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Formalism

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content poetic critics poetry

is a term generally applied to works of art or critical approaches which highlight formal properties—often, it is characteristically suggested, at the expense of the content of the object in question, so the term has acquired a faintly derogatory note. One solution to this problem has been to argue, as much modern criticism does, that form and content are inseparable, if not the same thing. This move seems to be an exaggerated and simplified version of the more subtle suggestion that form and content are intimately linked, that it is inadvisable to think for long about one without thinking of the other. Critics who cling to the idea of a thoroughly separable content are likely to see all such discussions as versions of the Trojan Horse, varieties of Formalism merely pretending to have an interest in subject matter. The Hungarian critic and philosopher Georg Lukács (18851971) suggested that while a little Formalism may lead us away from the content of a work, a more seriously pursued Formalism will bring us back; indeed he argued that form itself may be an aspect of content, that the narrative tactics of a novel, for example, are not merely a vehicle for meaning but are a part of the novel's meaning themselves. We read the form of the narration, whether it is first- or third-person, intimate or distanced, blinkered or omniscient, as a feature of what the narration says.

The most interesting critics and theorists who have been called Formalists—the Russian Formalists working in Moscow and St Petersburg/Leningrad both before and after the Revolution—provide strong support for this practice. They insist on language and form not to distract us from our daily reality but to return us to its particulars, to an awareness of all the details that have become blurred by our habits of perception. Victor Shklovsky (1893), in a 1917 essay called ‘Art as Technique’, argued that it is the business of art to make objects unfamiliar, as if we were seeing them for the first time: ‘art exists that one may recover the sensation of life’. By a curious paradox, an attention to what Shklovsky calls the ‘artfulness’ of the object allows us to see the object more rather than less clearly. Other Russian Formalists were Boris Eichenbaum, Boris Tomashevsky, and perhaps most notably Roman Jakobson (18961982). In a series of essays and lectures Jakobson developed a theory of the different functions of language, whereby a phrase may have referential, expressive, and poetic purposes, that is, it may refer to the world, express a speaker's feelings, or draw attention to language itself. The poetic function is a foregrounding not of the message's meaning or mood but of the shape and nature of the message. All of these functions may be in play in the same utterance, although it is likely that one will be dominant at any given moment. The Russian Formalists were interested in what they called ‘literariness’, an earlier name for the poetic function, which they found in jokes and slogans as much as in high art. The literary/poetic occurs wherever there is visible linguistic play, an irony or pun or symmetry not required by the message. For this reason, as Jakobson insists in an influential paper called ‘Linguistics and Poetics’ (1958), critics of poetry must study more than poetry. And because poetry itself has other functions beside the poetic, they will need to look at mood and meaning in poetry too. Formalism is not, or does not need to be, an abstract or isolating practice. See also Chicago Critics.

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