Constrained Writing (or, Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe!)

Constraining one’s writing
Can make it exciting
Constraints make it better, not worse
It requires more thought
(Or, they tell me, it ought)
To express what you want, say, in verse.

But I’ve just seen an ode
Nearly written in code–
With multiple layers of constraints
Take a look, if you will,
At this beauty and skill…
And the literal picture it paints

So, yeah, I write with constraints. Often. Rhyme and meter are each constraining, and we can add to this the constraint of topic–my verses are usually commentary, first and foremost. Sometimes I am translating a real story into verse, and have no freedom to change crucial details. Choosing a particular verse form, like a sonnet or a villanelle (or even my own, still-unnamed, form) is a further constraint–and since today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, I can also mention my verses based on The Bells and The Raven (both of which tell real stories in a very specific and recognizable rhyme and meter format). Poe also liked to hide names or phrases in the initial (or later) letters of his poems’ lines–I have done that on occasion as well (I can’t remember any examples I have posted on this blog, though)–it is a fun challenge. I’ve written (again, not here) sonnets that were constrained by having the same number of characters in each line. Verses where the number of letters per word just happened to match the digits of pi.

But (Cuttlecap tip to Pierce R. Butler via email) I’ve just seen an example of constrained writing (“The Extra-Constrained Anagram”, by Mike Keith) that puts them all to shame. And it is Poe-related, so it is perfect for today.

Consider. Take a poem written by Poe himself. Use the letters in that poem (and only those) to write an anagram (constraint 1), itself a poem (constraint 2), telling the story of the author’s pilgrimage to Poe’s grave (constraint 3), with the last 13 lines beginning with EDGAR ALLAN POE (constraint 4).

Enough? Certainly…

But none of these is the real constraint. Consider the following scheme for turning a piece of text into a grayscale picture:

(1) Break the text up into its sequence of words. This sounds trivial, but some rules have to be settled on to avoid ambiguity or illogical results. I decided on these rules as being the most natural:

(a) Apostrophes do not (of course) cause a string to be split. E.g., “love’s law” is a 5-letter word followed by a 3-letter word.
(b) The hyphen (“-”) is a delimiter. “Half-paid stone” is three words, not two.
(c) All other punctuation is ignored.

(2) Take each word of three or more letters and do the following:

First, sum up the values the letters in the word (with the usual A=1, B=2, C=3, etc.).
Then, reduce the sum modulo 9, giving a value in the range 0 through 8.
(Note that the second step is equivalent to continually together adding the digits of the sum until a single digit is left – i.e., “casting out nines” – except with that method, if the final result is a 9 it is replaced with 0.)

(3) Take the resulting series of 0-to-8 values and arrange them in a two-dimensional grid. The dimensions of the rectangle will in general be ambiguous, so it either has to be specified or you can just try various different possibilities and see if any of them are interesting. The one to try first, we suggest, is the rectangle with the largest possible size in X such that the X size is less than or equal to the Y size. For example, for 396 this would be 18 x 22.

(4) View the result as a gray-scale image, with 0=black and the other values evenly distributed up to 8=white.

That’s right, the entire poem produces a literal picture (constraint 5 through infinity). A very specific, very recognizable picture.

Take a look. Absolutely astonishing.


  1. Emu Sam says

    If you’re seeking a name for your verse form, I suggest cuttlesong or cuttlecall. Other options would play with common topics – reasonsong, reasong, newscall, mockerdancey, etc. All of these options are derived from English, pour cause.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    I’ll try them on and see how they fit, Emu Sam. Right now, I keep toying around with sepielle, as an homage both to cuttlefish Sepia, and to constrained forms like villanelles, paradelles, and terzanelles (and as a recognition of my own bordering-on-obsessive adherence to verse and meter), although I do think my form is far more fun and aesthetic than any of those.

  3. Emu Sam says

    My brain has now tossed up “phonocelle.” I agree that a reference to sepia ink, and thus your blog’s theme poem, is appropriate.

  4. rq says

    … Because none of the other stuff was constraining enough, no.
    The human mind is an amazing thing.

  5. Johnny Vector says

    Thanks, Tualha. To any Mac Python neophytes like me, it fails on the default (2.7) installation. I installed 3.3, changed the shebang to “#!/usr/local/bin/python3.3″, and set the PythonLauncher prefs to “Allow override with #! in script”. Or you could just set the default to the 3.3 path.


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