A Strange Poetry
In applying to a graduate school MFA program, I have to submit up to thirty poems of a unique nature in a portfolio to each respective school. The stakes are high: If I get in to one of these programs—some of the most competitive—I have a chance at actually securing a future in writing; I will learn how to refine my craft in such a way that will allow me a rare and valuable chance at being published. However, if I don’t get in—with some as little as a 1% acceptance rate, quite possible—the opposite is absolutely true; as an English major, a future of unpaid internships and thankless, editorial apprenticeships awaits.
Needless to say, I’m fairly invested in creating a competent manuscript. In the end, despite a catalogue of letters of recommendation, essays, and transcripts, the body of poetry represents the most significant portion of the application. Therefore, I’ve got to produce the most diverse, innovative, and striking collection that I’m able.
In order to gain inspiration and an understanding of varied poetic forms, I’ve been doing a great deal of reading, concentrating on revolutionary forms. It’s a fear of mine, having been through decades of literature study, that people believe only in the static version of poetry that they’re taught; ultimately, this poetic becomes stale and boring. So, in a quest to refresh and (hopefully) amaze the admissions officers, I’ve been exploring poetry that does not feature standard forms, styles, themes, or rhythms; poems where words are flexible, decoded, and interrogated—the sort of poems, basically, that typically confuse and infuriate their readers. It is in the interval this bewilderment supplies, I believe, that actually the most interpretative progress can be made. It is when we, as readers, feel uncomfortable in literature that the most forward progress is achieved.
Charles Bernstein, looking classy
In this vein, I’ve decided for today’s post to feature the work of a certain poetic group who I’ve recently been drawing from. The group, a French language collective made up of a gathering of poets and mathematicians, is called Oulipo. The group attracts me for a few reasons: They’re one of the few with a codified and absolute set of rules; the group brings poets into contact with scientists, producing a rare and important set of restrictions under which new art can be produced; and the work is quite mindful of theory and the modern context.
Briefly, I’ll document a few of their techniques and mathematic restrictions, and give examples of the work those impositions offered. First, however, I’ll give some work from Charles Bernstein, a well-known American poet, who is also considered a member of the mostly-French group. An examination of a portion of his poetry will serve as a sort of primer for the rest of the article. I’ll start with an excerpt from the weird, take a moment and look over the following poem, then check out the intense video of Bernstein reading it.
Already, you’ve likely dismissed this piece as gibberish. That’s an understandable—and possibly accurate—appraisal. However, I feel that it is problematic to automatically hope for sense, narrative order, and an accessible language structure. By expecting a series of understandable rhymes, rhythms, or words, we limit and reduce the true power of poetry; so let’s give this a chance. The question to demand of poetry is not “What does it mean?” but, rather, “How does it create meaning?” With such an interrogation we will be able to detect meaning both literal and structural.
So, we must wonder, how does “Azoot D’Pund” create meaning? Some readers may be ready to accuse the poem of meaninglessness, of a contrived and self-serving gibberish. Of course, such a reading is a bit cynical and naïve. Let’s point out ways in which the poem operates, simple observations: Firstly, and most obviously, the piece deconstructs language. We can tell because the words and grammar don’t really make sense to us. Secondly, upon further inspection, we find that certain words do make sense; they’re, in fact, anagrams of other words. (This isn’t as obvious here, but in later parts of the poem) Notice, from these two facts, we have enough to draw a conclusion, a meaning, from this seemingly obfuscated piece.
I’ll be the first to admit, I can’t claim to know the absolute meaning or intention of this work. However, it doesn’t matter—whether in reading or reality, we create our own significance. The poem, ostensibly, is a commentary on language. Notice how we struggle in this encounter to find meaning, sense, and a reliable, comfortable “definition” for the poem. Here, Bernstein, quite cleverly playing with words, has us confront our inability to decode and access literature—something, by virtue of us buying an English-language book, that we expected to understand.
He has momentarily disarmed us, left us amid clumps and crumbs of words that aren’t quite enough to go on. Ultimately, I chose this piece because, in essence, it is an attack on absolute meaning. Readied by years of an education in canonical literature, we’ve become, in part, these sorts of language/system decoding machines. When we cannot immediately understand a new or foreign piece of writing, we dismiss it as useless. It’s an interesting cultural mindset, and one that has certainly no place in art.
Raymond Queaneau, looking suspicious.
So, when coming across the few other works I feature here, just take the words as they come, drawing any conclusions you can—working from the most general down to more specific pieces. There is, in no way, a right answer; significance is created when a personal, unique consciousness encounters a provoking or new work, no matter the conclusions drawn. Now that we’ve got the pseudo-theory out of the way, the rest of the piece should be quite fun. I started to write this with the intent of documenting strange poetic forms, and I will continue along that track.
The Oulipo mathematicians met regularly to create new poetic numerical strictures; they believed that in numbers and algorithms there existed the freedom and device to create a synthesized and coherent poetry never before seen. The most famous example of such an algorithm is dubbed N+7. In this constraint, the author replaces every noun in a text with the word placed seven entries after it. The intent, generally, is to demonstrate the general arbitrary means of communication that we call language. Here’s an example of a N+7 ‘translated’ version of Wallace Steven’s The Snowman:
Funny, refreshing, and curious. Critics of this theory of course complain that this structure is absolutely arbitrary, and therefore, uninteresting. On the contrary, it’s because the constraint is—somewhat—arbitrary that the newly produced work is so interesting. If you’d been given this poem without knowing that it was the result of a contrived language game, you’d have attempted to interpret it as a new piece, and, probably, gleaned from it a new and important conclusion.
It might even appeal to you. However, because you’re aware that the piece is “just” the result of a word experiment, you’re less likely to invest yourself in it. Yet, considered objectively, there is no difference. I’d argue that our impulse to dismiss such work speaks to a flaw in our larger human condition; we consider context more significant than the actual object.
Another, whimsical constraint—and one you probably practiced in grade school—is called the tautogram; a text whose words, or a least the central ones, all begin with the same letter.
Or, acronymic poetry; verse in which the letters of a given word furnish the initials of the words used in every line:
Such forms, though seemingly childish and gimmicky, actually provide an important and revered counterpoint to much of the more serious, stodgy literature that was produced by the more snobby, self-important authors. The idea that poetry or prose must look and act a certain way has almost exclusively grown out of a too-strict adherence to the canon. The Oulipians work desperately to prove that good literature can function in any sort of manner as long as it makes an interesting statement. Anagrams and acronyms are certainly not beneath these writers and scientists.
A few, final examples. A favorite of mine, in both name and mode, is called the Snowball, where the first word of a text has only one letter, the second two, the third three, and so on:
A concrete piece of poetry, that visually and literally explores the relationships between diction and meaning, word order and content. Such poems are quite difficult to manufacture, and I recommend them even as an exercise of vocabulary and creativity. Though we often dismiss qualities such as word length, it is intriguing to consider all dimensions of a language when writing.
For a final constraint, I’ve picked the peculiar Chronogram; this restraint exploits the double significance of those letters that are also Roman numerals. When such letters are identified in a chronogram and added up according to their value, their sum will correspond to a given year of the Christian era:
These aforementioned forms represent only a fractional element of the entire Oulipo oeuvre. If the reader is interested in such poetic word play, exploration, and beneficial experimentation, I direct him/her to the Oulipo Compendium edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, two writers extremely close to the movement.
It’s easy to dismiss these language games as unnecessary, nonsensical, and unimportant. However, such a dismissal does a great disservice to the entire body of literature; writing not need come in certain, plain forms that are easily accessed or understood. It is, in fact, the responsibility of literary artists to forward a new mode and method of interpreting and creating work and language, challenging our preconceptions and ideas of the possibilities of literature.
The Oulipo, in my limited experience, seems to most aptly represent a conglomerate of interested scientists and writers who desperately hope to reform and improve literature which, over time, has become stale, marketable, and popular. By devising algorithms and mathematical constraints, these artists squeezed words into new moulds and forms, redefining the purpose and mission of poetry. For the Oulipians, these constraints represented an absolute and necessary freedom. In response to a generation of writers—surrealists, Dadaists—who wrote from the subconscious, the Oulipo members hoped to forward a more rational, liberating type of work.
The Oulipians rallied against the slavishness of surrealism
As founder of Oulipo, Raymond Queneau said:
The kind of freedom that consists of blindly obeying every impulse is in reality a form of slavery. The classical author, who when writing his tragedy follows a certain number of rules that he knows, is freer than the poet who writes whatever comes into his head and is the slave of other rules he is unaware of. (Oulipo 123)
These proposed language games, then, did nothing less than sever the misapplied chains of wayward literature.
I’m sure, even after my argument and examples, many writers will still dismiss this work as trite and functionally useless. If this is the case, I suggest using these poetic operations as an opportunity to flex your poetic muscles; if they for you lack a philosophical depth, these algorithms will undoubtedly help you access elements of vocabulary and style that have probably long laid dormant. In either case, the efforts of the Oulipo—and similar avant-garde movements—should not be ignored; it is these writers who give our canon the laxity and space it so desperately needs to strike and stun readers.
Christian Harder is an undergraduate writer at Virginia Tech in literature who believes in innovations in form and style. He believes politics, preaching, and political correctness have no place in art and remains wary of the effect large cultural institutions and popular trends have on an otherwise intelligent public. He anticipates attending graduate school come next year. Harder maintains his website Pages to Pixels.