Lust/Rats: A Constrained Poem (or two?)

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).

Bök’s Poem

Poet (DNA encoded text)

Germ (RNA encoded text)

any style of life
is prim

oh stay
my lyre

with wily ploys
moan the riff

the riff
of any tune aloud

moan now my fate

in fate
we rely

my myth

now is the word

the word of life

the faery is rosy
of glow

in fate
we rely

moan more grief
with any loss

any loss
is the achy trick

with him we stay

oh stay
my lyre

we wean

him of any milk

any milk is rosy

Letter Pairs

Bok's alphabet

Our Poem

Poet (DNA encoded text)

Germ (RNA encoded text)


Runt season messed poor
but cud
was cut too fat


Lads touted cotton feel
was man
but mas see pus

Letter Pairs

In the poems above, the letters mapped to each other in the following way:



a u
b w
c m
d n
e o
f p
g z
h v
i k
j x
k i
l r
m c
n d
o e
p f
q y
r l
s t
t s
u a
v h
w b
x j
y q
z g

Word Set

With the letter-mapping above, these word-pairs were available to write two poems with:

aft ups
ape ufo
at us
bed won
beds wont
bee woo
been wood
beep woof
beer wool
beet woos
belts worst
bern wold
blots wrest
boo wee
boon weed
born weld
bow web
bud wan
buds want
bun wad
bunk wadi
burr wall
but was
buts wast
can mud
cant muds
cats must
cede mono
cob mew
cod men
coda menu
coos meet
corn meld
cotton messed
court meals
cub maw
cud man
cult mars
curs malt
cuss matt
cut mas
cuts mast
dad nun
dead noun
deb now
deed noon
den nod
dent nods
do ne
dots nest
east outs
eastern outsold
eats oust
fad pun
fads punt
fall purr
fast puts
fat pus
fears poult
feast pouts
feel poor
felon pored
fen pod
fest pots
flood preen
fob pew
folk peri
fool peer
foul pear
four peal
fullest parrots
fun pad
fur pal
goat zeus
hero vole
hers volt
horn veld
horns veldt
hose veto
host vets
hour veal
huts vast
ides knot
knot ides
lad run
lads runt
lapp ruff
las rut
last ruts
law rub
least routs
lee roo
lees root
lent rods
lesson rotted
lest rots
locks remit
loft reps
lone redo
loon reed
loop reef
lop ref
lots rest
lust rats
lux raj
malt curs
man cud
mars cult
mas cut
mast cuts
matt cuss
maw cub
meals court
meet coos
meld corn
men cod
menu coda
messed cotton
mew cob
mono cede
mud can
muds cant
must cats
ne do
nest dots
nod den
nods dent
noon deed
noun dead
now deb
nun dad
oust eats
outs east
outsold eastern
pad fun
pal fur
parrots fullest
peal four
pear foul
peer fool
peri folk
pew fob
pod fen
poor feel
pored felon
pots fest
poult fears
pouts feast
preen flood
pun fad
punt fads
purr fall
pus fat
puts fast
quit yaks
raj lux
rats lust
redo lone
reed loon
reef loop
ref lop
remit locks
reps loft
rest lots
rods lent
roo lee
root lees
rots lest
rotted lesson
routs least
rub law
ruff lapp
run lad
runt lads
rut las
ruts last
sad tun
saps tuft
saw tub
seal tour
seas tout
season touted
see too
seer tool
sees toot
slats trust
slums tract
sod ten
sods tent
sold tern
son ted
soon teed
soot tees
soul tear
sour teal
sud tan
sums tact
tact sums
tan sud
teal sour
tear soul
ted son
teed soon
tees soot
ten sod
tent sods
tern sold
too see
tool seer
toot sees
tour seal
tout seas
touted season
tract slums
trust slats
tub saw
tuft saps
tun sad
ufo ape
ups aft
us at
vast huts
veal hour
veld horn
veldt horns
veto hose
vets host
vole hero
volt hers
wad bun
wadi bunk
wall burr
wan bud
want buds
was but
wast buts
web bow
wee boo
weed boon
weld born
wold bern
won bed
wont beds
woo bee
wood been
woof beep
wool beer
woos beet
worst belts
wrest blots
yaks quit
zeus goat