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Constraint and Creativity
Course code: ELCS6048
Tutor: Professor Andy Leak
Mode of Assessment: 1 essay (of 2 000 words) and a desk examination of 1.5 hours
Term: taught in term 2
All literature is subject to constraint of one kind or another. The famous 'blank page' is blank only in appearance: existing genres and conventions trace invisible grids on the page; the expectations of readers and the profit margins of publishers are written in invisible ink in invisible margins. We are all familiar with formal constraints: the writer of a sonnet or a 17th-Century French tragedy, the composer of haikus or limericks all willingly subject themselves to more-or-less fierce constraints on how their words will appear on the page. Examples of difficult formal constraint exist in all known literatures of all ages: ancient Greeks practised the lipogram (a constraint that consists in depriving oneself of the use of one or more letters of the alphabet); medieval troubadors improvised fixed forms often including acrostics (a poetic form in which the first letters of each line spell out a person's name, for example); their modern-day counterparts in Turkey, the aþok, sometimes improvise with a sharpened pin wedged between their gums to render the use of certain sounds painful, if not impossible. For all that, critics have tended to marginalize or naturalize formal constraint, regarding it as somehow peripheral to 'real' literature. 'Constraint and Creativity' will attempt to reverse that process by demonstrating that nothing could be more 'literary' than the observance of formal constraint.
The course is conceived in a novel way: the second hour of each two-hour session is devoted to the 'traditional' literary-critical study of three important texts, by Harry Matthews, Italo Calvino and Georges Perec. All three writers belong* to an experimental, multinational, multilingual group of writers called the Oulipo. The group was founded in Paris in 1960 and is devoted to the exploration of existing formal constraints and to the invention of new ones. The other text in the reading list (the Oulipo Compendium) contains an extensive summary of the kinds of constraint practised by the Oulipo and examples of texts produced by its members. These constraints range from the very simple (e.g. 'N+7', where one takes a well-known poem and replaces every noun (N) by the seventh noun after it in a given dictionary in order to produce a new poem) to the extremely difficult (e.g. the isogram or the palindrome). That book will serve as the 'text book' for the first hour of each session: the philosophy behind the course is that understanding comes from doing: the first hour will, accordingly, be a workshop in which a different constraint will be explored (or - who knows? - invented) each week and then … put into practice by the students, either singly or working in groups.
The assessment of the course will reflect that dual aspect: creative writing and literary criticism. There is an important pre-requisite for this course: you must enjoy words. If you are the kind of person who considers crossword puzzles to be a futile waste of time, or who regards puns as puerile, then this course is definitely not for you!
- Harry Matthews, Alastair Brotchie, Ian Monk (eds.), Oulipo Compendium (Atlas Books)
- Italo Calvino, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler (Vintage Books) [Italo Calvino, Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore]
- Harry Matthews, The Conversions (Dalkey Archive Press)
- Georges Perec, Life: a User's Manual (Vintage) [Georges Perec, La vie, mode d'emploi]
Initial Secondary Bibliography:
A detailed secondary bibliography will be issued at the start of the course.
- Peter Consenstein, Literary Memory, Consciousness and the Group Oulipo (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002)
- Poetics Today, Vol 30, No 4, 2009, special issue: ‘The Challenge of Constraint’
- Warren Motte, Playtexts: Ludics in Contmeporary Literature (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995)