In Praise of Form

As a Buddhist and a practitioner of several of the Meditative Arts (Haiku and Ikebana), I have, over the years, developed an appreciation of Form. In traditional haiku the form is pretty rigid: a 5-syllable line, followed by a 7-syllable line, followed by another 5-syllable line, with a reference (sometimes oblique) to the season. Without the Form, you might do anything (probably something sloppy or undisciplined). Clark Strand, in his book “Seeds From a Birch Tree – Haiku and the Spiritual Journey,” says: “There is a mistaken belief that form is confining and limiting….Ultimately, it is the very strictness of (haiku’s form) which allows us to forget the form and enter into a more profound relationship with nature and other people.” The form gives you the structure on which you can hang your creativity.

In Ikebana Form is based on a series of patterns. Three stems, their lengths always in the same relation to each other and to the container, are placed at very specific angles (different for each pattern). Creativity is expressed through the choice of pattern, flowers, container and “filler” branches. Students spend many years becoming adept at the various patterns. Once they have the discipline, and have absorbed the “spirit” – only then are they allowed to deviate from the patterns. Learn the form and make it yours, and then it can inform all your choices.

Painting has its own disciplines – rules of composition, how to prep the canvas, how to lay down the paint. Rules of how colors work together. The rules give you a starting point. Drawing is another discipline – knowing how to draw the human body and the things of nature. Once again, the Forms provide an armature for your creativity –  improve the composition, use color expressively or eschew it entirely, Emphasize the paint or de-emphasize the paint. Because you understand the rules, you can now begin to deviate from them. You can put the horizon line in the middle of the canvas, or the figure dead center. The difference is that now you’re doing it on purpose – for effect. But you have to have an underpinning of discipline. You have to walk before you can run.