“Thought begins in disagreement, the terms of which demand to be articulated.”
Robert Hass’s “A Little Book on Form: An Exploration Into the Formal Imagination of Poetry” is full of pithy, eloquently expressed sentiments which urge you to reread them in order to fully absorb the ideas. As anyone who picks up the book will see, the title is a misnomer; the book is not little by any definition, especially physically. It is over four hundred pages long, but worth the read if you’re looking for a historically inflected, precise discussion of poetic forms.
The book is organized by chapters, which themselves are arranged logically; Chapter 1 is on the line, Chapter 2 is on the couplet, Chapter 3 is on triplets and haikus, Chapter 4 is on quatrains and so on. It also has chapters on the sonnet, genre, the ode and the elegy, which include copious amounts of well-known Western poems as examples to be decoded and scanned. While these are informative, the more interesting chapters discuss less obvious topics — organic and difficult forms, collage, abstraction, procedural poetics and prose poems. The whole book is very orderly; Hass is never swept up in tangents, and most paragraphs in the book are numbered.
“A Little Book on Form” is full of some of Hass’s own observations about the world, often given as asides or tucked neatly into the paragraphs. They include a startlingly nuanced discussion of how it is the reality of death that makes us hate injustice and a description of the relationship between death and sex. Other highlights include a discussion of the origin and form of satire and how the “impulse of prayer seems to be very near the origin of the lyric.”
Hass, a poet laureate himself, notes in the introduction that this work has been a couple decades in the making, and it shows; it is impressive not only for the tight construction, but for the attention to detail. He somehow manages to include his own firm opinions in addition to academic analysis, elegantly welding them together as he explores what it is within us that drives us to poetry as a form of communication and entertainment, and how that impulse has found different forms of expression over time.
Though “A Little Book on Form” exemplifies a wealth of knowledge that would be engaging for anyone interested in poetry, the sheer length of the volume and the academic tone invites only those willing to make the commitment; it’s not exactly a book that one can flip through. It also may not be useful to anyone looking for socio-cultural history or context for certain poetic forms or how they spread from place to place over time, as there is relatively little of that included. Hass sticks to the familiar and well-worn; he includes mostly the poems that one would expect on a syllabus from the 1950s, the kinds of poems that the boys in “Dead Poet’s Society” recite. So that’s how the book feels, at times: familiar and well-worn, if lacking the passion of the youth in “Dead Poet’s Society.” But I digress.