Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Palette and Page: form and OuLiPo

George Ttoouli ruminating like a ruminant on issues of poetic form...

I had an interesting argument with someone recently (Jonathan Skinner in fact, and I don't know whyI need to be reticent about his name, he's a man of vast intelligence), that led me to thinking whether form is different to constraint, or that shape is different to constraints. This in response to a discussion of Oulipian procedural constraints as different to traditional ideas of poetic form. I see these elements as contigently dependent, or overlapping, in the manner of a Venn diagram, to the point that those brief elements you might argue lie outside of the nearly-equalised sets of the two terms, in the manner of two spotlights not quite perfectly overlaid, could easily be accommodated into equalisation through a little bit of thinking.

So, while the procedural constraints of Georges Perec's La Disparation might not appear to be a 'shaping' factor, or formal rule, it does restrict the words he may use in the way that, say, asserting the length of a poem called a 'sonnet' can. If a sonnet is a rule that starts by cutting out of the morass of blank page a small edifice, the size of a room of one hundred and forty syllables, or seventy stresses, or ten by fourteen, and cetera, a lipogrammatic rule begins by placing its restrictions on the palette with which the poet can build, resulting in a poem of any size or shape, formally speaking.

The argument might then be a distinction between the 'form' of a poem as being that which takes shape on the page; and the 'constraints' of language whereby the means for making those shapes are curtailed. However, to complicate this, words come with little rule packages for how they can be deployed on the page: they are verbs, they are nouns, they are articles definite and indefinite. "Slowly accommodation the the and" makes bugger all communicative sense, non? However, it is still acceptable in a certain poem (is 'earned by context') if we choose to bend the rules, or break them. That's a given, and part of the point: form earns content, gives content context.

If we constrain the language palette, therefore, creepy little feelers spread out into our capacity to shape language on the page: with the lipogrammatic removal of the letter 'e', we lose the definite article; and syntax gallops in wyrd unfixity, an unabling form aggrandisingly visual in all outbursts. Syntax is the order of language in relation to communication units. Is syntax a constraint, or a form, or the hazy space whereby these two mentally distinct concepts conjugate? (I defy you to find a definition of syntax that doesn't include either the word 'form', or 'rule', or both, and which isn't rubbish.)

If we think of form as a translation of a set of rules into a repeatable abstraction (not as difficult as it sounds*) and that constraints can only be communicated in the same way, or even only refer to the individual rules when the word is taken at face value, then one can start to ask, 'What are the constraints of a sonnet?' If one tries to do the same with procedural poetics - 'What are the constraints of the lipogram?'- a distinction does emerge, of sorts. Constraints begin to fall into the category of rules alone, rather than the wider form; hence constraints are a subset of form. And lipograms begin to manifest more specifically as a type of form, rather than a constraint.

This still leaves a blank in the map where the idea of 'procedurality' lies. Joseph Conte, in Unending Design, suggests certain poetic forms gravitate towards categories of procedural and serial, infinite and finite, predetermined and free. Procedurality is therefore a loose grouping of approaches to form, or forms themselves, as demonstrated by specific poems, where the constraints are set in advance (referring to palette, not shape on the page) of writing. Oulipian forms, such as the beautiful-inlaw and outlaw, demonstrates this as a crossover problem also. Harry Mathews' 'Husserl's Curse' is also a sestina; is this the blending of two distinct practices of rule-making, the one being the palette, the other the page space? Or is it that the two can now go hand in hand, since traditional form has been under sustained testing, attack and experimentation for long enough that we no longer need to see a full distinction?

I sound a little more definite in parts of this than I intended, so hope this won't put off any responses.

* E.g. what is the form of a chair? A floor to arse interface, comprising a construct to provide distance from the floor (legs), a horizontal surface to support the arse (seat) and a vertical surface to support the back (back). Remove the back and you have the abstract form of a stool. Add wheels and a spinning column thing and you get a swivel chair. With inclusion of materials, design aesthetics and so on, you get a specific, (non-Platonic, although arguably the ideal of 'chair' is a non-existence objective) manufacturable chair. The 'form' is translateable into set of written instructions so that another chair may be constructed by someone else. I see this as no different to explaining what a sonnet is, or what a lipogram is.

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