I've been thinking a lot about constraint recently, having read a new book of two essays on the Oulipo movement: The End of Oulipo by Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito. It's quite a curious book, polemic at times, and less about the movement and its poetics than about particular individuals, but still worth reading as a reminder of the fascination which this group of writers, founded in Paris is 1960, can still exert. In the English-speaking world, the prose works of Oulipo writers are perhaps better known, including those of Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, but their approach to literature is equally applicable to poetry. The Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature (Oulipo for short) proposes an approach to writing which emphasises the imposition of artificial and often complex constraints on the text to be produced. The resulting work represents a possible outcome of the experiment conducted by the author, but only one of the many potential outcomes. And, indeed, the experiment can be repeated again and again within the same text to demonstrate the many possible versions that might be produced. So, for example, Queneau's Exercises in Style retells the same banal anecdote over and over again in a variety of literary styles. A recent practitioner of Oulipian techniques in poetry, although not a member of the group, is Christian Bok, whose collection of prose poems Eunoia contains five sections, each written using only words containing only one of the vowels. (There's an excellent essay on Bok's work here, by the way)
|Photo: D. Clarke|
When I look around at contemporary poetry, I see a lot of poets setting themselves formal challenges. Michael Symmons Roberts recent Drysalter, for example, consists of 150 15-line poems. As far as I'm aware, there is no special reason for adopting these parameters, but - once accepted - they allow Symmons Roberts to explore a range of formal possibilities within the space of those 15 lines. Only by limiting himself is he able to discover something new. Matthew Caley's Apparently (2010) is a very different collection, but takes as its starting point the premiss that each poem will either begin or end with the word 'apparently'. This gives the whole collection a speculative, playful atmosphere, as if everything were in the subjunctive - which, in poetry at least, I suppose it always is. There's more game-playing of various kinds to be found in Jon Stone's excellent School of Forgery (2012), much of it with distinctly Oulipan tendencies.
But even poetry which does not foreground its formal constraint so openly cannot escape the fact that its artifice is central to its own production. I have often heard the view expressed that poetic form should somehow melt into the background or become natural-seeming. Of course, we have all heard and read bad poetry which is written only to make the rhyme or meet the requirements of the chosen metre, but these poor examples should not distract us from the potential of formal constraint, of whatever kind, to challenge the poet to explore new terrain - form is not just something the poem is poured into, but a factor in its production, opening up new potential for expression.