What follows is the presentation I gave at the Its About Reading Series
on 14 August.
NO THINGS BUT IN WORDS: CHANCE, PROCEDURE, AND CONSTRAINT
George Perec wrote a novel without using the letter "e". Ronald Johnson wrote a poem by crossing out words and letters from Milton's Paradise Lost
. Raymond Queneau wrote his Exercises in Style
by telling the exact same story—about seeing a man wearing a hat on the bus—100 times, each time using a different style from opera to that of the business memo. Christian Bök wrote a poem each section of which uses only one vowel. Jackson Mac Low wrote his Virginia Woolf Poems
by painstakingly selecting words from Woolf's novels by an almost mathematical procedure. Doug Nufer wrote a poem based on Eliot's The Wasteland
by reversing the order of the poem's lines and reversing each line. I wrote a piece that substituted words beginning with the same first letters as the words in the opening verses of Genesis.
Why would someone choose to write this way? If writing is supposed to be about something, what is this kind of writing about? You can't entirely rule out perversity. Perec—the fellow who wrote the e-less novel—worked as a scientific librarian and sometimes was asked to re-type his memos when his superiors failed to appreciate seeing the memos written in the shapes of triangles or hexagons. There is an answer beyond perversity, though. For me, there are two parts to the answer, one philosophical and political, the other psychological and personal.
The philosophical and political part has to do with what may be called the materiality of language. When we think about words, we often think of them as tools we use to get to something else, something else in the world—say truth, or experience. You may regard these tools as partially broken and makeshift, or finely-honed instruments of precision and meaning, depending on your particular view of the world. I don't want to dismiss this view of words. I make a good living with language in that mode by writing documentation. And if that documentation isn't precise and meaningful, my company's customers give me an earful. But thinking about language in this way is to see it outside and, perhaps, opposed to the world.
Language, however, is part of the world, part of our human world. A promise or a wedding vow has no objective existence in what we sometimes call the world. Promises and wedding vows are, however, real things in our human world. And they are real things in that part of our world formed by language. So, for me, at least, language and the world aren't opposed because the world is the human world in which I live. And, in that sense language is material. It exists in the human world because promises and wedding vows exist for me as much as the keyboard on which I type or the bowl that holds my morning cereal.
There is another sense, or really an extension of this sense, in which language is material. I can best illustrate this with the first few stanzas of a poem, "Zen Acorn" by Harryette Mullen from her book Sleeping with the Dictionary
Each stanza in this poem is a re-arrangement of the letters in that first stanza. In this poem, Mullen isn't trying to get to something outside the poem. Instead, the letters of the words become objects—objects of language—and the poem moves forward by finding increasingly extreme ways of moving these letters around to create new things, new words from old. This poem isn't about the world in the same sense, say, as Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey
. But it is still about our world because it takes place within our human world of language. And it uses the material nature of language—the pieces like letters—that make the things of language. If we think about it a little, we'll notice that even Wordsworth's poem is partly about language, too, because of its crafted alliteration, consonance, rhyme, and rhythms. These things exist within and because of language.
So, one answer to the questions about those writers I mentioned at the beginning is that they write the way that they do in order to explore the materiality of language by finding bits of language to re-arrange into new things, new work, new novels, new poems.
The personal and psychological reasons for writing in this mode are personal ones. They are reasons that, because of my narcissism I think are true for others, but you'll need to decide that. When I started writing seriously—by this I mean writing poetry—I took the hoary maxim of "write what you know" to heart and wrote first-person, semi-autobiographical pieces. I tried writing from experience. I found it frustrating. I found it frustrating because I'd been there when those things happened. There wasn't the sort of surprise I wanted out of the process of writing. Billy Collins, in "The Secret Game of Poetry," describes what he likes a poem to do. For Collins, a poem that works is like hitchhiking, getting a ride, and being dropped in the middle of someplace you don't know. I liked that comparison and wanted that sense from the process of writing.
Mary Karr was also very popular at the time and it seemed, in some ways, that if you hadn't had an experience of substance abuse, well, you hadn't had writerly experiences. I wrote a piece in which I turned my quiet, straight-laced real mother into an alcoholic. The piece was awful. And so was the feeling of writing it.
Because this is a narrative, I'll skip the byways I took—which included East European surrealism, Louise Glück's essay "Against Sincerity," Rae Armantrout's work, Lyn Hejinian's My Life
and her essays, and the revelation of Mac Low's writing—and get to the epiphany. Like all modern epiphanies, it happened in an unlikely place—a Barnes & Noble bookstore in a mall. In that bookstore I found a book I'd never seen before and that I have never seen since in that store. The book was The Oulipo Compendium
edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie.
The Oulipo are a group of writers who came together in the 60's in France in reaction to surrealism. One surrealist practice was automatic writing, an attempt to remove the normal, waking barriers and let the unconscious come forth. For the Oulipo, the surrealist process of automatic writing wasn't and couldn't really be as free as claimed because it was subject to unchosen and often unconscious forms. Better, the Oulipo argued, to choose a form consciously and write within it. And they set about—and continue to this day—developing new forms and new ways of writing.
Part of the The Oulipo Compendium
is summaries of the Oulipo's major essays and publications, most of which haven't been translated. Most significant for me, however, is that The Oulipo Compendium
is also a giant toolbox. It contains descriptions of the hundred or so different forms the Oulipo have created. The most well-known of these forms is N+7. In N+7 you take a piece of writing and a dictionary and substitute every noun in the writing with the seventh noun in the dictionary following the original noun.
For me, this way of writing has been a godsend. Rather than ransacking my life for something interesting, I can choose a form and start writing. Those forms often lead my writing to places I never would have gotten to otherwise. I have the pleasure of surprise in my writing in a way that the first-person lyric rarely provides me.
Using a procedure—say, collecting definitions and proverbs around a particular word then dropping the selected word and writing something using the words that are left—also helps me win one of the struggles I have with myself. When I'm using a form or procedure, I'm not trying to write Poetry with a capital "p". I'm just playing. Trying to solve a puzzle. Moving things around and seeing what happens. With no goal, the process opens up and I can just write and let the result take care of itself.
I also think that these forms have, in an indirect way, a political function. Forms are a way of approaching something. The more forms we have, the more ways we have of approaching things. And the more ways we have of approaching things, the less likely we are to become fundamentalist in our thinking. In a sort of existential irony, using forms or constraints produces greater freedom—freedom of thought, freedom of writing, and freedom to create.
The next to last thing I'd like to say is that it would be a mistake to think that using a procedure, form, or constraint produces impersonal writing. Whatever the form or procedure, when we use it we are exercising a choice. N+7, for example, may seem mechanical. But its results are rarely so because it is the writer who chooses the starting point—the original piece of writing and the dictionary to use. And no matter what or how we write, our obsessions and deeper concerns will come out. I had a direct experience with this in reading a review of my book of Oulipian-inspired pieces.
I'd like to end by quoting from an essay, "Not-Knowing," by Donald Barthelme. Barthelme writes:
[N]ot-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.
For me writing with a constraint—using only words without "e" or using only the vowel "a" or forming a new paragraph by crossing out letters and words from a badly written bestseller—becomes a way of keeping this not-knowing open, a way that keeps more directions available for longer than would otherwise be possible. It keeps the process—and me—open and, therefore, alive.