Nude Formalism (Redux)
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….
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...