It’s one of the first lessons in any literature course: form shapes content; content dictates form. The two are inseparable. In my own classroom, I employ William Carlos Williams to make the point: “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rainwater, beside the white chickens,” means something entirely different from:
So much depends
A red wheel
Glazed with rain
Beside the white
How we say it changes what we say.
Late in his new collection of essays, The Adventures of Form and Content, Albert Goldbarth describes his own approach to this principle:
Sometimes the skeleton and the skin of a poem are inseparable from its subject—that’s the best, I tell them. Think of a poem that is spoken to us by somebody in a straitjacket, and it’s tightly rhymed, A-A, B-B. Or a long poem overspilling its lines, spoken by a cokehead.
Straightjackets and cokeheads: the relationship between form and content doesn’t merely define poetry; it offers deep wisdom about the “adventures” of our human existence. Poetry merely offers a kind of pathway, Goldbarth seems to suggest here, to starting those adventures.
In fact, each of Goldbarth’s essays go beyond poetry, using this relationship—form/ content—as a framework through which to consider his own experiences, experiences we immediately recognize as our own. In “Annals of Absence”, for example, the piece that opens the volume, he begins with a brief meditation on the Chauvet cave images, 32,000-year-old pictures of stags, bison, mammoths, and outlines of human hands. They prompt him to consider our human bodies as a structure that holds our souls, our essences, our human-ness:
I look at my hand, this hand that’s writing with a Bic pen in an everyday dime-store notebook, and was scraped along its outer edge when it tried to brace against a fall the other day, and was tended to by my wife, with soap and water, antiseptic cream, a Band-Aid […] However I’ve read enough in lay texts on twentieth-century physics to know that between the atoms, and in the atoms, this hand is mainly empty air.
Form dictates content; content dictates form.
Later, in “Two Characters in Search of an Essay”, Goldbarth describes poet John Keats nursing first his mother, then his brother, as they die from consumption, until finally, the disease attacks him as well: “Three times is a form […] for the remaining twelve months of his weakening life, John Keats became the content of that form.”
But Goldbarth’s real genius is his recognition that not only does form dictate content, but the two can be so intertwined it becomes impossible to distinguish between one from the other, or which is content and which is form. The Chauvet Cave images frame “Annals of Absence”: two pages in, Goldbarth switches abruptly to another subject: the death of a colleague, but the cave art returns as a kind of coda, picking up where his earlier thought had left off:
There aren’t many entire human figures in the caves. But there are the handprints […] Most of them were formed by placing the hand flat on the cave wall and blowing—through a tube—a careful aerosol around it. That is, they’re negative images […] The hand is here because it isn’t.
In framing it so, the caves become the form into which Goldbarth pours the content of his thoughts on Peggy Rabb. They serve this function structurally, but metaphorically as well: Peggy Rabb, like the hand imprints, remains through her own absence, a collection of forms now emptied of their content. But finally, and most importantly, the two elements of the essay—cave art and the death of a friend—become so strongly identified with one another that it is not simply the cave art that serves as the metaphor for the personal loss. So too the personal loss represents something on a larger scale, something discovered in that cave art, about the ephemeral nature of our own humanity.
The relationships Goldbarth uncovers do not end there. He writes of the last time he saw Peggy, dropping her off at the hospital for a routine checkup: she “waved, palm out, her fingers extended, something like a star a child would draw.” Her hand connects to his hand, which connects back to the hands in the cave. It is the same image of the hand, the image of absence that he finds in the cave, all of them symbols, but also literal (present) marks of absence. The same resonance haunts the odd gift Peggy gave him years ago, “for no reason”, a bag full of old plastic typewriter keys, a reference to his own unwillingness to adapt to the world of computers and the internet. More hands and fingers, present and absent.
The inter-relationships continue to spread, form and content, content and form, not just within single essays but throughout the book. In “Two Characters in Search of an Essay”, he brings together the unlikely pairing of Keats and astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto, finding in both men a fascination for stars and poetry, art and science, beauty and practicality. In “On Roman Erotic Poetry” he returns to poetry, using Catullus’s work as a structure for thinking about divorce. Likewise, the Chauvet caves in “Annals” fit neatly with another cave brought up in the final essay, “A Cave in a Cliff in Scotland”.
All of this packaged in a book that itself plays with form as an homage to the Ace Doubles paperback series published in the ‘50s and ‘60s and defined by their form: two science fiction novels published back-to-back, one upside down behind the other. Goldbarth references these books in his essay on Keats and Tombaugh but devotes another entire essay “Everybody’s Nickname” to them. More importantly, though, he publishes his own book in the same form, three essays “backed (or fronted, depending)” by another three.
In the end, there’s a perfect sort of zen-ness to Goldbarth’s work. Each sentence seems to capture the aliveness of life:
One week the rains come in; they own this city. They hose this city clean of everything else and fill it with only themselves. Every hour is rain o’clock. Gray ghosts of the rain leak through our basement walls. And then, in a day, it’s gone.
And yet for all the connections he discovers there’s an emptiness throughout, like the spaces he describes within the atoms of our very hands.
The 11th verse of the Tao Te Ching takes up the issue of form and content:
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
Goldbarth never mentions Taoism, and I have no idea if he has studied it (though it’s hard to imagine that with his breadth of knowledge he hasn’t), but it’s there in every line of this book, pushing us to see that, as the koan says, “Eveything matters; nothing matters.”
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