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British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 48, No. 2, April 2008 © British Society of Aesthetics; all rights reserved.
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doi:10.1093/aesthj/ayn005
(KIVY ON) THE FORM – CONTENT
IDENTITY THESIS
Kelly Dean Jolley
In his Philosophies of Art Peter Kivy investigates the unity of form and content
in the arts, particularly in poetry. While Kivy says much with which I happily
agree, I sadly disagree with him about the impossibility of form – content
identities. Kivy’s arguments fail to compel: there are other ways of under-
standing form – content identities and the need for them that has been felt by
artists and critics.
i. introduction
IN Philosophies of Arts: An Essay in Differences , Peter Kivy undertakes to under-
stand ‘ the thesis that literary form and literary content are inseparable; or, put
another way, that they are indistinguishable, the one from the other ’ .
+

Unsurprisingly, and although Kivy has quite useful things to say about the
wider application of the thesis to all the fine arts, Kivy’s discussion is focused
on the thesis’s application to poetry.
When applied to poetry, the thesis is malleable: it might be the thesis that
the inseparability of form and content is the defining feature of poetry, such
that no putative poem in which the two can be prised apart is really a poem;
or, it might be the thesis that the inseparability of form and content is the de-
fining feature of good poetry, such that no putative good poem in which the
two can be prized apart is really a good poem. Call the first of these ways the
thesis might be understood the Poetry Definition. Call the second the Good
Poetry Definition. Kivy settles on the Poetry Definition, and he attacks it
from a number of different angles.
I want to review Kivy’s attack on the Poetry Definition. I believe that much
of what Kivy says is true. But I also believe that he says things that are false —
or at least that he is strongly suggesting things that are false. I am particularly

+
Peter Kivy, Philosophies of Arts: An Essay in Differences (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1997),
p. 84.
(KIVY ON) THE FORM – CONTENT IDENTITY THESIS 194
interested in the notion at the heart of the thesis, namely the notion that it is
possible for form and content to be inseparable. Kivy says — or at least strongly
suggests — that it is not. But let me be clear: I am primarily interested in the
mere question of the possibility of form and content separation, independently
of its further connection to a definition either of Poetry or Good Poetry.
ii. kivy on a. c. bradley
So far what I have said makes Kivy’s approach to the thesis look wholly ana-
lytic. But that is wrong. Kivy’s analysis is embedded in an historical story, a
story that gives pride of place to A. C. Bradley’s lecture, ‘ Poetry for Poetry’s
Sake ’ .
:
I want to retell a part of Kivy’s story about Bradley. Kivy reads Bradley
as arguing for the Poetry Definition, and so as requiring the possibility — indeed,
the actuality — of form – content inseparability. Kivy notes that it is unclear
whether Bradley is best read as arguing for the Poetry Definition; Bradley
might be read as arguing for the Good Poetry Definition. I am ultimately not
interested in sorting out this particular ambivalence in Bradley.
¡
(I concede to
Kivy that it is there.) But I am interested in disputing Kivy’s reading of Bradley.
I dispute it first at the micro-essayistic level: I think Kivy misunderstands some
of Bradley’s tactics and some of his distinctions. I dispute it later at the macro-
essayistic level: I think Kivy misunderstands Bradley’s strategy in the essay.
The second dispute is one that I am not going to conduct in detail. I will be
happy just to get another story of Bradley’s strategy on the table.
What, exactly, should we say about the relation between form and content
in the thesis? A complexity is already on partial display in Kivy’s statement of
the thesis itself. Notice that Kivy talks first of form – content inseparability
(and that I have, so far, followed him in so talking) and that he talks next,
across the semicolon, of form – content indistinguishability. Later, when intro-
ducing the Bradley lecture as the fons et origo of the thesis, Kivy talks of form –
content identity. At first blush, these would seem to be three different
form – content relations — different not just in one category, as we might think
form – content inseparability is different from form – content identity, but
different across categories, as we might think form – content indistinguishability
is from form – content identity. The first difference seems a difference between
metaphysical theses; the second a difference between a metaphysical and an

:
A. C. Bradley, ‘ Poetry for Poetry’s Sake ’ , in Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London: Macmillan,
1923), pp. 3 – 27.

¡
To ensure that the reader does not forget the ambivalence, I will restate Bradley’s descrip-
tions as descriptions of ‘ (pure) poems ’ . The parenthetical ‘ pure ’ is meant to keep in mind
that Bradley can be read either as giving a Poetry Definition or as giving a Good Poetry
definition.
KELLY DEAN JOLLEY 195
epistemological thesis. Kivy is aware of these differences. Perhaps I should
rather say that he is aware that there are differences among these form – content
relations. To cope with the differences, Kivy chooses — rightly, I think — to
allow form – content identity to function as his basic understanding of the thesis,
and as his main target. (Remember that Kivy is taking Bradley to be giving a
Poetry Definition.) I will, accordingly, cope with the differences by changing
my question to the question of whether form – content identity is possible. As
I have already mentioned, Kivy seems to me to doubt that it is. But before
getting into this, I want to retell Kivy’s story about Bradley.
Kivy takes Bradley to want ‘ all the advantages of formalism without having
to pay the price of a doctrine that, as he [Bradley] says, “ empties poetry of its
meaning ” . . . ’ .
¡
The central claim Bradley makes is the claim that, as Kivy puts
it, ‘ we can verify the form – content identity of any poem by simply trying and
perforce failing to reexpress the content of that poem in different words ’ .
¡

Bradley does allow, however, that the ‘ subject ’ of a poem can be expressed —
for example, we can certainly express the subject of Paradise Lost : the subject
is the story of the Fall. But Bradley constrains such talk. He notes that, as he
uses ‘ subject ’ , what he is talking about is ‘ not as such inside the poem, but out-
side it ’ . The distinction Bradley is making is unusual. What does it mean that
the subject of Paradise Lost is outside of the poem? Kivy does not struggle with
this question; he treats Bradley’s distinction as showing that the subject of the
poem is not such that the form – content identity thesis applies to it, since the
subject of the poem is to be identified neither as its form nor as its content.
(Interestingly, Bradley’s best effort at explaining the subject of a poem is to tie
the notion of the subject of the poem quite straightforwardly to the poem’s
title.)
Kivy’s treatment of the distinction is puzzling. Earlier in his discussion of
Bradley, Kivy notes that Bradley’s lecture is devoted to considering two claims:
(i) that the poetic value of a poem lies wholly or mainly in its form; and (ii)
that the poetic value of a poem lies wholly or mainly in its content. What
Bradley does is to reject the distinction that generates the rub between the two
claims — the distinction between form and content. Kivy construes this as
Bradley’s way of adjudicating the dispute, specifically of adjudicating it by
showing that the poetic value of a poem does not lie wholly in form or in
content, and that the question of whether the poetic value of a poem lies
mainly in one or the other varies across poems. Kivy then quotes Bradley.
But Bradley does not adjudicate as Kivy says he does; instead, he rejects the
distinction between form and content outright. The alternative two claims

¡
Kivy, Philosophies , p. 99.

¡
Ibid ., p. 103.
(KIVY ON) THE FORM – CONTENT IDENTITY THESIS 196
… imply that there are in a poem two parts, factors or components, a substance
and a form. . . . But really in a poem, apart from defects, there are no such factors
or components; and therefore it is strictly nonsense to ask in which of them the
value lies.
o

Kivy takes the inapplicability of the form – content identity thesis to the subject
of a poem to show that the thesis must apply to the content of the poem.
I judge this a mistaken understanding of Bradley. Bradley does not mean for
the thesis to apply to the content of the poem: he takes there to be no content
in a (non-defective) poem. In Kivy’s defence, I note that he has come to his
mistake intelligibly: he is misled by Bradley’s talk of what is ‘ outside ’ and of
what is ‘ inside ’ a poem. In the quotation Kivy supplies, Bradley does say that
the subject is outside the poem, form and content inside it. So it is natural to
think that the thesis, if it does not apply to what is outside the poem, must ap-
ply to one or both of the parts inside it. And if one of the two inside parts is
to be the best candidate (assuming both together are not the best candidate),
content would seem to be that inside part. But the deep mistake here is a basic
misreading of Bradley: the quotation Kivy supplies occurs within the scope of
a dialectical tactic: Bradley is capturing aspects of the view he is rejecting, it is
not a non-dialectically scoped section in which Bradley is spelling out the as-
pects of his view. All Bradley will take on in propria persona from the section
quoted is the distinction between the poem and the subject of the poem.
I should add a further point to make this clear. Bradley thinks there are a
number of confused distinctions at work in the debates about whether poetic
value is wholly or mainly in the form or content of a poem. He thinks that
some who would put the value wholly or mainly in the content mean really
to put it in the subject. Bradley’s basic idea here, and I think it is insightful, is
that it is easy to slide from the form – content distinction into the poem – subject
distinction, and to confuse a defence of the value of content with a defence of
the value of the subject, as well as to confuse a defence of the value of the
poem with the value of the form. Bradley thinks that the debate between the
formalist and the general reader exhibits these confusions — the general reader
exhibits the first; the formalist the second.
So what is Bradley defending? He is defending the form – content identity
thesis, but he takes the thesis to apply to the poem , not to its content. What
does that mean? First, it is crucial to see that Bradley is not defending, and he
should not be defending, the view that anything is ineffable: he is instead de-
fending the claim that a poem is uniquely effable. The poem is, Bradley says,
a unity of form and content: but we have to be very careful about saying that,

o
Bradley, ‘ Poetry for Poetry’s Sake ’ , p. 14.
KELLY DEAN JOLLEY 197
since it seems to demand that there are two things where there is really only
one.
This unity, if you like, has various ‘ aspects ’ or ‘ sides ’ but they are not factors or
parts; if you try to examine one, you will find it is also the other. Call them sub-
stance and form if you please, but these are not the reciprocally exclusive sub-
stance and form . . .
;

Form and content, as Bradley will talk of them, are not reciprocally exclusive.
Kivy has really not given Bradley his due. Bradley is in a demanding dialec-
tical predicament — and he knows it full well. He needs to be able to change
the mind of his hearers, or at least of some of his hearers. To do that, he has to
talk to them first in terms that they will not only understand, but (Bradley
hopes) endorse. He must then continue to talk to them in those terms, but do
so while deliberately attenuating the meaning that his hearers take the terms to
have. Eventually, he wants to find a way to express his denial of their view in
the terms they would have taken to be crucial to the expression of their view.
And he must get the hearers to hear him as expressing the denial of their view,
instead of granting the truth of their view by talking in terms that assume the
truth of their view. Finally, he must get them to grant his denial of their view.
In more familiar phrasing, what Bradley needs is for a certain terminology to
function as a ladder that, once climbed, the climber will agree to kick away.
Note that my point is not to defend Bradley sans phrase but rather to defend
him against Kivy’s misunderstandings. I do not agree with all that Bradley says,
although, as I have indicated, I find some of what he says insightful and useful.
Before I finish, I shall say a bit more about how to read Bradley.
I want now to look briefly at two of Kivy’s criticisms of Bradley. Kivy crit-
icizes Bradley’s understanding of the creation of poems and of the experience
of poems. Consider the creation of poems. Bradley, as Kivy reads him, thinks
that the actual creation of poems provides support for the form – content iden-
tity thesis. Bradley’s idea, as Kivy reads him, seems to be that when a (pure)
poem is composed, it is not composed by the poet’s taking hold of a clearly
defined material, independently of any notion of how it might be poetically
treated. Rather, when a (pure) poem is composed, it is by the poet’s working
poetically to develop and to refine a ‘ vague imaginative mass ’ . In the compos-
ing of a (pure) poem, light dawns gradually over the whole. Kivy does not
deny that this kind of thing happens on some occasions of composing (pure)
poetry; he denies that it must happen on all occasions of composing (pure)
poetry. I agree with Kivy about this. Consider next the experience of poems.

;
Ibid ., p. 15.
(KIVY ON) THE FORM – CONTENT IDENTITY THESIS 198
Bradley, as Kivy reads him, thinks that when we experience a (pure) poem,
our experience of the form and content is of a unity, a unity perhaps with ‘ as-
pects ’ or ‘ sides ’ , but a unity nonetheless. Bradley’s idea, again as Kivy reads
him, seems to be that the experience of (pure) poetry provides support for the
form – content identity thesis. Kivy grants that we may have such an experi-
ence of unity when reading (pure) poems, but he does not think we always
have it when reading a (pure) poem. I have looked briefly at these two criti-
cisms because they help to prepare the answer I want to give to my question —
the question of whether form – content identity is possible. Neither what Kivy
grants with respect to the creation of poems nor what he grants with respect
to their experience shows that it is possible, but we can treat what he grants as
providing an opening, as suggesting that some poems might, in fact, be unities
of form and content. I will say more about what to make of Bradley on the
creation and experience of (pure) poems in a moment.
iii. wittgenstein on form – content identities
Consider this remark of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ( Philosophical Investigations
§531):
We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by
another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced
by any other. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.)
In the one case the thought in the sentence is something common to different
sentences; in the other, something that is expressed only by these words in these
positions. (Understanding a poem.)
I want to discuss PI §531 because of its overlap with Bradley. (I do not claim
that the overlap is perfect.) Let us count Wittgenstein among those who think
that form – content identity is possible.
:
He may have thought more than that,
as the overlap with Bradley suggests, or less; but let us only consider the pos-
sibility.
I will take §531 to show that Wittgenstein thinks that form – content identity
is possible. Although I do not know quite what to make of the paratactic par-
enthetical, I will say that I think Wittgenstein also recognizes the possibility of
form – content identity in prose as well as in poetry. And this is a good place
for the reminder that I am not interested in defending either the Poetry
Definition or the Good Poetry Definition. I am interested in defending the

:
I say ‘ count ’ since I am ignoring complications required by a complete reading of the remark.
KELLY DEAN JOLLEY 199
possibility of form – content identity. I am happy for it to be possible in prose
as well as in poetry, although I will concentrate on poems.
,

Anyway, notice that Wittgenstein is interested in senses of ‘ understanding ’ :
one in which the thought in a sentence is common to different sentences, the
other in which it is expressed only by these words in these positions, that is by
a particular sentence. Like Bradley, Wittgenstein will countenance the possi-
bility of unique effability.
If a sentence or a poem is uniquely effable, if only a particular sentence
or poem can say what it says, then there is no possibility of paraphrase or of
translation. Foreclosing on this possibility seems strange to Kivy, since he
thinks that foreclosing on it requires a criterion of success in paraphrase or in
translation, and then further showing that (according to that criterion) no of-
fered paraphrase or translation succeeds. Kivy thinks that Bradley does — at
least on the most charitable reading — provide a criterion of success. The cri-
terion, according to Kivy, is this: a successful paraphrase or translation of a
poem must reproduce ‘ the poem’s total effect on the reader ’ ,
+o
Kivy says that
this criterion is clearly over-stringent; and he is right.
But notice that Wittgenstein does not offer a criterion in §531 — nor does
he offer one in the surrounding remarks. Wittgenstein simply takes form –
content identity to be possible — indeed, he does so because he takes it to be
actual. Bradley is best read as doing something similar. Bradley is not attempting
to provide a criterion of success in paraphrase or translation, and then seeking
to show that (according to that criterion) there are (pure) poems that exhibit
form – content identity. Rather, he takes there to be such (pure) poems, and he
takes it to be important — for understanding poetry or perhaps for understand-
ing good poetry — that there are such poems.
Taking this cue from Wittgenstein provides a whole new look to Bradley. We
should read him as saying something like this: a (pure) poem is a unity, and its
unity is prior to its parts. (Pure) poems can be decomposed into ‘ parts ’ or ‘ factors ’
only in so far as those remain in essential contact with the (pure) poem, and are
not taken to be reciprocally exclusive. What Kivy takes to be Bradley’s attempts
to provide arguments for the form – content identity thesis are instead to be seen as
reminders of the actuality of form – content identity in (pure) poems. Kivy seems
to have had an intimation that this reading of Bradley is available. He writes:
It is not clear to me . . . whether failure of paraphrase is supposed to be the way
we recognize that there is a form – content unity in a poem, whether it is the

,
Actual artworks notoriously foil classification plans. I reckon there may be form – content
identities in poems, in literary prose, and even in non-literary prose (notably, perhaps, in
phenomenological descriptions).

+o
Kivy, Philosophies , p. 105.
(KIVY ON) THE FORM – CONTENT IDENTITY THESIS 200
reason we should believe that the form – content identity thesis is true, or whether
it is simply a statement of what the cash value is of the form – content identity the-
sis. But in any event, once it goes by the boards, there is little else in Bradley’s
lecture to offer in defense of the thesis.
++

Kivy reads Bradley as attempting to defend a thesis that I do not think he is
trying to defend — at least not as Kivy understands defence. Bradley is recalling
his hearers to (pure) poems, to the creation of (pure) poems and the experi-
ence of (pure) poems, in a way that is supposed to prompt his hearers to real-
ize that they do not know quite what they mean by the words ‘ form ’ and
‘ content ’ when they attempt to use them of (pure) poems. (Pure) poems burke
the distinction. Recalling his hearers to this fact about (pure) poems, Bradley
hopes, will quell the argument between the formalist and the general reader
about the ‘ residence ’ of the aesthetic value of (pure) poems.
Reading Bradley this way clarifies why Bradley, unlike Kivy, never feels the
need to reach for the word ‘ ineffable ’ . Kivy wants to understand Bradley, and
to express his understanding of Bradley, by hanging onto the word ‘ content ’ .
(Bradley wants to convince his readers to let go of that word.) But by hanging
onto the word ‘ content ’ in a way that Bradley does not — specifically, by hang-
ing onto it in a way that Bradley would take to commit the hanger-on to treat-
ing form and content as reciprocally exclusive — Kivy forces himself to reach
for ‘ ineffable ’ . After all, the (pure) poem is clearly expressible: the poet ex-
pressed it. The poet uniquely expressed it, Bradley might say. So it is unclear
on this reading of Bradley where to find a dialectical station for ‘ ineffable ’ .
iv. kivy on poets as knowers
One of the most eye-catching claims in Kivy’s chapter is the explanation he
offers of why the form – content identity thesis found willing defenders.
What I am suggesting, then, is that what makes the thesis of form – content identity
in poetry attractive is its seeming power to regain for poetry its ancient epistemic
status, lost in the wake of the scientific revolution and the specialization of the
“ knowing game ” . If the content of the poem could be paraphrased, then that
paraphrase would inevitably fall into one of the categories of human knowledge
populated by resident authorities who perforce would outrank the poet in exper-
tise. . . . The poet would be thereby reduced to Pope’s purveyor of platitudes. The
ineffability thesis assures the poet his expertise. The poem just is its subject matter,
and there can be no expert on the poem, no creator of that poem, no discoverer of
that subject matter other than the poet. He cannot be outranked.
+:


++
Ibid ., p. 106.

+:
Ibid ., pp. 90 – 91.
KELLY DEAN JOLLEY 201
On the face of it, this is implausible. First, few poets or critics who are willing
defenders of the form – content identity thesis ever say anything of this sort.
Anxiety of outranking just does not seem to be among the many typifying
anxieties of poets. Second, few poems that are candidates for exhibiting form –
content identity, say imagist poems, seem rightly to be read as expressions of
knowledge. They seem to be expressions, if they seem to be expressions at all,
of the ephemerality of experience, of the stubborn solidity of things, of the
revelatory power of a glance, of longing, of love, and so on, and so on. I sup-
pose someone might claim that they seem to be instead expressions, if they
seem to be expressions at all, of knowledge of the ephemerality of experience,
and so on. But an expression of the ephemerality of experience and an expres-
sion of knowledge of the ephemerality of experience are different, and there
is no reason to think that there is a permissible move from rightly identifying
a poem as an expression of x to also rightly identifying it as an expression of
knowledge of x. (Perhaps if ‘ know ’ is construed biblically, so to speak, the
move might seem permissible. But to the extent that it does — and I do not
think that an interestingly large extent — it is of no aid to Kivy. He needs a
form of knowledge in which a scientist, say, plausibly outranks the poet.) The
relevant typifying anxiety that shows itself at this point, if any does, is the anx-
iety of originality, not of outranking. The poet wants to say what has not been
said before; saying it in a uniquely expressible way ensures that (to the extent,
again, that the anxiety shows itself here).

He does not want to be the only
one who knows what he knows: if that was what he wanted, he should not
have written the poem or published it, since readers of it can come to know
what he knows. (And there may be an interesting sense in which they could
even come to know better than he does, since they may come to know what
he uniquely expressibly says better than he himself does. A reader’s plangent
reading out of a poem might display her better knowledge, for example.)
Of course poems can be written as expressions of the knowledge of x. But
Kivy has given no good reason for thinking that poets have written only to
express knowledge. Admittedly, some poets and critics have talked this way.
In his classic Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century , Herbert
Grierson quotes Wordsworth’s claim ‘ Poetry is the first and last of all knowl-
edge — as immortal as the heart of man. ’ Making such claims dialectically clar-
ifies the old battle between philosophy and poetry: we might think that the
battle is a battle over which of the two is ‘ the first and last of all knowledge ’ .
Maybe Plato thought of the battle that way; maybe Wordsworth is a proper
opponent for Plato. But, again, Kivy has given no good reason for thinking
that the old battle can only be understood as a battle for status as knowers. The


Assuming that the very poem the poet writes has not been written before.
(KIVY ON) THE FORM – CONTENT IDENTITY THESIS 202
old battle might be represented as a battle over who — the poet or the
philosopher — better reveals the logique du c œ ur, or over who should refine
the imagination of the cultivated person, or over who may rightly claim to
be most crucial to moral Bildung , and so on. None of these need be taken
to reduce to a battle for status as knowers.
v. the actuality of form – content identities
No reason presents itself, so far as I can see, for denying that form – content
identities can occur, and probably have occurred, in other fine arts. There are,
I believe, paintings, sculptures, and so on, that are form – content identities.


Of course, the form – content identity thesis will have to be understood serially
as we move across the fine arts, since what might plausibly be meant by ‘ form ’
and ‘ content ’ may not be strictly univocal. I bring this up because of some-
thing that Kivy says very near the end of his discussion of the thesis. Kivy be-
gins concessively.
It appears to me that we have a deep intuition that in the arts there is an espe-
cially intimate relation between form and content not exhibited in other modes
of expression. To a degree, that is a valid intuition, and the form – content iden-
tity thesis is a response to it — the wrong response, as it turns out. For it construes
the intimate relation of form and content as identity: an intimate relation indeed.
But the real trick is to avoid that extreme conclusion, to show the special inti-
macy of form and content in the arts while maintaining the distinction between
them. This the identity thesis fails (quite intentionally) to do.


I should note, since I have not yet done so, that it is in the quotation above
that I find the clearest confirmation that Kivy wants to deny the possibility of
form – content identities in the arts. But I think many other things he says, as
well as the ways he organizes his chapter, support this reading of him.
I agree with Kivy that we have a deep intuition about an especially intimate
relation between form and content. I think the intuition is funded by our en-
counters with actual form – content identities — actual poems, say, that exhibit
the identity. I also think we wrongly respond to the intuition. But that is not
because we have confused two different intimacies. It is because we want to
embellish the intuition, to try to turn the encounters we have had with actual
poems that exhibit the identity into encounters with a law for poetry or for
good poetry — as if the intuition funded a Poetry Definition or a Good Poetry


Whether music belongs on this list is a question I am not going to answer now.


Kivy, Philosophies , p. 116.
KELLY DEAN JOLLEY 203
Definition. Kivy is right to want to resist that. I want to resist it, too. But I
think we are moved to embellish our intuition precisely because encounters
with poems that exhibit form – content identities are so especially striking.
Many of our ordinary ways of responding to and thinking about poetry break
down in the face of such poems, and we find ourselves forced into a readerly
or critical task that we are unpractised at, one that requires us to find some-
thing to do with the poem or something to say about it that does not falsify
our encounter with it. Such a breakdown can seem as though it must be the
registry of a crucial insight, an unveiled recognition of an essence — ‘ Oh! So
this is what it is to be a poem ! ’ or ‘ Oh! So this is what it is to be a good poem ! ’
Thus the poem we encounter is elevated into a paradigmatic poem or para-
digmatic good poem.
Kivy at one point produces Lucretius ’ poem, De Rerum Natura , as part of an
argument to show that there are poems that are not form – content identities.
Kivy is right about Lucretius, as he is right about another of his examples,
Parmenides. Parmenides ’ ‘ clod-hopping hexameter ’ (to borrow Jonathan
Barnes’s memorable phrase), can be prised easily off the content of The Way
of Truth . The same is true, although perhaps to a lesser degree, of Samuel
Johnson’s ‘ The Vanity of Human Wishes ’ . As I said, I agree with Kivy that
form – content identity is not definitive for Poetry, and is not definitive for
Good Poetry. But Kivy does not seem to recognize how his own examples
and his argument can be turned inside-out, as it were. For it seems reasonably
clear that Lucretius ’ and Parmenides ’ and Johnson’s poems stand out (to the
extent they do and in the way they do) among poems in important part be-
cause they are so clearly not form – content identities. That is why we are
tempted, I think, to call them, say, sententious or declamatory poems. If we
range Parmenides alongside, say, e. e. cummings — his ‘ somewhere I have
never traveled, gladly beyond ’ — it is natural, and I think correct, to see a ma-
jor difference between them as a difference in the form – content relation: in
one case, a non-identity, in the other, an identity.
+o


+o
I think the difference between the two poems is inadequately represented as a difference in de-
gree of intimacy between form and content — as a difference of quantity of intimacy. The dif-
ference is a qualitative difference. The difference between a poem in which form and content
are intimate, but non-identical, and one in which they are identical, is not a relative opposi-
tion between the poems; it is an absolute opposition between the poems. Noting this is im-
portant not only for the argument here, but also for diagnosis: One reason why form – content
identity has seemed to some to be Definitive of Poetry, or of Good Poetry, is because the
absolute opposition has seemed to them as if it must either mark a difference between what
is not poetry and what is, or between what is bad poetry and what is not. The trick, though,
is seeing that the absolute opposition need not mark a difference of either sort, while still
noting the opposition and justly representing it. There is no reason why two things cannot
both be poems even while there is an absolute opposition (of this sort) between them.
(KIVY ON) THE FORM – CONTENT IDENTITY THESIS 204
Considering Kivy’s likely response to what I have said reveals another dif-
ficulty for Kivy. Kivy likely will say that he recognizes a special intimacy be-
tween form and content in poems, and that he can say that that special intimacy
is present in the poem by cummings. The difficulty is deciding whether it is
present in Johnson’s poem. If it is, we again lose the contrast that we find nat-
ural and correct; if it is not, Johnson’s poem is reduced to poetastry. Kivy, of
course, can say that there are variations in the form – content intimacy of
poems — but his own use of Lucretius and Parmenides makes that difficult,
since it is hard to warm to the claim that their poems exhibit any particular in-
timacy of form and content. To claim that the poems do, especially after using
them as examples as Kivy did, is a steep uphill climb.
My point can be put this way: there is a tension between the beginning of
Kivy’s reflections on the form – content identity thesis and the ending of his
reflections on it. Lucretius and Parmenides work as well as they do, and as
Kivy needs them to, precisely because they do not exhibit a special intimacy
of form and content.
vi. conclusion
It is worth mentioning that the overarching aim of Kivy’s book is to teach its
readers differences — differences among the arts. But Kivy’s desire to discredit
the form – content distinction, to discredit it even in the face of ‘ a deep intui-
tion ’ , leads him to provide just the sort of thing he lobbies so forcefully, and
so often rightly, against: in the worst case, an Art Definition, in a somewhat
better case, an Art Necessary Feature. Kivy’s Art Definition or Necessary
Feature is: Art exhibits a special intimacy of form and content. True, Kivy will
urge that the special intimacy varies across the arts; but, even so, we end up
with him giving us something of the sort he aims to take from us. His right
hand seems not to know what his left is doing — a good thing in alms giving,
or so I have heard, but not a good thing in philosophical analysis.
Kelly Dean Jolley, 6080 Haley Center, Auburn University, AL 36849, USA