. Meddling the Medieval: Caroline Bergvall and Erín Moire

A game of two halves:

Chapter 9. The Making of the Book: Bill Griffiths and Allen Fisher

On small presses (part of my Keynote Talk to the Small Press conference in Salford, which does not survive into the book):

On Bill Griffiths’ The Book of the Boat:

On Fisher’s Proposals:

Chapter 10. Translation as Occupation: Simon Perril and Sean Bonney

A game of three halves it seems:

Chapter 11 and Conclusion: Form, Forms and Forming and the Antagonisms of Reality: Barry MacSweeney’s Sin Signs

The Theory of Form, Autonomy and Art:

On Barry MacSweeney’s works of the 1970s:

And finally...

For a general resumé of everything I’m up to, research-wise, watch the video at the bottom of my work webpage, here. Scroll down to find it. It’s only 2 and a half minutes long. I can’t embed it here, for some reason.

For a piece on the nature of POETICS read an early version of The Necessity of Poetics at

or at

If anybody wants to contact me about matters relating to these posts (or others!) my institutional email is

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Robert Sheppard: The Tight Little Paragraph for my Introduction on Form, Cognition and Material Engagement

This is how the contents of the previous two posts (here and here) were chanelled  into a concise paragraph for my work in form. There is some repetition but I thought a few people might be interested in how I square my circles. RS

………………………………………………………experience.’ (Jarvis 2011: 7) His first axiom is that ‘technique is the way art thinks’ (Jarvis 2011: 7). Elsewhere in an incidental attack on Creative Writing workshop methodology, Jarvis affirms that ‘Technique … is itself cognitive and critical, not purely instrumental craft’, which broadens his analysis to all levels of artifice and form, and to poesis and praxis generally. [1] (Jarvis 1998b: 108) In other words, ‘technique knows something about the world. Yet it knows it, Adorno suggests, just by the most obsessive, and perhaps even the most fetishistic and solipsistic, absorption in its own proper stuff,’ that is, in its form. (Jarvis 2011: 7) Form, Adorno reminds us, is ‘the objective organisation within each artwork of what appears to be bindingly eloquent’, but it has an eloquence of its own. (Adorno 2002: 143)
To regard cognition as having independent existence outside the brain, inherent in things in general (or in form in particular), is not a mystical or magical formulation. Indeed it can be conceived of as a variety of ‘material engagement’ in the light of a cognitive theory that takes that very name as its own. Lambros Malafouris’ How Things Shape the Mind (2013) contrasts internalist views of mind, in which a Cartesian entity computes and calibrates a world it cannot enter, with his own externalist one that recognises ‘the intersection between cognition and material culture’, (Malafouris 2013: 17) that sees the mind as engaging, and interacting with, learning from and with, the world, entering it via means of what he calls ‘the extended mind’. (Malafouris 2013: 17) ‘For active externalism, marks made with a pen on paper are not an ongoing external record of the contents of mental states; they are an extension of those states.’ (Malafouris 2013: 74) It follows that ‘Cognition has no location,’ or not fixed location between brains and things. (Malafouris 2013: 85) Malafouris is an archaeologist and his examples are prehistoric as well as historic. ‘Mark-making action and thinking are the same,’ he remarks of early stone inscriptions (Malafouris 2013: 190) which, he points out with care, may not have originally been depictions; the marks and lines may ‘externalize nothing but the very process of externalization’, pure external cognition. As such artefactual actions developed towards depiction (over breathtaking lengths of time) ‘those early pictures bring forth a new process of acting within this world and, at the same time, thinking about it’. (Malafouris 2013: 203) This is nothing less than a story about how we became human (and how we know we are human), through the agency of this radical interpenetration of mind and world: ‘Our ways of thinking are not merely causally dependent upon but constituted by extracranial bodily processes and material artefacts.’ (Malafouris 2013: 227) But things are also mobile, though their affective states have remained largely unrecognised by the social sciences until now. ‘The sensual properties of things and the aesthetic experience of things permeate every aspect of our cognitive activities and permeate our social and emotional relationships.’ (Malafouris 2013: 87)  The uses of objects in mourning, or the uses of religious ikons to access absent beings or to concretize abstract entities, are powerful examples. Arguably a literary work might be one of those objects, and its formal properties, its form, could be thought of in this way as a material cognitive entity. When Malafouris comments that ‘Meaning does not reside in the material sign; it emerges from the various parameters of its performance and usage as they are actualized in the process of engagement,’ he sounds distinctly like Derek Attridge on the way we form objects as art. (Malafouris 2013: 117) More importantly, and from the position of poesis, ‘“Form” is always “informed” by the properties of the material to which it gives shape.’ (Malafouris 2013: 177) The result of this, in the case of a potter, is revelatory. ‘The being of the potter,’ as Malafouris nicely puts it, ‘is co-dependent and interweaved with the becoming of the pot.’ (Malafouris 2013: 212) The cognition of the potter, and even his or her neural pathways, are changed by the cognitive function of the artefact. Form in a literary work is arguably cognitive – whether through de Bolla’s active aesthetic experiencing, Wood’s ‘hunch’ about knowing forms, or Jarvis’ affective prosody – through the processes of material engagement, through the apprehension of actual forms that embody cognition and through a reader’s involvement in perceptible acts of forming.[2]
            Angela Leighton’s On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word (2007) has the benefit of coming relatively late to the debate and she judiciously accounts for Wolfson, de Bolla, Attridge and Wood. (It is perhaps symptomatic of the state of current British criticism that the sources referred to above connected with linguistically innovative poetry, Forrest-Thomson, Bernstein, and Jarvis, seem beyond her scope.) Her book offers useful readings of the history of the term form and of…………………………………………………………………………

Quite a lot of this 'work on form' as I call it above has appeared on this blog and a description of it and links to all the posts in order may be found here.

[1] Jarvis identifies another instrumentalism to guard against, that of value-free reifications of technique, particularly in terms of discussions of poesis and in the teaching of creative writing.
There are some unresolved problems with his theory, and they emerge from his study of the poesis of contemporary potters. Unaware of the ‘decisions’ made, the potter nevertheless declares that he or she made the pot. This is an ‘agency judgement’ and while artificers can conceive of the act as enactive, something happens to us in such an act and we nevertheless claim authorship. (Malafouris 2013: 218). ‘Unfortunately,’ laments Lambros, ‘although a good phenomenological description can pull us inside this seamless flow of activity and agency, when we cut the flow and press the question of agency our inner Cartesian self or “interpreter” wakes up to take control of the situation.’ (Malafouris 2013: 220) If Malafouris is to ‘put back together’ the active and passive parts of a creative act, ‘and account for their ongoing and irreducible causal coupling’ he admits, ‘it remains to be seen whether agency can offer a way to bridge the neural and cultural correlates of our bodily selves’. (Malafouris 2013: 226) He is still inspired by a ‘vision of the cognitive life of things’ which involves ‘the distributed and compositionally plastic image of the potter skillfully engaging the clay’, rather than by ‘the linear architecture of a Turing machine’, but admits to not having forged that link in his work thus far. (Malafouris 2013: 238) I should also record that the discovery of Malafouris’ book occurred late in the writing of this book.

Work Cited

Malafouris, Lambros. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2013.