The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Recently, I came across the slightly weird world of constrained writers. These are people who write essays and stories and poems under self-imposed restrictions. The univocalists write texts with only one vowel. Others pen compositions missing a given letter. Certain others concoct palindromic verse (or prose). Acrostics and anagrams appeal to a shadowy few.

It has been pointed out that much of classical literature has depended on arbitrary restraints. The sonnet is an example. Haiku is another. Under the aegis of Raymond Queneau and François de Lionnais on 24 November 1960 was founded Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Oulipo, to promote and focus on writing subjected to restrictions, and indeed, to imagine new constraints, and find old examples. The founding example of the oeuvre remains Queneau's 100,000,000,000,000 Poems, which is a set of ten sonnets with interposable lines so that any of the ten first lines can be followed by any of the ten second lines and so on, a combinatorial explosion that leads to the title of the work. At this particular instant, my brain is somewhat slower than usual, and I am unable to verify with nCr, if this is indeed correct.

A famous lipogram, i.e. a text that excludes at least one letter of the alphabet, is that by Georges Perec, titled La disparition. This avoided the letter 'e', and was translated into English by Gilbert Adair as 'A Void', similarly avoiding 'e'. Ian Monk, a writer of considerable panache in this paradigm, took exception to Adair's piece. In a rambling piece (scroll down a bit), he wrote:

Although I would not go so far as to concur fully with Vladimir Nabokov's vision of a "gray Clio of translation", [...], for a lipogrammatic translator, an ability to find a way of saying what his original says, without addition or omission, in so far as his idiom allows him so to do. Adair is witty, and a good wordsmith, but his translation totally fails to do this

He goes on to provide examples of added verbosity on Adair's part, and complains that A suspicion starts that Adair is simply showing off, without any thought for his original. He then concludes with a neat twist

Although working without that most common symbol of all, writing paragraphs full of original insight and/or blatant rubbish is child's play. My fumbling dispatch amply displays this fact, I think.

Under severe constraints, David Shulman came up with this sonnet in 1936:

Washington Crossing the Delaware

A hard, howling, tossing, water scene:
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
"How cold!" Weather stings as in anger.
O silent night shows war ace danger!

The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When general's star action wish'd "Go!"
He saw his ragged continentals row.

Ah, he stands -- sailor crew went going,
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens -- Winter again grows cold;
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.

George can't lose war with 's hands in;
He's astern -- so, go alight, crew, and win!

Can anyone figure out what the constraint here is?

Where there's Oulipo, there's Ou-x-po, where x stands for various combinations of letters that will represent other genres. Oubapo - for example - for comics is well served by Art Spiegelman. Palindromic comics, anyone? Interestingly, literary critics have already begun to study the construction and ramifications of this. Check out this particularly apropos analysis - taken entirely out of context, I hasten to add - by Jan Baetens:

"creation and re-creation, i.e. constraints which can be considered generative (they produce new works) and constraints which can be considered transformational (they modify existing works)" (Groensteen 1997: 17). Of course, one could scrutinise here the very distinction between creation and re-creation, but this is not what I intend to do. What interests me is a critical analysis of the notion of "production" (or "generation")...

That famous acrostician and humorist, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, came up with this piece:

A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July -

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear -

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream -
Lingering in the golden gleam -
Life, what is it but a dream?

Surely it's clear what this one is about?

In Classical Chinese (but not when pronounced in Modern Mandarin), the Lion Eating Poet in the Stone Den comprises 92 repetitions of the sound 'shi'. Of course, Chinese is a notoriously tonal language, so 'shi' sounds differently throughout this work:


The advent of computing technology has broadened the choices available. Consider this. I am unable to find any minutes of this ACM/IEEE meeting on Constrained Poetry and Prose. Surely, though, this would have been a rollicking evening.

(Dammit, I lived barely two miles from Rusty Scupper at that time. If only I had known this was going on.)

A very clever bit of poetry, in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, is the following effort by Mike Keith, who organised that ACM/IEEE meeting I mentioned above. What's going on here?

Poe, E.
Near a Raven

Midnights so dreary, tired and weary.
Silently pondering volumes extolling all by-now obsolete lore.
During my rather long nap - the weirdest tap!
An ominous vibrating sound disturbing my chamber's antedoor.
"This", I whispered quietly, "I ignore".

Look at the number of letters in each word of the poem starting with its title. 3 1 4 1 5 9 2 6 ...? Ring a bell? What about the title of this post?

This is all reminiscent of the obfuscated C program which by suitable expansion of the hyphens could improve the approximation of pi. I am unable to get it to format it correctly here, so you might as well take a look at its own page. Hint: you need to compile under the old Kernighan & Richie standard, not ANSI.

Here's another mathematically inspired piece of writing. Here, the number of words in each sentence follows the Fibonacci sequence
Pen. Paper. Steady Hands. Write a word. Write another word after that. Then, write two words to make a sentence. Next, write a three word sentence, followed by a sentence of five words. Pretty soon you're finishing yr. eight word sentence, yr. thirteen word sentence, topping it off with a whopping twenty-one word sentence!

The next paragraph should be shorter than the last - you're going backwards, now. Thirteen, eight, five, three, two, one and one. It ends like it begins. With a word. You're finished. Done. Finito.
But, of course, this bit of comic repartee is way better.



Space Bar said...

A Propos (or maybe not), you might find this fun. Lots of links there.

Fëanor said...

Thanks, SB. I see that there was at least one Queneau fan there. Didn't realise that there was quite a fan following for this constrained writing biz.

Ros said...

Thanks for that. If I get to put someone in detention next year (as I'm sure I will) their task will be to write a Fibonnacci sonnet. :)

Fëanor said...

Ros: Ooh, evil :-) But glad to be of assistance!

Taiyun Wei said...

I admire your great knowledge.《施氏食獅史》 is very interesting, as a Chinese, I know it is very hard to read:)

Fëanor said...

Taiyun Wei: Thanks for stopping by and your kind words. I cannot read that bit of Chinese myself, but I take it on faith that it is difficult!

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