Friday 30 January 2009

An ugly sort of beauty

Eunoia, by Christian Bök (Cannongate Books)

It is rare for reputation to precede a book of poetry. Listeners to the Today programme back in October would have been introduced to Christian Bök’s ‘univocal lipogram’ – an extended prose-poem in which each chapter is made up of words containing the same vowel (‘Eunoia’ is the shortest word in English to contain all five). His short performance – in which the quirky Canadian came across as the missing link between Chaucer and Vic Reeves’ nightclub singer – ensured the print run sold out in hours, pushing the book (originally published in 2001) into the Amazon bestseller lists and attracting an amount of publicity that even the incoming Laureate would kill for.

In many ways the quotation from Gyles Brandreth on the cover serves as a warning. This is a stocking-filler for self-styled ‘lovers of words’ and the sort of gently risque humour beloved of late afternoon television. But what is odd about Eunoia is its literary heritage: in a postscript and interviews Bök has gone to great lengths to explain the obsessional lengths he went to in writing it (burning the midnight oil for seven long years) and the influence of the OuLiPo school of writers. This is art, with its hat tipped at a jaunty angle.

That this is the product of long years of dedication is only of passing interest – Elizabeth Bishop spent longer re-writing the 168 lines of ‘The Moose’. More curious, in dint of its populist appeal, is the connection to ‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’. The French movement (translated as ‘Workshop of potential literature’) sought to test the limits of art and literature by placing extreme constraints on its form and structure, often using mathematical and scientific theories as the basis for generating new ways of expression. Although OuLiPo had some notable devotees, including Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, it is still regarded as one of the extremes of postmodern navel-gazing and solipsism.

This reputation is partly unfair, at least in the origins of the movement which, like Futurism, embraced the changing world around it, and sought to find new ways of capturing a fluid universe where knowledge and progress were in a constant state of flux. While emergence in French intellectual culture in the aftermath of 1968 – and the resultant loss of any meaningful interaction with a more humanist, universal discourse – ensured that it quickly became synonymous with self-conscious experimentalism and academic insularity, some of its achievements should not be easily dismissed. Raymond Queneau’s Excercises de Style remains a core text of any budding writer interested in developing narrative techniques (and has been adapted for graphic novels, films etc.) while OuLiPo’s fascination with word-games and methematical patterns can still be felt in works such as Todd Solondz’s film Palindromes and Darren Aranofsky’s Pi.

While Calvino only joined the movement late on in his career, Perec wrote some of his most enduring work under OuLiPo constraints – and it is to him Bok dedicates the final poem ‘Emended Excess’. Perec achieved a deal of crossover success with Life: A User’s Manual (which tells the story of a Parisian apartment block, alongside that of its residents) but is arguably equally notorious for his 1969 lipogram La Disparation. Translated – necessarily incorrectly - as A Void, the 300 page book does not contain a single instance of the letter ‘e’ (some editions even his name on the cover is mutilated to avoid it). La Disparation raises questions around not only the limits of language and translation, but also postmodern claims over the death of authorial authority (the characters realise that the world they inhabit is missing something, but cannot articulate it for fear of being ‘killed’ and written out of the story). He wrote a follow-up entitled Les revenentes (translated by Ian Monk as The Exeter Text) which – you guessed it – used only words containing the letter ‘e’.

It was a sense that Perec had ‘cheated’ by using made-up words in that text which inspired Eunoia. But there, one feels, the meaningful comparison to Perec ends. In French, the letter ‘e’ sounds like the word ‘eux’ (meaning ‘them’). Perec, a French Jew, lost his mother in Auschwitz and his father fighting the Nazi invasion. A Void, written ‘without them’, can be understood not only as a metaphor for the cruel loss of familial bonds (he could not, as Walter Motte observed, write ‘pere’, ‘mere’, ‘parents’ or ‘famille’, along with his own name) and the Jewish pre-war experience, but also as a commentary on Adorno’s famous statement on poetry after the Holocaust. We can still have art (although Perec primarily uses the popular culture mode of the detective story) after Auschwitz: but one which is always struggling against the limits imposed on Western liberal humanism by ‘the disappearances.’ Similary Les revenentes, a far more obscure and critically unsuccessful text, serves as a warning of what happens if we let those limits dominate: language fails and, with it, any attempt at transcendence (be it through art or social interaction, both of which requiring a clearly understood language).

In achieving what Perec failed, Bök has not succeeded in transcended the constraints of the form. While it is true that, as he claimed in a recent interview, ‘everyone who writes a poem according to a formal constraint is accepting a contrivance’, it is also true of a poem written without any formal constraints – because the decision to therefore call it a poem is a contrivance. That the contrivance of form (even free verse is a formal constraint) – and the negotiation the poet has within it – is a necessary tool in achieving a higher truth and clarity of thought doesn’t seem to come into it.

Instead, we are presented with (as Bök calls it in his postscript) the proof that, ‘even under such improbable duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought’ (103): the word ‘eunoia’ means ‘beautiful thinking.’ What is striking about this word is that it is not unusual simply because of its vowel count, but also because its meaning is so uncommon – indeed, it is not in the OED and previously existed only as an obscure term for a ‘normal’ state of mental health. Bök, who had previously invented languages for sci-fi TV programmes, seems to have adapted it himself from the Ancient Greek root. Serious thought is rarely ever ‘beautiful’ but often draining, difficult and even depressing: but the products of it, especially artistic, often achieve beauty and clarity.

Instead, in Eunoia, the graft has gone in to the selection of words under Bök’s own imposed constraints: any striking insight or phrasing seems as inadvertent as the nondescript phrases he would pull from subway signs during the writing of it, and are quickly lost under the incessant noise of the internal rhyme (a self-imposed constraint) and lists of barely linked words (so that he could ‘exhaust the lexicon for each vowel’ – another constraint). For instance, the pulsating rhythm gives Bök a useful device for capturing the banter of quick-handed card sharks:

’Hassan brags that a crackjack champ at cards lacks what knack Hassan has at craps. A cardsharp, smart at canasta, has a scam: mark a pack, palm a jack (A cardmatch can act as a starchcart that maps fata arcana). A fatal pull wracks a casbah, as a charlatan fans a grandslam hand (‘damn, darn, drat rants a braggart’ (p.9).

Yet soon after Hassan is imposing brutal taxes on his people to repay gambling losses. By keeping the same rhythm with exaggerated political language (‘Hassan drafts a Magna Carta and asks that a taxman pass a Tax Act’) is Bök making even a glib point about gambling and repressive state finance, or just having fun with words? The nature of his aim shields him from criticism for the former, while doing little more than a jig with the latter. Over 100 pages, it gets very tiring.

That Bök is a craftsman of skill and dedication is shown by the self-mocking humour, imaginative leaps and connections between words, and an impressive control over rhythm and metre. But the end result is the leave the reader craving something more substantial and challenging: even if that means getting a little ugly.


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Resources

See poetry-queen Shirley Dent’s Guardian Unlimited Arts Blog

Published poet, Ion Martea, defends poetry for pleasure, in a Battle in Print, Of one who must be happy: an argument for poetry in relationship to please

James Wilkes gives a response to the Battle of Ideas debate, Should Poetry Please?

Bloodaxe Books

Hear poets read their work at the online poetry archive

Listen to Radio 4’s Poetry Please and the BBC’s poetry out loud

Penned in the Margins puts on UK-wide literature events, along with resident poet and Culture Wars contributor, Tom Chivers

See also Salt Publishing

Monthly contemporary poetry at Poetry Magazine

The Poetry Society

The Poetry Book Society

The Poetry Book Foundation

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