Tie It Up, Tie It Down

If literary restraint is sexy (and it is), then constraint is more so. Both restraint and constraint imply a holding back, but whereas restraint relies solely on will, constraint relies on artifice, a superimposed structure, bonds. Literary bondage. The artist/poet strains against the bond; she pushes, pulls, creates friction where impulse and effort and endeavor (and, yes, desire) presses and rubs against the bond. Consequently, she creates tension in the bond, in the structure, in the form. How much tension, how much pressing and yanking and stretching can the form take before it breaks. Here’s a question: if the form breaks, has the poet transcended the form or failed the form?

At CU Boulder’s Small Press Festival this past weekend, Gillian Conoley, Janet Holmes, Warren Motte, and Carol Snow all spoke of contraint and procedural writing on the panel: Restraint/Freedom: the history and present of procedural writing. This week, for our digital poetry class, we are reading about conceptual poetry, and Craig Douglas Dworkin, in his introduction to his Anthology of Conceptual Poetry, discusses the role constraint plays in conceptual poetry. He called conceptual writing “the writing of the new, new formalism.” Like many of the modernists, it seems that Dworkin sees the evolution of poetry occurring in poetry’s form, in conceptual writing’s acknowledgment of artifice, its use of constraint, its appearance of perversity. He compares the innovation of conceptual writing to the sonnet in its time, referring to how perverse and constrained the sonnet must have appeared to readers when Petrarch carted it out.

The difference between conceptual writing and traditional forms, however, occurs in tension. The tension in conceptual writing occurs not when the poet’s effort to craft specific semantic and emotional meaning out of language is confounded by the boundaries of the artificial structure. The tension lies between the materiality of language and the concept, the idea of capital W Writing. Printed “matter” versus ideas, but not ideas about universal or individual existence. Ideas about Writing. The ego of the poet is replace by the self-reflexive “language of the poem.”

This idea of tension is repeated (verbatim) in Kenneth Goldsmith’s discussion of conceptual poetics on poetryfoundation.org. Goldsmith clarifies Dworkin’s discussion of tension by pointing out that one of the reasons that conceptual writers are interested in materiality and concept (or “the machine that drives the poem’s language”) and NOT semantic meaning is because “the mere trace of language […] will carry as much emotional and semantic weight on its own without any further subjective meddling from the poet.” He then answers a question that has remained unanswered for me since the beginning of this class whenever we deal with a digital poem that doesn’t incorporate language: why call it a poem? For Goldsmith, poetry is the realm that conceptual writing and conceptual art inhabits critically. He claims that the best frame through which to consider conceptual writing/art is the discourse and economy of poetry. I’m down with that.

I’m down with exploring conceptual writing as the process of the machine, as an exploration as the potential of writing, as an examination of Oulipo procedures and strategies and their outcomes. It’s a necessary paradigm shift to circumvent resistance and foot stomping. And I’m willing to play, to appropriate. Taking a passage from Goldsmith’s essay and incorporating Oulipo’s S+7 method of writing, I can tell you this:

Conceptual writing uses uncumbrousness, unperfidiousness, Illimani, approximation, The Plague, fraxinella, thelitis and falces as its precinct.

Interesting then, for me, to look at how the original meaning the sentence has been changed, in what ways the meaning is preserved, proximities of meaning, what the sentence now means.

The process is, as Dworkin points out, an intellectual endeavor, not an emotional one. Similarly, Bill Chamberlain’s Ractor, a computer program that generated semantically readable text about the topic of love, is an intellectual endeavor. However, the resulting text, which some may say is secondary to the program itself, is affecting, is emotional, is freight with the semantic crafting that readers expect to find in a traditional poem. The difference with the Racter-generated text and a traditional poem is that with Racter, the reader must also wrestle with the relevance of the “meaning” she is experiencing, which can lead her to question all relevance of semantic meaning. This is why Racter is conceptual.

As a reader, however, I’ve got to cop to enjoying most the pieces that can be read both ways: traditionally as an object of art on which we can project or take away emotion or experience AND as concept. This is why I’m loving György Ligeti’s poème symphonique (for 100 metronomes). Talk about tension and constraint. Now that’s sexy.



  1. Great post Michelle!

  2. […] Michele Battiste is trying a template experiment in form here. She explains: This is an experiment in form, in constraint. In March 2010, I blogged about the role of constraint in conceptual poetry. You can read that post here: “Tie it Up, Tie it Down” on Zapped Poetry. […]

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