Poetry's Social Forms

Edited by Margaret Ronda and Lindsay Turney

Introduction: Poetry’s Social Forms

Margaret Ronda & Lindsay Turner

The Opacity of Racial Form

Chris Chen

“The Mayor Is a Tough Act to Follow”: Some Social Poetry in the Theaters of the Rahm Regime

Harris Feinsod

“The Jewel of the North”: Mateo Galindo’s “Encadenar” in Space

Daisy Atterbury

Translating a Milestone: Mon Emily Dickinson in France

Teresa Villa-Ignacio

Window Poetics

Lindsay Turner

The Social Forms of Speculative Poetics

Margaret Ronda


What are the social forms of poetry today? In asking this question for this cluster, we want to place reciprocal pressure on these two central terms social and forms as they find expression in works of contemporary poetry. To account for form in poetry is to highlight the internal designs and logics of a particular text, while also pointing to the text's greater legibility within broader histories of poetic form. Attention to form, then, is attention to the immanent organizing principles of a text, the ways it makes meaning by making, reshaping, and even undermining these principles. And it is to consider the ways that poetic form is animated by internal and contextual relations of repetition and difference, stability and novelty. Pluralizing "forms," as we do here, underscores the extent to which all individual iterations of poetic form occur within broader networks and constellations of poetic forms, both within and across historical periods. To consider "forms" rather than "form" is to highlight the comparative, contested, historically dynamic (rather than autonomous or isolated) character of a text's formal operations.

To investigate the social forms of poetry, in turn, is to put different kinds of pressure on these questions and open them up to other imperatives beyond the purely formalist. It can mean, for example, to consider how these immanent organizing principles bear insight into the broader workings of social life. It raises questions about the kinds of historical thinking that unfolds in and through the formal processes of a particular text, and the extent to which these processes might creatively reconfigure the dominant social forms of their present. In this sense, form might be understood as an enactment of struggle and contradiction rather than an embodiment of achieved order or closure. Considering the social forms of poetry might also mean attending to what happens around a poem or poetic text. What kinds of social activity might a poem engender or enact? How might a poem reverberate in (and beyond) a particular social context?

By raising these questions, we draw attention to the ways poetic form and genre might offer distinctive expressions of the material conditions of race, gender, and economic inequality today. In positing the idea of social form, we also mean to consider the relationship between the particular capacities of certain forms to operate in or bear upon the sphere of the political, and the social and material dimensions of the long histories of various forms and genres. Are there particular poetic forms that best express the social relations, antagonisms, and sites of struggle characteristic of our contemporary political moment?

In October 2018, at the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present annual conference in New Orleans, we convened a roundtable on "Poetry's Social Forms" from which this current cluster has emerged. With the ASAP roundtable, as with this cluster of essays, our hope was to open new space for reflecting on and enacting critical methods of approaching questions of poetic form in our cultural present. How might we read, think about, teach, learn from, and even delight in literary form in a world in which the study of forms is used to privilege some and exclude others? How might we reflect on the way certain critical accounts of form might reproduce larger social dynamics of exclusion and hierarchy? What alternative frameworks might take account of poetry's engagements with various dimensions of social struggle, within and across national bounds?

The papers given at that ASAP roundtable were remarkably varied in their definition of "form," or "social form." For some participants, "form" was specifically poetic: Teresa Villa-Ignacio explained the presence of the "seismic line" in the work of Moroccan poet Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, and Lindsay Turner talked about the social function of that staple of lyric poetry, apostrophe, in the work of Gwendolyn Brooks. Other participants took an extra-poetic view of literary forms: Christopher Nealon took up the organizing principles of rhetoric vis-à-vis philosophical thought, and Margaret Ronda considered the temporal logic of poetic and speculative forms. Finally, Dorothy Wang and Samia Rahimtoola explored the forms that organize power in and around the production of contemporary poems: the literary gatekeeping forms of the anthology and the academy, the literal boundary-keeping forms of the U.S.-Mexico border and the detention center. In this Contemporaries cluster, which has furthered many of the initial roundtable's themes while opening new lines of inquiry, there is a similarly wide-ranging sense of the meanings and implications of poetry's social forms, along with an abiding commitment to reading for form.

Our exuberantly capacious sense of form largely mirrors the ideas developed by Anahid Nersessian and Jonathan Kramnick in their essay "Form and Explanation." Kramnick and Nersessian contend that it is important that the definition of "form" "should remain open for as long as possible." This idea of form, as "a notion pragmatically bound to its instances," is for them what gives form its explanatory power; it is also this flexibility and commitment to the individual instance that marks literary studies as a discipline.1 We concur that the "unruliness" of form is important even joyful.2 After all, as poet-critics, one of our primary commitments is to the possibilities opened up by expanded attention to the forms contemporary poets actually produce, which tend to be far more various than the definitions provided for them. And yet two necessary questions arise they keep arising within our thinking about sociality, form, and poetics. First: is there something specific about "poetic form" that would set it apart from other forms in the world? And second, the flipside of this question: is there something specific about poetic form that ties it back into the other forms in the world that makes it social?

Without attempting to fix this relationship between "social" and "form," we want to insist on the pairing as a corrective to certain discussions of "form" and "the literary." Both poetic form and the study of formalism have tended at least in certain imaginaries within the Anglo-European literary traditionto stand in for the driest, whitest, most male iterations of that tradition, reproducing dependence on an inherited canon and the necessity for rule-bound specialized knowledge. And while most critics today would distance themselves from anything resembling a New Critical enforcement of the distance between literary form and its world, it is still true that, as Dorothy Wang reminds us, specifically poetic form, "whether that of traditional lyric or avant-garde poems, is assumed to be the provenance of a literary acumen and culture that is unmarked and assumed to be white."3 "In the twenty-first century"we ask, with Wang, "is it not time to rethink these ingrained poetic and literary-critical categories and assumptions?"4

A similar distance obtains, paradoxically, in some recent critical re-engagements with form. In her book Forms, Caroline Levine champions the "heterogeneity at the heart of form's conceptual history." "Literary formalists," she continues, "have precisely the tools to grasp [today's world's] formal complexity and, with them, to begin to imagine workable, progressive, thoughtful relations among formsincluding containing wholes, rhythms of labor, economic, racial, and sexual hierarchies, and sprawling, connective networks of power."5 Yet despite the benevolent ambitions of Levine's work, in this phrasing we find an echo of some of the same ingrained assumptions: namely, that literary form represents a formal training ground on which real world skills might be practiced before they are then applied to real world questions. Levine suggests that literary and social forms are more or less separate realms to be bridged by the act of critical attention, rather than inherently intertwined at the very heart of those forms.

Levine's work, as in the broader turn to post-critical method in contemporary literary study, decenters what she calls the "usual models of causality" and, by extension, the interpretive approaches that read for the appearance of deep structures in cultural works.6 Across a wide array of recent post-critical approaches, we see a Latourian orientation that defers causal claims in favor of open-ended descriptions of arrangements and networks. By contrast, the formal thinking presented in this cluster retains a focus on the determinations of the social and historical. These pieces explore the imbricated cultural logics of settler colonialism, racial inequality and anti-black violence, white nationalism and neo-fascism, ecological degradation, and the accumulation by dispossession characteristic of capitalist production as structuring dimensions of material experience. They point, through a multiplicity of essay-forms, styles, and tones, to the ways poetic form negotiates these real and inexorable conditions of our collective present.

In Chris Chen and Harris Feinsod's pieces, the work of individual poets becomes an occasion for exploring questions of racial form and social commitment in poetic communities. For Chen, June Jordan's poem "Toward a Personal Semantics" serves as a key site for exploring racialized subject formation as "relational, recognitive, atomized, and recursive." Reading Jordan's poem as a means of revising reductive critical commonplaces around the politics of postwar poetries, Chen argues that we can discover in its syntax and modes of abstraction a vital framework for approaching the modalities of racial form. Feinsod offers an extended consideration of Daniel Borzutzky's recent book, Lake Michigan. Feinsod reads this book as a poetics of social engagement that frames the local politics of Chicago within broader geopolitical dynamics, drawing on formal techniques Pablo Neruda developed in his Spanish Civil War protest poetry. He constellates the social forms of Borzutzky's work in relation to longer poetic traditions of social engagement and in dialogue with other contemporary avant-Latinx poets and Chicago-based artists.

For Daisy Atterbury and Teresa Villa-Ignacio, attention to a particular formal quality or technique in a given work opens onto larger inquiries into sociopolitical being and social movements. Daisy Atterbury explores the concept of "touch [ . . . ] as a question" via the prose poem that serves as voiceover of Matthew Galindo's video game Encadenar. Tactile forms of expression and feeling, she suggests, move us, move with us, and help us move differently through the time and space of settler colonialism. Teresa Villa-Ignacio considers translation in her exploration of the 2017 French translation of Susan Howe's canonical work of poetry and scholarship, My Emily Dickinson. Through this extended engagement with Mon Emily Dickinson, Villa-Ignacio defines literary translation as a generative act that both reflects on and can spur sociopolitical change in its new cultural context.

Lindsay Turner and Margaret Ronda's pieces move across a series of poetic texts to investigate a broader formal terrain characteristic of contemporary poetry. Looking "through" a set of poets from Emily Dickinson to Jenny Xie, Lindsay Turner offers a formulation of the poet's gaze as its own formas, for example, the form of a window, shaped and material. In turn, this formulation reorients the poem to its perceptual conditions and toward the world, beheld and refracted. Margaret Ronda's piece develops a series of theses about speculative logics in recent poems. Ronda argues that these poetic speculations involve other kinds of formal thinking beyond the parameters of capitalist realism, holding open imaginative space for other possible reals.

Perhaps by "social form," then, we intend a certain methodological orientation, an insistent questioning about the relationship between the aesthetic and the social. The essays gathered here, as wonderfully various as they are, are all geared toward a common question about the social and its point of contact with poetics. They explore the formal processes of poiesiswhether embodied in the sonic and visual surrounds of a virtual reality game, or a June Jordan poem, or a Susan Howe text newly activated via translationas they touch on, bear out, resist, or reformulate broader social imperatives. In their complex readings of poetry's forms of sociality, these essays call to mind Lyn Hejinian's key assertion from her essay, "The Rejection of Closure," that "forms are not merely shapes but forces; formal questions are about dynamicsthey ask how, where, and why the writing moves, what are the types, di­rections, number, and velocities of a work's motion."7 These essays direct our attention, along various lines, to form's force and to the forces that inform a text's inner workings.

Margaret Ronda is an associate professor of English at the University of California-Davis. She is the author of Remainders: American Poetry at Nature’s End (2018) and two books of poetry.

Lindsay Turner is the author of the poetry collection Songs & Ballads (Prelude, 2018) and the translator of several volumes of contemporary Francophone poetry and philosophy. She currently teaches at Furman University and will join the Department of English and Literary Arts at the University of Denver as an assistant professor starting in fall 2019.


  1. Anahid Nersessian and Jonathan Kramnick, "Form and Explanation," Critical Inquiry 43 (Spring 2017): 661.[]
  2. Ibid., 650.[]
  3. Dorothy Wang, Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 20.[]
  4. Ibid., 35.[]
  5. Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), xiii.[]
  6. Ibid., 19.[]
  7. Lyn Hejinian, "The Rejection of Closure," Poetry Foundation.[]

Past clusters