• The Sappho Project

Musing: They Wrote Themselves Into Existence

By Justine Goggin

I was a poetry nerd before I was a musical theatre nerd.

In my first month living in New York, I remember sitting in an acting classroom on 38th Street. I was quiet and nervous. My hands gripped the sides of the chair as I tried to absorb every piece of musical theatre knowledge that came my way, distracting myself from the anxiety. I had spent the previous four years in college studying poetry and had a lot to learn about this new musical theatre world.

That’s when I heard something that completely shook the nerves away. I dropped in.

“Remember, Sondheim’s Golden Rule: Content Dictates Form.”

There were a lot of oohs and ahhh from my surrounding actors, and all I could think was “Sondheim’s rule?”

You see, I already knew that rule. It had already blown my mind. I learned it in college when I first studied the modernist feminist poets. The genius of Gertrude Stein, H.D., and Mina Loy already blessed me with that wisdom. The second that I understood that concept in terms of how it shaped these women’s words, was the second I fell in love with their art.

To be fair, Sondheim does not claim that he came up with it. Of course not. Neither did these women. But if you want to understand the deepest power of “content dictates form” read their work. Content for these poets was not just their words. They were the content.

What does it mean to write into a tradition that was not designed to include you?

What do you do when the tools you have are tools made to hold you down and exclude you? (language in their case).

How do you come up with a previously non-existent form in order to capture your identity?

How do you change an existing form to capture your identity?

These are the questions that those poets grappled with. They wrote a new kind of language. They made up their own rules. They changed the meaning of punctuation. They disregarded conventions and norms. They wrote allusions to their heros. They reinterpreted classic tales with a female gaze.

They wrote themselves into existence.


Patriarchal Poetry by Gertrude Stein:


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