Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Still a Vowellable Form

Constraint-based literature is often discussed in terms of exemplars. After a form has been elegantly and expertly executed, it is often set aside and treated as though it has been completely exhausted. While Oulipian Georges Perec’s La disparition takes the lipogrammatic cake in French, in English it is Christian Bök’s Eunoia that owns the form. It’s almost impossible to imagine a more complete univocal lipogram than Eunoia, to the point that the text constitutes a kind of encyclopaedia or dictionary of lipogramatic words and phrasal tricks for any future writers of lipograms. In this way, Eunoia impresses itself upon all later lipograms, making it impossible to read such poems without recalling this exemplary text. However, JonArno Lawson’s A Voweller’s Bestiary from aardvark to guineafowl (and H) suggests that in constraint-based writing an exemplar, no matter how complete, can still be expanded and enhanced.

Sold as a book for children of all ages, A Voweller’s Bestiary is a collection of entertaining poems about animals, each with a different rule taming the poem’s vowels. The book begins with univocal lipograms, such as “Ants and Aardvarks,” where we read how, “An ant’s bad karma/ has blatant drawbacks:/ An ant’s bad karma/ attracts aardvarks” (8). The book then moves on to a variety of other lipogrammatic forms, where the vowels in the title are reproduced in the same order in the text of the poem, for example, in “Opossum,” where, “Opossum’s monotonous stupor/ clouds opossum’s thoughts (36). While the univocal lipograms take on a kind of eunoian tone, especially the U poem, “Stuck-up Gulls Must Trust Dumb Ducks,” A Voweller’s Bestiary still manages to infuse the lipogram with a unique sense of play. The book is full of personalities, events, and adventures that never appear in Eunoia, allowing us to explore another very different world that the lipogram can create.

A Voweller’s Bestiary demonstrates that even if a form seems to have been thoroughly explored, employing it can still lead to new discoveries, and in this case, new lipogrammatic species never before documented. Eunoia shows us how language, no matter how abused and constrained, still strives to communicate, while A Voweller’s Bestiary shows us that language can achieve this in a number of ways. Lipograms that lean too heavily on Eunoia risk being repetitive and redundant, but A Voweller’s Bestiary builds on the exemplary text, constructing a new and engaging world on the foundation Eunoia has laid. This fun book not only introduces us to a menagerie of lipogrammatic creatures, but it also encourages us to release forms back into the wild. Even if a form has been carefully observed and studied in one setting, it could behave entirely differently in a new habitat.

Helen Hajnoczky's Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising is now available from Snare Books.

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