CHARLOTTE, NC: American mathematician Mike Keith is someone you would probably not want to encounter in a dark alley. Or, for that matter, in a fully lit room, either. That’s because Keith is a master of what is known in literary circles as “constrained writing.”
Constrained writing is a literary technique where the author is bound by some pre-determined condition that prevents him from using certain specific things or which impose a pattern to the composition.
For example, using the simplest, and most obvious, restriction, we’ll use length:
Haiku follows a pattern of three lines consisting of 5-7-5 syllables or 2-3-2 beats.
In the moonlight,
The color and scent of the wisteria
Seems far away. (Yosa Buson (1716-1784))
Limericks, perhaps the most familiar style of a poem to most of us, are usually humorous and, more often than not, risque that always follow a rhyme scheme of AABBA. The first, second and fifth lines are the longest and all rhyme, while the third and fourth lines are shorter and share a different rhyme. They are also a form of constrained writing.
By Dixon Lanier Merritt
A funny old bird is a pelican.
His beak can hold more than his belican.
Food for a week
He can hold in his beak,
But I don’t know how the helican.
A “Drabble” contains exactly 100 words, while “Six-Word Memoirs” have only six. “Twiction” is a specifically constrained form of microfiction where a story or poem must be precisely 140 characters long.
There plenty of other examples, most of which are infinitely more complex, but you get the idea.
When you get into the more convoluted forms of constrained writing, the average person might wonder if the authors of these constructs don’t have too much time on their hands.
Which brings us full-circle to why you might choose to bypass them on a dark night or in a laboratory.
Following are examples of some of the more complicated constrained writing:
• Ernest Vincent Wright’s Gadsby (1939) is an English-language novel consisting of 50,000 words, none of which contain the letter “e”.
• The same was true three decades later in 1969, when French writer Georges Perec published La Disparition, a novel that did not include the letter “e”. For the record, works that outlaw a particular letter, most commonly an “e” or an “o”, are known as “Lipograms.”
• The 2004 French novel Le Train de Nulle Part I (“The Train from Nowhere”) by Michel Thaler was written entirely without verbs.
• let me tell you (2008), a novel by Welsh writer Paul Griffiths uses only the words allotted to Ophelia in Hamlet.
• Experimental Canadian poet Christian Bök’s Eunoia uses only one vowel in each of its five chapters.
• Never Again is a novel by Doug Nufer where no word is used more than once.
• Ella Minnow Pea, a book by Mark Dunn, makes certain letters become unusable throughout the novel.
• Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish uses only words that begin with the letter “a” in the first chapter, while the second chapter incorporates the letter “b”, then “c” and so on. When the alphabet is finished, Abish takes letters away, one at a time, until the last chapter, leaving only words that begin with the letter “a”.
• Mary Godolphin wrote versions of Robinson Crusoe, Aesop’s Fables, The Swiss Family Robinson, and other books using only monosyllabic words.
• Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, wrote Green Eggs and Ham using only 50 different words on a 50 dollar bet with Bennett Cerf.
• The Gates of Paradise is a book by Jerzy Andrzejewski where the entire text is just two sentences, one of which is very long.
• Uruguayan musician, comedian and writer Leo Maslíah’s 1999 novel Líneas (Lines) is written entirely with paragraphs comprising a single sentence.
• 17th Century Odia poet Upendra Bhanja wrote multiple epics (Satisha Bilasa, Kala Kautuka, Baidehisha Bilasha, etc.) with the same syllable starting each sentence
Constrained writing and Mike Keith – Nine Views of Mount Fuji
Now that you have the idea, we return to Mike Keith and his astonishing poem Nine Views of Mount Fuji. Below is a sample:
“Fuji’s perfect outline points heavenward
near the river’s mouth.
The firm peak in the tan sky
paints across the lake an odd reflection,
with dirt draped in snow
rather than brown land almost up to the top.
“Perhaps the elder pedagogue of Edo
is making a subtle point.
The old boatman of Kai
rowing to the tranquil village there
And the middle-aged Buddhist
who once pined for youthful times
Endorse this bitter truth:
“Seen on reflection, things are often changed.”
The first four views of Mt. FujiNow hold on to your hat. The nine “views” in Keith’s poem correspond to the poem’s nine sections, each of which, like this one, contains, precisely 81 words. Go ahead we’ll wait while you count.
*Note: Read slowly to keep from getting confused.
From there, imagine putting all of those words into a 9 by 9 grid, filling up the rows in order from left to right and top to bottom one word at a time.
Then stack all nine of the 9 by 9 grids of words on top of the other to form a 9 by 9 by 9 cube.
If you repeat the process you get two cubes of 729 words each.
In the first cube, block out all the squares containing a word the sum of whose letter values (if A = 1, B = 2, C = 3 …) is a multiple of nine. In the second cube, imagine blocking out all the squares containing a word of exactly nine letters. (Need A break? Told you to go slow.)
Get rid of all the non-blocked out squares, leaving two matrices of blocked out squares, which then get converted to individual tiny cubes.
If you could suspend those two matrices from the ceiling and shine light on them from the sides and from above, the shadows on the floor and walls behind would form the Japanese Kanji characters representing fire, mountain, wealth, and samurai.
When put together, they spell “volcano” and “Fuji.”
Like we said if ever you meet Mike Keith, be very, very wary.
About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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