Almost all poetry is constrained to some extent; rhyming scheme and meter are the most common forms. Some experimental poets, however, take it much further to impose highly severe restrictions on writing. These poets are concerned with the formal elements of language, and use constraints as a way to focus on the structural properties of poetry. Penteract Press publishes contemporary constrained, formal, and visual poetry, and Wikipedia has a good introductory article about it.
In constrained poet Christian Bök’s project Xenotext, two poems map to each other (he encoded a poem into a strand of DNA, which then is transcribed to mRNA). Inspired by the project, my partner and I decided to try writing our own. My partner used an algorithm to generate the letter-pairing and a word-set. He is working on his own technical blog post about it (will link when it’s up). I used the words in that word-set to write a poem.
Wait, mapping what?
I’m not going to go into the details of Bök’s project. Among other sources, you can find a trusty guide here on American Scientist. Instead I’ll describe it as a generic constrained poetry project.
The challenge is to pair each letter of the alphabet with another (ex. a-f, b-z, c-k). Write a poem that still makes sense when you change each letter for its pair.
To do this effectively, we generated a list of words that mapped to each other with our letter-pairs (finding the letter-pairs that would generate the most words was my partner’s work).
For example, the word lust maps to the word rats if your letter-mapping includes:
l – r
u – a
s – t
t – s
The challenge, then, is to write two poems whose letters map to each other.
There were three challenges.
First, the differences between words that mapped to each other. When one word of the pair is singular and the other plural, one is in past tense and the other is in present tense, it makes demands of the word-pair that comes before and after. Though I may have liked to write “Vets/but runt,” I could not write “Host/was lads,” because the number agreement wasn’t grammatically correct.
Even more challenging, when the words are of a different part of speech — one is a verb, the other an adjective, for example — it often mis-aligns the pacing of the two poems. This made it difficult to write two poems with the same number of words, and line breaks in the same places.
Second are the words themselves. This form of poetry pushes the writer to use obscure words, or refer to the more obscure or marginal definition of a word, or use words that are technically familiar but still read strangely (ex. mas, as a plural of ma, a somewhat anachronistic and/or dialectical word for mother).
I wrote a number of drafts of this poem; the first was totally different than the last. My earlier drafts incorporated all of these problems. As I went on, I simplified and clarified, and ended up using all familiar words, and referring mostly to their standard definition, so that only the last issue remained. It’s still a weird poem.
Third, writing a coherent poem, something that makes sense. I sort of did it. The first poem is evocative of the emotional state of veterinarians during a particular time of year. The second poem could be re-written in a straightforward narrative: a bunch of salesmen selling a product for its natural cotton feel; a man, who is the one to make the decision about buying, is convinced by the sales pitch, but his mom is not. I don’t think either poem conveys much beyond some intuitive sense of meaning, but it is there.
Writing this poem gave me an appreciation for poetic license. The term is often used to describe an inaccuracy we’re willing to forgive because of the flourish it adds. I don’t mean it like that, and I don’t offer my poem(s?) as a good example of poetic license. I mean that poetry is permission to strain the limits of language. Constrained poetry forces the writer to make as much room for meaning as possible, and the reader to explore that space.
A good constrained poem, just like any good piece of literature, will provide words rich in possible meanings. For that reason, I don’t think these poems of mine are especially good, but they’re not bad for 2-hours effort (for reference, Bök took 11 years to complete Xenotext).
Poet (DNA encoded text)
Germ (RNA encoded text)
|any style of life
with wily ploys
moan now my fate
now is the word
the word of life
|the faery is rosy
moan more grief
with him we stay
him of any milk
any milk is rosy
Poet (DNA encoded text)
Germ (RNA encoded text)
Runt season messed poor
Lads touted cotton feel
In the poems above, the letters mapped to each other in the following way:
With the letter-mapping above, these word-pairs were available to write two poems with: