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.

Atheist Christmas Verses, Poems, Cards…

… and all proceeds going to charity.


So checking the site stats today, I note that it is the beginning of the season for searching google for “atheist christmas poem”, “atheist christmas cards”, “atheist xmas” and the like.

So I just thought I’d link again, to the only collection you need. Some 17 verses, 32 pages, and all proceeds going to charity (given that I won’t see the money for a couple of months after you buy, I am not naming a charity yet, but I will be transparent.)

And yes, if you didn’t see it, my second collection of verses is out–profits from this one are going to me. It, and all other options (including some free downloadable ones) may be found here.

If You Give A Cuttlefish A Blue Book…

… ze’s gonna want to fill it up.

So while giving an exam the other day, I found an empty Blue Book in the classroom, left behind by a previous class. There I was, trapped for 80+ minutes in a room, with a whole 16 pages of wide-ruled notebook paper. And a dozen extra number 2 pencils.

It was too much to resist. I plan on filling the entire thing, then dropping it surreptitiously on the floor of the English Department. So far, it only has 2 verses:

I found an empty Blue Book
And I knew just what to do:
I asked it if it wanted
To explain why it was blue

“The emptiness inside me”
Said the book, “is hard to take.”
But it didn’t want a sandwich
And it didn’t want some cake

It didn’t want a candy bar
It wanted words, instead–
It said that ink tastes salty,
So I’m filling it with lead.

****

In English Departments
You’ll rarely find times
When the stuff they call poetry
Rhymes.

Cos rhyme with your meter’s
A thing of the past
(Even meter is vanishing
Fast).

Lacking form; lacking structure
We call it “Free Verse”
(It makes amateur poetry
Worse).

It’s not worth a penny
I think you’ll agree–
Maybe that’s why they’re calling it
“Free”.

Piecing Together The Fragments Of The Past

From fragments sifted from the dirt
We piece together what was here
An image forms, a poor mosaic;
Some details never will be shown.
The evidence of daily life—
A broken lamp, a shattered vase,
A stairway worn with countless steps,
The profile of a woman’s face—
These buried pieces, lost to time
We may discover, quite by chance
While off in search of something else—
An accident of circumstance.
So, too, it seems, with memories;
Forgotten, lost, for decades hidden
But then, while on another search
They spring to present mind, unbidden.
They feel complete, in every way,
As if no more than hours old
But how much is illusory?
It could be quite a lot, I’m told.
We reconstruct our precious past
And fill in gaps, the experts say,
To fit our present narrative
And lead to what we feel today

I found this verse—well, half of it—
I’d written several years ago;
I’ve reconstructed what I meant…
Or maybe not. We’ll never know.

Frieze fragment

Frieze fragment – image: Cuttlefish

So, yeah, I literally found the first half of this verse, in the back of a notebook I was using in Greece. I must have written it after visiting one of the many archaeological museums or digs we went to (the above image is, I believe, from Pella). The verse stopped after the word “Forgotten”, which (as you can see) is immediately after the shift from literal to metaphor, and a bit of an ironic place to have to reconstruct from. Some of the museums had pots that were considerably more filled-in than original shards; some were nearly complete. Sometimes you knew, or believed you did, exactly what the artist or crafter had in mind; other times, the effect was equal parts their imagination and your own.

Did I complete the thought I had started over 5 years ago? Probably not. Maybe. I’m a different cuttlefish than I was then.

Nike of Paeonius

Nike of Paeonius – image: Cuttlefish

Heh… if I were cruel, I’d link Schubert’s “unfinished symphony” as the autoplay music for this post.

Impeach… um… Eisenhower!

In my in-box, there was drama—
We must now impeach Obama!—
And a screed without one comma
Made the case why this was so.

Since he won his last election,
This is cause for insurrection!
(It’s assumed there’s no objection
And the man must simply go)

Once the president’s elected
It has come to be expected
The mistake must be corrected
When the losers raise their voice

But it seems, each generation
Has the chance to save the nation
By suggesting usurpation
Of the people’s lawful choice

Oddly enough, I got a bunch of spam email this morning telling me how wonderful it is that there are Republican lawmakers making noise to their constituents about impeaching Obama. They’ve reached the bottom, the email rejoiced; this has replaced even the meaningless posturing about Obamacare that had previously represented the dictionary example of “exercise in frustration”.

And then, in a bit of synchronicity, NPR has a story up today about how pretty much every president gets the impeachment rhetoric from somebody. Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter… and the reason I am writing today, Eisenhower.

But this post is not really about impeachment. Rather, it’s about poetry, and yet one more example that what I write is not poetry (and I’m cool with that–it’s verse, or better yet doggerel, and I am proud enough of it without calling it poetry). You want poetry about impeachment? The NPR story linked to a poem, “Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower“. Now, that’s poetry (and anyone who thinks that not rhyming makes writing easier, I’m here to say otherwise). Read and enjoy.

At The Risk Of More Competition…The Limerick Contest!

I have to tell you (I was just informed myself, as was my source, the good people at the OEDILF) of the International Limericks Competition. (And it is indeed “the” Limerick competition, based in Limerick, Ireland, as it is.)

Free to enter, up to three entries, must be original and in proper limerick form, with a cash prize of 1000 euros (if you are able to attend the final competition–that’s the bad news).

Deadline for entries is 30 July, so get busy!

Send Your Haiku To Mars! (or… not)

Have I mentioned that I hate Haikus? Not real haiku, but haiku as it has been translated into American.

I don’t speak Japanese–well, not much. Very little, but I have been told by a Japanese student that my pronunciation is remarkable. Which, I suspect, is only true in comparison to this student’s experience with other Americans. A low bar is easy to jump.

But I am told that haiku is Japanese like baseball is American. Yes, it has been exported, but not without transplant rejection. Haiku is, I am told, beautiful and perfect in Japanese; in American, haiku is counting syllables. Sometimes more than that, but only rarely, and oh my goodness is it difficult to tell.

But that’s not my point.

My point is, NASA is looking to send three haikus to Mars, with the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) mission. Three haikus. In English, which means 51 syllables in total.

And I think it is a horrible idea. If you are going to send haikus, have a Japanese competition (the current competition specifies haikus in English). If space (or rather, mass) is at a premium, send heroic couplets. Dirty limericks. Whatever. Hell, you are sending poetry to Mars! Why on Earth (yeah, ok, work with me) are you limiting yourself to 3 haikus? Don’t send it because you can, send it because you must–send poetry that belongs on Mars. That’s the way to do it.

Here’s mine. Spirit was the muse, so Spirit should get to read it.

(off topic… I was astonished at how good it felt not to write for a week or so. I honestly don’t know if that is a good or a bad thing. I am not really back yet, but drafts are returned, and final papers aren’t due for a bit, so I may be around for 2-3 days. Or not. I have discovered there is a real world, so I may explore it for a bit. If you are among those who have read this far… thank you for everything you have done for me!)

National Poetry Month–Guest Poet 5: Salty Current

I have always loved the writing of the person I only know as SC, or Salty Current. Intelligent, emotional, well-crafted in prose and in poetry, her writing is always worth the reading (and always far more poetic than mine; I am far too chained to rhyme and meter, and SC is one of the few who makes me regret that). So I’ll direct you here, to a recent poem she quite incorrectly predicted I would hate. And then I’ll cheat a bit, and quote a separate poem, linked at the above, also written for National Poetry Week, and which I just absolutely love:

Three Dead Animals

The bullfighter, writer, and sportsman Ignacio Sánchez Mejías died
poetically
the morning of 13 August, 1934.

The bull Granadino died
obscurely
around that time.

The poet Federico García Lorca died
ritually
in the same era.