Christian Bök - A word is a bit of crystal in formation; the excess of limitations can be art's greatest ally; each vowel has its own personality
Christian Bök, Eunoia, Coach House Press; 2001.
"Over five years in the making, poet, 'pataphysican, performer and artist Christian Bök's much-anticipated second book Eunoia is about to change your perception of your own language forever.
The word 'eunoia', which literally means 'beautiful thinking', is the shortest word in English that contains all five vowels. Directly inspired by the Oulipo (l'Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), a French writers' group interested in experimenting with different forms of literary constraint, Eunoia is a five-chapter book in which each chapter is a univocal lipogram (the first chapter has A as its only vowel, the second chapter only E, etc.). Each vowel takes on a distinct personality - the I is egotistical and romantic, the O jocular and obscene, the E elegaic and epic (Bök actually retells the entire Iliad in Chapter E; you have to read it to believe it). Stunning in its implications and masterful in its execution, Eunoia is one of the most unusual and important books of any year."
'Eunoia is a novel that will drive everybody sane.' – Samuel Delany
'Eunoia takes the lipogram and renders it obsolete.' – Kenneth Goldsmith
'A marvellous, musical texture of rhymes and echoes.' – Harry Mathews
'An exemplary monument for 21st century poetry.' – Charles Bernstein
'Bök's dazzling word games are the literary sensation of the year.' – The Times
"Eunoia is the title of a set of univocalics by Canadian poet Christian Bök, which consists of chapters written using words limited to a single vowel.
The title eunoia, which literally means good thinking, is a medical term which refers to the state of normal mental health, and is also the shortest word in the English language which contains all five vowels.
In the book's main part, each chapter used just a single vowel, producing sentences such as this: "Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal".
The cover of the book features a chromatic representation of Arthur Rimbaud's sonnet "Voyelles" (Vowels) in which each vowel is assigned a particular colour, and consonants appear grey.
Published in Canada in 2001 by Coach House Books, the book won the 2002 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize, and sold 20,000 copies.
Canongate Books published a British edition in 2008. The book sold well in the U.K. making The Times list of the year's top 10 books and becoming the top-selling book of poetry in Britain.
The author believes "his book proves that each vowel has its own personality, and demonstrates the flexibility of the English language."
"Canadian experimental poet Bök's Eunoia, first published in 2001, is already legendary. In it, Bök devotes a chapter to each vowel, using only that vowel as well as a handful of other rules and restrictions, to create series of poems that push the English language to limits and possibilities no one knew it had. This new edition reprints the entire original book and adds a section of new poems that comment on the original project or take up other alphabetical themes (And Sometimes, for instance, uses only English words with the letter Y and no other vowels). What at first seems like a game turns out to be a means of unlocking a kind of hidden nature of the English language: the vowels, it turns out, each have their own moods and environments revealed by their repeated use. "A law as harsh as a fatwa bans/ all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark," reads the first poem. The vowels inspire, if in fact they don't contain, stories of their own. The E chapter narrates a war-story about Greeks worthy of Homer: "When the rebels beset defended trenches,/ the defenders retrench themselves, then strengthen/ the embedded defenses." This book is jaw-droppingly powerful, a mythology of sound." - Publishers Weekly
"THERE IS A VIBRANT, if marginal, tradition of writers who work within self-imposed formal or linguistic constraints. It includes Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino and Vladimir Nabokov, but its most accomplished figure is Georges Perec, the French novelist who wrote La Disparition, a novel without a single use of the letter “e”. The days of Perec and the experimental coterie Oulipo may seem distant, but Christian Bök has revived their spirit in his “univocal lipogram” Eunoia, a work of prose-poetry that fulfils its brief of using only one vowel in each of its five chapters without cutting corners or descending into nonsense.
As if the central rule did not provide enough difficulties, Bök worked with subsidiary guidelines. The book contains no use of the letter “y” and each chapter uses 98 per cent of the relevant vocabulary. Repetition must be minimal; each chapter must describe, among other things, a voyage by sea; and each sentence must “accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical parallelism”. It is little wonder that the book required “seven years of daily perseverance”, as Bök says in the rule-free coda.
This labour has produced a book that is easy, and pleasurable, to read. Eunoia is characterised not by obvious sweat and strain, but by playfulness, fluidity and self-conscious wit: “Enfettered, these sentences repress free speech. The text deletes selected letters. We see the revered exegete reject metred verse - the sestet, the tercet ... He rebels. He sets new precedents. He lets cleverness exceed decent levels.”
At other times, the rhythms bounce and tumble, creating an impression of haste despite the meticulousness and graft of the book's composition.
Although Bök's title - the shortest word in English containing all five vowels - means “beautiful thinking”, the book is not an exercise in New Age abstraction. For the most part, it makes sense.
Bök has added a short second section, Oiseau, in which he plays linguistic games involving homophones, consonants, and anagrams. Elsewhere, he has attempted to meet conven-tional demands, and with the exception of chapter “U”, where the vocabulary is too limited, he succeeds.
“A” tells the story of Hassan, an Agha Khan who suffers an asthma attack, “E” is a retelling of The Iliad, from the point of view of Helen, who “never vents spleen”, “resembles the lewdest jezebel”, and “rejects her self-centred meekness”, “I” is a gathering of first-person thoughts and stories, and “O” portrays, among other things, monks, snobs and Oxford dons.
The book's freshest insights pertain to the resilience and manipulability of language. The experiment reveals that each vowel has a character, and lends itself to different kinds of sound and to different lengths of word. Bök shows the transformation that literary language undergoes when stripped of its easy freedom, awakening the reader from an attitude to exotic vocabulary and linguistic ingenuity that holds - say - Martin Amis and John Updike as standard-bearers. And it is surprising to discover that there are so many, and so many useful, words that fit Bök's requirements.
Christian Bök is a Canadian; his chief influences are movements initiated in France, like pataphysics and surrealism; his reference-points include Vermeer, Hegel, and Snoop Dogg; his verbal effects are reminiscent of Shakespeare, Beckett, Dylan Thomas, and Dizee Rascal. The approach of self-expression through self-repression proves a goad; the limitations clearly galvanised Bök, and the effect on the reader is gal-vanic too.
Orson Welles once said that the enemy of art was the absence of limitations; Bök shows that the excess of limitations can be art's greatest enabler and ally." - Leo Robson
"In the introduction to Information Arts, Stephen Wilson's copious catalogue of people who work on the borders of science and the humanities, Wilson gives readers a pop-quiz about which projects belong to people who call themselves "artists" and which belong to those who describe themselves as "scientists":
Researcher J.T. developed a method of using genetic engineering to encode messages in bacteria. Researchers C.E. and U.W. bred a line of mice with a special proclivity for eating computer cables.
Researcher J.M. developed a computer display that could visualize the underlying intellectual structure of a group of articles and books.
Researcher H.S. developed a "fertility bra" that used the pheromone receptors to flash indicators when the woman wearing it was in a fertile period.
Researchers at M.R. developed a device that is sensitive to hugs and can react to things it hears on the television. The first two projects on this list, both in genetics, might appear to be concerned with some aspect of military technology—spy messages in the first instance, infrastructural subterfuge in the second. The "fertility bra" resonates with the television bra of Nam Jun Paik and the free love vibe of the sixties; the device "sensitive to hugs" sounds like some advancement on Sony's Aibo dog; and the artificial intelligence project that translates texts into visual images—imagine a Pollackesque mural that represents the informational strands of Joyce's Ulysses or The Whole Earth Catalog. But only the first two projects are being pursued by "artists"; the last three are the work of "scientists." As Wilson goes on to argue in this huge book—which covers so many artists that he can barely expend more than a few pages on even the most accomplished—the border between "science" and the "arts" is breaking down, something that has been said before, of course, but never with such credible and voluminous evidence. A movement seems afoot.
Christian Bök belongs to this new breed of artist-scientists, not because he employs machines to do his writing or creates poetic devices that "respond to hugs" or chew through cables, but because he has, probably more than any other contemporary poet, attempted to set up strict procedural guidelines for his poetic practice. These guidelines are informed by post-structuralist theories of "recombinant" linguistics (in which letters and words are analyzed as molecules that behave differently in variable environments) and what Bök calls "robot aesthetics" (an imagining of how an artificial intelligence program might complete a poem in accordance with a complex algorithm).
Bök hails from Toronto, which is also the home of the "Toronto Research Group," a project that Steve McCaffery and bpNichol pursued in the seventies to investigate, with Tel Quel-ish intensity, the many varieties of book arts, visual and sound poetics, and even cartoons. (McCaffery introduced Derrida to the North American avant-garde.) Bök is probably best known in the States as a sound poet; his speed-metal version of Schwitters's normally forty-two-minute "Ursonate" clocks in at just under twenty, and his own "Cyborg Opera" has both wowed and occasionally distressed audiences with its unsettling interpretations of electric razors and atom bombs. He's created entire books out of Lego blocks—one recently sold in New York for several thousand dollars—and invented a language for a race of Star Trek spin-off creatures called the "Taelons." (Several web sites, none of his creation, are already devoted to the language, which, among other things, has no past or future tense, but relies entirely on moods of hope and nostalgia to express these specificities.)
Bök has published one previous collection of poetry, Crystallography, which was heavily influenced by Christopher Dewdney, a relatively obscure poet (at least in the States) who wrote books of poetry with such titles as A Paleozoic Geology of London, Ontario. Crystallography also has a scientific slant, drawing beautiful analogies between the structure of language and that of crystalline molecules like amethyst and diamond. It even has a section called "A Hagiography of Snow," in which the poet scolds scientists for trying to name the stars since—like naming snowflakes—it is a practice that "stems in part from the unfulfillable desire to perform a mathematical paradox: the attribution of cardinality to every element in an infinite set." Clearly, Bök views language as a field of infinite possibility, of numberless configurations that can create their own meanings (as syntactic shapes or societal echoes) regardless of their standard usage in spontaneous expressions (such as "speech"). Faced with the limitless options posed by this aesthetic model, the writer required a sturdy plan, and he executes it most successfully in "Eunoia," (which comprises the first five "chapters" of the book that shares its name).
"Eunoia" means "beautiful thought" and is the shortest word in English to employ all of the vowels. Written over seven years—the same period of time it took Joyce to write Ulysses—"Eunoia" is a "universal lipogram," in that it restricts itself to the use of only one vowel per chapter: the "a" chapter can only use words like "banana" and "and," the "u" chapter only words like "pluck" and "but." Each chapter is dedicated to an artist whose name fits the parameters—Hans Arp, Rene Crevel, Dick Higgins, Yoko Ono, and the Chinese performance artist Zhu Yu are the honored dedicatees. As he writes in his afterword, there are other "subsidiary rules":
All chapters must allude to the art of writing. All chapters must describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage. All sentences must accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical parallelism. The text must exhaust the lexicon for each vowel,citing at least 98% of the available repertoire (although a few words do go unused, despite efforts to include them: parallax, belvedere, gingivitis, monochord, and tumulus). The text must minimize repetition of substantive vocabulary (so that, ideally, no word appears more than once). The letter Y is suppressed.
He writes that "the text makes a Sisyphean spectacle of its labor, willfully crippling its language in order to show that, even under such improbable conditions of duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought." Like a physicist sending an electron into a sheet of lead to see what sparks fly, Bök manhandles his material and scrupulously documents its behavior under pressure.
The first paragraph of "Chapter I"—of course, there can be no "you" in this work—contains one of Bök's more eloquent treatises on the art of writing:
Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism, disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks—impish hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn't it glib? Isn't it chic? I fit childish insights within rigid limits, writing schtick which might instill priggish misgivings in critics blind with hindsight. I dismiss nit-picking criticism which flirts with philistinism. I bitch; I kibitz—griping while criticizing dimwits, sniping while indicting nitwits, dismissing simplistic thinking, in which philippic wit is still illicit. The reader discovers one thing quickly: that it strains the eye to read so much type that hugs against itself, as the "stick sigil" of the letter "i" compresses the text block, making it possible to pack more words on each line. The use of the "i" gives Bök a stage to enact a lyrical self-creation—a persona part Goethe's Faust, part Jim Carrey's Grinch. One of the pleasures of this poem is how it approaches the aforementioned themes from the angle of each letter, such that in "Chapter A" we see the art of writing—absent the "i"—linked to a series of esteemed predecessors:
Awkward grammar appalls a craftsman. A Dada bard as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an alpha (a slapdash arc and a backwardzag) that mars all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A madcap vandal crafts a small black ankh—a handstamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a mar that sparks an ars magna (an abstract art that charts a phrasal anagram). A pagan skald chants a dark saga (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackballs all annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and Kafka, Marx and Marat. A law as harsh as a fatwa bans all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark. The same "subject matter" is approached here from several different perspectives. Bök's desire to find the most perfect use of all of the "a" words also gives us—this is no joke—the a's distinct perspective on the art of writing. Perhaps more obviously, Bök learns as much about himself as the letters do, as if the word-lists that he constructed to write "Eunoia" were Rorschach inkblots that mirrored his own subconscious. In the "i" chapter, he is the smug and sarcastic mad scientist while in the "a" chapter, absent the "i" but having access to a welter of nouns, he adopts an omniscient, allusive approach, cleverly dismissing both Kant (for his transcendental ego) and Marx (for his materialist dialectics) in the process.
Indeed, Bök was very careful to make "Eunoia" a work of literary quality in a conventional sense; he denies himself a plethora of avant-garde tactics such as parataxis, fragmentation, and visual poetics, that would have made his pursuit easier. Every sentence is complete and they all tell a story or explain an idea. One of the more clever sections is the retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of Helen:
Bells knell when the keep gets levelled; then Greek rebels cheer when Helen enters her Greek temple (the steepled glebe where jewelled steeples shelter her ephebes); there, the reverends bless the freed empress. The Greek sects revere her gentleness, her tenderness; hence, these prefects help her seek self-betterment. The zen seers tell her: 'greed begets greed—never be self-centred: be selfless'. She defers. Her deference seems reverent. The empress kneels, then keens her vespers. The pewter censer spews the sweetest peppered scent. She feels refreshed; she feels perfected. The cultural anachronism of the "zen seer"—one is reminded of Pound's "frigidaire patent" in the "Homage to Sextus Propertius"—contributes to an engaging portrait of a woman who has a peculiarly contemporary brand of self-motivation. There is something significant in the switch to a female perspective in this seven-year effort that resulted in a few thousand words. It is as if the chapter of Modernist epics—many of which devolved into sets of internal codes—were being closed.
Eunoia, the book, has several poems outside of "Eunoia" itself, including one that exhausts all the words that have no vowels but the letter "y" (it starts "syzygy pyx / gyp / gypsy / pygmy gyms") and an homage to the letter "w" dedicated to George Perec, the Oulipian master whom Bök seems determined to excel. But it is "Eunoia," with its readability and extreme method, that poses the largest questions for poetry, both of the "avant-garde" and more lyrical variety. Namely, why poets haven't responded to the development of the "information aesthetics" that has occupied much of the art world? Does this research-oriented stance bridge the gap between the "avant-garde" and the "mainstream"?
"The great Georges Perec wasn’t the first person to write a novel without using the letter “e” – as far as anyone knows, that was Ernest Vincent Wright, with the little-read Gadsby (1939) – but he was the first to do it with any artistic purpose or success. La Disparition, which he wrote in 1968, omits that key vowel, but the story becomes an investigation into what is missing. This gap in turn becomes a metaphor for a more sinister disappearance. It is a reminder of the acts of disparition the French government issued after the war in lieu of death certificates to those who had lost their relatives in the Holocaust.
This turns what looks like a prank into something deadly serious; but Perec clearly had real fun while he was doing it. Christian Bök has taken the idea even further: in Eunoia, he writes whole stories univocalically – that is, allowing himself only one vowel per chapter. It’s impressive stuff, and involves less fudging than Perec’s Les Revenentes did. He manages to give each chapter a character of its own: “a” stars an Arab man, and has a tang that attracts as a bazaar’s; “e” tells Helen’s secrets; “o”’s slot is too porno for most of Bök’s crowd; and so on.
The author writes about how hard it is to write like this: “thinking within strict limits is stifling”. So it is, and the trick is to see if, even within those constraints, you can say something similar to what you might actually want to say. Often Bök can, and the most impressive part is “e”’s biography of Helen of Troy. This, like “o”, falls back on lewd sex (but then nothing compares to “u”). The problem with univocalics is that you do end up writing extensively and graphically about sex. Perec had this problem, too, and his biographer David Bellos offers ingenious literary and psychological reasons for it. But the work of Bök suggests it is an occupational hazard. The biggest risk is of concluding, as Bök does at one point, “NIHIL DICIT, FINI”. Eunoia does include poems that indicate there is some kind of purpose, including a proper understanding of Perec’s letter games; but the fun is not in seeing why the fellow did it, but that it can be done at all." - Tom Payne
"Dear Mr. Harper,
Have you ever felt limited by language? I’m sure you have. A common instance would be when you’re speaking with someone and you want to convey an idea, but you’ve momentarily forgotten the word, it remains on the proverbial tip of your tongue, and you struggle to explain what you mean to say in a roundabout way. Another common occurrence of language limiting expression is when one is speaking in a foreign language. You, for example, have made admirable efforts to learn French, but it remains a language with which you’re not fully comfortable. When you give a speech in French, I’m sure you prefer to speak from a written text vetted by a native speaker, and when you have to ad-lib, I imagine you seek safety in the set phrases and expressions that you’ve learned; otherwise, you must struggle, trying to express your meaning in the limited knowledge you have of the language. In English, on the other hand, you must feel no sense of limitations. I imagine you feel, like most native speakers of a language feel, that what you think, you express, effortlessly and without any delay or searching.
Of course, this sense of freedom, this perfect match between thought and expression, is an illusion born of comfort and familiarity. Faced with an utterly new experience, whether beatific or horrific, we often lose the capacity to speak, we are rendered speechless. And expression is more than simply a question of vocabulary. Experiences that are not emotionally overwhelming but intellectually complex can also have us struggling to speak meaningfully. In such situations, it is not necessarily words that fail us, but the preliminary understanding that leads to the choice of words. All this to say that sometimes we are tongue-tied—and we don’t like it. We value expression. So, humming, hawing, non-sequituring, we struggle until we manage to put idea or experience into words.
The book I am sending you this time—the poetry collection Eunoia, by the Canadian writer Christian Bök (pronounced Book), both the book and the CD (effectively read by the author)—is all about limitations and the soaring over-passing of them. Bök, a fervent admirer of Oulipo, the French experimental writers’ collective, has taken one of their favourite techniques, the lipogram, to a very high level. A lipogram is a composition in which a letter is missing throughout. A fine example of a lipogram is George Perec’s novel La disparition, written entirely without the most used vowel in French, the letter e. If you think a lipogram sounds like a gimmick, think again. In the case of the Perec novel, the letter e in French is pronounced the same as the word eux, them. La disparition refers not only to the disappearance of a letter, but of them. Them who? Well, to start with, Perec’s parents, who were Jewish and who were swallowed up by the Holocaust. La disparition is a metaphor on the wiping out of a good part of Jewish civilization in Europe, something very much equivalent to an alphabet losing one of its key letters. No gimmickry there, I don’t think.
Bök has taken the challenge even further. With Eunoia, he has written a series of poems that omit not just one letter, but several, and not consonants, of which there are many, but vowels, and not just one, two or three vowels per poem, but four vowels. That leaves just one vowel per poem. The opening lines of the collection gives you right away the treat you’re in for:
Awkward grammar appals a craftsman. A Dada bard as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art… The hero of the vowel A is the Arab Hassan Abd al-Hassad, while E features Greek Helen, who
Restless, she deserts her fleece bed where, detested, her wedded regent sleeps. When she remembers Greece, her seceded demesne, she feels wretched, left here, bereft, her needs never met.
Who would have thought that Homer’s Iliad could be retold using just one vowel? The vowel I allows the author to speak about his project and defend it:
I dismiss nitpicking criticism which flirts with philistinism. I bitch; I kibitz—griping whilst criticizing dimwits, sniping whilst indicting nitwits, dismissing simplistic thinking, in which philippic wit is still illicit. In O we read that
Porno shows folks lots of sordor—zoom-shots of Björn Borg’s bottom or Snoop Dogg’s crotch. Johns who don condoms for blowjobs go downtown to Soho to look for pornshops known to stock lots of lowbrow schlock—off-color porn for old boors who long to drool onto color photos of cocks, boobs, dorks or dongs. With O, we also get a wink at Clockwork Orange, the novel by Anthony Burgess I sent you a while ago:
Crowds of droogs, who don workboots to stomp on downtrod hobos, go on to rob old folks, most of whom own posh co-op condos. Even U, that vowel the sight of which makes a Scrabble player’s heart sink, manages to speak on its own:
Kultur spurns Ubu—thus Ubu pulls stunts. So it goes, the wit and inventiveness dancing across the pages, the stock of single-vowel words of the English language expended to discuss a surprising range of topics, from the bawdy to the lyrical, from the pastoral to the historical.
And the purpose of it all? It may seem to you to be a mere game, with the lack of seriousness that one might associate with playing. To that, two responses: first, in playing, in toying, comes discoveries, the result of chance juxtapositions; and second, language is never just about itself. This language playing that Bök delights us with comments on the world because every word, whether invested with one vowel or five, connects eventually to a concrete reality. So speaking in mono-vowels though he is, Bök is also speaking volumes. Eunoia, which means “beautiful thinking” and is the shortest word in English to contain all five vowels, is a narrow but perfect work. It is a gambol through language, and it would be a sad mistake to dismiss it as merely facetious, which word—lo!—contains all five vowels in order. After such wordplay, the tongue is better fixed in the mouth and expression comes more easily.
"Many artists seek to attain immortality through their art, but few would expect their work to outlast the human race and live on for billions of years. As Canadian poet Christian Bök has realised, it all comes down to the durability of your materials. Bök has written a poem, "The Xenotext", which he is inserting into the DNA of a particularly resilient form of bacteria, Deinococcus radiodurans. This extremophile bacterium can survive exposure to cold, dehydration, acid and vacuums, meaning it could live on in outer space should the Earth cease to exist.
Bök is not one to shy away from a challenge. In his most recent book, Eunoia, each chapter uses words of only one vowel. He has spent nine years researching the Xenotext project and, despite having no academic training in biochemistry, he is doing all the genetic and protein engineering himself. Using a "chemical alphabet", Bök is translating his short verse about language and genetics into a sequence of DNA, which will be implanted into the genome of the bacteria. The protein that the cell produces in response will form a second comprehensible poem.
This is not the first time someone has married art and microbiology. In 2003, US scientists inserted a DNA translation of the song "It's a Small World" into D radiodurans to show that the bacterium could be used as a means of information storage in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. Last year, the American genetic entrepreneur J Craig Venter coded a line from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – "To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life" – into DNA, only to receive a cease-and-desist letter from the notoriously litigious James Joyce estate." - Killian Fox
"Poetry is not language at play, but language out of work, deliberately unemployed—thus poetry commits a kind of welfare fraud upon us all. Soo Jin, on the New Directions Poetry page, riffed a bit off of that statement:
There is a sort of duplicity in the language of poetry, or as I heard Marie Ponsot once say: “Each word in a poem should function on at least three levels.” I loved that “at least” implying the infinity of language. In a poem, language is unlike language in journalism. It is not a straightforward communication. If language can be thought of as being vertical or horizontal, language in poetry is neither but a meandering, a layering on, a drilling into, an obfuscation, a condensation, a crystallization, a multiplicity…often to convey a truth that cannot be arrived at in a straight manner. Rather than an algebra formula, I think of language in poetry as a Venn diagram with so many circles of meaning intertwining with and colliding into each other.
Christian Bök’s relationship with language and poetry is very interesting. As a proponent of Oulipo he has initially positioned himself as viewing language in at the very least a slightly different way than most. I think Bök’s statement is at least somewhat tongue in cheek, referring to the current economic crisis at least tangentially. What it also is saying, though, is that poetry is relevant, even if in the above equation the relevance is as a negative, or at least draining, relevance. But it is important to note that language at play is inherently worthless and inconsequential. It might be fun, it might be cute. But not relevant. Bök’s poetry is like the deadbeat uncle who sleeps on the couch for months on end; he could get a job and do something better, he has all the raw skills and intelligence to do it, but he deliberately chooses to sit and watch cartoons and Sportscenter all day instead.
What I find interesting about Jin’s response is that he largely disregards the meat of Bök’s statement. The idea that ‘In a poem, language is unlike language in journalism’ is true and obviously valid. And maybe it is somewhat contained within Bök’s statement, but Jin I think makes the mistake of turning around and giving poetic language many other jobs–it is a Venn diagram, it needs ‘at least’ three levels of funcionality or meaning. Now, I agree with Jin in really all of his statements. His description of poetry, though not really meaning anything in and of itself, is rather apt. It is a nice amorphous description. But it, again, misses the point of the original tweet. Jin immediately gets to work to nail down what Bök has let loose with his statement. In the preceding paragraph to the excerpt above, Jin describes the various places that he went to look for poetry of this nature–a form of work, in a sense. And that right there might be what is so interesting about Bök’s statement. If poetry is inherently language out of work, that forces the reader to be the one who does get to work. Jin immediately got to work. The reader of a really good poem has to get to work to assemble the meaning themselves. It displaces the work (assumedly of transmitting meaning) from the language of the poem to the recipient of the poem. The journalism reference is perfect in that sense. Ideal journalism leaves absolutely nothing up to the reader. It is written for a lowest common denominator with clarity as maybe the single most important quality.
And that is the source of the ‘welfare fraud’. We read a poem, but the poem forces us to do its work for it. Yes, we might want to do the work. But the poem itself is a negative space where our work and effort go into it, not the other way around." - A Compulsive Reader
"Eunoia by Canadian experimental poet Christian Bok is the 74th of a series of titles selected by writer Yann Martel to provide to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to encourage an appreciation of the arts and literature in particular in the PM, and to also help Harper with his stillness and thoughtfulness. Martel has regularly sent books from a wide range of literary traditions to Harper. Since he started this initiative in April 2007, Martel has devoted a Web site to the reading list and to his kind, considered and often poignant covering letters with each volume. (All of his letters can be read at http://www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca/. They are also now in printed form, in a book entitled, not surprisingly, What is Stephen Harper Reading?)
Martel's thoughtful persistence in this quest is both heartwrenching and highly commendable. He has never received a direct acknowledgement from Harper, and only some fairly form-letter responses from Harper's staff. He has also received a response from Industry Minister Tony Clement, but it wasn't directly related to any of Martel's book selections.
Eunoia won the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize, became the bestselling poetry book of all time in Canada, and recently came out in a second edition with new material. The Griffin judges cited the work as follows: "Christian Bök has made an immensely attractive work from those “corridors of the breath” we call vowels, giving each in turn its dignity and manifest, making all move to the order of his own recognition and narrative. Both he and they are led to delightfully, unexpected conclusions as though the world really were what we made of it. As we are told at the outset, “Eunoia, which means ‘beautiful thinking,’ is the shortest English word to contain all five vowels.” Here each speaks with persistent, unequivocal voice, all puns indeed intended." Could Stephen Harper benefit from some "beautiful thinking"? It seems Yann Martel thought so. Some reviewers dismissed Eunoia as a clever parlor trick, not really a work of artistic merit. Having read it, I confess that while I marvelled at the discipline involved in creating the work, it left me kind of cold at times. However, having seen Bok present it - live and on video - there is no denying the passion he applies to this and all his work." - Bookgaga
"Reading Eunoia aloud is a singular experience. The repetition of sounds and rhymes, assonance and alliteration all make for a poetic work of prose. I found myself reading it at a steady clip, keeping the rhythm in the forefront. You probably haven’t read anything like this before.
The book Eunoia is made of two sections: “Eunoia”, the main work, and “Oiseau”, a small collection of related but secondary works. Both words are six letters long, five different vowels and only one consonant, highlighting the focus of the writing, vowels.
Eunoia consists of 5 sections each devoted to one of the vowels. Each is what the Oulipo call a univocalic text, using only one vowel. As Bôk explains in the afterword, that was not the only constraint. He also eschewed “y”, accented internal rhyme, and set a handful of semantic constraints (each chapter must involve a discussion of writing as an art, a feast, a scene of debauchery, and a nautical voyage). Perhaps hardest of all, though not something followed strictly, he endeavored to repeat words as little as possible and exhaust the possible lexicon as much as possible.
What those constraints lead to is an, expectedly, odd work. Each chapter is self-contained narratively. Chapter A tells the story of “Hasan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan” and all the things he “can” do (“Hassan can start a war.” (25)). Chapter E retells the Iliad, focusing upon Helen. It includes a retelling in E of the Trojan horse myth (“Greek schemers respect shrewdness; hence, the shrewd rebels enter the sled’s secret recess, the sled’s nested crèche, where these few men keep themselves secreted…” (43)). Chapter I is written in the first person and includes a preponderance of verbs in the infinitive. Chapter O doesn’t have a unifying narrative that I can detect, and Chapter U, the shortest of the bunch, naturally tells a story borrowing Jarry’s Ubu, who among other things has a sexual encounter with Ruth and Lulu: “Ubu hugs Ruth; thus Ruth purrs. Ubu untucks Ruth’s muumuu; thus Ruth must untruss Ubu’s tux. Ubu fluffs Lulu’s tutu. Ubu cups Lulu’s dugs; Ubu rubs Lulu’s buns; thus Lulu must pull Ubu’s pud.” (79)
Eunoia is probably best served read aloud, the assonance and rhyme are more clearly heard, but it is also interesting visually as text. The repetitive vowels make the page appear strange, abnormal. Chapter O is round while Chapter I is sharp.
As narrative the chapters aren’t all equally interesting. The retelling of the Iliad in Chapter E goes on a little too long, while Chapter O holds no real coherence at all, semantically. These failings are made up for with the inherent interest of the linguistic acrobatics and the sonorous writing. “Eunoia” is a unique work, of a different order than Perec’s similar texts (his “Les Revenentes” and “What a Man”), and a great example of what a constraint can do for linguistic virtuosity, if not necessarily for rich narrative. In this case, the very difficult constraint perhaps limits a little too much what can be said. Personally I do get more pleasure from a text that is narratively interesting and less constrained (a fine balance).
The pieces that round out the volume, grouped under the title “Oiseau” are varied but supplemental to the main work. One consists of all words that are only consonants (i.e. utilizing Y as a vowel). Another is an homage to W the consonant that can make a vowel sound. “Vowels” is anagrammatic of the word in the title, and “Voile” is a homophonic translation of Rimbaud’s sonnet with the same title. Lastly, “Emended Excess” uses the remaindered words that did not fit into the Iliad retelling of Chapter E.
At the end of the volume Bôk kindly explains the constraints at work in the book.
The work as a whole is available online at the Couch House Books site, free, though they ask for donations which go directly to the author. Go check out some of the book and try reading it aloud." - MadInkBeard
"Christian Bök: Linguistic Virtuoso
In the post-Modernist world, developments in the sciences overshadow human relationships. To bridge humankind’s alienation from science and technology, Christian Bök turns science into poetry, and poetry into science. He delves into “pataphysics,” the poetics of an imaginary science which renders the English language whimsical and at times nonsensical. He also attempts virtuosic feats with his sound and concrete poetry. Bök’s language welcomes new interpretations and shows that poetry is an ongoing process that can disrupt traditions and reshape them. Bök’s innovative use of sound, form, and narrative reshapes language, inviting the audience to rethink how language works.
Exploring sound’s primitivism, Christian Bök transforms his poetry into wild vocal terrains. He deconstructs and reinvents meaning in language by banishing words from some of his sound poetry. Following the post-Modernist tradition of melding old materials with new ideas, Bök re-imagines Dadaist Hugo Ball’s poem “Seepferdchen und Flugfische (Seahorses and Flying Fish)” by infusing it with his own tempos, pitches, and exclamation points. The “language” in this poem does not consist of words but a string of nonsensical sounds like “billabi”, “zack”, and “bisch!” Can language still be “language” without words? To be effective, language must be able to communicate ideas. Bök’s “language” then, communicates ideas through explosions of non-meanings. It relies heavily on its emotive function, stirring the audience’s imagination with fluctuations in pitch, tone, and tempo. It is also metalingual: it draws attention to itself as the audience tries to decipher the poem through only the sense of hearing. In his poem “Valuvëula”, Bök chants in an alien language. Set in a minor key with a small vocal range, “Valuvëula” is reminiscent of tribal chants. While Bök invents a new language for his poem, he also infuses the exotic with new life, resurrecting the “primitive” oral tradition.
The language of Bök’s sound poetry sheds the rigid metrical and rhyme schemes of yesteryear and becomes the foundation for Bök’s virtuosic performances. Thus, language is the tool, and its performance is the poem. In “Ubu Hubbub”, Bök weaves a sound poem with English words, but these words are made new through Bök’s play with their syntax and rhythms. Nonsensical phrases such as “jujube bungee jump,” “cumbersome gummy bears,” and “jellybeans of Belgium” permeate the poem whose torrents of words free themselves from metrical conventions. There is order in the disorder, as each rhythmic phrase begins with “Ubu” and the fragments are linked by the images of confections. Through these conventions, “Ubu Hubbub” is made whimsical, even though its goal may not be clear to the audience at first. In UbuWeb (2000), Christian Bök describes “Ubu Hubbub” as “a work of political satire, expressing what [he imagines] Ubu Roi might sound like when issuing an imperial decree.” “Ubu Roi” is a play created by Alfred Jarry; it marks the beginning of “pataphysics”, the “French absurdist concept of a philosophy or science dedicated to studying what lies beyond the realm of metaphysics, intended as a parody of the methods and theories of modern science and often expressed in nonsensical language” (“Pataphysics”). Thus, by rendering the English language nonsensical, Bök is able to present his audience with new ways of appreciating sound poetry.
In Eunoia, Bök conducts a formidable experiment with vowel sounds, contorting language to a high degree. This re-creation of language begins with its title, Eunoia, which is the shortest word in the English language to contain all five vowels. The work is a “univocal lipogram, in which each chapter restricts itself to the use of a single vowel” (Bök 2002). Most suitable for reading aloud, each chapter in Eunoia embodies a distinct character because of its unique vowel sounds. It is “by limiting the infinity of choice in such radical ways that Oulipians [such as Bök] have created so many new, unusual options of phrase-making”(Carmine 29). The univocality transforms language, making it resonant with rhyme and assonance. Therefore, even though the ideas in Eunoia may be abstract and nonsensical, its art is shapely. As Dykk remarks (D12), Eunoia is an “explosive volume [that] makes no sense and all sense simultaneously.”
Filtering the language with the extreme Oulipian formalistic constraints, Bök shapes Eunoia. This work’s rigorous form is an exercise in procedural writing, demonstrating Bök’s tenacity and his virtuosic skills with language. His aim is to “replace literary values…with new traditions, through the discovery of constraints as ‘productive’ as those which for centuries had ruled over the world of letters” (Carmine 29). Because there is limited word choice and each chapter must contain words with the same vowel, Bök’s poem is dense and lyrical, which shows that technical dexterity in language can be poetic. Eunoia is divided into five chapters nearly equal in length, thus each section stands in stark contrast to one another in tone but linked together in subject matter, style, and tempo. Bök remarks: “In a certain sense, I found that book in the language. It was a book that was waiting to appear, and it's probably the only book that could have emerged after all that effort” (Crawley 9). Eunoia, then, deconstructs the unpredictable but familiar flow of language so that it becomes self-reflexive, inviting its readers to examine it – and our understanding of reality – with a more critical eye. Carmine (29) notes that the Oulipian method of writing “in fact vandalizes form – deseeds it of surprise and expressive necessity. Once discovered, an Oulipan form isn’t really reusable (the way the sonnet is) because that form has been cooked up to flatter a specific and superficial kind of technical cunning.” Although the poetic form of Bök’s Eunoia can hardly be reused, it has revived language with its uniqueness and its element of surprise. Subtitled “Book One of Information Theory,” Bök’s Crystallography mimics the technical language of scientific writing. It is an exploration into the design of poetic space, highlighting the aesthetics of structural perfection. The letters and words are formed like crystalline lattices, overlapping in horizontal and vertical shapes. Some are concrete poems written as chemical formulae or diagrams of molecular structure. Others appear in charts, graphs, and illustrations. Bök boldly parallels the linguistic code with that of geology in “The Cartographic Key to Speleological Formation” and “The Cryometric Index of Poetic Forms”, whose appearances as indexical charts temporarily disguise their high poetic functions and vivid imageries. At the centre of the book, there is a sheet of vinyl transparency with upside-down “Y”s which is sandwiched between the “innate crystalline structure” of the letter “Y” and “TRIGON MIRROR.” This transparency is self-reflexive: it draws attention to its own fragility and transparency. It is akin to a layer of crystalline snowflake with its ability to change the structures of those around it as the components meld together. It is ephemeral: once the sheet of transparency is lifted, its intricate structure is no longer a part of the whole.
Although Crystallography is divided into five sections like Eunoia, the poetic forms in each section are not distinct from the others like the clear divisions in Eunoia.. Section II on “Diamonds” is an exception, for Bök uses a different font type for the poems in this section, mimicking the jagged surfaces of cut diamonds. The shapes of the word clusters in “Diamonds” are predominantly rectangular in shape, which reflect the silhouette of the diamonds. While Eunoia is an exploration of vowel sounds, Crystallography is a scientific inquiry into crystallography. Bök opens Crystallography with a section on “Preliminary Survey”, journeys through different forms of crystal formations, and ends with “Euclid and His Modern Rivals.” Thus, Bök re-creates the language of poetry by infusing it with history, scientific conventions, and above all, an awareness of precedent theories that have helped shape his poems on crystallography. In “Friedrich Mohs (1773-1839),” Bök transforms “Words chip away at each other when jostled together” into “Wor s hip a t eac her when led to her.” This not only shows Bök’s agility at language manipulation, but it also shows how language can transform subtly, imperceptibly, like a melting crystal of snowflake or mineral. Ending on the word “farewell,” Crystallography is aware of its audience. This self-reflexive quality makes Bök’s words come alive, connecting the detachment of science with the warmth of poetry.
Crystallography’s language is also made “new” through its narrative. It includes a “long and formally intricate sequence on Diamonds, telling the tale of an unnamed narrator's father; a fascinating prose poem called Enantiomorphosis that recounts an obscure history of mirrors” (Samuels ES12). Through shards of crystalline fragments, stories warmed with human experiences emerge. In this post-Modernist world, scientific developments influence strongly the kinds of stories that are told in poetry. The objects of scientific, geological research are “things worthy of aesthetic appreciation in themselves” (Samuels ES12). Nevertheless, Crystallography is “every bit as concerned with the interiorities of human life, with basic organizing principles of western society (science, in this case), and more basically as a book that's fun to flip through and re-read” (Samuels ES12). In all five of its sections, Crystallography does not forget to address “you” or “we” in its poems. Although there is a scientific detachment, human beings co-exist with the scientific world. A delicate balance of life and non-life is created in the narrative of Crystallography.
In the afterword of Eunoia, Bök puns on Marshall McLuhan: “The tedium is the message” (Bök 2002). Thus, language in Eunoia is made new: it is more about the process of writing than it is about the story itself. Claiming that he used 98% of the available vocabulary for each vowel, Bök accomplishes the formidable task of harnessing and contorting language. In addition to the vowel restrictions, Bök decides that each chapter should allude to the art of writing and describe a banquet, a “debauch,” a pastoral tableau, and a sea voyage. These images ground “the verse in the senses and [keep] it from reading like a laboratory trial” (Crawley 40). They also form cohesive storylines, but there is no explicit narrative or conceptual development, because no word used in one section can be used in another. There are often mythological references in post-Modernist writing and Bök is no exception. He includes the exploits of a mythical Arabian king in Eunoia, weaving mythology into this hyper-mechanized book of modern poetry. Bök describes this exercise of restrictive writing in his coda-like poem “Voile”: “Unaware, corrosives flow/to my shackled hand” (Bök 2002). Thus, language is made new because of Bök’s self-inflicted confinement of literary style, with the words in Eunoia “verbally scoring the instance of their own existence” (Carmine 29).
Described by Christian Bök as a political satire, “Ubu Hubbub”’s language is made new because its narrative seems apolitical; in fact, it seems nonsensical. On close examination of the word choice, however, it can be seen that the narrative contains non-flattering words such as “cumbersome,” “booby traps,” “nincompoop,” “Beelzebub,” and “juggernaut.” These stand in stark contrast to the confection imageries. While the insults are at first hidden behind sweet words, the narrator’s emotions accumulate and he ends with: “Bugaboo, bugger off!” This deceivingly simple narrative is layered, enlivening Bök’s use of language. In “Seahorses and Flying Fish,” the language is made new through the narrative, because there is no tangible narrative. There are no words. Instead, Bök uses a variety of sounds to create action and interactions, and it is up to the listener to decode this language. In “Valuvëula,” Bök creates an alien hymn reminiscent of tribal chants. The language is made fresh because it is a language that no one has heard before, and this invites the listener to shape meaning from the tones, tempos, and moods of the sound poem. With each individual reshaping the sound poems each time they are listened to, Bök’s poem is re-created again and again.
To show the uncertain nature of our understanding of language, Bök’s poetry constantly deconstructs and reconstructs the world of appearances. Sweeping through vocal terrains of non-meanings and nonsense, Bök uses sound to reinvent the language of his poetry. He reshapes language by imposing on it extreme Oulipian formalistic constraints and by creating fragmented narratives that are connected by art and science. Bök believes that “imagination…is not some quasi-mystical process, but an act of analysis” (Dohy D6). With a controlled mechanical detachment, Bök unites science with his poetry, alienating language just enough so that one can appreciate both the technicalities and the artistic grace in it." - Emily Cho
"It's hard to believe eight years have passed since Christian Bök published Eunoia, his ground-breaking and bestselling collection of univocalic lipograms -- meaning, each chapter uses only one vowel. The book was the Canadian winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002. Coach House Books recently published Eunoia: The Upgraded Edition, which includes several new poems and an expanded afterword. Bök and some his friends launch the book Tuesday night in Toronto in a rather festive manner. Getting in the spirit, The Afterword recently asked Bök about the new edition, the book's surprising success, and how he plans on following it up.
This new edition of Eunoia is billed as "The Upgraded Edition." What have you updated, and why did you feel the need to revisit the book? - Coach House Books wanted to release an edition of Eunoia for the American market, and Alana Wilcox (my publisher) asked me to generate some supplementary poems in order to entice readers to revisit the work--so I produced some translations of Voyelles by Arthur Rimbaud (who has written a famous sonnet about the "colours" of the vowels). The poem is an important influence upon , and I have written these translations according to a set of rigorous constraints.
It's been eight years since since the book was published, but here we are still talking about it. Did you anticipate this level of success, and, why do you think people are still into it? - I think that the premise of the book is engaging, and readers may be purchasing the work because they cannot believe that any writer can produce a work of poetic merit under the obsessive duresses of my adopted constraint--and so perhaps the readers want to see the feat in action for themselves. I continue to be surprised by the excessive attention that the book has received, since the work does function very forthrightly in the abstruse, literary milieu of the avant-garde (which, in the past, has had a relatively delimited readership)--but I think that the success of the book does vindicate my desire to be as ambitiously experimental as possible....
Has the book found any new publishers in the wake of its massive success in the U.K.? - Despite the recurrent successes of the book, no new publishers have expressed interest in purchasing the rights to the work since its bestsellerdom in the UK--and in part, such hesitancy may stem from a fear that the work constitutes an anomaly, whose success cannot translate easily into other marketplaces. I keep hoping, however, that a gigantic publisher might take the risk....
Dare I ask what you're working on now? - I have received some substantive grants to write, what I call, a "xenotext"-- a genetically engineered poem. This project involves me translating a poem into a sequence of genes for implantation into a bacterium. I plan to compose this “xenotext” in such a way that, when translated into a gene and then integrated into the cell, the text nevertheless gets “expressed” by the organism, which, in response to this grafted, genetic sequence, begins to manufacture a viable, benign protein--a protein that, according to the original, chemical alphabet, is itself another poem. I plan, in effect, to engineer a life-form so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also a useable machine for writing a poem. I have chosen an extremely durable lifeform to be the host for this poem, so that the work might, in fact, outlast our civilization, persisting on the planet until the very day when the sun explodes...." - Interview by Mark Medley
Excerpts from Eunoia from Chapter A
(for Hans Arp)
Awkward grammar appals a craftsman. A Dada bard
as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an
alpha (a slapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars
all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A
madcap vandal crafts a small black ankh – a hand-
stamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a
mark that sparks an ars magna (an abstract art that
charts a phrasal anagram). A pagan skald chants a dark
saga (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackballs all
annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and
Kafka, Marx and Marat. A law as harsh as a fatwa bans
all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.
from Chapter E
(for René Crevel)
Enfettered, these sentences repress free speech. The
text deletes selected letters. We see the revered exegete
reject metred verse: the sestet, the tercet – even les
scènes élevées en grec. He rebels. He sets new precedents.
He lets cleverness exceed decent levels. He eschews the
esteemed genres, the expected themes – even les belles
lettres en vers. He prefers the perverse French esthetes:
Verne, Péret, Genet, Perec – hence, he pens fervent
screeds, then enters the street, where he sells these let-
terpress newsletters, three cents per sheet. He engen-
ders perfect newness wherever we need fresh terms.
from Chapter I
(for Dick Higgins)
Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink
this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism,
disciplining signs with triﬂing gimmicks – impish
hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn’t it glib?
Isn’t it chic? I ﬁt childish insights within rigid limits,
writing shtick which might instill priggish misgiv-
ings in critics blind with hindsight. I dismiss nit-
picking criticism which ﬂirts with philistinism. I
bitch; I kibitz – griping whilst criticizing dimwits,
sniping whilst indicting nitwits, dismissing simplis-
tic thinking, in which philippic wit is still illicit.
from Chapter O
(for Yoko Ono)
Loops on bold fonts now form lots of words for books.
Books form cocoons of comfort – tombs to hold book-
worms. Profs from Oxford show frosh who do post-
docs how to gloss works of Wordsworth. Dons who
work for proctors or provosts do not fob off school to
work on crosswords, nor do dons go off to dorm
rooms to loll on cots. Dons go crosstown to look for
bookshops known to stock lots of top-notch goods:
cookbooks, workbooks – room on room of how-to
books for jocks (how to jog, how to box), books on
pro sports: golf or polo. Old colophons on school-
books from schoolrooms sport two sorts of logo: ob-
long whorls, rococo scrolls – both on worn morocco.
from Chapter U
(for Zhu Yu)
Kultur spurns Ubu – thus Ubu pulls stunts. Ubu shuns
Skulptur: Uruk urns (plus busts), Zulu jugs (plus
tusks). Ubu sculpts junk für Kunst und Glück. Ubu
busks. Ubu drums drums, plus Ubu strums cruths
(such hubbub, such ruckus): thump, thump; thrum,
thrum. Ubu puns puns. Ubu blurts untruth: much
bunkum (plus bull), much humbug (plus bunk) – but
trustful schmucks trust such untruthful stuff; thus
Ubu (cult guru) must bluff dumbstruck numbskulls
(such chumps). Ubu mulcts surplus funds (trust
funds plus slush funds). Ubu usurps much usufruct.
Ubu sums up lump sums. Ubu trumps dumb luck.
from “The New Ennui”
‘Eunoia’ is the shortest word in English to contain all
five vowels, and the word quite literally means ‘beauti-
ful thinking’. Eunoia is a univocal lipogram, in which
each chapter restricts itself to the use of a single vowel.
Eunoia is directly inspired by the exploits of Oulipo
(l’Ouvroir de Litteérature Potentielle) – the avant-garde
coterie renowned for its literary experimentation
with extreme formalistic constraints. The text makes
a Sisyphean spectacle of its labour, wilfully crippling
its language in order to show that, even under
such improbable conditions of duress, language can
still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought.
Eunoia abides by many subsidiary rules. All chapters
must allude to the art of writing. All chapters must de-
scribe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pas-
toral tableau and a nautical voyage. All sentences must
accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical
parallelism. The text must exhaust the lexicon for each
vowel, citing at least 98% of the available repertoire
(although a few words do go unused, despite efforts
to include them: parallax, belvedere, gingivitis, mono-
chord and tumulus). The text must minimize repeti-
tion of substantive vocabulary (so that, ideally, no word
appears more than once). The letter Y is suppressed."
"Blond trollops who don go-go boots flop pompoms nonstop to do promos for floorshows. Wow! Hot blonds who doff cotton frocks show off soft bosoms. Hot to trot, two blonds who smooch now romp on cold wood floors for crowds of morons, most of whom hoot or howl: whoop, whoop"
"A bacchant asks a madam (as drachmas pass hands): 'what carnal acts can a man transact?' A gal can grab a man's balls and wank a man's shaft; a man can grasp a gal's bra and spank a gal's ass. A clasp snaps apart, and a scant shawl falls."
"Scots from hogtowns or cowtowns work from cockcrow to moondown -- to chop down woodlots, to plow down cornrows."
"Hassan gags and has an asthma attack - a catarrh as fatal as lhasa and hanta. Cramps as sharp as darts and barbs jab and jag at gastral tracts. Carpal pangs gnarl a man's hands and cramp a man's palms. Hassan asks that a shaman abstract a talc cataplasm that can thwart a blatant rash (raw scars that can scar a man's scalp and gall a man's glans: scratch, scratch). A warm saltbath can blanch all plantar warts and stanch all palatal scabs. A transplant can patch a basal gland. A bald shah barfs and farts as a labman bawls: 'plasma, stat' (alas, alack: a shah has a grand mal spasm and, ahh, gasps a schwa, as a last gasp)."
"Pilgrims, digging in shifts, dig till midnight in mining pits, chipping flint with picks, drilling schist with drills, striking it rich mining zinc. Irish firms, hiring micks whilst firing Brits, bring in smiths with mining skills: kilnwrights grilling brick in brickkilns, millwrights grinding grist in gristmills. Irish tinsmiths, fiddling with widgits, fix this rig, driving its drills which spin whirring drillbits."
"Profs who go to Knossos to look for books on Phobos or Kronos go on to jot down monophthongs (kof or rho) from two monoglot scrolls on Thoth, old god of Copts - both scrolls torn from hornbooks, now grown brown from mold. Profs who gloss works of Woolf, Gogol, Frost or Corot look for books from Knopf: Oroonoko or Nostromo - not Hopscotch (nor Tlooth). Profs who do schoolwork on Pollock look for photobooks on Orozco or Rothko (two tomfools who throw bold colors, blotch on blotch, onto tondos of dropcloth)."
"Plasma blasts scald asphalt; napalm blasts parch macadam (glass shards act as haphazard abradants that sandblast all landwrack)...A mad labman at a lab crafts an anthrax gas that can waft past all walls at a stalag and harm war camps that lack standard gas masks."
"The creeks wend between beech trees, then end where freshets feed the meres (there, the speckled perch teem; there, the freckled newts rest). The leverets, then the shrews, chew the nettles. The dew bedews the ferns."
"Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal - a gala ball that has what pagan charm small galas lack. Hassan claps, and (tah-dah) an Arab lass at a swank spa can draw a man's bath and wash a man's back, as Arab lads fawn and hang, athwart an altar, amaranth garlands as fragrant as attar - a balm that calms all angst. A dwarf can flap a palm branch that fans a fat maharajah."
"Hassan drafts a Magna Carta and asks that a taxman pass a Tax Act - a cash grab that can tax all farmland and grant a dastard at cards what hard cash Hassan lacks. Hassan asks that an apt draftsman map what ranchland a ranchhand can farm: all grasslands and pampas, all marshlands and swamps, flatlands and savannahs (standard badlands that spawn chaparral and crabgrass). Hassan asks that all farmhands at farms plant flax and award Hassan, as a tax, half what straw a landsman can stash at a barn. A ranchman at a ranch warns campagnards that a shah has spat at hard-and-fast laws that ban cadastral graft."
"Hassan at Arab talks can canvass all satraps and ask that Arab banks back what grand plans Hassan has (dams and canals at Panama, arks and wharfs at Havana - tasks that, as a drawback, warrant what Hassan calls 'a harsh tax plan'). Hassan lacks tact, and (alas) a rajah's blatant sarcasm sparks a flagrant backlash as rampant as a vandal's wrath. Hassan grandstands at a grandstand, as all thralls lash back, wag placards and rant a clamant rant. Arrant gangs clash and start brawls that trash rattan cabanas (what a fracas). A maharajah asks that a hangman hang all bastards and laggards that a lawman can catch."
"Hassan can watch, aghast, as databanks at NASDAQ graph hard data and chart a NASDAQ crash - a sharp fall that alarms staff at a Manhattan bank. Hassan acts fast, ransacks cashbags at a mad dash, and grabs what bank drafts a bank branch at Casablanca can cash: marks, rands and bahts. Hassan asks that an adman draft a want ad that can hawk what canvas art Hassan has (a Cranach, a Cassatt and a Chagall)."
Read it here
Christian Bök, Crystallography, Coach House Press, 1994.
"Published in 1994, Crystallography was a gem of a book, an instant hit that was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. It has been unavailable for an ice age, and Coach House Books is proud to bring it back.
'Crystallography' means the study of crystals, but also, taken literally, 'lucid writing.' The book exists in the intersection of poetry and science, exploring the relationship between language and crystals - looking at language as a crystal, a space in which the chaos of individual parts align to expose a perfect formation of structure. As Bök himself says, 'a word is a bit of crystal in formation,' suggesting there is a space in which words, like crystals, can resonate pure form.
Lucid, sparkling, a diamond of a book: Crystallography is a crystal-clear approach to the science of poetry from the author of Eunoia."
"One must have a mind of winter to write a book such as Crystallography, with its "Hagiography of Snow," acetate of minuscule upside-down Ys, "graph charting the meteorological conditions necessary for the crystallization of poetic forms," and poker-faced Borgesian arcana. Or perhaps one just needs to be deeply Canadian. The crystallographer in question is Christian Bök, né Book, a 37-year-old poet and teacher at Toronto's York University, who tweaked the spelling of his surname, he quips, to avoid unseemly confusion with the Bible.
But there is no book quite like Crystallography, and no writer quite like Bök. He's a jaw-dropping sound poet, for one: At the Bowery Poetry Club on December 9, capping three days of blizzard-inflected area readings, the clean-cut Bök launched into Dadaist Hugo Ball's "Seahorses and Flying Fish," a brisk kick of chronic engine trouble that nearly took the top off of everyone's head. (N.B.: The Torontonian's favorite film of 2003 is Tarantino's Kill Bill, which climaxes in a swift cranial cropping.) He has written alien tongues for TV and made a book out of four-prong Legos, every line an anagram.
Most notably, his 2001 Eunoia, seven years in the making, became Canada's bestselling poetry book ever—an incredible feat for such explicitly experimental writing. No comforting fluff here; in the main portion, each chapter employs but a single vowel (e.g., "Enfettered, these sentences repress free speech"), a univocalic constraint of the sort developed by the mad scientists of the Oulipo. Though it may be stunt writing, it's never stunted. Bök weds such wry self-consciousness to gusts of gleeful excess: "Porno shows folks lots of sordor: zoom-shots of Bjorn Borg's bottom or Snoop Dogg's crotch." Who'd not hoot for hot romps, shoot Bök's book to top of pops?
Eunoia (the shortest English word with all five vowels) means "beautiful thinking"; from such a seedbed, it would seem a logical jump to Crystallography, deliberately misetymologized as "lucid writing." But lucid writing actually precedes beautiful thinking: This is a major revision (or, in jeweler-speak, resetting) of Bök's 1994 debut, "a pataphysical encyclopaedia that misreads the language of poetics through the conceits of geology."
Which is more exciting than it sounds. Bök's concise reflections on mirrors, fractals, stones, and ice diabolically change the way you think about language—his, yours—so that what begins as description suddenly seems indistinguishable from the thing itself. In "Euclid and His Modern Rivals," the lapidary lines scan as axioms, sense and science trading places: "The last three letters of the alphabet/christen every single point in space." The sentence "The word at the end of this sentence is meaningless" will send you, screaming, back to Gödel, Escher, Bach.
The stunning "Geodes" is a rock full of crystals, an ode to earth. Spelunk: The caverns become a body, fossils are "all the broken letters of the alphabet," a bat resembles "a book with its binding unstitched," and "spiked vocables in these caves/make a phalanx for the pharynx." It's all perfectly limpid. Then come to the mind-blowing end, where a key matches each letter-shape to a cave formation (a b is a "cliffside buttressed by boulder," an r, an "overhanging shelf of bedrock"), and realize you've been making your way across not only Bök's metaphoric terrain, but a miniature model of the rock-hard world itself.
Bök jokes that Crystallography is "the one with all the sighs," and indeed the beautiful-writing quotient is high. The eight-page "Midwinter Glacaria," with its sharply etched yet almost fungible winterscape, has more dazzle than most novels 30 times its length; the all-cap "Diamonds" is a memoir-intimate affair. But the precision throughout is uncanny, the beauty almost inhuman. Bök is a bachelor machine rigged out with snowblower and diamond saw, ready to play the glass harmonica at your winter wedding." - Ed Park
"... Christian Bök’s Crystallography can be read without reading. The look of Crystallography contains much of the book’s meaning. Bök not only wrote but designed the book, a measure of control most authors don’t even consider having and a virtue of small press publication. Jessica Smith’s Organic Furniture Cellar (with a blurb on the back from Bök), is also author designed—a virtue of self-publication). Unlike rawlings, Bök uses a mix of traditional and experimental formats. This is a page from “Geodes,” which is flushed left, features stanzas and a pattern (two lines, six lines, six lines, two), and grammatical punctuation:
climb across these shelves of rock
in search of this book.
dream of reading through
a passage so narrow
that its walls
to press into fossils
the broken bones of breath.
you trip over shadows,
scrape palms on sharp
rocks as small
from crushed bottles:
their grit clots your wounds.
you follow the distant
murmur of voices in riffling pages.
(Here, the subject is a favorite of experimental texts. The subject is the text itself.)
The way Bök plays with sound is more traditional than rawlings. She recreates sound with phoneme, he rhymes, as in, “salt frosting/ coats baroque rock to create/ ice draperies” and “all ways are alleyways/ that always waylay you.” But such simple, pleasurable rhyme is relatively rare in Crystallography. More often, lines are unlovely, mundane, the language of a textbook. Of course Crystallography is inspired by textbooks, loaded with scientific language and lessons:
C IS FOR DIAMOND
THE ONE GEM
MADE OF ONE
FIRE AT ITS CORE There is so much to enjoy in Crystallography. Drawings and diagrams, precise and fascinating as an M.C. Escher lithograph (and Escher is quoted at the beginning of this book); images made from letters (a hundred miniscule Ks in the shape of a K-Fractal); at the center of the book a plastic page like what’s used with an overhead projector, allowing the reader to see a “TRIGON MIRROR” and “A photomicrograph of the letter Y magnified 25x to reveal its innate crystalline structure” made dense; and stories, plain simple, about crystallographers and those fascinated by crystals, either scientifically or mystically." - Adam Golaski
Read it at Google Books
An Interview with Christian Bök by James Brown
Christian Bök, Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science, Northwestern University Press, 2001.
'Pataphysics, what Alfred Jarry calls "the science of imaginary solutions", has until now gone largely ignored by literary scholars, due in part to its academic frivolity and hermetic perversity. Nevertheless, this capricious philosophy has inspired nearly one hundred years of avant-garde experimentation. Christian Bok redresses this critical omission by tracing the tangled history of 'pataphysics, discussing the tension between science and poetics, in order to demonstrate that 'pataphysics constitutes an intrinsic, but neglected, cornerstone of postmodernity itself.Bok examines the work of Jarry, arguing that it represents a humorous addendum to the philosophy of Nietzsche, while also considering the influence of 'pataphysics upon the poetic legacy of the twentieth century, particularly the work of Italian Futurists, French Oulipians, and Canadian Jarryites. Bok resorts to the radical poetics of such contemporary philosophers as Deleuze, Derrida, Baudrillard, and Serres in order to explicate the 'pataphysical relationship between rationalism and its discontents.Bok draws on a wide range of reading in poetry and theory to establish a firm historical ground for understanding the influence of 'pataphysics -- all the while making a variety of seemingly difficult or obscure material accessible in a surprisingly charming and poetic manner.A long overdue critical look at a significant strain of the twentieth-century avant-garde, his book raises important historical, cultural, and theoretical issues germane to the production and reception of poetry, how we think about it, how we read it, how we read it, and what sorts of claims it makes upon our understanding."
"This turned out to actually be a really interesting read. Though short it is full of insight relevent not just to some obscure poetical form but for aesthetics as a whole. I have always loved Jarry but despite the ubiquity of his name throughout avant-garde literature this is the first peice that I have been able to find that takes a critical and philosophical look at what it was he was actually doing (important for the fact that Jarry never outright explained it, rather he acted upon it, in life as well as in wiriting).
The elegance of Bok's writing makes the erudite concepts easy to follow despite ones not always being familiar with particular postmodern philosophies concerning language and knowledge. Definitely serves as a jumping off point into some really great stuff. I couldn't agree more with Bok in his description of Jarry's paralogy as not being against logic or rationality, but as serving to reconcile math and science with poetry. Where "in the world of possibilities, reality is the exception," Jarry offers a pataphysical universe where poetic exploration serves as a liberation from paradigmatic constraints on actual existence, not as a type of metaphysical transcendence that fills the new age isles in every bookstore but as a pataphysical reality in which meaning is liberated from objectivity and epistemelogical anarchy serves as the impetus to an infinite amount of permutations for creativity. "To explore the rule is to be emancipated from it by becoming the master of its potential for surprise, whereas to ignore the rule is to be imprisoned in it by becoming the slave to the reprise of its intention." Rule is not puerily caste aside for some sort of petulant rebellion, rather it is apperceptively used and superextended in a hyperbolic Umour that creates its own world replete with charicatured contradictions and personified irony, getting one over on metaphysics by getting one over on itself.
The historical mapping of Jarry's ideas was also very enjoyable to read. I had never considered the futurists as being so intimately related to Jarry before, never really knew what the hell Oulipo was doing (l'OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle, who knew?), and never even heard of the Canadian Jarryites before. Overall Bok's breakdown of the structure and nature of Pataphysics (though not being exhaustive) and his extensive knowledge of those who do and have experimented within 'Pataphysics (both poets and philosophers alike) make this well worth the time and reinvigorates the individual creative process, not by offering some new form or fad, but by looking into the nature of the poetic experience itself(be it writing or reading) as being just as fantastical as that of the logical and thus instilling the poetic back into the scientific, the scientific with the poetic, and revealing the distinction as merely superficial when, all things being equal, reality is just as outrageous as what it could have been, and by extension, will be. Ha-Ha." - Phil at goodreads
"Millenial Pataphysics: The Postmodern Apocalypse of Science" by Christian Bök and Darren Wershler-Henry "A thought about Christian Bök’s epic act of minimalism taken to its logical conclusion, Xenotext, has been haunting me since the Bury Text Festival. As I understand Xenotext, it’s an attempt to imprint a short lyric poem into the DNA of a particular single-celled bacterium in such a way that will cause the bacterium to create a benign protein that, when “read” in the same “language” as it was written, would generate a second short poem, the words, order, lines & line breaks of which Bök also already knows. Because the bacterium he has selected for this act of signage is Deinococcus radiodurans, an extremophile, a bacterium that lives at – indeed is happiest in, to the degree that one might assign bacteria emotions – exceptionally hot & caustic environments¹, it is one that could conceivably survive at least up to an explosion of the sun terminated life as we know it. It is in this sense an attempt to create an immortal poem, one that could easily outlast not only the English language & humanity itself, but even sentient life on the planet on which it was originally inscribed. In Bury, Bök characterized Xenotext as the first such attempt at literary immortality.
So here’s what haunts me: How do we know?
If, for example, one Canadian might conceive of such a project, how do we know that elsewhere in the universe other species have not likewise thought to imprint their deepest thoughts onto compliant organisms? Further, as we are now starting to discover archeological evidence of molecular life on various modes of stellar debris, why might some civilization not have thought even to create some sort of symbol akin to the NASA “hey there” message shipped off out into the universe awhile back. Maybe one of those fossilized bacteria in the asteroid belt is its own message from some Christian Bök type figure on an inner planet of some other star? (I refuse to imagine Jar Jar Binks in a purple shirt & tie.)
At one level, Bök’s project is audacious, a Faustian reach if ever there was one. At another, it’s pretty straight-forward and simple: implant the gene, see if the protein forms. Although it has taken years, and the assistance of a fair number of “real” scientists to aid this “plumber’s son” (as Bök likes to call himself) in bringing this project to fruition, Deinococcus radiodurans has cooperated & accepted the implantation of the engineered gene. Now we’ll see if it proceeds to go further and generate the corresponding protein.
It’s a fascinating idea, worthy of the author of Eunoia, a tour de force that would make Georges Perec feel envious. Yet the very god-like scale that Bök proposes in the project seems to me to invoke the likelihood that this has, seriously, been done before elsewhere. We just don’t what planet, what star system, maybe even which universe. And why stop with the explosion of the sun? As rocketry becomes more ordinary, enough so that Virgin can advertise space flight for $200K just down the road a bit, the day is coming when a poet might indeed send some extremophiles out there well beyond our solar system, ready to venture in search of readers anywhere in this particular universe.
So is what Bök doing writing? If anything, the technological processes being invoked on poor helpless Deinococcus radiodurans strike me as much closer to printing than authorship. Not unlike Tony Lopez’ signage at the Text Festival in Bury, which approximated a railway destination sign by producing the text first in Flash and then creating a videotape from that which was stored on a DVD to play on the wall of the Bury Arts Museum, what you see isn’t random or in the slightest bit arbitrary. Just as if he’d been laying cold type for an old Chandler letter press, Bök tells the little bugger what to say and what to do. Deinococcus radiodurans has no input of its own. It can’t change the text except by the rules always already set out for it. If it doesn’t produce the protein, then by Bök’s standards, the process will have failed (albeit this may well be the most heroic of failures). Further, without Bök’s own translation key, the resulting text would be unreadable, whether or not the experiment worked or you knew to look into the genetic make-up of our little friend.
Am I sure that this is what Goethe, Milton, Dante had in mind? On one plane, I think the answer is yes, resoundingly so, but on another, it feels more like the movie Black Swan where CGI and body doubles create an impression of dance. Christian Bök gives great simulacra." - Ron Silliman
Christian Bök, Margaret Atwood, eds., Ground Works: Avant-Garde for Thee, House of Anansi Press, 2003.
"This anthology of Canadian experimental writers evokes the rich and unexpected heritage of current Canadian fiction. It contains groundbreakingly ruptured, side-splittingly excessive, weirdly lucid, and above all, endlessly interesting writing. Contributors include Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Cohen, Graeme Gibson, Christopher Dewdney, George Bowering, and Matt Cohen, as well as innovators such as Ray Smith, J. Michael Yates, Gail Scott, Andreas Schroeder, Audrey Thomas, and Robert Zend."
Interview by Brenda Dunn (pdf)
CHRISTIAN BÖK The Xenotext Experiment
"The Xenotext Experiment is an artistic exercise being undertaken by the poet who is proposing to create an example of “living poetry.” Bök plans to generate a short verse about language and genetics, whereupon he hopes to use a “chemical alphabet” to translate this poem into a sequence of DNA for subsequent implantation into the genome of a bacterium (in this case, a microbe called Deinococcus radiodurans—an extremophile, capable of surviving, without mutation, in even the most hostile milieus, including the vacuum of outer space). He is composing this poem in such a way that, when translated into the gene and then integrated into the cell, the text nevertheless gets “expressed” by the organism, which, in response to the inserted, genetic material, begins to manufacture a viable, benign protein—a protein that, according to the original, chemical alphabet, is itself another text. He is, in effect, striving to engineer a life-form so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also a useable machine for writing a poem—a poem that can literally survive forever…."