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.

Dammit, I Did It Wrong

My commenters saw through my evil plot:

I think, for the year, I will write in prose only;
no rhyme and no meter, no scansion, no verse.
Iambic pentameter? Perish the notion!
We’ll see if my writing gets better… or worse.
A year without sonnets, or ballads, or limericks;
a year without couplets or bad villanelles;
a year when my thoughts must be written, unfiltered
by badly-forced rhymes jammed in metrical shells.
I’ve posted in quatrains; I’ve posted in couplets;
I’ve posted a few in a form of my own.
I’ve written more verse than I care to remember,
in forms more diverse than most people have known!
But now, for one year, I will change up my thinking;
I’ll curb my obsession with meter and rhyme.
Or maybe I won’t, cos this “try it a year” bit
is silly, and simply a waste of my time.

This was, in fact, a commentary on the pastor’s year of living godlessly. It seems an honest try, and not a con, but stranger things have happened. We shall see.

The odds of my ability to change, to see the world and not look first for rhymes, are small. I’d have to wholly re-arrange my thoughts (already strained enough, at times). We can, with practice, change our usual ways of doing things; we are not set in stone. But wow, it’s hard—a year’s a lot of days, and who’s to say it’s worth it, once it’s done? So, no, I think I’ll keep on writing verse, pretending it’s a blessing, not a curse.

Giving Up Rhyming For A Year

I think, for the year, I will write in prose only; no rhyme and no meter, no scansion, no verse. Iambic pentameter? Perish the notion! We’ll see if my writing gets better… or worse.

A year without sonnets, or ballads, or limericks; a year without couplets or bad villanelles; a year when my thoughts must be written, unfiltered by badly-forced rhymes jammed in metrical shells.

I’ve posted in quatrains; I’ve posted in couplets; I’ve posted a few in a form of my own. I’ve written more verse than I care to remember, in forms more diverse than most people have known! But now, for one year, I will change up my thinking; I’ll curb my obsession with meter and rhyme.

Or maybe I won’t, cos this “try it a year” bit is silly, and simply a waste of my time.

Oklahoma Satanist Monument Now Fully Funded

That didn’t take long. As of this posting, they have $20,389 $21,455 of their proposed $20,000.

I like commenter Randomfactor’s idea; the statue should have built-in webcam eyes. Maybe a few more bucks… reading the various stories on this proposed statue, there is no shortage of volunteers ready to welcome it with open arms (of the second amendment sort), sledgehammers, chisels, jackhammers… it would be nice to have good, clear video of these nice people.

Freedom of religion means
My statue gets to stay,
And I get to tear down anything
That gets in my one’s way.
My monument must stand alone
For everyone to see…
No other statues anywhere–
That’s how we know we’re free.

Live Same-Sex Wedding To Be Part Of New Year’s Tournament Of Roses Parade

At the Tournament Of Roses,
There’s a wonderful parade
Where the floats are not just beautiful,
They’re very strangely made:
Every inch of them is covered
With a flower, leaf, or twig;
They must hide the float’s machinery—
Each lever; every rig—
It’s a grand show of technology,
A flowered tour de force,
And it’s televised to millions
Every New Year’s Day, of course
For a hundred years they’ve done it
(And a handful more, as well)
But this year there’s something different,
So the whole thing goes to hell.
It’s been flowers and designers
Since the Tournament’s first day,
But there’s going to be a float this year
That turns the whole thing gay!

The beginning of the New Year is the end of the world, or so it seems to the Christian News Network. You see, they have horrible news:

PASADENA, Calif. – Two homosexual men are set to ‘wed’ on New Year’s Day during the historic Tournament of Roses parade, as they ride a float sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Congratulations! Danny Leclair and Aubrey Loots are getting married!

According to reports, Leclair and Loots will ride a wedding cake-shaped float themed “Dreams come true,” which will also bear the motto “Love is the best protection,” referring to the global AIDS epidemic. The AIDS Healthcare Foundations says that the float is meant to demonstrate “the role marriage can play in reducing HIV infections among gay men.”

The Christian News Network, of course, is opposed to their marriage. It is an affront to God, it displays sin, it something something … reasons. Apparently, they would rather have unstable relationships and HIV infections, because God loves… sick or dead people, apparently.

Anyway, the comments at the CNN are either hilarious or depressing, depending on how seriously you take them. Especially the letters of complaint people have written to the Tournament of Roses people, expressing offense on the part of themselves and God.

You might want to make a New Year’s resolution to never read the comments again.

Paying It Forward…

as per Ophelia

I plagiarized a poet; I
Recycled someone’s rhyme;
I composed collaborations,
Never thinking it a crime

It’s the form of my expression;
It’s the narrative I choose;
It’s the sharing of ideas—
Does it really matter whose?

Hey, a sonnet is a sonnet,
Make the topic what you will—
With a rhyming dictionary
There’s no function left to skill!

In the world of modern poetry,
Your sentences are free—
You could play the Prince of Denmark…
To be, or not to… something…

Plagiarism as a new art form? I must have scores of verses that are pastiches on this or that… (I won’t link one, lest I link a dozen, and that’s not fair). It seems to me that pretty much all parties know (which is very different from all parties admitting) when party B has used party A’s stuff. Some of it is protected; some of it is being a bastard. I have tried, myself, to only use protected bits of other people’s writing… if you see something you think is otherwise, please let me know!

Ophelia notes that being pointed to other people’s writing is a good thing, a feature, not a bug…I agree.

And if you plagiarize me… remember, my sister used to be a lawyer.

Now she’s a judge.

Godless Dollars For Buskers

There’s a busker on the corner
With a beat-up old guitar
And he’s singing ‘bout some wise men
Who were following a star
And the night is getting chilly
And he’s missed a meal or two
Could be sadness; could be frostbite
But he’s looking rather blue
Stop and listen to his music,
And to really cheer him up,
You can drop some godless dollars in his cup

Walk a block or two up further
And you’ll hear a young quartet
With a sound that’s warm and cheerful
In the cold and dark and wet
On ahead, a hammered dulcimer
Plays carols in the night
And it almost feels Dickensian
The sound, the smells, the sight
It’s the warmth of shared humanity
That keeps the cold at bay
While you’re passing godless dollars on your way

And the local high school chorus
Dots the town in smaller groups
Going house-by-house and caroling
To neighbors from their stoops
And an actor reads a story
Of the Ghost of Christmas Past,
And it’s magic, for a moment,
Though of course, it cannot last
Christmas lasts, it seems, forever;
Scenes like this are much too short…
So you give them godless dollars for support.

With final exam season, I had forgotten all about last year’s project, de-godding dollar coins and using them to support the local musicians who are doing their best to make this season less of a chore for shoppers and businesspeople. I’d actually like to suggest that this could be “a thing”–that is, in the same way as bills stamped “gay money”, or 2-dollar bills for gun enthusiasts (for the 2nd amendment, geddit?), a noticeable but unobtrusive sign of atheist giving. It’s just as easy to drop a handful of coins into a guitar case as it is a handful of bills (and they won’t blow away!), plus you get to feel like Scrooge (or Scrooge McDuck), tossing coins at street urchins.

Just go to your bank and trade in some paper money for dollar coins, de-god them (an engraver, a Dremel tool, or a cold chisel would all work quite well), and give them out generously to the musicians and others you wish to support. (Yes, of course you can just take a sharpie to your bills, but they aren’t as noticeable–and it’s fun to see a musician who thinks you dropped in quarters realize that, nope, those were unanticipated dollars!

And if you are really lazy, just donate here, using the tip jar–I have pledged that all donations will be converted to de-godded coins (quarters stay in circulation longer, but dollars fit this plan better) and used to spread cephalopodmas cheer year-round.

Oh, yeah, buy my book(s), too–the perfect (war against) Christmas present. (links in the “Buy the book (etc.)! tab at the top of this page.)
Pile of de-godded dollar coins

Wait–It’s JesusWeen Already?

I hope you have your bibles, in a big stack by the door
Cos tonight’s the night (it’s JesusWeen!) that’s what those books are for
You can hand them to the costumed kids who plaintively implore
“In the name of Christ the Savior, Trick or Treat”

They’ll be dressed as saints and sinners as they travel through the night
As they spread the word of Jesus, to the neighborhood’s delight
You can offer them some candy, but they won’t accept a bite–
Next to Jesus, nothing else could be so sweet!

Stack of pocket sized bibles

Stack of pocket sized bibles

I forgot it was (or nearly is, depending on your neighborhood) JesusWeen! (which, yes, really is a thing.)

Related:
It’s JesusWeen, Charlie Brown!
The JesusWeen Story
Bibles For Trick-Or-Treat!
Blue Roses: A Halloween Poem