A. E. Stallings has intimated that New Formalists might benefit from more dialogue with an avant-garde coterie like Oulipo, since both groups often write works according to a diverse variety of formalistic constraints (pantoums, rondeaux, sestinas, etc.)—but in my experience here in Canada, neoformalists often care less about either the construction of a newer form or the emancipation of an older form than they do about the preservation of a long, lost form, preferring to protect such a form from extinction; otherwise, far more neoformalists might strive to modernize obsolete, literary genres (like the sonnet, for example), doing so provocatively in order to demonstrate the "neoteric" potential, rather than the "dogmatic" character, of such styles. A. E. Stallings, for example, has cited an absolutely exquisite sonnet by Karen Volkman, and I have cited an absolutely minimalist sonnet by Darren Wershler-Henry—and I think that, in both cases, these sonnets testify to a lingual novelty, whose artfulness transcends the fulfillment of the constraint itself. I think that, in both cases, these poets have tried to radicalize the form of the sonnet—a form that (in my opinion) has already made the shift from being merely influential to being wholly oppressive….

Eunoia, for example, may recuperate an ancient, but onerous, poetic genre (the lipogram); but nevertheless, my book has displeased many conservative, neoformalist poets in Canada, most of whom take issue with the formalist gimmickry of the work—and one such poet, Carmine Starnino, has even gone so far as to publish a lengthy article, impugning my book, arguing that, despite its popular success, Eunoia nevertheless remains an act of futile labour, devoid of any conceptual "force" and emotional "vigor." He suggests that, while I might have demonstrated an enviable, literary adroitness, the product of such technical dexterity cannot constitute a genuine species of poetry because, according to him, I have not wrestled with any profound, cognitive concepts nor have I revealed any profound, emotional insights—instead, I have merely placed my authorship on “autopilot” in order to fulfill an "automated algorithm," whose "system makes it impossible for the language to find pleasure in anything other than […] its preselected tenets." I think that he looks upon my formalistic innovations as acts of barbarism—all of which do nothing more than tamper with sovereign standards of judgement by which we evaluate the poetic merits of tradition.
Starnino has gone on to argue that, while my inventive formalism may provide an appealing, but momentary, diversion for the mind, such "a constraint [must] never be appreciated as an object of artistry in its own right" because "there needs to be something functional about poetic form." Starnino suggests that formal beauty must not become "a habit, upheld for its own sake," but must always serve the greater utility of communication. Starnino even goes so far as to cite Johnson and Coleridge in defense of his opinion; however, Starnino does not seem to realize that, even if we ignore the anachronism of such appeals to antiquary authority and thereby deign to agree that critics from two centuries ago have anything remotely relevant to say about modern poetry (despite the manifold, literary advances since the time of Johnson and Coleridge), I can simply rebut these critics by citing the contrary argument of Kant, their peer, who suggests that forms are beautiful, only if they exist for their own sake, divorced from any reference to a superior function. I might suggest, however, that, for the avant-garde at least, form in fact almost always represents one of the major sites for a revolutionary investigation into our normative, linguistic usages.
Starnino argues that, while the formal quirks of a group like Oulipo may glorify newness in literature, such an avant-garde coterie in fact offers no "freshening" innovation, because the novel forms discovered by Oulipo are not "reusable (the way the sonnet is)," and thus they offer no lasting options. Starnino presumes that a classic artform like the sonnet still constitutes a viable, poetic genre in the modern milieu, even though Oulipo suggests that such classics have become so exhausted through imitation that we can longer expect to garner serious acclaim by recycling them unless we retrofit their basic rules (as Raymond Queneau, for example, has done in Cents Mille Milliards de Poèmes—a flipbook capable of generating one hundred trillion sonnets). What Oulipo proposes, however, is far more ambitious than updating outdated classics. For members of the coterie, the act of fulfilling a constraint must so utterly exhaust its potential that the poet produces an indisputable, but unrepeatable, achievement—a perfect anomaly so sublime that no copycat can upstage it. Any renaissance of "sonnetry" may thus testify to a failure of our imagination, since we may not be revivifying our antiquary styles so much as entrenching their canonical repute.
Stallings is probably correct when she notes that, if many poets object to the formalism of the avant-garde, they do so because "artifice is supposed to conflict with authenticity of utterance," and therefore it cannot result in a "sincerity" of expression. Oulipo has certainly argued that, despite any intinct to the contrary, even the most laborious exercises can nevertheless generate both artful liberty and poetic license. When Starnino, for example, argues that I have not fashioned an impressive book, because it only represents the outcome of banal rules, not the outcome of any significant psychodrama (what he calls a "predicament" of either thought or emotion), he neglects to consider that my poem might have arisen from a whole array of cognitive quandaries and emotional calamities, for which the intense passion of my labour constitutes both a symptom and an anodyne. I might suggest that such stubborn exertion does not simply follow banal rules, but rather defies their fatal power—and I might even go so far as to suggest that, from my experience, poets who argue on behalf of "sincere" expression often mean to argue on behalf of "artless" expression—a style free from any concern for either innovative craft or impressive skill….

Originally Published: December 9th, 2007

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...

  1. December 9, 2007

    Starnino-- known even to Americans like me as a man with an agenda!-- is wrong not to see the emotion in Eunoia, which seems to me a good book partly because it's so passionate (not just about its own formal constraints but about other things too).
    But it seems to me that the last paragraph, above, tacitly concedes a larger point on which I think Starnino and I would agree: contra some interpretations of some parts of Kant, we do want poems to carry some emotion-- not necessarily a profound one; it could be the exhilaration of Eureka! or the fleeting pleasures of sociability. (By the way, would somebody please put W. M. Praed's "Farewell to the Season" online? it's in the public domain, too.)
    What I miss in quite a lot of avant-garde work-- and what I absolutely find in Eunoia-- is some connection between the reinvented or newly-invented form and a person to whose wants, needs, regrets and so on to which the form fits (or interestingly fails to fit).
    Note, by the way, that if you declare the sonnet, in particular, oppressive, because too representative of a tradition, you are saying exactly what William Carlos Williams, himself the inauguarator of some valuable traditions, said again and again before 1930.

  2. December 9, 2007
     James Hoch

    Wow! What a way to deal with a bad review.
    I don't think that I've ever been oppressed
    by a sonnet. Nope.
    Perhaps a haiku
    or two gave me a vicious
    wedgie. Perhaps, I
    say, because no one could tell if I(?) was here
    or there or the least bit sin(fully)cere.
    Though it was a violence for sure. Sigh.
    I gave it to myself, which was news to me–
    shock, a volta de force, a sly (on the side)
    turn to find that there will always surely be
    one or two - I omit (romney) my [self] - (of course)
    who find a bit of pleasure in binding their [horse?]
    to some larger figure (0.1.bedpost.G_D), be it
    ancient or airy, order, artifice or not. Knott!!

  3. December 10, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    Thanks, Christian, for engaging with this.
    I can completely agree with the following:
    "even the most laborious exercises can nevertheless generate both artful liberty and poetic license"
    but then, why should the sonnet be "wholly oppressive"? This simply seems to me untrue--if so many poets continue to find the sonnet a useful vessel. What about the sonnet is oppressive? While alphabetic orderings are certainly ancient (the Psalms, the Greek Anthology), in some ways Oulipoian experiments seem more "dated"--i.e., of a particular place and time, than the sonnet. (Having said that, "datedness" can always be "updated"--forms in my opinion can always be made new, as in Eunoia.) But then, why pit one form against another--surely they are both actually pitted against formlessness or malformedness. (I am reminded that in modern Greek to be ugly is to be "without shape"), to be beautiful is to be "shapely".)
    Does the sonnet represent tradition? Very well then, what tradition? Italian? Elizabethan? Romantic? Twentieth century? Is to be in more or less continuous use over the centuries being imprisoned in a particular tradition?
    Some of the language here again suggests to me that there is an underlying assumption of an evolutionary model to art, one of perpetual progress, which I would restate that I just don't buy. The sonnet doesn't need anyone's help in preserving it from "extinction." It doesn't need special breeding programs, or protected habitat or radio collars. It will outlive us all. It's one of the forms of the future.

  4. December 10, 2007
     Ben Friedlander

    "What I miss in quite a lot of avant-garde work-- and what I absolutely find in Eunoia-- is some connection between the reinvented or newly-invented form and a person to whose wants, needs, regrets and so on to which the form fits (or interestingly fails to fit)."
    This, of course, becomes an easy defense of form as mere ornament, since there are many poems where the form gives pleasure although irrelevant or even ill-suited to the content. Longfellow's "The Bells of San Blas" would be a good example of this: the bells' "strange, wild melody" and the overall anti-Catholic message have little to do with the soothing rhythms and rhymes, although the latter obviously serve the needs, wants, etc. of the poet and his audience.
    I do like Longfellow, btw, but this is his major weakness. It's a humanist version of the weakness Ange is so fond of citing in political poetry--a turning away from the poem's own purposes toward some other laudable goal.
    And as long as I'm butting in here, can I say that form in the strict sense (rhyme, meter, line, stanza) is vastly overrated as a determinant of poetic character? What makes Shakespeare Shakespeare is not his verse form, but the quality of his mind, and not only because his "iambic pentameter"--in the plays I mean--is so irregular as to have more in common with Ashbery's line than Pope's. Does anyone doubt that Laura Riding's quality of thinking, though rendered in free verse, has more in common with Shakespeare's than that of Elinor Wylie, though Wylie like Shakespeare wrote sonnets?
    Not to knock sonnets, or Elinor Wylie: without them you wouldn't have James Merrill. (And yes, I adore Merrill.)

  5. December 10, 2007

    Steve, Praed's "Farewell to the Season" was reprinted a few issues ago in Shiny. Maybe your call to see it online will get Michael Friedman to start posting magazine content to the site...

  6. December 10, 2007

    It seems that the form of my last post lost its integrity somehow.
    Imagine some dropped lines where they are suddenly shorter.
    CB, if you can praise one sonnet (as you seem to do) then your argument
    doesn't hold. If there is one example of a valuable sonnet in Cont. Poetry,
    then your claims are irrelevant or merely cautionary no matter how eloquent or passionate.
    Art is best argued in the doing, by talking about specific work.
    When one starts making generalizations, when one confuses
    a preference for an essence or a value for a definition, a poem
    that crushes such thinking is sure to follow. Knott. Volkman. Stallings.
    Also, one ought to be concerned that descriptions of reading
    do not get construed for prescriptions on writing (a mistake that so-called
    formalists and so-called avantists both make as well as many, many
    theorists). Further confusions exist when we conflate political idenitity
    with aesthetic orientation without considering cultural and historical context.
    One problem seems to be against artlessness (whatever that is)
    and more against art that has nothing interesting to offer. A good thing
    to be wary of, for sure. But you misargued, misfired your thinking here. Lastly,
    forms of poetry tend not to oppress people. They can be used
    as tools of oppression (all language can), but they don't actually do the oppression.
    That's no small distinction, considering the amount of real oppression out there.
    Concerning form: Well, that's a longer talk dealing with finite and infinite games,
    category expansion and inclusion, and definitional adjustments over the last few centuries
    or so. I mean, what is form? What is a line?Or, maybe I should say: What can form be? What can a line be? I guess, if we don't try to answer these questions or at least how to properly
    frame and argue these questions, we will continue to talk by one another. I mean,
    if we don't agree on certain facts or definitions, how could the conversation ever move
    beyond she said/he said, beyond voicing our differences, toward community.

  7. December 10, 2007
     Don Share

    Christian's phrase "the anachronism of such appeals to antiquary authority" leads one to ask just when it is that that "anachronism" began: was it fifty years ago? one hundred, two hundred years? Five? How long before the "exhaustion" he cites begins to take hold? Aren't there other sylistic moves beyond the use of form that exhaust themselves so? At what given moment do poems of any kind become "outdated?" And if old "formal" poems become "outdated," have they not then accomplished the goal of producing "an indisputable, but unrepeatable, achievement–a perfect anomaly so sublime that no copycat can upstage it?"

  8. December 10, 2007
     Sina Queyras

    Interesting post and comments. As always, I find it curious that people want to distinguish between forms such as the sonnet, and constraint based poetics...it seems to miss the point. A sonnet can be very innovative in the right hands. To my mind formal concerns are formal concerns wherever they come from. As for Eunoia, I've argued elsewhere that Christian Bok's project is invigorating for many reasons, including a/ the labour involved, which reminds us that if poetry is worth doing it is certainly worth pushing to its limits and b/ the rigorous formal constraints that remind us of how all forms affect language and content and c/ the passion with which the project was realized. The latter being difficult to quantify. Who can describe or guess how another person might realize his or her emotions? That seems an impossible and illogical task based on a search for a recognizable other.
    Sincerity, as another Canadian poet, Lisa Robertson points out, is extremely problematic. It's difficult to measure, to authenticate, and certainly impossible to teach. And yet it seems to me that it is often tone, or this notion of sincerity that formal poets are suspicious of...and perhaps this is what is oppressive, not simply the form itself.

  9. December 11, 2007
     Annie Finch

    A quick and grumpy word on behalf of the concept I've written about under the heading Metrical Diversity. . . It is not strictly accurate to say, Christian, that Volkman's poem "radicalizes the form of the sonnet." In fact, it radicalizes the style of the sonnet, Maybe one could say that in doing so, it radicalizes the form by association, but the truth is that it is utterly conservative in form.
    Wtih so many neglected, underused, gorgeous meters out there, it is disheartening to see even supposedly adventurous young poets returning docilely to the iambic pentameter Pound tried so hard to break. If poets were receiving a better education in meter, they'd have more options to choose from.
    With a rhythmic diet confined to free verse and iambic pentameter, no wonder so many people think form is dull.

  10. December 12, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    I think Annie is quite right here to differentiate between form and style. It is style that becomes dated (or seems modern and fresh)--and content, diction, etc, not, in my opinion, forms. If a form seems dated, or updated, it is surely in the handling of the form. It's true that a style can seem wedded to a form through association (as a certain flat plain-spoken style with free verse, for instance), but on closer look, it isn't the case.
    But I would certainly extend that to iambic pentameter. I guess I don't believe meters become dull in and of themselves--it is rather to what uses they are put (subject matter, style, strictness, etc.). Virgil wrote exclusively in dactyllic hexameter. Shakespeare wrote overwhelmingly in iambic pentameter (much more freely in the plays, of course). Emily Dickinson largely limits herself to short hymn meters. Swinburne, on the other hand, experimented extensively with different meters, yet his poems do not strike me as innately more interesting because of that.
    Anyway, I think poets are experimenting in meters other than ip. (OK--I grant you, there is a conservative contingent--conservative also in terms of style--that is heavily into ip, and doesn't even admit of substitions that were common enough in the 19th century.) Look at all the Sapphics out there, for one thing. But why "docilely" returning to iambic pentameter? Hmmm. Maybe that is another discussion!

  11. December 13, 2007
     James Hoch

    Yes, Annie Finch writes quite well on this issue of form and style.
    One thing to consider which Ellen Voigt has in such a thorough way
    is the relation between form and prosody and syntax. We ought not
    to leave out the role of the sentence in the questions of form. Too often,
    when we speak of form it is limited to the notion of stanza and line,
    that innovation in metrical or stanzaic structure is the only kind
    of innovation to be had when it comes to form. This leaves out a host
    of other aspects of artifice that contribute to pattern and variation,
    not the least of which is syntax.

  12. December 14, 2007
     Reginald Shepherd

    Besides his arrogance and defensiveness, I'm impressed by Christian Bok's assumption that the past can't be of any relevance to the present because we've moved beyond it, due to "the manifold, literary advances since the time of Johnson and Coleridge." I'm reminded of a wonderful comment by Frank Kermode on those "whose passion for the present requires the destruction of the past." (Don Share quotes it in his blog.) Even if one agrees that there is such a thing as "progress" in art, new works or modes of art (unlike new scientific paradigms) don't render previous works and modes obsolete.
    I'm reminded of a quote from an article I recently read about Schoenberg and his circle: "for a group of composers compelled, like so many of their creative contemporaries, to withdraw from the commitment to a consensual form of expression, linguistic reinvention of the medium was never allowed to become the abstract end in itself that subsequent theoretical codification might suppose."
    I was also struck by Bok's reflexive pseudo-political posturing about the "revolutionary investigation into our normative, linguistic useages [sic]." None of the various people who have made such an assertion has ever made clear in what way normative syntax, for example, is oppressive. If it is indeed so oppressive, why is Bok using it to writ this blog entry? And how and to whom is a sonnet "oppressive" (let alone "wholly oppressive")? This kind of playing at politics is all too common among the self-anointed contemporary avant-garde. There is a real world of politics and economics and social relations, and if one wants to deal with that, deal with that. But don't pretend that subverting the hegemonic institution of bourgeois literature or whatever straw figure you've constructed constitutes confronting and struggling with the world in which people actually are oppressed in ways that have nothing to do with sonnets.