I’m now realizing that formalism has suffered from a bad reputation. And I don’t really wonder why. We’ve all probably had enough formalism/structuralism shoved down our throats in the early part of our English study to last a lifetime. I remember hating it. Learning dry facts about meter, for instance, seemed to kill poetry. As a high school student, I was filled with resentment and confusion about these teachers who (to my mutinous, adolescent eyes) were trying to turn English into math. Though I excelled in my literature classes, I loathed them. I remember how much I rejoiced when I got to college and found out that there was more to literary study than just a strict analysis of how the words were put together.
Considering things from a teacher’s perspective, I understand why formalism was such a frequently used focus: it’s safe. Rules exist. Feelings don’t have to get involved. Parents won’t call to complain. Bland? Perhaps. Simple? Yes. Secure? Definitely. Hence, probably why a lot of teachers stress formalism in their English classrooms and avoid the thought-provoking but risky idealogical discussions that I so savor.
But that being said, when one learns the reasons behind it, formalism does have a fascinating side. It doesn’t have to be “blah.” If we blend discussions of formalism with the text’s larger themes or other aims, things get a whole lot better. Sometimes, I think, just simply going that extra step further to why a certain device was used makes discussion much more fulfilling. Part of the reason that I was so bored with formal elements as a student was that I never understood how they connected to the parts of literature that mattered to me: themes, truths, characters’ struggles, and my personal response to the reading. The connection between form and function never solidified for me in high school. If it had, maybe I’d be a published author by now. (Besides the blog–ha ha!)
Since the path I’m on is the one of the teacher, I’m hoping to sensibly balance safety and risk in my practice, and hopefully illuminate some of the “why’s” of literature that were never explained to me until college. I think it’s possible, but not easy, to put the fun in formalism. Form is where meaning begins, not where it ends.