||Vowel Movements: Pointless Toil and Empty Productivity
by Carmine Starnino
It seems fitting that a poet who, at one point, earned his living counterfeiting artificial languages for television shows (extraterrestrial in the case of Earth: Final Conflict, tribal in the case of Amazon) now joins the ranks of a literary movement notorious for conjuring up auxiliary jargons, synthetic syntaxes and lexical hijinks. AndrT Alexis may have taken an opening crack at its tenets with his 1998 novel Childhood, but it's Christian B¸k who, with his book-length lipogram Eunoia, has given this country its first freestanding Oulipian product. Launched as a "textual laboratory" in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and mathematician Frantois Le Lionnais, the Paris-based Oulipo¨short for Ouvroir de LittTrature Potentielle (or the "Workshop for Potential Literature")¨continues to flourish, forty years later, as a faction dedicated to investigating "severely restrictive methods" of literary composition. Its members regard as discreditable any impulsive or gratuitous act of the imagination, with Queneau himself deriding all practices based on "chance, automatism and freedom." The mTthode d'Tcole is to devise forms that regularize imaginative writing and subject the lottery-effect surprise of its processes to precise expectations. Oulipian constraints, in the words of member Jean Lescure, "furnish writers with new techniques which dismiss inspiration from affectivity." While the group now publishes its own BibliothFque Oulipienne (more than 70 publications) as well as anthologies of their collective activities, the flagship Oulipian effort remains Georges Perec's 1957 La disparition. Not merely because each sentence of this 300 page novel was flensed of words that use the letter "e" (the most omnipresent letter in the French tongue) but because Perec kicked the game up a few notches by bringing into play a plot that referred to the vowel's vanishing. All well and good, but why would anyone wish to write this way other than for the mere curiosity of it? Jacques Roubaud, another member, sums up the motive in his introduction to The Oulipo and Combinatorial Art: "Queneau's and Le Lionnais's declared aim was to replace literary values (such as those of the alexandrine, of classical tragedy, or of the realistic novel) with new traditions, through the discovery of constraints as Šproductive' as those which for centuries had ruled over the world of letters."
Such is the fundamental hope of Oulipo, and such is the mission entrusted to Eunoia's "univocalic" principle, in which each of the book's five chapters (comprising a paragraph per page, each never more than eighty words) is forced to address a specific vowel. Here's a sample from Chapter A: "A cardshark, smart at canasta, has a scam: mark a pack, palm a jack." Another from O: "Brown storks flock to brooks to look for schools of smolt or schools of snook." And this from U: "Bulls plus bucks run thru buckrush; thus dun burrs clutch fur tufts." These sentences¨tonally trapped between Dr. Seuss and the Jabberwocky¨come off a little silly. What isn't silly, however, is the sedulous skill it took to write them. With 5000 copies sold to date, many Canadian poets and critics have started to close ranks around this book. Leah McLaren's Globe and Mail profile christened B¸k the "Canadian poet of the moment" and Michael Redhill's review (also Globe and Mail) puffed Eunoia as "one of the most exciting collections of poetry to appear in Canada for a very long time." Now it's hard to deny Eunoia's claim as a spectacular jeu d'espirit, and it's even harder not to thrill to the outright perilousness of the project. How else explain the growing legend of its execution? B¸k's slog through the OED, the long evenings of revision, the seven years of toil. Sometimes we need to witness such self-punishing acts of technical adroitness to shake up our cherished idea of poetry as a muse-inspired sport. But maybe, like me, you read Eunoia and emerged from the experience not only with resentful admiration but also with reservations. Maybe, like me, you recognize that the book is not so much a triumph of ambition as a triumph of stamina. And maybe, like me, you appreciate the tremendous industry that was needed to turn what is, essentially, a prosodic prank into a book, but respectfully wonder if it all amounts to something you'd want to call poetry. (Calling B¸k's writing "quite lyrical," as Redhill does, is not the same thing as calling it poetry.) How do we judge the literary merits of Eunoia? How poetically productive, in other words, are B¸k's constraints?
Oulipists are zealots of self-confinement: the more cramped the box, the more eagerly they take up residence. Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa, for example, consists of 52 chapters, each word in the first chapter beginning with "a", each in the second chapter with either "a" or "b" and so on, until chapter 26, where all letters are allowed; the process then reverses, each word in the final chapter again beginning with "a". It's by limiting the infinity of choice in such radical ways that Oulipians have created so many new, unusual options of phrase-making. Whether these new options have contributed to any freshening changes in literature is, of course, another matter. Oulipo is obviously meant to answer some deep boredom in its members who, in turn, bill their activities as, among other things, a thumbing-the-nose attempt to make poetic form fun again. But Oulipo in fact vandalizes form¨deseeds it of surprise and expressive necessity. Once discovered, an Oulipian form isn't really reusable (the way the sonnet is) because that form has been cooked up to flatter a specific and superficial kind of technical cunning. The formal challenge B¸k set out for himself is likely one of the toughest anyone can scheme, but a difficulty mastered should never itself be the prompt that motivates poems into life, particularly since that difficulty will stop representing a danger the moment it can no longer shock the reader with its impossible surmise. "The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight a while by that novelty," argues Samuel Johnson in his preface to the 1765 Shakespeare, "but the pleasure of sudden wonder are soon exhausted and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth." If we classify B¸k's vocalic mastery, and the effect of its repeated appearance, as virtuosity it's because we assume that our appreciation for virtuosity should be linked to the perception of effortlessness. Unfortunately, the reader's urge to credit the hard grind of B¸k's experiment wears off at about the same time as the experiment becomes nothing more than a series of easy occasions to flaunt the discovered plasticity of language.
In other words, our astonishment at the fact that, yes, B¸k can actually do this disappears as we watch B¸k do it over and over again. B¸k's facility turns his sentences into indifferent constructions, each at ease in the achieved equilibrium of its constraints. As far as we are willing to think of this book as a game, as a recreational form of linguistic activity, then all this is not a problem. These sentences have immense diversionary charm, and only a tin-eared fool would deny them that. But B¸k's plying of vowels into complete sentences can't also be said to realize itself as poetry simply because of the feat. It's important to be clear about this. Poetry isn't achieved by the effortless exertion of a prosodic idea. The dactylic hexameter and the pantoum do not, on their own, produce poetry. They may provide excellent occasions for poetry, but poetry will not be the inevitable product of embracing their strictures. If judged as a game, then, each of B¸k's sentences is, like any good parlor trick, forged in a flawless expression of technical intent. But if judged as poetry¨if judged in terms of memorability, emotional vigor and intellectual force¨then B¸k's sentences are barely firing. A poetic form, it seems to me, must also enact what Coleridge calls the "drama of reason." In other words, if the imposed restrictions are meant to force language, intuition, and happenstance to work together, it's not merely so they can taste their own exquisite teamwork, but so as to fashion new ways of speaking about the world. B¸k's paragraphs, however, are objects that answer to no anxiety for expression. We may come across a pleasant collocation of vowel sounds ("lee sheets, when drenched, get reft, then rent") or a moment where B¸k rings his vocalic changes with modest inventiveness ("Goofs who goof off go off to poolrooms...") but there is nothing pithy or epigrammatic or particularly profound about these sentences. Indeed, if meaning in a poetic form exists as a function of its effects, then to judge from the effects B¸k's form is capable of producing, these sentences aren't useful for anything other than verbally scoring the instance of their own existence.
Of course, that may be enough for many readers, especially since that existence has been purchased by lots of very hard work. The more demanding the constraint the more esteem is accorded the writing. Yet it makes no sense to put an appreciative premium on the difficulty of a literary constraint. There are, to be sure, degrees of meritorious performance in art. You can praise a thing done well, you can praise a thing done expertly, you can praise a thing done consummately. But it seems to me that the moment a performance depends on the assumption of a methodology, the moment a performance is judged according to its commitment to a process, it stops being art. Craftsmanship, in other words, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the writing of poetry. Take a sentence like "When French jewelers embezzle De Beers, the stern execs there never detect the embezzlement; hence the theft seems perfect." There's no doubt that sentence represents the flowering of an extraordinary technical challenge. If judged as poetry, however, what it in fact represents is a flight from toil. It's a sentence that's never experienced real struggle because it's been made to struggle only with B¸k's rules and not with any ideas. Let's see it another way. Every principle in a sonnet is designed to restrict or organize the use of words. Those of us who celebrate good sonnets, however, don't celebrate them for their perfect adherence to those constraints, we celebrate them for the satisfying way the poets have exploited those constraints to convey meaning. The sonnet's unique restrictions, therefore, have evolved to better satisfy the particular communicative function that only the sonnet can fulfill. Oulipians, on the other hand, are obsessed with the generative rather than the communicative possibilities of restriction. The Oulipian outcome serves merely as confirmation of a conundrum solved rather than as an occasion when perception and thought were able to find their cadence. Eunoia has thus reduced the afflatus to a kind of automated algorithm whereby B¸k's poems are products of specific procedural rules and are not pressed out by any emotional or intellectual predicament.
"The idea which puts the form together," argued Coleridge, "cannot itself be the form." To put the point differently, a constraint should never be appreciated as an object of artistry in its own right. The danger is, again, made clear by Oulipo. Oulipian pride is so predicated on carrying out a structural proposition that its forms never go deeper that the idea being demonstrated. And once the form exhausts its element of spectacle, what's left to demand other than that we read it again and again? What else can it do? What else can it give us? It would be one thing if B¸k's constraint required him to make more evocative use of his words. It would be one thing if it brought an unanticipated expressive capability to his language. But can we honestly say that it's forced a fresh approach on B¸k? "Lush shrubs bud" is a decent alliterative phrase. But so what? You can't ask readers to credit a poem for manufacturing exactly the sort of preprogrammed music they've already been cautioned to expect. Oulipians may be interested in new habits of writing, but the Oulipian brand of originality will always be doomed¨because of its obsessiveness with a specific technical option¨to virtuosic predictability. The resourcefulness that went into "Troop doctors who stop blood loss from torn colons or shot torsos go to Kosovo to work pro bono for poor commonfolk, most of whom confront horrors born of long pogroms" was a resourcefulness remote-controlled by Eunoia's premise. The sentence is the fault of the form, not the poet. Indeed Oulipo's aesthetic¨fetishizing process over product¨can force different writers to manufacture similar results. Take this from chapter A: "A bantam jacamar can stand athwart a jacaranda branch and catch all scarabs that gnaw at sassafras bark." Now compare it to this from "What A Man!" Perec's own vocalic story in which the only vowel used is also the letter "a": "That smart cat, that has all Alan Ladd's art pat, champs at straws and taratantaras a nag past a pampa." I can't tell the difference between the two sentences, and that's because in both cases authorship has been placed on the same autopilot.
For Queneau, who dubbed his texts "voluntary literature," art could be a conscious decision. And it's true that a strict poetic form requires a certain amount of deliberate technical dexterity, but a form also provides the invitation to surrender one's initiative to the words themselves, allowing chance to become a determining element in the outcome. B¸k's vowel constraint¨which early in the collection becomes a habit, upheld for its own sake¨can't really be compared to the restrictions that poetry's major forms impose on themselves because the enduring success of those forms has everything to do with the fact that their constraints are indexed to a kind of linguistic surfeit. Consider these lines from one of David Solway's sonnets in Modern Marriage: "It pulls the elements to its kingcap / bulge of summit, yet shrugs the lightning off, / indifferent to each black, electric scrap/of air or the sky's upturned water-trough." As part of a sonnet these lines are implicated in a complex, demanding procedure, one that kept Solway busy with the challenge of solving the mechanical problem he had given himself. The rhymes he settled on in order to satisfy that portion of the sonnet's system-building ("kingcap" with "scrap", "off" with "trough") allow the two words¨in their brief brush of sound against sound¨to transcend themselves. Together they become more than their individual melodies. Something, in other words, is created that exceeds the exigencies of the set-up, something not quite predicted, not quite planned. B¸k's system-building, on the other hand, makes it impossible for the language to find pleasure in anything other than the sensation of fulfilling its preselected tenets. When we come to a sentence like "Pilgrims, digging in shifts, dig till midnight in mining pits, chipping flint with picks, drilling schist with drills, striking it rich mining zinc" we can only admire the writing on its own limited, alliterative terms. Worse, because Eunoia's defining eccentricity is forced to relentlessly retread the same path, B¸k's ingenuity banalises itself with every new sentence.
I want to be careful here. This review isn't a squabble with B¸k or with B¸k's book or with Oulipo. It's really a quarrel with those admirers who would explain their enthusiasm for Eunoia by appealing to a belief they are trapped into by their misapprehension. It's obvious the Oulipian aesthetic¨whereby a text is generated by an arbitrary, algorithmic, or selectively random process¨can call forth bravura displays. Perec's famous declaration was that "an Oulipian author is a rat who builds the maze from which he plans to escape," and indeed much of Oulipo is as obvious in its self-promoting practice as Perec seems to promise. You ambush yourself in a seemingly impossible conjecture which you then expertly free yourself from. Yet while B¸k's ingenuity may have been powerful enough to trick his vocalic constraint into pleasing sonic combinations, by doing so B¸k was not writing poetry but merely activating one aspect of it. Yes, let's praise B¸k as an artisan conquering his medium. To give credit where credit is due, poets who can bring off this sort of thing aren't exactly thick on the ground here. Eunoia is one of the most provocative and perverse homages to language in Canadian letters and with it B¸k has joined that august group Queneau proudly called "les fous littTraires." Having said that, I still maintain that there needs to be something functional about poetic form, and that to endorse Eunoia's constraints as poetry is to implicitly endorse the merit of form as divorced from function. Oulipists believe that the choice of possible words is too great for a writer and that constriction of choice ensures originality. The idea of imaginative freedom coming alive amid self-imposed restrictions is one of literature's most trusted premises, but form's truest felicities are invented by necessity not by formula. A convincingly fresh approach, in other words, is an event of feeling, of perception, of intellect. And if a poetic form¨in its capacities, its sensitivities, its sounds and speeds¨carries no instinctive force, then the result, to use Eunoia as an example, will be a condition of pointless toil and empty productivity. ˛