Constrained writing

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Constrained writing is a literary technique in which the writer is bound by some condition that forbids certain things or imposes a pattern.

Constraints are very common in poetry, which often requires the writer to use a particular verse form.

The most common constrained forms of writing are strict restrictions in vocabulary, e.g. Basic English, E-Prime, defining vocabulary for dictionaries, and other limited vocabularies for teaching English as a Second Language or to children. This is not generally what is meant by “constrained writing” in the literary sense, which is motivated by more aesthetic concerns. For example:

  • Lipogram: a letter (commonly e or o) is outlawed.
  • Palindromes, such as the word “radar,” read the same forwards and backwards.
  • Alliteratives, in which every word must start with the same letter (or subset of letters; see Alphabetical Africa).
  • Acrostics: first letter of each word/sentence/paragraph forms a word or sentence.
  • Reverse-lipograms (each word must contain a particular letter).
  • Anglish
  • Anagrams
  • Aleatory (where the reader supplies a random input).
  • Chaterism Where the length of words in a phrase or sentence increase or decrease in a uniform, mathematical way as in "I am the best Greek bowler running", "a so low, long vixen" or "hindering whatever tactics appear". Lengthy forms of such word patterns often only retain any meaning by the overuse of adjectives or adverbs.
  • Univocalic poetry
  • Bilingual homophonous poetry (where the poem makes sense in two different languages at the same time, thus constituting two simultaneous homophonous poems)[1]
  • Limitations in punctuation (such as Peter Carey's book True History of the Kelly Gang, which features no commas)

The Oulipo group is a gathering of writers who use such techniques. The Outrapo group use theatrical constraints.

[edit] Examples

Gadsby is an English-language novel consisting of 50,100 words, none of which contains the letter “e.”

In 1969, French writer Georges Perec published La Disparition, a novel that did not include the letter “e.” It was translated into English in 1995 by Gilbert Adair as A Void. Perec subsequently joked that he incorporated the “e”s not used in La Disparition in the novella Les Revenentes (1972), which uses no vowels other than “e.” Les Revenentes was translated into English by Ian Monk as The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex.

The 2004 French novel Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train from Nowhere) by Michel Thaler was written entirely without verbs. [1]

Experimental Canadian poet Christian Bök’s Eunoia is a lipogram that uses only one vowel in each of its five chapters.

One famous constrained writing in the Chinese language is The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den which consists of 92 characters, all with the sound shi. Another is the Thousand Character Classic in which all 1000 characters are unique without any repetition.

Cadaeic Cadenza” is a short story by Mike Keith using the digits of pi as the length of words.

Never Again is a novel by Doug Nufer in which no word is used more than once.

Ella Minnow Pea is a book by Mark Dunn where certain letters become unusable throughout the novel.

Alphabetical Africa is a book by Walter Abish in which the first chapter only uses words that begin with the letter "a," while the second chapter incorporates the letter "b," and then "c," etc. Once 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 produced versions of Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe "in Words of One Syllable".

Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, wrote the well-known children's book Green Eggs and Ham using only 50 different words on a 50 dollar bet with Bennet Cerf.[2]

[edit] References

  1. ^ Bilingual Homophonous Poetry - Italo-Hebraic Bilingual Homophonous Poem by linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann, in which the Hebrew poem sounds identical to the Italian one, both making full sense - see Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2006), "Shir Du-Leshoni" (Bilingual Poem), Ho!, Literary Magazine 3, pp. 256-257.
  2. ^ Urban Legends Reference Pages: Language (Green Eggs and Ham), Snopes, Accessed on 26 November 2006.

[edit] External links

  •, site with many pieces of constrained writing by Mike Keith.
  • Eunoia by Christian Bök, a most constrained work of literature. Each chapter is a lipogram containing only one vowel, and each chapter also must allude to the art of writing, describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau, and a nautical voyage. The text must exhaust 98% of the lexicon for each vowel and minimize repetition.
  • Poe, E.: Near a Raven, a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven" in which the lengths of words are the values of the digits in pi.
  • From Never Again, an excerpt from Never Again by Doug Nufer
  • Mike Schertzer, in Cipher and Poverty (The Book of Nothing), created a three-level acronymic poem. Beginning with a name a verse was created for which the name was the acronym. This verse was then expanded, and then again. The final verse is 224 words long (which means the previous verse, its corresponding acronym, contains 224 letters).
  • Spineless Books, an independent publishing house dedicated to constrained literature, whose books include palindromic poetry, fiction, and Table of Forms, a manual of new poetic form.
  •, a community website for short stories that adhere to various literary constraints, ranging from the well-known (anagrams, acrostics, palindromes) to the obscure and arbitrary.
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