Writing with constraints

I’m reading about the Oulipo at the moment (tldr: they’re a movement of mostly French-speaking writers and mathematicians that impose constraints upon their work to spark new ideas and creativity). I came to them off the back of interactive fiction and tabletop games, since those are both forms which impose very specific restrictions on their creators and/or audiences, but so far the Oulipo has gotten me thinking more about poetry.

I used to really hate writing in traditional poetic forms: sonnets, haikus, villanelles, etc (limericks get a pass), but more recently I have found adhering to specific forms or rules productive in one or two cases. I intend to pursue this further, trying out some new forms perhaps or finding some new ‘constraints’ to play with once I dig a bit further into the reasoning behind the Oulipo, but here are my examples for now:

Predictive – written using phone’s ‘suggested word’ function, cut down and formatted (it seems that this is what my phone thinks I type about):

On the other hand
you’re looking forward to the utopia
a lot more than just being able to be
in the morning

all art is truth through a film and
I was stressed about deadlines
and a good idea to be
in the morning

and that abomination of your control
the statue of liberty
and hang out with everyone

a mushroom cloud, black poison
a mushroom, cloud computing is truth in sand.
a mushroom soup
a mushroom cloud, the narrator of your vision

I was so happy for each update on Saturday,
the one about adding an additional download
four times a day I hope
you have a war of words between stereotypes and hearts

the first time since I was waiting for each update
on Saturday I was stressed about deadlines
and a random number
for the first time since the battle

for the first time since the battle for
the first time in space I probably wouldn’t be much fun
for the first time since his spinal cord injury
and hearts are you holding

a good holiday season is constantly changing their minds
and hearts in the chaos
resulting from the tidal wave
striking the first eighteen years of your control

over your control over the statue of a known individual
on the other hand you’re looking forward
to being able to be
severely limited in the morning

and hearts are
we going back to the bottom of a bustling city
it would help if they were not meant to exist
on god’s green acre

an expression of a known issue with the new year
everyone has reportedly been extremely violent
a known abomination has reportedly been sighted
near the first eighteen years of your experience.


Nothing is Sacred – a sestina (six stanzas, each with six lines, and each line must end with a specific word in a rotating pattern):

‘Nothing is sacred but the sea,’
says the sailor, nearing port.
The cold wind stirs the whiskers on his chin.
He is no longer proud to be alive
the last remaining of his crew
a crime that he repents in vain.

The others prayed to God, in vain
for ‘nothing is sacred but the sea,’
or that’s what the captain told the crew
just as they were leaving port.
‘There’s only one law – stay alive,’
he said, as he rubbed his bearded chin.

The beard upon the captain’s chin
did shield him from the cold in vain.
A man needs more than warmth to stay alive
adrift upon the starving sea
and when for gold he would not make port
he made enemies of the homesick crew.

To mutiny he lost the crew
and they split a gash beneath his chin.
Pirates now, they could not return to port.
They sought some blessed sanctuary in vain
but found nothing sacred but the sea
and just one law – ‘stay alive’.

But they could not all come back alive
not without food, so lots were drawn among crew
for no meat goes to waste at sea.
Of those men with hollow, trembling chins
twelve of thirteen prayed in vain
and only one came back to port.

It was a ghost ship that returned to port
or, almost – the thirteenth sailor was still alive
his fellows did not die in vain.
When they asked what happened to the crew
he answered, red juice dripping from his chin
that nothing is sacred but the sea.

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