Out in the Open

Experimental poet Christian Bök ruminates on self-imposed artistic limitation

One syllable at a time...
Christian Bök (Courtesy of Christian Bök)

Sometimes you can have too much freedom. You actually yearn for limits, like when you're a writer staring at a blank page.

There's a long tradition of self-imposed artistic constraints in poetry, like sonnets and haiku.

It can display a poet's mastery, but there's a greater effect to the artful limits on freedom.

Out in the Open asked the experimental poet Christian Bök to ruminate on such things, in verse, under a great constraint: one syllable at a time.

Here's what he created:

Men who write verse, be it an ode or a lay, now tell young folks to throw off their chains, to speak in a free tone, with no voice held fast by the rules of speech. We must learn to say what we want. All bards must use words to show how they feel, not how they might leap, like a knight on a steed, from one word to the next, in lines of rhyme set to a beat. We must jump at the chance to break these rules of yore, to smash them into dust. We must leave them in the way that a child, now grown old, might leave a toy in a chest. How can a man hope to say what joy, what woe, what ire, lurks in his heart, if he must still watch what he says, if he must keep an eye out for the steel cuffs that might yoke both his hands to the bars that wall him up in the cell of his jail? Why must a man fret when he writes verse? Why must a bard learn these weird rules of speech (the odd use of the sharp noun, the quick verb—if not le mot juste), all of which trip up the free flow of his thoughts? Why not tell a tale, in which all the words greet a man with ease—a yarn, if you like, in which all words come, both short and sweet, each one said with just one brief pulse of sound? How hard can it be to write in a clear style that all men might get? Why do bards feel the need to speak, like men of law, in a style that no one wants to read?—a style that drags us down a hard path that zigs and zags, each word, too long, each sent to us, like a knot that takes too much time and too much work for us to slip loose of its bonds—what a pain! Who dares to think that we learn much at all from these snares that serve no end, but to tie up our dreams, to keep each of us blocked from our best self? Why do we care for such fare? Why must we heed the great minds of the past, each of whom seems to set for us some kind of trap? I, for one, do not wish to vouch for these calls to good form in verse—in fact, I hate these rules of thumb, all of which now tell me how to think, when I sit down to write at my desk. I want to crush them, like a bright sheet of foil, in my fist. I vow, till I die, to spare no time for the kind of dull bard who does not strive to free his mind from all such forms. I vow, from now on, to say just what I mean (no more!)—with no need for me to lean on the crutch of some cheap trick.