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Marjorie Perloff

The Oulipo Factor:

The Procedural Poetics of Christian Bök
and Caroline Bergvall

This piece is 8,100 words or about twenty printed pages long.

Notes are given at the end of this file. Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.

Prefatory note: In 2002, the Spenser Society, which regularly sponsors a session or two at the annual MLA Convention, asked me to participate in a panel on the legacy of the Spenserian Stanza. I am hardly a Spenser expert, but when I studied the stanza with its ingenious interlocking rhyme scheme (ababcdcdd), in which eight iambic pentameter lines are followed, to great effect, by a final alexandrine, it struck me that, although, after the nineteenth-century, poets no longer use the Spenserian stanza, its complexity, and especially its deployment of the alexandrine, have much to teach a poetry culture increasingly indifferent to the role of sound in poetry. Indeed, the free verse, now dominant not only in the US  but around the world, has become, with notable exceptions, little more than  linear prose, arbitrarily divided into line-lengths. But there are two sites where sound is once again being foregrounded. The first, as we have already seen, is in Concrete and post-Concrete visual poetries. The second may be found in procedural  (rule governed) poetics, whose center today is probably the French movement called Oulipo. The following essay takes up the Oulipo alexandrine and some of its Anglophone derivates.

Loyal practitioners of the alexandrine, our hexameter, unhinge from within the meter of this rigid and puerile mechanism. The ear, freed from a factitious counting, takes joy in discerning, on its own, all the possible combinations of twelve tones.

Stephane Mallarmé, ‘Crise de vers’[1]
Our words must seem to be inevitable.
W. B. Yeats, Letters on Poetry [2]

In 1988, Jacques Roubaud, the remarkable poet-novelist-theorist-mathematician, published a book called La vieillesse d’Alexandre (The Old Age of Alexander), which makes the case that the death of the alexandrine — the twelve-syllable line which is the staple of French poetry from the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century — has been grossly exaggerated.
      Roubaud’s dramatic story begins in the 12thcentury with a short fragment of a Provençal poem dedicated to the exploits of Alexander the Great, written by one Alberic de Pisançon.[3]  This poem, written in octosyllabics, was soon followed by a decasyllabic (pentameter) Alexandre, and then in 1170, Lambert le Tort de Chateaudun introduced the decisive innovation destined to create an indissoluble link between the hero and the meter in which his exploits were to be celebrated in the many Alexander poems that followed — a line that had twelve syllables and a complex set of rules. In the Alexander poems that now prolilferated, the hero was depicted as conqueror and lover; he tamed andc mastered the wild horse Bucephalus, descended into the underworld in a glass barrel, and was always the perfect chevalier courtois. By the mid-fifteenth century, the twelve-syllable line was named the alexandrine, and it became the celebrated verse form that extended from Corneille and Racine, as in the latter’s famous reference to Phèdre as

La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé

down to Baudelaire, whose alexandrines often break up, not into hemistychs as in the above example, but into trimeters, as in:

A la très belle, à la très bonne, a la très chère

In its variable forms, the alexandrine remained intact until the fall of the Paris Commune in 1870. In that year, it experienced a catastrophe — the word is well chosen because etymologically it means kata (down) plus strophe (turning) and hence has metrical overtones — at the hands of Rimbaud’s ‘revolutionary’ poem ‘Qu’est-ce pour nous, mon coeur’ (see VA 20-26). For here the rules, especially those relating to the necessary prominence of the sixth syllable and the place of the silent e were consistently violated. And Roubaud relates this violation to the violation of the social order, which is the impetus of Rimbaud’s oppositional poem. After Rimbaud, so the common wisdom would have it, the ‘broken’ alexandrine was increasingly replaced by free verse: Apollinaire’s and Cendrars’s rhythms set the stage for what Roubaud calls ‘le vers libre international — the free verse now dominant around the world, whose only distinguishing feature is lineation as such. Free verse, Roubaud notes, easily adapts linguistic units to linear ones and is characterized by its formal indifference (VA 204).  Its absence of rules makes it suitable for a global age for free verse passes readily from language to language and is potentially translatable. Indeed, says Roubaud, the passage of free verse across frontiers is metrically duty-free (VA 205).
      The ‘death of Alexander,’ by this argument, is inevitable in the would-be egalitarian twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The common wisdom goes something like this:  (1) Verse is not necessarily poetry, (2) conversely, then, poetry is not equivalent to verse, and hence (3) verse is of no importance (VA 10).  Contemporary poetry criticism, Roubaud further suggests, has followed suit. Even when it is concerned with poems written in fixed verse forms, it pays no attention to prosody, discussing the texts in question as if they were, in fact, written in prose. All of us have experienced this situation. On an oral exam I once asked a student who was writing a dissertation on Shelley, to name the verse form of ‘Adonais’ and of ‘Ode to the West Wind.’ He was at a complete loss.
      But the apparent hegemony of free verse, Roubaud suggests, was never all that complete. The key figure in this story is Mallarmé, whose Crise de vers (1896), cited in my epigraph above, performs the crucial analysis of the relation of verse to language itself. Let me cite the passage, which refers to the Modernist state of the art, again:

Loyal practitioners of the alexandrine, our hexameter, unhinge from within the meter of this rigid and puerile mechanism. The ear, freed from a factitious counting, takes joy in discerning, on its own, all the possible combinations of twelve tones.

Roubaud calls this  ‘a marvelously Schoenbergian Utopian definition of a new alexandrine, where all the possibilities of twelve – not in the arithmetical sense , the current impoverished sense according to which mathematics is no more than a rigid, puerile, and facticious counting — but where a hieratic rhythmic entity with almost infinity variety, would be in play (for the new jouissance of the ear)’ (VA 53).
      Roubaud is referring here to the ‘mathematical’ poetry of Oulipo (the Ouvroir de litterature potentielle), a poetry that unlike the ubiquitous free verse paradigm on the one hand, and, on the other, the traditional metrical forms of the New Formalists, is produced by those ‘restrictions of a formal nature’ known as constraints. As Roubaud puts it in his 1991 ‘Introduction’ for The Oulipo and Combinatorial Art:
      Obviously a complex relation exists between the requirements of an outwardly imposed rule and the artist’s inner freedom. (This is why the choice of mathematics, arguably in fundamental opposition to poetry, is anything but haphazard.
      And there follow the well-known Oulipo ‘law’:  ‘A text written according to a constraint describes the constraint.’[4]
      According to Oulipo rules, there are as many possible constraints as there are poems, and the constraint is not an external form that is readily recognized but may be a rule that remains largely hidden to the reader. Whereas a Petrarchan sonnet may be understood as a kind of envelope (octave plus sestet), whose parameters govern the poem’s composition, the Oulipo constraint is a generative device:  it creates a formal structure whose rules of composition are internalized so that the constraint in question is not only a rule but a thematic property of the poem.
      Consider Michel Bénabou’s 1986 assemblage of perverses, lines obtained by splitting two familiar lines of poetry and crossing them (see OUC 78). Titled Alexandre au greffoir (Alexander Transplanted), it appeared as #29 in La Bibliothèque Oulipienne and is dedicated to ‘Jacques Roubaud / qui ressemble à Baudelaire / et rime avec Rimbaud.’[5]  In his headnote, Bénabou notes that, however monotonous the alexandrine may have become in its recent incarnations, it remains the verse form that gave France its golden age of poetry, the cornerstone of its metric, perhaps because its rules are so very strict. Accordingly, with Roubaud’s help, Bénabou sets out to give the alexandrine new life. Their project has two stages: (1) to make a list of all the alexandrines they know by heart, that are thus part of their everyday lives, and (2) to liberate the hemistichs by separating and recombining them, thus producing a whole new set of alexandrines. The latter process produces a sizable body of perverses. Bénabou’s list has 260 alexandrines, each one divided into hemistichs and printed in two columns. The source texts are then reformed into single aphoristic lines, couplets, quatrains, and whole poems. Here for example is the first quatrain of a poem called ‘Les Chats:

Les amoureux fervents des fleuves impassibles
Aiment également, à l’ombre des forêts,
Les chats puissants et doux comme des chairs d’enfants
Qui comme eux sont frileux dans les froides ténèbres.[6]

The source text is Baudelaire’s ‘Les Chats’:

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sedentaires.[7]

Bénabou joins the first hemistich of each line to the second of another: the first alexandrine thus selected (#8) is the opening line of Rimbaud’s ‘Bateau ivre’: ‘Comme je descendais des fleuves impassibles.’ The second (#107) is Phèdre’s disclaimer in Racine’s great tragedy, ‘Ah, que ne suis-je assise à l’ombre des forêts’; the third (#163) comes from Baudelaire’s own ‘Correspondances’: ‘Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfant’; and the fourth (#162) from Baudelaire’s ‘Chanson d’Automne’: ‘Bientôt nous plongerons dans les froides ténèbres.’
      Here, we might argue, is the Schoenbergian ‘12-tone’ fantasy par excellence. For by fusing Baudelaire’s lines with Racine’s or Rimbaud’s, something very interesting happens. The ‘new’ poem is by no means absurd; it makes perfectly good sense, for example, to compare soft cat fur to the skin of small children. The cat lovers, in this version, are not those who are aging and hence sensitive to the cold, but those, like the Rimbaud of ‘Bateau ivre,’ who are lovers of those impassive rivers that will take them far away. But the shadows of the forests (here Phèdre’s lament comes in) are also threatening —   of a piece with the cold darkness of Baudelaire’s ‘Autumn Song.’ Then, too, the Oulipo game is an eloquent homage to the French poetic tradition in general and to Baudelaire in particular, testifying to the continuity of a tradition that has, in French letters, never been surpassed. Bénabou and Roubaud allow us to see that poetry is always intertextual, that even the strongest urge to ‘Make it New!’ involves familiarity with what came before. Indeed, to take the hemistichs apart, as we would a musical phrase, is to see how complex and intricate a form the alexandrine really is. There need be nothing passé or dated about its use, provided its mathematical variability is honored.
      In Oulipo Compendium, Harry Matthews gives us some English examples of Bénabou’s perverse s, this time in iambic pentameter, which is to English what the alexandrine is to  French. For example: from Shakespeare’s ‘They that have power to hurt and will do one,’ and Milton’s ‘They also serve who only stand and wait,’ Matthews produces the couplet:

They also serve who hurt and will do none
They that have power to only stand and wait

Or he invents a sonnet like, ‘the Maoist’s Regrets,’ which begins

Shall I compare thee, China to Peru?
That is no country! Amid the alien corn,
The wood’s decay, the yielding place to new,
The old order changeth! blow his wreathed horn!

The pentameter does not break into two equal parts, and so it doesn’t lend itself as well as the alexandrine to Bénabou’s particular constraint.
      But iambic pentameter has its own potential, which Matthews exploits in a brilliant piece for the poetry journal Shiny called ‘35 Variations on a Theme from Shakespeare.’[8]  The source text is ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ Here are some examples of Matthews’ variations:

O2. Anagram
Note at his behest: bet on toot or quit

Lipogram in a
To be or not to be, this is the question

Lipogram in i
To be or not to be, that’s the problem

Lipogram in e
Almost nothing, or nothing: but which

Missing letter
To be or not to be hat is the question

One letter added
To bed or not to be, that is the question

To be, if you so what I mean, to be, be alive, exist, not just keep hanging around; or (and that means or or the other, not getting away from it) not to be, not to be alive, not exist, to — putting it bluntly — check out, cash in your chips, head west: that (do you read me? Not ‘maybe this’ or ‘maybe something else’) that is, really is, irrevocably is, the one and only inescapable, overwhelming, and totally preoccupying ultimate question.

Curtailing (different)
To be or not to be, that is

Two-beer naughty beat shatters equation

And so it goes, the famous line being put through such other hoops as ‘Double Curtailing (‘Not to be, that is’), ‘Antonymy’ (‘Nothing and something; this was an answer’), and ‘Permutation’ (‘That is the question: to be or not to be.’
      What is the purpose of Matthews’s little Hamlet game? First, it demonstrates the difference syntax and morphology can make, the changes meaning undergoes by means of something as seemingly trivial as the addition of a single phoneme or a change in word order. ‘That is the question: to be or not to be’ has an entirely different emotional aura from the original, and amplication (#13) turns Hamlet’s meditation on suicide into a Woody Allen comedy passage. More important:  as in the case of Roubaud and Benamou’s alexandrines, Matthews’ ‘35 Variations’
      Is an anatomy of the untranslatability that makes poetry what it is. For, as the variations show, there is no other way to say ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ Consider the rhythm:
      To be or not to be // that is the question
      where the clash of stresses in the fifth and sixth syllables and the extra unstressed final syllable enact what the line is saying. The lipogram ‘to be or not to be, that’s the problem’ has the requisite ten syllables but loses the force of the terrifying eleven-syllable original. For one thing, ‘Problem’ cannot compete with ‘Question’ with its paragram on quest. For another, ‘that’ must be isolated for emphasis. Sound and syntax, in this scheme of things, are all.

The Linear Fallacy

In the US, Oulipo has long had its counterpart in the work of John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, and the Fluxus poets. Cagean constraints are not as literary as those of Oulipo — the rules are not likely to involve rhetorical figures like anagram or homophony —   but the counting devices are often more elaborate than such Oulipo rules as N + 7.[9]  The poetry of constraint, in any case, is now becoming an interesting alternative to the dominant poetic mode of the anthologies and journals — dominant, incidentally, not just in conservative but in so-called experimental circles as well. Consider the following examples, some of them lyric, others narrative, which I have selected at random, by opening the just published Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry and copying out the beginnings of poems, written during the 1990s:

On Fridays he’d open a can of Jax
After coming home from the mill,
& ask me to write a letter to my mother
Who sent postcards of desert flowers
Taller than men. He would beg,
Promising to never beat her

When his Excellency Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey
Invited me to lunch on the battlefield
I was glad of my white suit for the first time that day.
They lived well, the mad Norodoms, they had style.
The brandy and the soda arrived in crates

On my way to bringing you the leotard
you forgot to include in your overnight bag,
the snow started coming down harder.
I watched each gathering of leafy flakes
melt round my footfall.

Menial twilight sweeps the storefronts along Lexington
as the shadows arrive to take their places
among the scourge of the earth.

A young black girl stopped by the woods,
so young she knew only one man: Jim crow
but she wasn’t allowed to call him Mister.
The woods were his and she respected his boundaries
even in the absence of fence.

‘Look how they love themselves,’
my mother would lecture as we drove through
the ironwoods, the park on one side,
the beach on the other, where sunworshippers,
splayed upon towels, appeared sacrificial,
bodies glazed and glistening like raw fish in the market.

For many years I wanted a child
though I knew it would only illuminate life
for a time, like a star on a tree; I believed
that happiness would at last assert itself,
like a bird in a dirty cage, calling me,
ambassador of flesh, out of the rough
locked world of sex.

Seven poems, all of them by distinguished prize-winning poets: in order of their appearance, Yusef Komunyakaa, James Fenton, Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, Thylias Moss, Cathy Song, and Henri Cole.[10]   Yet, different as these poets are from one another with respect to gender, ethnicity, and thematic concerns, all of them observe what is currently a poetic formula:  their ‘free verse’ is really — and perhaps intentionally — no more than lineated prose.[11]  Here are my transpositions of the seven extracts above:

On Fridays he’d open a can of Jax after coming home from the mill, & ask me to write a letter to my mother who sent postcards of desert flowers taller than men. He would beg, promising to never beat her again.

When his Excellency Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey invited me to lunch on the battlefield, I was glad of my white suit for the first time that day. They lived well, the mad Norodoms, they had style. The brandy and the soda arrived in crates.

On my way to bringing you the leotard you forgot to include in your overnight bag, the snow started coming down harder. I watched each gathering of leafy flakes melt round my footfall.

Menial twilight sweeps the storefronts along Lexington as the shadows arrive to take their places among the scourge of the earth.

A young black girl stopped by the woods, so young she knew only one man: Jim Crow but she wasn’t allowed to call him Mister. The woods were his and she respected his boundaries even in the absence of fence.

‘Look how they love themselves,’ my mother would lecture as we drove through the ironwoods, the park on one side, the beach on the other, where sunworshippers, splayed upon towels, appeared sacrificial, bodies glazed and glistening like raw fish in the market.

For many years I wanted a child though I knew it would only illuminate life for a time, like a star on a tree. I believed that happiness would at last assert itself, like a bird in a dirty cage, calling me, ambassador of flesh, out of the rough locked ward of sex.

When we examine these models, we note that the line break, so central to free verse in its early manifestations in the twentieth century, no longer has the semantic function it exercised in poetry from Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, to George Oppen and  Lorine Niedecker, Robert Creeley and Frank O’Hara, down to Clark Coolidge and Rae Armantrout.  Indeed, in these recent poems, all of them written in complete sentences, the attention paid to sound structure or syntactic patterning is so minimal that one can only conclude that the term poetry currently designates, not the melopoeic origins of lyric poetry or the page designs of visual prosody but rather an ironized narrative or, more frequently, the personal expression of a particular insight, presented in sometimes striking figurative language:  ‘desert flowers / Taller than men,’ ‘leafy flakes melt round my footfall,’ ‘Menial twilight sweeps the storefronts,’ bodies are ‘glazed and glistening like raw fish in the market,’ ‘happiness’ asserts itself ‘like a bird in a dirty cage.’[12]
      But since fiction can — and does — foreground these same devices, the same ‘sensitive,’ closely observed perceptions or ironic, parabolic tales — one wonders if ‘poetry’ at the turn of the twenty-first century isn’t perhaps expendable. Do we really need it? Or is ‘real’ poetry to be found, as some people now argue, in Hi-Hop culture or at the Poetry Slam?  Or perhaps in New Formalist attempts to restore the iambic pentameter or tetrameter to its former position? Whatever our position on the New Formalism, close reading of its exemplars suggests that, like the clothing or furniture of earlier centuries, the verse forms of, say, the Romantic period cannot, in fact, be replicated except as museum curiosities. Consider the opening of Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’:

Five years have past: five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! And again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. — Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

A whole essay could be written on the subtle ways these lines enact the ‘connect[ion]’ of ‘the landscape with the quiet of the sky.’ The assonance of ‘quiet’, ‘sky,’ the internal rhyme of ‘steep’ and ‘deep’,  ‘soft’ and ‘loft-y’, the permutation of ‘secluded’ into ‘seclusion,’ and the relation of enjambment to the creation of that ‘soft inland murmur’ of line 4: each rhythmic unit here is carefully calibrated. But the mere choice of meter is obviously not enough:  here is Dana Gioia’s account, in a poem called ‘Rough Country,’ of coming across a hidden waterfall:

not half a mile from the nearest road,
a spot so hard to reach that no one comes–
a hiding place, a shrine for dragonflies
and nesting jays, a sign that there is still
one piece of property that won’t be owned.

Here the dutiful elaboration of the iambic pentameter does little to relate meaningful units: consider the monotony of ‘and NESTing JAYS, a SIGN that THERE is STILL.’ Again, word and rhythm seem to have no necessary connection: if the first line read ‘not half a mile from the nearest highway’ and the second, ‘a spot so tough to reach that no one comes,’ I doubt anyone would notice.
      It is not just that Gioia is untalented; even poets of much greater talent have found that, as Roubaud suggests in La Vieillesse d’Alexandre,  the recycling of a verse form that had a raison d’être at a particular moment in history at a particular place cannot be accomplished. The alexandrine, in other words, can still live, but only when it is understood as what Roubaud calls a ‘hieratic rhythmic entity.’ Specific sound patterns change in response to their time and culture, but the principle that sound structure controls meaning remains the same.

The Jouissance of Sound

Consider, to begin with, the role of sound in the poetry of ancient cultures, not just in Greece and Rome, but in Chinese and Hebrew, Arabic, or African texts as well. In the Lianja epic of the Congo, for example, the bards, so we learn from the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, were interested ‘not merely in the rhythmic flow of the narration following distinctive patterns of line and syllable count’; they also looked for such sound effects as ‘alliteration, sound-imitating words, sonorous names... appositives... lyrical evocations and inversions of normal word order.’[1]   Or again, in Tang Dynasty poetry (usually considered China’s Golden Age), what was called Regulated Verse consisted of a prescribed 8-line stanza, distinguished by its level-tone rhyme, falling at the end of each couplet. Tang Regulated Verse also had specific rules governing the distribution of parallelism. Each component in the first line [was] matched by a grammatically similar and semantically related, yet tonally antithetical, component in the corresponding position of the second line, thus forming a perfect mirror effect.’ ‘The coherence of the poem’s phonic pattern,’ moreover, was ‘governed by the cumulative effect of contrast (dui) and connection (nian)’ (PEEP 194).  For Tang Dynasty aesthetic, the successful poem was one whose elaborate mathematical form could accommodate personal lyric vision.
      Procedural poetry, in this scheme of things, marks a return to tradition — but not quite the Englit tradition the New Formalists long to recreate. Consider again the adage that ‘A text written according to a constraint describes the constraint.’ A recent exemplar of this axiom is Christian Bök’s Eunoia, published in Toronto by Coach House Press in 2001 and, to everyone’s amazement since it is hardly a standard volume of poetry, the recipient of the Griffin Poetry Prize for 2002. In the postface to this 100-page book, Bök explains the book’s particular constraint as follows:

‘Eunoia’ is the shortest word in English to contain all five vowels, and the word quite literally means ‘beautiful thinking.’ Eunoia is a univocal lipgram, in which each chapter restricts itself to the use of a single vowel. Eunoia is directly inspired by the exploits of Oulipo . . .the avant-garde coterie renowned for its literary experimentation with extreme formalistic constraints. The text makes a Sisyphean spectacle of its labour, willfully crippling its language in order to show that, even under such improbably conditions of duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought.[1]

Bök’s chief model was probably Georges Perec’s La Disparition, the tour-de-force novel written without the letter e — a feat almost impossible in French, depending, as it does, on approximately one-eighth of the total lexicon. Gilbert Adair’s translation A Void does the same thing in English.
      La Disparition followed Roubaud’s central rule in making the constraint the novel’s theme as well: the book deals with disappearances and loss, with oblique reference to the disappearance of Perec’s family as a result of the Holocaust.
      Bök reverses Perec’s process by using only one vowel rather than eliminating one. But there are further rules:

All chapters must allude to the art of writing. All chapters must describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage. All sentences must accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical parallelism. The text must exhaust the lexicon for each vowel, citing at 98% of the available repertoire (although a few words do go unused, despite efforts to include them: parallax, belvedere, gingivitis, monochord, and tumulus. The text must minimize repetition of substantive vocabulary (so that, ideally, no word appears more than once.)The letter Y is suppressed  (103-04).

Finally, the poem’s visual layout is rule-bound. The chapters vary in length, but each chapter is divided into units made up of the same number of lines:  12 in A, 11 in E and I, 13 in O, 12 in U. The print blocks, with their justified margins, look like squares and are placed in the upper part of their respective pages.
      The operations described obviously can’t be carried out by a computer: no program could readily sort out the words needed to present a prurient debauch or culinary banquet. And that, of course, is Bök’s point. To see how the process works, let me reproduce  the five A, E, I, O, U sections that ‘allude to the art of writing.’ These occur, in all five cases, at the opening of their respective chapters, although questions of poetics come up again later in each text:

CHAPTER A  for Hans Arp

Awkward    grammar  appals 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

CHAPTER E for René Crevel

Enfettered,   these sentences repress  free   speech.    The
text deletes selected letters. We see the revered   exegete
reject  metred verse: the sestet, the tercet   —     even  les
scènes élevées en grec. He rebels. He sets new precedents.
He lets cleverness exceed decent levels. He  eschews   the
esteemed genres, the expected themes —   even les  belles
letters en vers. He prefers the perverse  French  esthetes:
Verne, Péret,  Genet,  Perec   —   hence, he  pens  fervent
screeds, then enters the street, where he sells    these  let-
terpress      newsletters, three cents per sheet.   He engen-
ders   perfect newness  wherever  we  need  fresh     terms.

CHAPTER I for Dick Higgins

Writing  is inhibiting.    Sighing,  I sit,  scribbling    in  ink
this  pidgin script.   I  sing   with   nihilistic      witticism,
disciplining     signs  with  trifling    gimmicks   —      impish
hijinks     which   highlight   stick    sigils. Isn’t   it   glib?
Isn’t  it  chic? I fit  childish insights  within  rigid   limits,
writing   shtick   which   might   instill   priggish   misgiv-
ings  in   critics  blind   with   hindsight.  I  dismiss    nit-
picking   criticism   which  flirts   with    philistinism.    I
bitch;  I   kibitz   —     griping   whilst   criticizing   dimwits,
sniping   whilst  indicting   nitwits,   dismissing   simplis-
tic   thinking,   in  which  phillipic   wit  is     still     illicit.

CHAPTER O for Yoko Ono

Loops on bold fonts now form lots of words for  books.
Books form cocoons of comfort  —   tombs to hold book-
worms.  Profs from Oxford show frosh who do     post-
docs how to  gloss  works of    Wordsworth. Dons who
work for proctors or provosts do not  fob off school to
work   in   crosswords,  nor   do    dons go off to dorm
rooms to loll  on cots. Dongs go crosstown to look for
bookshops  known t o stock  lots  of  topnotch  goods:
cookbooks,  workbooks  –  room  on room  of   how-to
books  for  jocks  (how to jog,  how  to box), books on
pro   sports,  golf or polo.  Old  colophons  on  school-
books  from schoolrooms  sport two  sorts of logo: ob-
long  whorls,  rococo scrolls   —   both in worn morocco.

CHAPTER U for Zhu Yu
Kultur   spurns Ubu —    thus Ubu pulls stunts. Ubu shuns
Skulptur;    Uruk  urns  (plus busts),  Zulu  jugs     (plus
tusks).  Ubu  scripts  junk  für Kunst  und  Glück.  Ubu
busks.  Ubu  drums  drunks,  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 s tuff;   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 l ump  sums  Ubu   trumps   dumb   luck.

Bear in mind, as you read these curiously dissimilar ‘stanzas,’ Bök’s rule that ‘the text must exhaust the lexicon for each vowel. The poet has not, in other words, chosen particularly silly-sounding U words or harsh A ones, for he must, in the course of the poem, use all the A’s, E’s, etc. What the poem thus teaches us is that, Saussure notwithstanding, vowels do have semantic overtones. A poetics of A, to begin with, evokes an alien, often exotic East :  Hassan, Agha Khan, Arab, Mahabharata, cabal, pagan, fatwa, bachannal, altar, naphtha, maharajah, baklava, Tartar, drachmas, mandala, Cassandra, karma, Allah, Sahara, Rwanda, Shah, Ghana, Katar, Japan, Samarkand, Kandahar, Madagascar, lava sandflat. In the Western world , that exoticism is transferred to A Dada bard as daft as Tzara.  A poetics thus involves awkward grammar  that  appals a craftsman. Dada, we know, always involved the destruction of ‘normal’ syntax and preferred a slapdash arc and a backward zag to the orderly stanza or ballad. Again, A art seems to be largely abstract: a pagan skald chants a dark saga. The authors associated with A lack the gentleness of E or lightness of I: they include such heavies as Kant and Kafka, Marx and the revolutionary Marat. No doubt, this is because A is not only the letter of the exotic East but also of the law and of bans.
      E poetics could hardly be more different. We prefer, as Bök puts it in the stanza following the one cited here, genteel speech, where sense redeems senselessness. E is mostly genteel and soft-spoken; the language of the French esthetes. The E poet is a revered exegete who is familiar with but rejects metred verse: the sestet, the tercet. If A poetry is abstract, E is the language of cleverness — perhaps a shade too clever, since that quality can exceed decent levels. E poets may be primarily clever like Jules Verne or masters of riddling like the Surrealist Benjamin Péret or the Oulipo master Georges Perec. The work of such writers can appear too tricky: We sneer when we detect the clever scheme. But then of course E is, despite all its gentleness and gentility, the language of stress, of wretchedness, dejectedness, and the deepest regrets, which are invariably secret.
      I poetics initially presents itself as light and tripping, the language of wit and impish hijinks.  Iis the realm of writing and singing as well as of criticism. But criticismthat resists nitpicking in favor of philippic wit. Isn’t it glib? Isn’t it chic? asks the poet. And why not: in later sections of I, we meet singing birds, six kinds (finch, siskin, ibis, tit, pipit, swift), whistling shrill chirps, trilling chirr chirr in high pitch. For Bök, this I world  is the charmed world of gliding flight, skimming limpid springs. No fatwa here, no long and heavy Mahabharata. Yet lightness of being may contain the seeds of its own destruction:  I note that I is also the lexicon of crippling and wincing, cringing, spitting, and itching, of the riding whip and the Blitz. Even as A’s abstraction can veer toward exotic fantasy on one one hand, serious philosophical thought Kant, Marx), on the other, I is slippery: Klimt and Liszt are its emblematic artists.
      I take Bök’s O chapter to be the most solemn and scholarly. O, as Bök presents it, is the language of the book, of school, and of the Word. God is also an O-word. In Bök’s sequence, much is made of Oxford dons, provosts, and proctors, of schoolroomscontaining books and rococo scrolls — both on worn morocco. Schoolbooksbear old colophons. Monks belong here, as do the dorms where Oxford dons hold forth. But again the reverse side operates as well:  O gives us the world of tombs and donjons, of Sodom and Moloch, of the mondo doloroso of Job and Lot, of pornshops and blond trollops. The Word has never been taken more to heart. And the emblematic poet of O poetics is none other than Wordsworth.
      None of this can fully prepare us for Bök’s U chapter. In English, U is the dirty vowel — the emblem of slut, lust, fuck, cunt, dugs, humps, bum, stuffs, rumps, crud, bust — one could go on and on. This is Bök’s shortest chapter because monovocalic words with U are much less common than those with the other vowels and also, as we see here, much less varied. Bök can write about Ubu here but Alfred Jarry’s hero is one of the only authors available in the U pantheon. True, there is the Biblical Ruth and Krenek’s Lulu, but we find neither philosophers nor poets in this chapter. The only art in the U-world is sculpture, but here perceived as primarily junk sculpture; the one musical instrument is the drum, the one gourmet dish is duck, served, possibly with rum punch. Not much variation here, not much finesse, delicacy, lightness, or the Exotic other. Yet, before we write off U words entirely, we should remember that this is the chapter of truth and of those who blush when they violate it.
      Eunoia thus differentiates the vowels only to imply, in the end, that there are no hard and fast divisions between their values. Be vigilant, this poetic sequence tells us, don’t fall into the sorcerer’s trap. Don’t let the intricate musical structure and elaborate internal rhyming of the stanza sequence lull you into apathy. In this sense, Eunoia recalls such classic poems as Keats’s ‘Eve of St. Agnes,’ a poem that, like Eunoia, dramatizes the inextricability of pain and pleasure — an inextricability carried through, of course, on the sound and visual level as well. Eunoia may seem, on a first reading, like mere language game, but it soon reveals itself to be a game where everything is at stake and where struggle is all. As the poet puts it in the I chapter, ‘Minds grim with nihilism still find first light inspiring.’
      If Eunoia is overtly an Oulipo work, following the chosen rule quite literally to the letter, other recent poetic texts have adapted the paradigm to their own purposes. I am thinking of the performance texts of such British poets as Chris Cheek, John Cayley, and especially Caroline Bergvall, who performs frequently in the US. Bergvall’s hybrid work — it is composed for live and digital performance, installation, video, as well as book form — derives from post-punk music and sound poetry as well as from literary movements like Oulipo. Her sonic, verbal, and rhetorical devices are extremely sophisticated, encompassing Duchampian pun, phonemic bilingual (French-English) transfer, paragram, ideogram, allusion, and found text. In their complex assemblages, these function to explore such areas as our conceptual approaches to female (and feminine) representation as well as the power structures within which these sexualities must function. The doll, the bride, the daughter, the mesh: these participate in any number of games at once sexual and verbal.
      Bergvall’s most orthodox Oulipo work is ‘Via:  48 Dante Variations,’ which recalls Harry Matthews’s ‘35 Variations on a Theme from Shakespeare.’ Her base text is the opening tercet of Dante’s Inferno:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smaritta

As she recalls her procedure in the headnote:

I had started to collect Dante translations like others collects stamps or good wines, at first simply following a lead to see what might come through, in the dark of dark, in the wood of wood, in the musicalised sense of panic. 1-2-3 lines, and three menace him, and the one at the crossroads and the one who speaks and the one who remains hidden. A perfect plot in the massing of time, lost already walking. Faced with the seemingly inexhaustible pool of translations into English of Dante’s Inferno, I decided to collate all translations archived at the British Library up until May 2000 — seven-hundred years after the date fixed by Dante for the start of the Comedy’s journey

Forty-seven exemplars emerged from this process. The resulting piece was first presented as a recorded text-sound piece with the Irish composer Ciíaran Maher, who, Bergvall recalls, ‘worked on the vocal fractals from this recording to create a 48th variation running underneath the recording.’ The translations were then alphabetized, the list thus collapsing historical time and emphasizing the relativist nature of translation. The resulting musical structure emphasizes similarity where we might expect difference and yet the alphabetization (‘Halfway...’, ‘In the middle of...’, reminds the reader or listener that no two of the translations are exactly the same. As Bergvall explains it:

Unlike the graphic causal horror of linear travel, these point by point interceptions spin a spiraling musicality, its horror is abstracted, a build-up of interrupted motion, pulling together into a narrative of structure, stop-start, each voice trying itself out, nothing looped, yet nothing moving beyond he first line, never beyond the first song, never beyond the first day, the forest walls, the city walls, my body walls. Having to look for points of exit, further in, further down, rather than out.[1]

The chain of variations thus produced is fascinating in the delicate shading of its differences:  the ‘dark wood,’ for example, appears again and again, and yet the wood is also ‘sunless,’ ‘gloomy’ ‘darkling,’ and ‘obscure.’ Some translations use archaic language and rhyme:

Midway the path of life that men pursue
I found me in a darkling wood astray
For the direct way had been lost to view  (#31)

Some are slangy:

Halfway through our trek in life
I found myself in this dark wood,
Miles away from the right road         (#7)

Some emphasize the darkness of the wood, others the darkness of the speaker’s consciousness, unable as she is to find the straight road, the right path, the narrow way, the rightful pathway, or the true road. In Oulipo terms, the sequence enacts its constraint because there is no progress, no ‘direct path’ or ‘path that does not stray’ to take us out of the maze of alternate tercets. Via is Vita, no more, no less.
      Like Matthews’s ‘35 Variations,’ Bergvall’s poem thus demonstrates the power of the poetic word. Dante’s tercet has three basic strands:  the middle of one’s life, the dark wood, and the crossroads where the true path is lost. These three topoi can be varied in countless ways to create a riveting narrative. Who is speaking? How did that speaker come to be in this obscure place? And how do we know the path he’s on is not the right one? What is a ‘true’ path, anyway? Since the reader does not know whose these translations are, s/he concentrates on the differentials, especially the issue of cause in the third line:  is the path ‘lost to view’ to mankind or is it that ‘I had missed the path and gone astray’ (#44)?
      ‘Via’ is a fascinating exercise but even more interesting are such Bergvall sound performance works as her recent ‘About Face’ (Part 2 of her larger project Goan Atom), notes and early drafts of which may be found in a recent issue of How 2. [1]   ‘About Face’ is not a rule-governed composition, although the title pun is exploited in just about every line of the poem, which is twelve manuscript pages long.[1]  In a note on the poem, Bergvall explains:

‘About Face’ started out in 1999 for a performance in which I was interested to explore the format of a reading-performance as an explicit balancing between audibility and inaudibility (the listener’s/viewer’s)... between what you see and cannot hear, what you hear and cannot see.... the piece was more structured and articulated by word and sound associations (‘faceless’ leads by contraction and code-shift to ‘fesse’ [French for buttock] and openness to accidents, rather than as a procedural or constraint-led piece.[1]

Bergvall goes on to say that she used interrupted transcripts of recorded conversations so as to foreground ‘social opacity and historical erasures.’ Then too the form enabled her to reflect on ‘games of face in relation to intimacy, love, intimate pleasure’ and to test such common oppositions as that between Hellenic/ Christian concepts of the face as a marker of presence and Judaic/ Moorish traditions in which ‘face’ can only be ‘symbolic / inscriptive.’ ‘The acrobatics of trying to write face,’ writes Bergvall, ‘leads to reflecting on it as a speech act.’
      Here is the opening:

         Begin a f acing
At a pt of motion
How c  lose is near to face a face
What makes a face how close too near
Tender nr pace m
Just close enough makes faceless
Too close makes underfaced

Ceci n’est pas une fesse
Past nest urn face
Sees here your passing

    This is not a face
Yes transcrpt
S easier li this
     A face is like a rose
The n fss
correlated to ah yes tt  t
waltzing t change

The technique here is not procedural, but ‘About Face’ shares with Oulipo poetics the desire to decompose words so that their phonemic, morphemic, and paragrammatic properties emerge. Take the first line, ‘Begin a f acing.’ Many poems begin with ‘begin’ — for example, Wallace Stevens’s Notes toward a Supreme Fiction (‘Begin, ephebe...’) — but here the space between ‘f’ and ‘a’ which produces ‘ace’ (perhaps an allusion to Tom Raworth’s long columnar poem by that title), suggests that facing someone or something is always an interrupted activity, a ‘point of motion,’ as we read in line 2.  Lines 3 and 4 work similarly — the break-up of ‘close’ gives us the very different word ‘lose,’ and central questions about the phrases ‘face to face’ and ‘about face’ are now posed. Bergvall mimics speech patterns — ‘Tender nr pace m’ — a line that can be heard as opening with ‘tender near’ or ‘tenderness’ but remains visually opaque. This line  modulates, in its turn, into the discriminations of ‘pace’/ ‘faceless’/ ‘underfaced’ and the permutations on ‘how close,’ ‘just close,’ ‘too close.’
      Sound repetition and permutation, together with various graphic variants, thus governs meaning in Bergvall’s poem. There are obvious relations to Language poetry, especially to the work of Charles Bernstein, Steve McCaffery or Joan Retallack,[1] as Bergvall would be the first to admit, but her particular focus here is on verbal/ visual contradiction. The Magritte allusion of line 8, for example, Ceci n’est pas une fesse (This is not a buttock) is heard as ‘Ceci n’est pas une face. And line 9, ‘Past nest urn face’ is a homophonic translation-reversal of ‘n’est pas une,’ the transposition reminding us of the faces carved on Greek urns, those ‘nests’ where the remains of the dead body are contained as so much dust. The ‘urn face’ thus  ‘sees here your passing’: its stability is that of death which will soon be the fate of the passing observer.
      In the next stanza, what is sounded cannot be properly seen: ‘yes transcrpt / s easier li this’ is heard without difficulty as ‘Yes, [the] transcript’s easier like this,’ but on the page the words break down into pre-semantic morphemes.  ‘A face is like a rose’ in the stanza’s fourth line alludes to Gertrude Stein, for whom the rose remains a noun to be ‘caressed’ but finally rejected in favor of non-nouns. Bergvall refuses to leave it at that. Her ‘face’ is just as easily a verb as a noun and hence calls up the lines ‘n fss / correlated to ah yes tt t / waltzing t change’ — lines that take us back to those buttocks (fesses), whose ‘correlation’ remains an unnameable (‘ah yes tt t’). The off-color allusion remains masked; we only know that there is ‘waltzing t change,’ that somehow an about face has been accomplished.
      This is only the beginning of a complex network in which found prose texts from artists like Christian Boltanski, whose astonishing photographs of students at the Lycée Chases in Vienna modulate into blow-ups that recall skulls — the skulls these faces would become in the course of the Holocaust, alternate with complex poetic passages that explore the meanings of facing the other (Levinas), faceless, face up, and so on. ‘About Face’ is a bravura performance that must be both heard and seen, the aural and the visual undermining one another so as to produce a very dense investigation of our facings and facelessness. Toward the end, one of the stanzas reads:

Like a curtain pulled a face it violent
Fc t
vile unforgiving like a spectacle

where  ‘fact’ transforms aurally (but not necessary visually) into a ‘fuck’ that is somehow ‘vile’ and ‘unforgiving’ — no longer a face to be seen as the Other, but mere Spectacle.
      Like Christian Bök, whose initials serendipitously match hers, Caroline Bergvall takes the semantic to be produced both aurally and visually. In one sense, her strategy is perfectly traditional: poetry is, after all, the language art, the art that, in Hugh Kenner’s words, ‘lifts the saying out of the zone of things said.’[2] Kenner’s reference here is to Williams, who was a master of that art, as were, in the next generation, Lorine Niedecker and George Oppen, and in ours, such poets as Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe, Steve McCaffery and Tom Raworth — poets not especially given to the use of procedural methods but always aware, even in their ways of organizing free-verse units,  of the figure sound makes. There are, in other words, serious alternatives to the lineated prose of the Norton poets that do not necessarily move in the direction of the procedural poetics I have been discussing. It is patently not a case of either/ or.
      If the inventions of younger poets like Bök and Bergvall deserve, as I have suggested they do, our close attention, it is because sequences like Eunoia point us back with special force to a poetic moment that has been largely displaced by the sonic indifference that characterizes contemporary anthologies, journals, and poetry readings — an indifference that is satisfied to produce poems or, from the reader’s perspective, to call texts poems merely because they are lineated, never mind the absence of rhythmic figure, sound structure, and visual configuration.  Faced with such prosaic flatness, it is, in Bergvall’s words,

Time to keep pple in the drk
  In need


[1] Stephane Mallarmé, ‘Crise de vers,’ in Variations sur un sujet, Oeuvres completes, ed. Henri Mondor et G. Jean-Aubry (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pleiade, 1946), p. 362.  Translation mine.

[2] W.B.Yeats, Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley (1935–38; New York: Oxford, 1964), p. 61.

[3] Jacques Roubaud, La vieillesse d’Alexandre.Essai sur quelques états récents du vers français (Paris: Editions Ramsay, 1988), p. 7. Subsequently cited in the text as VA.

[4] Jacques Roubaud, ‘Introduction, The Oulipo and Combinatorial Art,’ in Harry Mathews & Alastair Brotchie (eds.), Oulipo Compendium (London: Atlas Press, 1998), p. 42.  Subsequently cited in the text as OuC.

[5] Michel Bénabou, ‘Alexandre au greffoir,’ La Bibliothèque Oulipienne, Vol. 2 (Paris: Editions Ramsay, 1987), pp 202–33. Subsequently cited as BEN.

[6] OuC 227.  A literal translation would be ‘Lovers devoted to impassive rivers / Are equally devoted, in the shadow of the forests, / To cats and sweet like the flesh of children / Who like them are sensitive to the chill in the cold darkness.’

[7] Again a literal translation: ‘Fervent Lovers and austere scholars / In their ripe season, are equally fond / of cats, strong and soft, the pride of the household,/ Who, like them, are sensitive to the cold and, like them, sedentary.’

[8] Harry Matthews, ‘35 Variations on a Theme from Shakespeare,’ Shiny 9/10 (1999): 97–101.

[9] The N + 7 method involves replacing each noun (N) with the seventh following it in the dictionary. Much depends upon the dictionary chosen:  the shorter the dictionary, the more discordant the next word is likely to be.  See OUC 198–99.
      For a discussion of Cage’s use of constraints in Roaratorio, see my ‘The Music of Verbal Space: John Cage’s ‘What you Say,’ in Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Accoustical Technologies, with accompanying CD, ed. Adalaide Morris (Chapel Hill and London: Univ. of North Carolina Press; 1997), pp. 129–48.

[10] The poems, in the order cited, may be found in The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Volume 2, ed. Jahan Ramazani (New York: Norton, 2003): Yusef Komunyakaa, ‘My Father’s Love Letters,’ p. 863; James Fenton, ‘Dead Soldiers,’  p. 901; Jorie Graham, ‘The Dream of the Unified Field,’ p. 927;  Rita Dove, ‘Claudette Colvin Goes to Work,’ p. 986; Thylias Moss, ‘Interpretation of a Poem by Frost,’ p. 1001; Cathy Song, ‘Sunworshippers,’ p. 1022; Henri Cole, ‘Folly,’ p. 1038.
      In all fairness, the anthology does contain a sampling of ‘alternate’ poetries: for example, Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, and Michael Palmer, and there are of course poets like Paul Muldoon who use sound in interesting ways.  But the dominant mode is the one I describe here.

[11] I discuss what I call ‘the linear fallacy’ in an essay by that name for The Georgia Review 35 (Winter 1981): 855–69.

[12] Language poetry and related experimental modes of the nineties differ from this model in that syntax is often fractured, continuity fragmented, and puns multiple.   But, interestingly, the aural dimension of poetry generally plays no more as well as catachreses multiple. But sound plays no more part here than in the more mainstream poems above.   Here are two typical poems published in Douglas Messerli’s From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960–1990 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994), Ray di Palma’s ‘The Wrong Side of the Door’:

      Supplementary to the account
      Are a series of tangled memories
      And observations at random
      Written in a logbook bound in burlap.  (p. 661)

And James Sherry’s ‘Pay Cash Only’:

      She shakes feathers toward him
      to ward off buttering his own
      small bills, filled with soldiers
      of diverse excess, caught up
      in an investment in lunch.
      As they say, ‘Hog tied to penny rolls,
      his car won’t go down the road straight.’  (p. 707)

Again, however complex their irony and word play, the form of the poems is lineated prose.

[13] See The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 14.  The article on African poetry is by George Lang.  The Encyclopedia is subsequently cited in the text as PEEP.

[14] Christian Bök, Eunoia (Toronto: Coach House Press, 2001), p. 103.  All further page references are to this edition.

[15] The headnote and complete text of ‘Via’ have not yet been published.

[16] How 2, 1, no. 6 (2001).  The website is

[17] An excerpt from ‘About Face’ is published as an appendix to my interview with Caroline Bergvall, ‘ex/Crème/ental/eaT/ing,’ Sources: Revue d’etudes Anglophones: Special issue, 20th-’Century American Women’s Poetics of engagement, 12 (Spring 2002): 123–35.   Like ‘Via,’ ‘About Face’ will appear in Bervall’s new book Mesh.

[18] Email to me, 3/14/03.  Subsequented cited as CB

[19] See Retallack’s ‘Narrative as Memento Mori’ in Essay IX.

[20] Hugh Kenner, ‘Something to Say,’ A Homemade World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), p. 60.

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