Article for Students

The Choice of Constraint

How not getting to do everything leads to doing what you want.
Image of a rusted fence breaking into birds flying away.

Perhaps you, like me, have had the bewildering experience of shopping for yogurt. At my local Target, an entire cold case is devoted to it: Dannon in various flavors; Stonyfield, promising cows free of bovine growth hormones; yogurt made from the milk of grass-fed cows; dairy-free yogurt alternatives. And those are just the American varieties. My store also stocks Australian yogurt, Icelandic yogurt … This list is not exhaustive, but it is exhausting. I don’t have the time or energy to read every label; I don’t know what the best choice is. If in that moment, someone were to appear and tell me that I should buy the 2 percent organic Banilla, I would be eternally grateful.

My yogurt struggles are not dissimilar to my writing ones. As a writer, I don’t always feel confident my poetry matters, though I’m always certain poetry in general does, both as a cultural product and an individual practice. I wrestle with my subject matter, as I suspect many writers, new and experienced, must. On some days, the blank page in front of me is a field of white I can’t traverse. I’m snow-blind, lost, and afraid.

I need someone to tell me what to do. Constraints tell me what to do, and I don’t mind. I just need to choose a yogurt, after all. I just need to know how to begin.

In constrained writing, one writes under a condition. That condition might mean not being allowed to do something—such as not using the letter e—or following a certain pattern. If this definition seems broad, it is. All formal writing operates under some kind of constraint; a traditional sonnet, for example, asks you to manage meter and a rhyme scheme in 14 lines. In this essay, we’ll look at less-familiar uses of constraint, ones that will challenge you in different ways. It may seem counterintuitive to put limitations on your writing, but you may find that a small constraint can make a big difference in soothing your fears of the blank page. It does so by taking some choices away and by demanding that you make new choices.

To illustrate this, I’d like to look at one of my favorite constraints—the abecedarian. Abecedarians are poems in which the first letter of each line or stanza follows the alphabet: A, then B, and so on. The abecedarian is an ancient form; it may be as old as the alphabet itself. You can find abecedarians in the Bible, though you’d have to see Psalm 119 in the original Hebrew to notice that each section is headed by a letter from the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph, Beth, Gimel ...). Contemporary poets have used the alphabet constraint on a grand scale, creating long poems, such as Carolyn Forche’s “On Earth,” and even throughout entire books, such as Inger Christensen’s alphabet and Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary.   

All abecedarians use the alphabet to organize a poem in some fashion, but the most common way is to tuck the alphabet into the left-hand side of the poem. You can see an example of this in this excerpt from Jessica Greenbaum’s “A Poem for S”:

Because you used to leaf through the dictionary,
Casually, as someone might in a barber shop, and
Devotedly, as someone might in a sanctuary,
Each letter would still have your attention if not
For the responsibilities life has tightly fit, like
Gears around the cog of you, like so many petals
Hinged on a daisy. That’s why I’ll just use your
Initial. Do you know that in one treasured story, a
Jewish ancestor, horseback in the woods at Yom
Kippur, and stranded without a prayer book,
Looked into the darkness and realized he had
Merely to name the alphabet to ask forgiveness—

I like this poem because of the way it implicitly links metaphysical creation to the creation of words and lines of poetry through letters. The alphabet provides a direct link to the creator and to the possibility of forgiveness. It’s also a poem very much in conversation with the abecedarian’s history.

When I write an abecedarian, I spell out the alphabet down one side of the page. Now it’s transformed into a piece-in-progress, and my anxiety about the blank page is immediately lessened. I might not know what to write about, and I might not know if what I have to say is worth saying, but I know the first word starts with A and that as I write the first line, I need to consider how I get to B and then to C and so on. A series of choices appears even as some choices are taken away. I’m always surprised at how quickly I write these poems and how much fun they are. The constraint frees me. I often discover the subject as I write.

I also discover the other gifts of constraint: fruitful frustration and resistance. To grapple with a self-imposed limitation is to compete against oneself, to stymie the first impulse again and again. We learn to question the easy solution, to stretch our vocabulary, to reconsider and flex our syntax. Forced out of our regular habits (and we all have writing habits), we adapt. The predetermined letters beginning each line ask us to use words we might not normally use—X and Z words are not common, after all—and take us out of our comfort zones. You might find yourself borrowing language from science or stepping outside your native tongue. Using unusual words also reveals your own proclivities as a writer—how do you respond to and interpret rules? Do you adhere to them to the letter—using X-ray for X—or do you find ways to bend the rules, such as using ex-boyfriend?

When facing the blank page, I have found a number of other constraints useful over the years. I particularly admire a constraint/form Terrance Hayes developed: the Golden Shovel. Consider this excerpt from his poem of the same name:

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.

As you can see from my bolding, there’s a secret poem inside: Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.” The constraint here is to take a line or lines from a poem you admire and use them as the end words in a poem of your own, keeping the end words in order. So, if you use a ten-word line from another poet, your poem would have ten lines. This form allows you to interact with another poet’s work and to acknowledge that inspiration in a subtle but legible way. As with the abecedarian, I write out the end words on a blank page. Now I know where I’m going—or at least each line’s last word.

I’ve been fairly literal in my advice for moving past the blank page, and I’ve provided you with methods to get actual letters or words down before you begin your poem at all. Here is one that operates in a subtler fashion. Take a look at this poem by Marianne Moore, “No Swan So Fine”:

“No water so still as the
    dead fountains of Versailles.” No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and gondoliering legs, so fine
   as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown eyes and toothed gold
    collar on to show whose bird it was.
Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth
    candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-
tinted buttons, dahlias,
sea-urchins, and everlastings,
    it perches on the branching foam
of polished sculptured
flowers—at ease and tall. The king is dead.

This poem is in syllabic verse, a form of meter in which you count the syllables of words and not the stresses. You are familiar with the basic concept of syllabic verse if you’ve ever written haiku. If you count the syllables in this poem, you’ll find that each stanza repeats a pattern. And yet you might read this poem and never notice it. Syllabics are a kind of invisible form, employing a constraint that even experienced readers can miss. By determining in advance how many syllables will be in each line of your poem, you make choices before you even begin, ones that require you to make additional choices as you write.

But there are weirder, wilder, more severe constraints than these. There’s the lipogram, in which a letter, often a common one such as e or o, is outlawed from any word. There are reverse lipograms, in which each word in a poem must include a certain letter. There are alliteratives, in which every word must start with the same letter. There’s N+7, in which you replace every noun (or verb) in an existing poem with the seventh noun after it in a dictionary. These days, paper dictionaries are less common, so you might try using an N+7 generator, of which there are several on the internet. So, for example, the first verse of Wallace Steven’s “The Snow Man” becomes

One must have a miniature of wishbone
To regiment the fry and the bounders
Of the pinkie-trends crusted with snowman;

There’s the snowball, in which each line is a single word and each successive word is one letter longer. As you can imagine, this gets out of hand quickly. These constraints are often connected to the OuLiPo movement of the 1960s, which favored constraint-based writing. To some, constraint poems may seem like mere exercises, but sometimes we’re not aiming for a fully functioning poem. Sometimes we want just one good line.

The architecture of the poems created by the forms I’ve described range from hidden to obvious. Most people notice the abecedarian when they know what to look for, but a Golden Shovel could slip right by, and I know I’ve missed many examples of syllabic verse. As a reader, I enjoy that moment of recognition when the constraint crystallizes, and I see the trick of it. As a writer, I want my poems to delay that moment as long as possible. This is again another opportunity for fruitful frustration and resistance. It’s not enough that I fulfill the terms of the constraint; I want to do so in a way that makes the poem successful outside its method of production.

I began by saying that constrained writing could help you deal with the anxiety of the page and, by extension, your subject matter. For those who struggle with what to write about, using constraints won’t ever fully answer that question or solve your quarter- or mid-life crises. Using constraints hasn’t made a dent in mine. But if the stuff of poetry is amorphous and fluid, then constraints give me a container to hold it. They make choices for me but then demand that I make choices too. If my line’s starting letters are predetermined, what words do I choose for each letter? Do I consider line breaks or discard those concerns? Does the poem’s subject reflect the constraint or not? I’m free but I’m bound, and in the space between those two poles exists a generative, creative tension.   

Originally Published: December 1st, 2017

Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (2012), winner of the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry, and Vow (2013), from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She was the 2010-11 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison's Creative Writing Institute; and winner of the “Discovery”/Boston...