Liberating Form
June 1977

“Liberating Form,” Ensign, June 1977, 43

Liberating Form

This article was first delivered as a fireside address. A longer version of this discussion was printed in BYU Studies, Autumn 1974, pp. 29–40.

It’s a paradox, but rules that look confining may actually free us.

A couple of summers ago, my son and I participated in a fathers-and-sons outing in Hobble Creek Canyon, east of Springville, Utah. In most respects it was an ordinary outing: a chance to get away, to participate together in cooking, games, an evening fireside program, and so on.

But it had one unusual feature. About 10 o’clock on that lovely Saturday morning, each father was given a sealed envelope and told to walk with his son in any direction for ten minutes or so, then to find a pleasant spot under a tree and open the envelope.

We did so. Harlow and I came to rest under a small tree on the north side of the canyon where we caught the full effect of one of those perfect sunny mornings in the Utah hills. A storm the previous day had freshened the area. The sun was warm but not uncomfortable in the shade of our tree. And our walk uphill had been vigorous enough to make us ready for a little sitting. We sat and opened the envelope.

The instructions were simple, perhaps even predictable: among other things the father was to tell the son about a time when he had been important in someone else’s life and about a time when someone else had been important in his; the son was to tell about some favorite goal or dream he had or relate some experience he had had that was especially significant to him, something that the father had not known about.

And so we sat for an hour or so, essentially alone with each other. And talked. About important things, though perhaps only to us. Or important only because we were father and son there talking. Or maybe these things were of cosmic importance—and for the same reason. It was a remarkable experience, one that we should have often but seldom do have.

Behind that envelope, of course, stood the Sharon East Stake and behind that the Church, with its emphasis on family life. It may have tied other fathers and sons down, though I heard no one saying so. But the envelope with its instructions became the means of liberating Harlow and me for a most meaningful personal and spiritual experience: a liberating form. It could have simply tied us down for the morning. But it set us free.

But isn’t a form—a format, a set of rules—a containing thing? How can it liberate?

In twenty-five years of teaching literature and writing at Brigham Young University, I have often pondered a remarkable fact: the forms under which we live, that are seen as restrictive and stultifying by some people, can for others be liberating and exalting.

The creative process—out of which literature and any other art or new idea are born—implies freedom. Yet significant art of any kind nearly always comes about in some kind of significant form.

Let us look, for example, at how a fine poet contrasts his ideas of heaven and hell. To do this, he uses the sonnet form, one of the most rigid structures in literature:

Nothing in Heaven functions as it ought;

Peter’s bifocals, blindly sat on, crack;

His gates lurch wide with the cackle of a cock;

Not with a hush of gold as Milton had thought;

Gangs of the slaughtered innocents keep huffing

The nimbus off the Venerable Bede

Like that of a dandelion gone to seed;

The beatific choir keep breaking up, coughing.

But Hell, sweet Hell hath no freewheeling part:

None takes his own sweet time, nor quickens pace.

Ask anyone, “How come you here, poor heart?”

And he will slot a quarter through his face—

There’ll be an instant click—a tear will start

Imprinted with an abstract of his case.

—From Breaking and Entering, by X. J. Kennedy, published by Oxford University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher and also by permission of Doubleday and Company, Inc.

It’s a simple enough poem, at least on the surface. This particular kind of sonnet came to us from the Italian poet Petrarch. It “scans” with a rhyme scheme of abba abba cdcdcd. The rhyme scheme divides the poem neatly into two parts: the eight-line octet and the six lines of the concluding sestet. In this sonnet form the octet traditionally sets up some kind of problem or question or situation, the sestet somehow answers or responds to or plays against the octet. In this poem the picture of hell in the sestet plays against that of heaven in the octet.

We may be struck by the unusual qualities the poet imagines in heaven and hell and the images he uses to make us see each. We may even be struck by the unusual subject matter for a sonnet. But we recognize the traditional sonnet form used without too much variation.

I describe the poem as a sonnet not to give a lesson in poetry but to get at something else. The sonnet is a highly restrictive form. Each of its fourteen lines, almost by prescription, has ten syllables with five accents in each line. The tight rhyme scheme almost dictates a poem of two parts. The form is artificial and prescriptive. There are those who feel it restricts them, ties them down. And yet some of the most lovely, most spontaneous, most energetic poems in the language are written in the sonnet form.

Where does the energy in this poem come from? Partly from its ideas, of course, from the inverted views of heaven and hell, from the unusual and sometimes powerful pictures it makes us see. But these ideas stated in ordinary language would not have had the force they have in this tight form. The poem gets most of its energy from what the poet does with the form: from the way the poem works within, yet strains against and plays with the conventions of its form.

Without the form, what do we have left? “Neither heaven nor hell is what we think it is; people make mistakes in heaven, but that is better than hell, where nothing goes wrong because no one is free.” But where is our energy? We could get some of it by adding details. We could even build up a prose form that would get quite a bit of it. But this is a remarkably energetic sonnet, and prose can hardly catch its vigor.

Because of the rigid form, the poet can make subtle statements by the way he uses it. In the octet, for example, the accents do not come in perfect order, and the rhymes slant—huffing with coughing. But in the sestet, there is not one departure from the rigid form: the poet emphasizes that in his idea of hell, the soul as automaton cannot deviate from any norm. Prose could not demonstrate that contrast. The rigidness of form emphasizes the deadness of hell, but the form itself pulses with life.

The major energy of the poem, though, comes from the way the two parts play against each other. Our first reaction to this whimsical view of heaven may be negative. We may think the poet doesn’t like heaven. But when we look back from the orderly but mechanical hell the poet pictures, where no man takes his own sweet time, nor quickens pace, suddenly one’s own sweet time becomes very sweet and precious indeed. The imperfections of this poet’s heaven are humorous, but they become precious because we recognize that they result from freedom.

That, I presume, is mostly what the poem is “about”: the meaning of freedom, not so much in the afterlife as in this world. It is easy enough to make a prose statement of that meaning: the price of freedom is a certain amount of inefficiency; lack of freedom may produce efficiency but its price is infinitely greater: the soul becomes a mechanism. Latter-day Saints, of course, can see a parallel with the two plans in the preexistence. But the plain statement, contrasted with the poem, is insipid. All the paradoxical qualities of heaven and hell, all the fascinating contrasts set up by the two parts, all the nuances of sound and rhythm and image are lost.

And the prose statement obliterates an additional source of energy in the form. Since the sonnet is traditionally a love poem the poet gets an intriguing irony out of using it for what seems at first to be a theological discussion. But the irony goes further: the form suggests that because God loves us he gives us freedom, even to err—the poem may be a love sonnet, after all!

And here we come again to perhaps the most intriguing paradox in art—and in life: Form—the form that seems to restrict, to limit, to hold one in—is the means of liberating creative energy.

So with our fathers-and-sons outing. The simple experience brought Harlow and me together in as meaningful an hour as I have ever spent with one of my children. We could have had such an hour without any envelope, even without any outing. But the point is that we hadn’t. The situation and the envelope became the liberating form for us. A written sheet gave us a rigid format for the morning: because of it we came to know each other in ways we had never experienced before. It was a vital encounter for both of us.

The liberating form. Energy through form. The energy of the poem, the energy of nearly all literature, the energy of nearly all art comes from the form that contains and at the same time releases.

Just so with the Church. The Church is a liberating form: The form was given it by the Master whose name and whose burden it carries; the form is given it by the gospel—the good news—it must disseminate. The Church, through its stake leaders, provided the form of that envelope that set Harlow and me to talking.

Perhaps those of us who occasionally feel tied down, who chafe against the forms, the ritual, the programs, the requirements of the Church, need to think of the form as a vast sonnet, an organization whose parts must fit in a totally meaningful creative order. The Church is the liberating form that gives direction, order, meaning to our energy. And the meaning can be greater than in any sonnet: When we are fully liberated by the Church’s form, exaltation awaits us.

But nothing in the Lord’s Church guarantees that we will be liberated. We have a burden—the burden of human freedom, the burden we take upon ourselves as we accept the burden of Christ.

The Church can only provide the form within which we work. It may help motivate us. It may teach us our place in eternity. The form exists, but we must fill it. We must provide the energy. Sonnets do not write themselves.

With this in mind, let’s look at two or three sides of that form with which the Church provides us—and against which we sometimes squirm.

First, tithing. We may pay it unwillingly, resenting the inroads it makes on our income. We may even do it willingly because God has commanded it or because it is the best “fire insurance” we can buy. Or we may do it because it provides the framework within which we can both participate in and share the burden of Christ’s work on earth, and at the same time organize and plan to make our income stretch to do as many important things as possible. Our attitude, our use of the law of tithing, decides whether it will be a liberating form.

Or take the Word of Wisdom. We often talk as though this law alone makes us a peculiar people. And in the eyes of many outside our faith, it does. But even a little thought should tell us that the proscriptions of the Word of Wisdom are not the whole gospel—a whole lifetime of not smoking and not drinking can still be an empty and wasted lifetime. No one has ever just abstained himself into the kingdom of God, though not abstaining can certainly keep us out!

But because the Word of Wisdom can liberate us from slavery to those proscribed items it is clearly a liberating form. For most of us, it forms the framework within which we can achieve and maintain healthy bodies and minds, which in turn can generate the physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual energy we need for rich, positive, creative lives.

Even our concern with chastity is viewed by many in the world as a matter of abstinence, a rigid limitation. But an older meaning of virtue catches its real value. Virtue, the kind that went out of Jesus at the touch of his garment, is energy—creative and healing energy. This is what virtue should be for all of us: the positive, creative force inherent in our bodies as in our souls.

And so with other fundamental doctrines and practices of the Church. Faith can help us tap infinite sources of power. Repentance, a painful form to find and follow, is a means of physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual renewal; it liberates us from the bondage of our mistakes and sins. Baptism, far from being empty ritual, can be both actually and symbolically the leaving behind of what we were. It is the narrow gate through which we can enter, in order to see what we can become and to start becoming that vision of ourselves.

And so forth. The Church can be a restriction to us, a burden we bear. Or, when we understand and work with what the Lord has given us, it can be the liberating form for our lives. It can help us release and channel and order our great potential, which few of us ever fully use.

A glider soars, a jet plane flies, not just because the wind blows or because a motor develops a half million pounds of thrust, but because of the form of the wing it flies on. Imagine all the power of a jet engine being released while unattached to anything. Remember the balloon you blew up as a child and let go? It hissed and darted and sputtered aimlessly.

But of course one can write a bad sonnet following all the rules of the form. Sonnets about Easter bonnets have almost nothing in common with Shakespeare’s or Milton’s sonnets except the form. The difference depends on the kind of energy we put into the form and release by it.

Such is the faith I live by and the testimony I bear. And bear as a burden, if you wish. But both bear and burden are rich words. Bear has to do with carrying and with expressing, but also with giving birth. Burden is what one carries, but also it is the repeated melody, the refrain one sings.

We live by and bear the burden of Christ. His Church is the form that liberates us. It is the form within which we can move whatever of clay is in us toward his vision of what we can be. It provides the envelope within which we find the instructions on how to explore and express our love. It leads us toward our vision of heaven and our rejection of hell. And we have the ultimate assurance from the Master that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. (See Matt. 11:29–30.)

  • A professor of English at Brigham Young University, Brother Clark is teacher development director in the Oak Hills Fourth Ward, Provo Utah Sharon East Stake.

Illustrated by April Lani Perry