Elbow’s “Music of Form”

Elbow, Peter. “The Music of Form: Rethinking Organization in Writing.“ CCC 57.4 (June 2006): 620-666.

In this essay Elbow proposes that instead of thinking about organization in terms of space, we instead think of it in terms of time. This means trying to harness or bind time, trying to create energy that moves the reader to continue. Elbow writes, “Successful writers lead us on a journey to satisfaction by way of expectations, frustrations, half satisfactions, and temporary satisfactions: a well-planned sequence of yearnings and reliefs, itches and scratches. This is a central insight from Burke. (‘Form, having to do with the creation and gratification of needs, is ‘correct’ in so far as it gratifies the needs it creates’ Counter-Statement 138)“ (626).

What I’m primarily interested in from Elbow’s essay at this moment are his distinctions between cohesion and coherence:

“Current notions of cohesion points [sic] to local links between individual sentences or sections. Links are good; they grease the skids, but they don’t pull. I’m interested in what we might call dynamic cohesion — where we’re pulled from element to element. Current notions of coherence point to global semantic webbing that makes readers feel that all the parts of a text are about the same topic. That’s valuable (and not easy). But I’m interested in dynamic coherence where the parts of the essay don’t just sit together because they are semantically linked; rather, we feel them pulled together with a kind of magnetic or centripetal force. Dynamic cohesion and dynamic coherence create the music of form“ (633).

The reason this interests me is because of a recent discussion about coherence we had in my Bible as Lit course. We talked about how many people look at the Bible and, trying to see it as an historical or scientific text, point out its lack of coherence. But this is simple coherence. The book of Genesis has a lot of coherence going on, but it’s many fragments pulled and stitched (there is that metaphor again) together.

If I relate this back to my previous writing on structure and ambiguity, I see a will-to-structure and a will-to-simple-coherence as the same. Something about our culture has made it so that we don’t want complex coherence and would instead rather see complexity as disorganized, disconnected, or self-contradictory. For example, the creation stories in Genesis do not match up, are told by different narrators, and contradict each other. But they still cohere in the text, moving along, creating tension, giving different visions of God, etc.

I was thinking about what I wrote about structure, and how some structure is still needed (because we do, after all, need systems of agricultural production, and I like having systems of education, texts that have some order and are able to read, and there has to be some form of structures to them), but where is that line between structure and ambiguity, and perhaps this is a route there.

Ladies and Gentlemen: a Boxing match. In this corner, entrenched in his corner for millennia, Will To Structure. He’s tough, he’s held down the fort and held back attacks. He likes his simplicity. He likes to think of you as a commodity and a worker in waiting. He beats the shit out of you if you don’t conform to gender, if your writing doesn’t conform to the five paragraph essay, if you question too much or dye your hair pink. Stay in your class. Vote for Bush. War is Peace. And don’t you dare be queer.

In this other corner, Ambiguity. Ze dances , free, hir gowns flowing in the breeze, moving around the ring refusing to accept that ze has a corner, that there is a territory that is just hirs. Ze doesn’t throw punches, but moves, freely, attempting to tear down Structure with beauty, confusion, a kind of energy that draws in the audience and repulses them at the same time.

Elbow offers five ways to bind time: through narrative, sentence outlining, using perplexity to drive the reader, enacting thinking in progress, and using voice. Of course, Elbow ends with his classic “both/and“ when he decides that it’s not as simple as one way or the other (time-binding methods v. traditional spatial organization), but rather a case of needing to use both.

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