Literary Approach - Formalism

The Norton Introduction to Poetry
Editor: J. Paul Hunter, University of Chicago
(Norton & Company, 1999)

The Norton Introduction to Poetry: Formalism

University of Chicago professor emeritus J. Paul Hunter defines critical approaches to evaluating poetry and prose in this excellent text published by Norton & Company. The book is now in its ninth edition with contributing editors Alison Booth, University of Virginia, and Kelly J. Mays, University of Nevada.

“One common formalist conception is that a work is autotelic, that is, complete in itself, written for its own sake, and unified by its form—that which makes it a work of art. Content is less important than form. Literature involves a special kind of language that sets it apart from merely utilitarian writing; the formal strategies that organize and animate that language elevate literature and give it a special, almost religious character.”

Words placed strategically focus on mode of expression rather than message or content. Understatement and overstatement emphasize style, each technique a literary contrivance. A formalist may not care whether a paragraph makes sense. The artistic merit of a writer's work remains paramount. Ornate prose flaunts; sparse discourse conceals—both display an artificial use of language.