The Interdependence of Form and Content

In her work “Elements of Style,” writer Suzan-Lori Parks discusses the intricate relationship between form and content both in writing and in life. Parks states that “content determines form and form determines content; that form and content are interdependent.” (Parks, 7) This chiasmus creatively asserts that form and content are dependent on each other. This complex concept is difficult to comprehend at first, however, Parks relates this concept to entities outside of writing. Interestingly, Parks uses her physical body as an example of a form and how the content of her life is dependent on her physical form. She writes, “It’s like this: I am an African-American woman – this is the form I take, my content predicates this form, and this form is inseparable from my content. No way I could be me otherwise.” (Parks, 8) By explaining the relationship between form and content in this way, Parks allows her audience to connect this idea to their own lives.    

Once I read this portion of Parks’ work, I automatically applied it to my own life. As a woman in the current society, my physical form continuously affects the content of my life. For instance, when I head out to get dinner somewhere, I am compelled to make overly safe decisions because of my physical form as a girl. My parents constantly remind me to travel in groups. By walking with a group of people, predators, or people who may dangerously approach me if I were alone, are less likely to approach me in a group, and therefore, less dangerous things are likely to happen to me. While this may sound odd, it’s a decision and form of protection that I often choose to take due to my physical form. As a younger girl, my physical form determines the content of my life. Conversely, my content also determines my form. For the past six years of my life, I’ve run track and field. Running high mileage immensely affects the form of my body. Due to running, my physical stature is smaller than the norm in society. In this way, the content of my life determines my form. I enjoyed applying Parks’ ideas to my own life rather than seeing this dynamic relationship solely through art, however, I found it important to apply this concept to literature too. Being in an African American literature class, it is easy to look back and find some work that clearly supports Parks’ claim on the relationship between form and content.  

Unlike other poems, Dixon’s poem “Heartbeats” is physically set up in a unique form. Each stanza contains four fragments, and further, each fragment is made up of two syllables. One stanza of the poem states,   

“Arms wide. Nodes hard. 

Cough dry. Hold on.” 

The form in which the poem is set up in recreates the pattern of a person’s heartbeat. This rhythmic form of the poem which copies that of a heartbeat keeps the person who is suffering an illness within the poem alive and literally keeps the poem alive until it ends. Just as Parks contends, the form of this art piece determines its content. The heartbeat form conveys the importance of life and emphasizes that without a heartbeat, the person described in the poem won’t live. However, we must not forget the interdependence of form and content. The content of art also determines its form. In this case, without the poem being about the struggle for someone sick to live, the heartbeat form wouldn’t be as symbolic or important as it currently is. Dixon writes,   

“Breathe in. Breathe out. 

No air. No air.”  

Here, Dixon has the audience concentrate on the breathing process. This deep focus on a process that we do every day without thinking about is reiterated and supported by the heartbeat form of the poem. By writing about breathing, Dixon has his readers reconsider the importance of a seemingly simple process. Similarly, by writing in a heartbeat form, Dixon makes his audience aware of the important rhythm that keeps people alive day in and day out. The form and content of Dixon’s poem “Heartbeats” play and build on each other, making the overall poem stronger and more effective. 

Just as my physical body affects the content of my life, and the content of my life determines the form of my body, the form of Dixon’s poem “Heartbeats” affects the content of the poem, and the content affects the form. This complex relationship is discussed by Parks’ in her work, “Elements of Style” and can easily be applied to so much in our everyday lives. By applying this interdependent relationship to my own life and  a poem which we’ve worked on this semester, I clearly see how both content and form impact a poem, or even a person’s life.   

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.