Tag Archives: nathan austin

Conceptualist constraint and the death of poetry

I was going to write a long but considered piece about why I’m against Oulipo-style constraint, using ‘One’ (written by Blake Butler and Vanessa Place and ‘assembled’ by Christopher Higgs as an up to date example of why these things don’t work most of the time.

Then I realised (belatedly) that the poetic form is about constraint, that even ‘free’ verse is constrained by what it isn’t, and that it is these constraints that separate poetry from prose. So, I’m now trying to work out what it is that I dislike and, hopefully, why.

I also need to acknowledge that my own work is acquiring more and more of a conceptual tinge although I’m currently trying to think of this as more documentary and archival. I also need to confess to thinking about doing some constrained film narrative-related stuff on Twitter that has nothing to do with the 147 constraint.

This is further complicated by the fact that I don’t share the purist disdain for all things conceptual which I see as sentimental yet I find some kinds of constraint objectionable. I had thought that this disdain was due to a suspicion of the overly clever or complex which can reduce the worth/value of the ‘result’. Then I recalled the conceit for Nathan Austin’s ‘Survey Says! which is:

Austin alphabetized contestants’ responses to the television game show Family Feud. All of the answers from a five-week run in 2005 and another three weeks in 2008 were arranged according to the second letter of the first word of the phrase, providing the same arbitrary structuring order as many other assemblages of found texts but without the immediately palpable sense of predictable progression that conventional alphabetization provides.

And this is from the work itself:

They save their marriage certifi cate. They save their wedding ring. They say their prayers. They shave it all off. They simply don’t like it? They soak their feet. they step on them. They take a shower when they wake up from a nap. They talk on their cell phone. They twiddle them. They use room spray, or air freshener. They use wolves—wolf. They walk out; they cry; they get popcorn; they go to the bathroom; they leave their seat—no! they get refreshments. They want the temperature to go up.
They wash their hair. They wash their hands. They worry about losing their hair. Oh, golf. Chicago. Chicken. Chicken fingers. Chicken noodle. Chicken of the sea. Chickens fly. Chiffon. Chihuahua. Philadelphia. Children’s education. China. China. China. Think. Chips. Chips. Chips. Thirteen. Three or four, at least. Thirteen. Thirty days. This isn’t me, but: make love. + is might be a little inappropriate, but . . . the sex. This time, we’re going to try cluck. Oh no! I hold onto my emotions. Phone number. Shop. Shopping with his lady. A horse—a workhorse.

This isn’t bad in that it ‘works’ as a conceit and the result is sufficiently interesting, in a banal kind of way, to hold my interest for longer than 30 seconds or so but it isn’t good enough to merit any kind of serious attention and I’m deeply suspicious of any intro/apologia that contains a phrase as inept as ‘the immediately palpable sense of immediate progression’.

I think this leads me to the view that good constraint can be very, very good indeed- Both Simon Jarvis and Kenneth Goldsmith spring to mind from opposite ends of the ‘lit’ spectrum as writers who exemplify the best results of constraint whereas the Butler / Place / Higgs effort demonstrates its weaknesses.

I now need to have a bit of a digression on the death of poetry. Last summer I wrote an incisive and reasoned piece which took Vanessa Place to task for her claim that she had killed poetry. There has now appeared on the web this short film which purports to show Vanessa in the act of killing poetry. This may or may not be a riposte to my riposte- the page includes my (real) name as part of the intro- but I think I need to gently point out again that poetry, if it dies at all, won’t die this way whether at the hand of Vanessa Place or anyone else and the now enacted claim simply isn’t worthy of her and is disappointing because most of the time she is more astute than anyone else currently writing. End of short digression which has neatly avoided the Spenser plan for Irish poetry analogy- this would have made it much longer.

I’m still of the view that the problem with poetry is the poetic and that we need to ditch this pervasive lyricism but I think I still cling to some equally sentimental view of poetry being somehow free and inspired. I think I now what to make a distinction between constraint and gimmick. To my mind Raymond Roussel’s ‘New Impression’s of Africa’ is a gimmick because the constraint renders the work unreadable, George Perec’s two lipograms just seem cleverly silly.

In his introduction to ‘One’ Christopher Higgs lists the constraints given to both Butler and Place:

  1. First Person;
  2. Present tense;
  3. Compose – 40-60 pages;
  4. Because I want to avoid prefabricated cohesion, while at the same time I feel the need to offer a framework within which to play, I’ll suggest that you think in terms of three movements: Discovery-Secrecy-Escape. These need not be sequential, in other words feel free to think in terms of Escape-Discovery-Secrecy, or whatever arrangements of those you want. My hope is that by suggesting these three specific movements it will give you helpful boundary demarcations, and also it will allow me to locate common vector points at which I might establish pivots for the final construction.

Higgs goes on to say that he wanted Butler to focus on external perspectives and Place to focus on those from within. The idea was that Higgs would then put the two offerings together in a way that ‘something magical might be achieved’. I’m now going to lightly skip over the dismal quality of Higgs’ prose and get to a sample of this magical thing:

Now the crack of guns I became in me come back washing and lick all up the center of my guts giving shape by wet of being and tongue definition so I can hurl. Throw both my hard arms towards the over-forehead, which Corrections has already appended with new screaming bulbs, the colours of my thoughts enplasmed with them, hulking as an infant at a thrall.

In the blank of drums in my new standing I hear a shrieking and with my nose I turn around inside the smell of these years already pressed upon us stitching up my nostrils and pinching in crafty lines of neon ants. My head’s weight rotates on an axis that descends into my tummy, tucked with the nothing in kaput. No more blood and no more cellmake, no more doors or potions.

Maybe it’s me but this is about as unmagical as it gets which is a pity because it’s clearly trying very hard indeed but I’m afraid that crafty line of neon ants gives the game away- the ambition and effort all too often slide into facile cliche. Unfortunately ‘One’ appears to be another example where the constraints are given too much emphasis at the expense of the content