Over the past year or so, I’ve been embracing more and more constraint-based poetics in my own writing, since my natural inclinations led me to such writing over the course of my undergrad a few years back. I’ve moved from broader processural constraints such as erasure to experimentation with smaller-scale formal and linguistic constraints that vary from poem to poem.
While back in Calgary soliciting feedback from a few friends, for my most recent manuscript, a friend of mine introduced me to Louis Bury, a scholar who, over the course of his 8-year PhD, produced a 700-page dissertation about constraint-based poetics. What makes Bury’s dissertation unique (besides perhaps its page count), is that he wrote each section according to the same constraint of the work that section discusses.
Taking Nathan Brown’s class on Structure and Form this term introduced me to Adorno, who posits that “absolute freedom in art, always limited to the particular, comes into contradiction with the perennial unfreedom of the whole…it is uncertain whether art is still possible; whether, with its complete emancipation, it did not sever its own preconditions” (Adorno, 1). Constraint-based processes in writing and other forms of expression offer a framework for art, a rigid scaffold upon which to build, at a moment in the history of art when the openness and freedom of many practices, such as writing, has led to a bloating and explosion of so much content that, ironically, writing in a Dionysian ‘free form’ way feels limiting for many.
Constraint-based writing may seem masochistic or self-flagellatory to those with little or no experience experimenting with constraints, however adopting such practices can not only enable the writer to be more productive and efficient in their craft, but can also enable the work to be more genuine. Since the writer is consciously focused on the constraint rather than on questions of emotional evocation, this allows the unconscious freedom to express in ways it would not have, had the writer been focused on the emotive aspects of the work.
There is, of course, the potential for constraints to take over a poem or other text, leaving it dry, mechanistic, and ultimately ‘boring’. There are those that intentionally produce such texts, meant to be considered conceptually rather than ‘read’ in a more traditional sense. Finding a balance between producing purely conceptual constraint-based work and work that simply utilizes a constraint and/or concept is part of developing one’s poetics. The same is true of any kind of writing, including academic prose.
Bury’s dissertation strikes the aforementioned balance, presenting compelling investigations of various constraint-based works while demonstrating the constraints it discusses. One section mirrors Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, providing 99 stylistically different, summative portrayals of the section’s concept. Another section of Bury’s dissertation utilizes the ‘N+7’ method on itself, producing surprisingly intelligible alternate version of itself. In another chapter, Bury remarks upon Darren Wershler’s Tapeworm Foundry by listing several ideas for essays about the volume rather than presenting any one essay.
At a lecture Bury gave at the University of Calgary, he remarked that he had tried to write a section of his dissertation on Christian Bök’s Eunoia, but had dropped the idea, since writing a univocal lipogram that also functioned as a meaningful critique of Bök’s second book proved impossible. He had produced a short paragraph, but joked that he was embarrassed by its lack of merit. Not all forms of wiritng lend themselves to certain constraints; poetry’s freedom to experiment with language (a license recently acquired in terms of the history of the form), ironically allows it to respond most favourably to extreme constraints, as Eunoia demonstrates.
Academic writing, on the other hand, with its formal and linguistic tropes enforced by the academy, seems to struggle more within the strictures of certain constraints. Moreover, when pitching such a dissertation to a committee for review and defense, the constraint-obsessed scholar’s arguments must be, as Bury put it, all the more “air-tight”, for such an unconventional project to be taken seriously.