Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Playing with Words--Christian Bok and John Fuller

I substituted at a middle school a little while ago, and the teacher had left a lesson that involved reading and discussing a poem (it was “The First Book”, by Rita Dove) and then writing a “found poem”, based on words that the students found around the room. I knew that I would have to sell it well for the lesson to have any chance. After we established, with only little confusion and resistance, the poem’s message, I steered the discussion to the poem’s poetic qualities. I tried to emphasize what made the poem a poem, which is hard sometimes when so much that is called “poetry” is simple fancy prose with irregular line breaks. So we talked about image, figurative language and double meanings, and I suggested, as I suggest with every class on the subject, that poetry is essentially playing with language.

(I had had difficulty with a previous definition that had confounded a class of sophomores, that poetry “is words doing more that just meaning what they mean.” Try as they might some students couldn’t repeat that sentence back to me. One was convinced that I had said that poetry “doesn’t mean anything”.)

When it came time for the assignment to write a “found poem”, I anticipated some resistance. They would certainly ask why they couldn’t just write about anything they wanted. So I told them about Christian Bök, and I reminded them about “playing with language”. Christian Bök wrote the book Eunoia, in which each of five chapters uses only one vowel, each in turn. The first page goes thus:

Awkward grammar appalls a craftsman. A Dada bard
as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an
alpha (a splapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars
all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A
madcap vandal crafts a small black ankh — a hand-
stamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a
mark that sparks an ars magna (an abstract art that
charts a phrasal anagram). A pagan skald chants a dark
saga (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackballs all
annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and
Kafka, Marx and Marat. A law as harsh as a fatwa bans
all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.
In addition to that constraint, Bök requires that each chapter must refer to writing, a banquet, a “prurient debauch”, a “pastoral tableau”, and a “nautical voyage”. Each must “accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical parallelism”, exhaust as much of the available lexicon as possible with minimal repetition, and avoid the letter y.  To top it off, the E chapter is a retelling of the Illiad.

The effect is fascinating. Far from limiting interest, Bök’s syntactic limits heighten our fascination. We wonder how he will pull it off, and what the result will be. Furthermore, Bök does not ignore the importance of sound. Although he does indeed accent internal rhyme, the fact of the vowels themselves creates a distinct articulatory mood in each chapter. One would never think that somehow the letter u was so linked to the letter s in the English language, but try reading this out loud. The combination creates a phonetic pattern that reminds me somehow of a washing machine:

Kultur spurns Ubu – thus Ubu pulls stunts. Ubu shuns
Skulptur: Uruk urns (plus busts), Zulu jugs (plus
tusks). Ubu sculpts junk für Kunst und Glück. Ubu
busks. Ubu drums drums, plus Ubu strums cruths
(such hubbub, such ruckus): thump, thump; thrum,
thrum. Ubu puns puns. Ubu blurts untruth: much
bunkum (plus bull), much humbug (plus bunk) – but
trustful schmucks trust such untruthful stuff; thus
Ubu (cult guru) must bluff dumbstruck numbskulls
(such chumps). Ubu mulcts surplus funds (trust
funds plus slush funds). Ubu usurps much usufruct.
Ubu sums up lump sums. Ubu trumps dumb luck.
So, back to the middle school class. I asked who liked to do puzzles, and got a few hands. Some mentioned sudoku or crossword puzzles. I told them that what they were about to do was much the same thing, and much the same as Christian Bök had done: they were going to try to solve a puzzle and write a poem. They were going to play with words.

They had five minutes to look around the room and write down any word they saw. I encouraged them to plan ahead, and consider what words might be useful. After that, they were limited to what they had written down (after the time expired, a few students who had been watching their peers run around the classroom and write down words found themselves in a bind because they “didn’t realize that they were supposed to write down words”; this was middle school, after all). Once seated, many found that they couldn’t write a “poem” with the words they had. It turned out that they were defining a poem as “something about how you feel, or about love or something.” I encouraged them to remember the sole criterion: playing with language. In the end, few students got beyond a sentence. One came up with something quite interesting, because she hadn’t bound herself, as most had for some reason, to using each word only once. The repetition and inversion she employed was actually pretty novel and engaging. One small boy was very excited to read his poem to me—a freestyle rap the length of the page. He was disappointed to find out that that wasn’t what he was actually supposed to be writing, but hey, at least he was writing.

The innovation of new restrictions purely for their own sake, or if you would rather, for the sake of pushing poetic innovation to its limits, intrigues me. Writing in a form often feels much like doing a sudoku puzzle or a crossword, and is satisfying for the same reason, with the added result of—hopefully—a new image, phrase or idea that never would have been arrived at without the self-imposed restriction. I sometimes wonder what extremes could be attempted, like alpinists who having heard of a climber summiting Mt. Everest without oxygen bottles, feels the need to do the same backwards on a pogo stick. What if you wrote a poem using only adjectives? Or a sonnet in which each line could only have a specific number of words? Or a poem in which reduced its available letters by one every line? Or all of the above.

John Fuller did something interesting along these lines. In response to a contest to write a poem using only three-letter words, Fuller decided to also write only in lines of three words and stanzas of three lines. Here is the result:

“The Kiss”

Who are you
You who may
Die one day?

Who saw the
Fat bee and
The owl fly

And the sad
Ivy put out
One sly arm?

Not the eye
Nor the ear
Can say Yes:

One eye has
Its lid and
Can get shy;

One ear can
Run out and
Off the map.

One eye can
Aim too low
And not hit;

One ear can
Hug the air,
Get too hot.

But lip and
Red lip are
Two and two,

His lip and
Her lip mix
And are wed,

Lip and lip
Can now say:
“You may die

But not yet.
Yes you die
But not yet.”

The old lie.
Critic Jonathan Barker calls it a “metric invention in search of a subject”. Poet James Fenton calls it “extremely beautiful”. I would simply like to insist that a beautiful metric invention is in no way an oxymoron. And what do you know—Fuller’s poem is even “about love or something”, as the middle schoolers would have it.

Note: John Fullers Collect Works from Chatto and Windus is not available from Amazon.  I found "The Kiss" in this book by James Fenton.

No comments:

Post a Comment