More Nude Formalism
Carmine Starnino has entered the fray of our discussion about formalism by offering a spirited rebuttal to some of my provocations, doing so via his commentary to a posting by Ange Mlinko. Starnino claims to regret having published his negative comments about my book Eunoia, because his review has provided me with "lots of stuffing" for the "straw men" of my counterarguments. Rather than admit that a writer has as much right as any critic to defend, or to impugn, the merits of any claims about the nature of poetry, he nevertheless goes on to discount my right to enter into any critical dialogue with my own readership, preferring instead to attribute my counterarguments to the fact that I am a "perennially insecure avant-gardist," unable to accept a negative reaction to my work. I might suggest, however, that, contrary to his comments, he has little reason to regret his review, since it has promoted interest in both our careers—and despite his fantasies, I do not feel threatened in the face of disputation, but always relish the chance to debate the merits of poetry historically ignored or rebuked in our country by the dominant literati, for whom the avant-garde in fact poses a threat to their own literary concepts of cultural security….
Starnino quotes Coleridge in order to argue that, for Eunoia, "form is mechanic," because it imposes upon its content a whole array of procrustean constraints, none of which arise necessarily from the "properties" of such content. Starnino fails to realize, however, that even if we deign to ignore the anachronism of such an appeal to the antiquary authority of Coleridge (thereby conceding that forms must both reflect and perform the ideas within their poems, rather than simply force these ideas into an unnatural container), then I might respond with my own appeal to Rousseau (an important influence upon Coleridge, and a no less anachronistic philosophizer), who argues that, because vowels express our most primeval emotions, "vowels are the first, the most vital things, the hinges of language"—and hence, I wonder what form we might deem most appropriate for these "hinges," particularly if we want them to speak on their own behalf, telling stories made out of their own sounds, free from the "noises" of a competing utterance. What form might seem most appropriate, if we want to show that, even under the most improbable conditions of duress, these "hinges" still find ways to open up an unusual doorway to an uncanny, if not a sublime, thought?
Starnino fails to see that the "structural" properties of my lipogram already respond with aptness to the "meaningful" properties of these vocables. Starnino must, nevertheless, argue that my book is too "programmatic" to establish any tension between my poetic license (my freedom from the rules) and my formal mandate (my slavery to the rules)—even though the ribald themes of my book deploy these rules in order to struggle against both the linguistic censorship and the conceptual oppression, now enforced by such rules. When Starnino suggests that, despite my own demands for novelty, I still have to rely upon the precedent authority of Oulipo (a coterie that has already charted the outcome of my univocal exercise more than forty years before me), Starnino ignores the fact that, while Oulipo might have made some failed forays into the exploration of this form, the practitioners at the time declare the constraint impossible to fulfill without cheating, and so they abandon further efforts to perfect it. Surely, my success at accomplishing an impossible enterprise must constitute an act of innovation, particularly in a culture so conservative in its apprehension of historic, literary movements that any allusions to Oulipo must appear novel at the outset.
Starnino is, of course, being ingenuous, dismissing me as derivative by ignoring my own participation in the "conceptualism" of UbuWeb—a coterie that has tested the limits of Oulipo by formulating even more provocative constraints (like being "uncreative" or being "unengaging," restricting oneself to the repetition of both the already said and the totally dull, but doing so in a way that still creates surprise and engages interest); moreover, the group has experimented with all forms of mechanized authorship (be they automatic, mannerist, or aleatoric); and the group has even probed the limits of the illegible by making poetry that a reader might admire without ever having to peruse it. When Starnino argues that Oulipo has taught us little, except that a dedicated adherence to such formulae can produce unlimited, literary outcomes, Starnino contradicts his claims from a prior essay, where he argues that "Oulipo in fact vandalizes form," expunging all surprise from creative practice, because such formulae result only in a minimal variety of results. He complains at first that my work is algorithmically "overdetermined"—too obsessional and too attritional—but then he complains that my work partakes of such an "interminable" productivity.
Ultimately, Starnino wishes to suggest that, because "official cultures" of poetry use all sorts of forms in their own practice throughout history, the forms of the avant-garde offer us nothing special—when in fact the avant-garde demands only that these forms become "neoteric" in their potential, not "dogmatic" in their iteration. Starnino knows that I am currently composing a poem that, when enciphered as a chemical sequence of nucleotides, can hijack the genome of a microbe, thereby converting this life-form into a writing-machine—so I do not understand how he can claim that I am failing to find a form appropriate to our own modern milieu, when in fact I am collaborating with geneticists to create poetry that might outlast the existence of our own species. When poets are building machines for writing poetry, when poets are using selective evolution to breed poetry, when poets are implanting poetry into viruses, when poets are even proposing to transmit poetry to intergalactic civilizations—any hoopla about the "revival" of the sonnet might seem a wee bit archaic. I think that, if modern poetry can offer Starnino any "truth" at all, it testifies to the fact that the poet must become the most imaginative, rather than the most nearsighted, person in the room….
Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...