Book Review: Exercises in Criticism: The Theory & Practice of Literary Constraint


This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman. Photo: Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole, by Lawrence Weiner, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

The many writers, readers of, and participants in, the Found Poetry Review’s projects will remember April 2014 well; “constraint” was the watchword as many of use delved into the world of the Oulipo in “Oulipost,” the month-long poem-a-day event that, this year, is continued in the form of PoMoSco. Engaging in a project focused on applying the techniques developed by the Ouvrior de Litterature Potentielle (the long-form name of the Oulipo), the many poets involved created the kinds of literary products that the Oulipo worked to enable, thereby discovering new expressions and new forms for their work.

Exercises in Constraint

Exercises in Criticism: the Theory & Practice of Literary Constraint
Louis Bury
Dalkey Archive Press, 2014
336 pp.

However, in Exercises in Criticism, Louis Bury wonders what happens when one uses a critical frame made of such constraints to not only demonstrate, but to create an applied poetics of constraint around criticism, history, and the literature of constraint. Bury’s project is to describe the practice through the practice, creating a piece of creative scholarship that is accessible well beyond academia and focuses on the practice of constraint rather than merely the theory behind it. Instead of asking what poetic gains might be yielded from such application, Bury’s inquiry imagines a new kind of study that is as playful as it is practical, as critical as it is creative—in the author’s words to “go over the limit by the means of [his] own limitations.”

Just as writers of found poetries have discovered the blending techniques learned from creating erasures and other strict appropriate forms into their own “original” works, those who have come in contact with the practices behind the Oulipean techniques of constraint have found them to be equally enabling. As Bury points out, some such as the “N+7” method (in which a poet substitutes each noun for the seventh dictionary listing after the noun in question), take on their own life outside of being merely Oulipean constraints and are adopted into regular writing practice.

Others, such as the homoconsonantism or less-formal regulations (such as using only words that do or do not contain specific letters), have found less purchase outside of Oulipo-influenced circles, but do still bear influence over writing at large; when thinking about these kinds of constraints, collections such as Christian Bök’s Eunoia come to mind. It only stands to reason that applying the same kinds of principles to an entire poetics—the foundational ideas that make up poetry—could yield insights and expressions well beyond, as Bury writes, “restrictions…over and above the rules and restrictions (such as grammar and lexicon) inherent in language” leading to the later notion that many constraint-focused writers intuitively feel—the argument for the enabling constraint—that “every constraint-based text implicitly interrogates, willy-nilly, the very concept of freedom itself.” In this, Exercises in Criticism is a proof that such enabling constraints are more than just anecdotal; they have worked and continue to work in literature even if there is a degree of failure that the seeming loss of freedoms might imply.

Each chapter is prefaced by a two-section survey of both “Context” and “What I Was Trying to Do,” the first providing the necessary background for the endeavor in which Bury is about to engage and the second an orientation of the author’s intended result—an interesting vulnerability in a text that began as a dissertation, a form generally thought of as a document or catalogue well-argued certainties. In this, Bury is creating a kind of potential and engaging in a spirit of experimentation in his text such as his experiment in “Not-Reading Kenneth Goldsmith” which posits, based on Goldsmith’s notions of “being boring,” that “[i]n writing about a set of books without reading them, I was trying to fulfill every writer’s impossible fantasy, Conceptual in nature, of getting work done without doing any actual work.” Here, Bury is certainly being humorous but, at the same, time, is taking the side of the reader in how one might apply themselves to consuming and discussing a text. As a critical document, we expect some kind of author-centric certainty about a text. Instead Exercises in Criticism meets the poets and their work at the level and method of their work such as the chapter “Love Letter to CAConrad,” in which the author designs an exercise in the spirit of CAConrad’s (soma)tic practice in order to address the constraint at work for which Conrad is well-known.

In this sense, it is almost as if Bury’s constraints create full-contact experience out of the notion of constraints, each being an almost visceral way to experience a given author’s work. In some cases is it literally visceral, in others it certainly feels like it comes as close as literature can.

This is not to say that Bury’s endeavor is neither critical nor insightful, but to highlight the shift in traditional perspective that Bury creates through being both expository and personally vulnerable. As he writes in the “Prospectus” section,

‘All dissertations,” contents poet Ammiel Alcalay, ‘are very personal things.,’ ‘no matter how dry and scholarly [they may appear].’ Eventually I stopped trying to pretend otherwise.

This recognition of the personal nature of the enterprise allows Bury to shed the traditional pedantic nature of the scholarly document and, while there is very serious scholarship here, it is done in the name of serious play, creating a text that is as readable for its analysis as it is for its relevance and contemporaneity. Exercises in Criticism is both innovative in form and important in content. The sense that Bury is both well-versed and simultaneously interested in product and underlying processes creates a poetics for the Conceptualists and the concept-driven alike in addition to orienting the reader in the significant history and landscape of a yet-to-be explored contemporary landscape.

The concluding chapter of the book, “The Clinamen,” serves as Bury’s application of the many different constraint-based practices that Exercises in Criticism discusses, using documents and interviews from Bury’s family alongside other texts to engage with the concept of constraint on the personal level that writing about another’s text cannot necessarily accomplish. In this, the previous chapters’ focus on both the personal and visceral come closest to the kind of scholarly intimacy that the text creates such as the moment when the speaker that Bury has crafted from his grandmother’s words describes the aging process “like being at a party, and overstaying / your time, and then just staying / on and on and your hosts are / dying for you to leave.” These poetic sections are stitched among prose blocks, catalogues, that contain the kind of certainty that poetry holds separate from all other arts or, as the section ends, the ability of poetic text to be

the memory of a sealed well / filled with water and nothing leaking.

Though it extends to a last section entitled “Therapy,” it is in this last chapter that the work that Bury has been doing for the previous 250-plus pages begins to weave into the one constant thread of the power of not only constraint-based literature, but personal exploration through criticism that is reminiscent of a number of scholars who live in the liminal space between the critical and creative. It is these authors who are demonstrating that there is a ground between the strictly academic and lyrical that, when approached, creates a sustained literary moment unlike many (if any) other texts.

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