Follow Harriet on Twitter
Journal, Day Two
So two days ago, my old PC laptop, which is about 4 years old (that’s 88 in computer years), and whose hard drive has been making piteous asthmatic noises for months, had some sort of final aphasic attack. First the L went, then the apostrophe and shift keys and the number 6, and finally A, S, and E. I was writing this blog, and was trying to limp gamely along, concealing the injury à la Kerri Strug, but when the E went, it was the final straw. Oulipo should always be a matter of choice, not compulsion.
So, since I’ve been tempted to make the switch for ages, yesterday I went over to B&H and bought a glossy white MacBook. (Yes I know I could have just gotten the keyboard repaired, but I had done that once already, and the hard drive was on its last legs. OK?)
Since you always have to name things in MacUniverse, I intend to name her Heavenly Heavenly Vincentine.
Monotonous earth I saw become
Illimitable spheres of you,
And that white animal, so lean,
Turned heavenly Vincentine,
And that white animal, so lean,
Turned heavenly, heavenly Vincentine.
But the keyboard fiasco set me thinking again about a topic I had intended to think about this summer—the relationship between poetic form and poetic constraint. I know that, if you go all slippery slope about it, one collapses into the other—in the most general terms, form is, of course, only a subcategory of constraint.
But I also think it’s true that, as poets and as readers of poetry, we experience the two concepts—form and constraint—differently, and the words are never used as synonyms. The two terms have different connotative valences—the former tends to be perceived as skeleton, the latter as scaffolding.
Is it just age/prestige that makes, say, the villanelle form seem more “organic” or “internal” than Lee Ann Brown’s post-Oulipo stylings, or Lyn Hejinian’s word counts in The Cell, or Aaron Kunin’s syllabics in Folding Ruler Star, or A.R. Ammons’ adding machine tape?
Is a constraint just a young form that has not yet accumulated an interpretive tradition after the manner of the octet/sestet turn in a sonnet?
Or is it also that in some of the examples of constraints I listed—I’m thinking of Hejinian and Kunin in particular—one feels the presence of the constraint as a harsh and unnatural imposition—that one feels the struggle of content against form more starkly in these examples, as a cookie-cutter stamping machine rather than as a ballroom dance step, and that these poets take on this struggle as their subject matter?
(I’m also thinking of the end of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” in which accomplished form is revealed as unbearable constraint, the final recurrence of the repeton a dreaded blow pain, the last pass of the Penal Colony writing machine.)
As someone who was educated Roman Catholic and has a social sciences background, when I see the word “constraint,” I read it as “side constraint”—rule-based morality—and vividly recall my high school Thomist philosophy teacher Mr. Westerman warning us against the temptations of consequentialist/utilitarian thinking and exhorting us to be good deontological citizens. I wonder if others share this association?
Maybe it just comes down to this chafing against rules—the simple friction of rebellion—that generates the energy of which Stravinsky speaks in his famous dictum: “Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength.” (Depressingly, this quote seems to have been co-opted by the corporate world, and now appears on MBA Depot—Business Quotations for MBAs and Managers (www.mbadepot.com) as well as on www.marketingplaybook.com in an article called “Why I Love PowerPoint.” Sigh.) But this doesn’t seem like the whole answer.
There’s something more here that I can’t put my finger on.
Damn I just spilled iced coffee on H.H. Vincentine! Oh Ponyboy, nothing gold can stay.