Knotting-Off the Aughts #2: Christian Bök’s Eunoia

Year: 2001
Place of Creation: Toronto
Press: Coach House (Toronto)

Mode of Acquisition: Purchased, from the monocultural behemoth that dare not speak its name, and shipped to my dorm room in St. John’s, some time in the spring of 2002. What I remember most clearly about my first interaction with Eunoia is that I didn’t know of it as poetry, but rather heard about the book’s constraint, and ordered a copy without wondering about what kind of writing the constraint contained. Was I the first, or the last? Likely not.

Status of Personal Copy: Lent out to a friend and lost in the dissolution of that friendship. A., I understand why we’re not speaking anymore, and that it’s 80-90% my fault. Keep in mind, though, that none of the personality flaws that triggered this division were things that I tried to keep secret from you, or things that I am less than forthcoming about today. I am, in certain ways, a failed person. And so are you. I am particularly sorry for the Halloween Incident. And also, for the majority of 2003.

He rebels. He sets new precedents. He
lets cleverness exceed decent levels.
-from E

Things must have looked pretty good for the avant garde at the second annual Griffin Poetry Prize banquet in 2002. The movement, long an unfocused peripheral to the lyrical homogeneity of mainstream CanLit, had a spokesman, and one so breathtaking in his artistic ambitions that the centre had no choice but to take notice. The new, chaotic world was asking for new, chaotic poetics, and Eunoia was selling in curiously high numbers. The young academic behind it had spent seven years adhering to its unreasonable demands, and dropped his creation onto a country filled with flimsy narrative free-versers like a single stone wall, a marker delineating the end of one thing and the beginning of another.

Now obviously, this is not the history as I would normally write it. In art, no division is this absolute, and I happen to think quite highly of many of those flimsy free-versers. But I can write the above with a sort of bemused hyperbole because I sit at the far end of a decade that did not, in any substantial way, produce a revolution in Canadian poetics. Surely, there are more self-identified “experimental” poets in this country than there were fifteen years ago, and a lot of them are pretty great. But the best among them are not radical figures, rather they are poets who are able to combine a human eye with an ear to the dissociative fringes of our language. If the far corners of the literary establishment have only budged enough in eight years to allow more room for merry pranksters like Erin Moure and Margaret Christakos, then the reshaping of the poetry scene in Canada is something of a paper tiger. Erin Moure and Margaret Christakos are good poets, and would have been as successful in the era of bpNichol as the one of one another. So in the end, the incredible success (aesthetically, commercially, cross-culturally) of Eunoia maintains a difficult place in the history of our decade. As our most successful book, attention needs to be paid, but it is curiously alone. Eunoia did not birth or kill anything, it surprised everybody by being just another book, albeit a ferociously good one, filled with surprises of thought and of language unmentioned in its one-sentence gimmick. It didn’t change the game so much as it simply won it. As consolations go, not so bad.

Eunoia, as our most successful poetry book, is also one of the most talked about. And like a true experimentalist, Christian Bök loves to talk about the limits and controls of his experiment. While the constraint is fascinating as a conversation starter (the back cover of the first edition assigns personalities to each letter—“A is courtly, E is elegiac, I is lyrical, O is jocular, and U is obscene”) I prefer the poems. Constraints bring out the character of writers, when limited by their own conceits, they rely on their most available and comfortable tricks. And Bök, under duress, comes out as a satirist, a storyteller, and something of an amateur pornographer. While I like all the chapters in Eunoia, my favourite is A, in no small part due to its notable un-courtliness. Once Bök dispatches with his requisite poem about poetry (one of several lesser-known demands in Eunoia, such as the specific spatial limitations that find Bök stretching for em dashes over commas and inserting the occasional redundant phrase) he sets forth on a story about a young man named Hassan. As Eunoia was written mostly in the 1990s, any analogies to certain figures of early 21st century history are strictly coincidental, but the story of Hassan goes like this– He grows up in privilege, develops addictions to drugs, alcohol, and women, has a change of heart, develops a taste for libertarian economics, guts the economy of his nation, goes to war as a means of distraction, overseas the near-collapse of his country and… Well, if you need me to finish this thought, you’ve been reading far too much poetry, and not enough newspapers, this decade.

As amusing as my delicious forays into political satire are to us all, I don’t want to get distracted from the argument that Eunoia is more than its container, as that’s chief among my reasons for putting it on my list. I understand that the container is a memorable and dazzling one, and an intriguing entry point to the text, but texts are built out from words, and not in from their constraints, even in highly constrained texts like Eunoia. While Bök’s conception would be mentionable as an idea alone, what makes it lasting is the inspired quality of the work itself. From page 24 of the first edition: “Hassan can scan an atlas that maps Madagascar and lands afar: Java, Malta and Japan, Chad, Ghana and Qatar, Canada and Lapland, Rwanda and Malabar.” A cynical review of this section would say that Bök really wants us to know all the countries he can think of that use no other vowels beyond A. But that misses the subtleties of the arrangement, the decisions that are demanded by the constraint (as the constraint is not, as some critics have said, a means of lessening the impact of the poet’s individual decisions). Bök’s choice of sectioning off Madagascar allows for the alliteration with “maps”, the coupling rhyme with “lands afar”, and solves the problem of having a single four-syllable pronoun standing out in a sea of bi- and tri-syllabic ones. There are other decisions playing out in this tiny sample: which countries to pair up, which to separate with their own commas, how to continue the rhyme after “afar” (Malabar, as it fulfills this need and, like Lapland, isn’t really a country, was likely a late addition), and so on. What I’m trying to suggest here is that Eunoia isn’t notable just because it was accomplished, despite its incredible self-imposed obstacles. It’s great because it comes through those obstacles to the other side alive, energetic, and as full of variety and depth as most collections of unencumbered lyricism.

After such a mucking-about in the specifics of the text, I want to end by talking about Eunoia the publishing success. There are noted poets in this country, with six or seven books under their belts, who haven’t sold as many copies as Coach House has of Eunoia. Christian Bök would want you to think that this is caused by the masses demanding more experimentalism before re-embracing poetry, but the history I mentioned at the top of this post seems to disprove that. Even ideas as ingenious as the one that birthed Eunoia, like Kennedy and Wershler-Henry’s Apostrophe (Knotting-Off #8, don’t you know) have failed to recreate his commercial and critical success. As I’ve said earlier, Eunoia stands alone. The creator of no zeitgeists, no aesthetic revolutions, it’s just a single brash exception to the accepted limits of mainstream Canadian poetry.

So what was it, then, that made Eunoia so successful, if it didn’t tap into some unrealized yearning for books that challenge the communicative nature of language? I would argue that, to the rest of the world, poetry has for many years had something of a credibility problem. What we free-versers do is labour over objects that, in their finished states, don’t always look difficult enough to have warranted the effort. In the interest of what we label Accessibility, our rhythms, syntax, vocabulary, and subjects ape our idealized “mirror on society”. The resulting public reaction is a little like the guy who points at the million-dollar work of abstract art and proclaims, “But MY KID could’ve painted that.” Such a reaction calls into question one of two things, our intelligence (as Bök tells the world he does, right here) or the efficiencies of our efforts (as I do every time I lose an hour of my life debating with myself as to whether a certain phrase would be best contained by just one line, or two). Of course, most things that look easy aren’t easy at all, and part of the art of great contemporary poetry can be found in practitioners so tuned to the language around them that their final work grows seamlessly from the well of day-to-day speech.

I submit that a great book like Karen Solie’s Modern and Normal (Knotting-Off #3, dont you know) requires as much effort, intelligence, and autistic single-mindedness as a great book like Eunoia. The difference between them is that Christian Bök’s effort and dedication are easier sells than Karen Solie’s. When the Centre Pompidou went up in Paris, there were cries of outrage from the architectural establishment, who had dedicated themselves to an aesthetic that preferred clean lines to mask the chaotic creative energy that inspired them. The Centre Pompidou, with its visible piping and external escalators, was tantamount to the revealing of trade secrets. Likewise, there’s a subversive redesign to Bök’s creation. Eunoia is similar to the Centre Pompidou. It’s poetry, with the parts on the outside.

Bök is disingenuous when suggesting that he’s the only poet who works hard, but it’s true that he has been the only one able to translate how hard poets work into a relatable equation, and thus solved the credibility problem, for himself at least. Q: How hard is the writing of a great book of poems? A: It’s about as hard as writing one with only one vowel. This is why Bök has gotten the most progress in the world of mainstream literature, he’s re-codified the effort. My great disappointment, as Christian Bök waits for the experimentalist revolution that doesn’t appear to be coming, is that he’s missing out on the opportunity to be poetry’s national ambassador. He’s managed to crack a window in the overcrowded house of poets, now I wish he’d stop telling the passers-by he lives alone.

Bonus Points: Part of being internationally successful is having a busy YouTube life. Here’s a sample of Bök reading from Eunoia, at the 2006 Kuopio Sound Poetry Seminar.

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7 Comments on “Knotting-Off the Aughts #2: Christian Bök’s Eunoia”

  1. Gillian Wigmore Says:

    Well said, Jacob. Your second to last paragraph articulates perfectly why I’ve always been so reluctant with Bok – his demeanor has always put me off. There isn’t any need to split Canadian poetry so hard! Anyway, I’m not going to try and say what you’ve already said well, I’m just going to thank you and tell you I’m enjoying this.

  2. Christian Bok Says:

    Hmmm–I have never said that I am the only poet who works hard (far from it…): I have always said that none of us works hard enough….

  3. voxpopulism Says:

    Thanks, Christian, for the comment. I’m obviously a fan and honoured that you’re paying attention over here.

    For the record, the quote that inspired that “working hard” remark goes as follows:

    “I always joke with my students that poetry couldn’t possibly be as hard as they think it is, because if it were as hard as they thought it was, poets wouldn’t do it. Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I know.” University of Pennsylvania, 2009

    Now, obviously you’re not specifically saying that no other poets beyond yourself are working hard, but when you separate yourself out of the generalization with the phrase “…that I know”, it’s certainly placed in the subtext. I maintain that the suggestion is there, as I said above, though I agree that you haven’t directly said so.

    Thanks again for the comment. I appreciate it.


  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Christian Bok, Griffin Poetry Prize. Griffin Poetry Prize said: RT @christianbok Assessment of the impact of "Eunoia" on the poetry of the last decade: http://is.gd/5qicz (via @voxpopulist) […]

  5. Christian Bok Says:

    Hmmm–again, lots of sensitive, hidebound poets (many of whom do not know me well enough to appreciate the candour my wit) seem to be missing the self-deprecation of my joke: after all, I might very well have become a scientist or an engineer–but instead, I have been dumb enough to follow my bliss, becoming a poet, in part because the training does not demand a lot of hard work, and it is one of the few professions where you are allowed to drink on the job…. I maintain that, if poetry is as difficult as everybody purports it to be, then no poet is going to be doing it–hence, my joke is designed to demystify poetry for my students, many of whom feel intimidated by work that is, at base, a whole lot of fun…. I have always professed, however, that, because poets can now succeed by aspiring to a kind of mediocre baseline of competence (despite being lazy and dumb), all of us really do need to be more ambitious in our labour if we want the artform to thrive—and whenever critics try to diminish the kind of superhuman commitment that has gone into the production of a book like “Eunoia” (saying, for example, that the writing of lyric poems requires the same degree of hard work), then I have to respond by saying that such argumentation absolves us of any need to excel–since everybody is, by default, already working with identical diligence at the limits of their aptitude….

  6. voxpopulism Says:

    Christian,

    I don’t know you at all, but I agreed in an earlier post that there was a definite self-deprecating, devil’s-advocate element to your comments. If I didn’t restate those here, I apologize.

    It’s surprising to me that you feel I’ve attempted to diminish your effort, I am, after all, placing Eunoia here as a symbol of how much I love it. However, if it diminishes the effort to suggest that other great books, written in different poetic traditions or by authors disinterested in your level of formal constraint, require less hard work than Eunoia did, then I have to disagree, as you have already disagreed in your first comment on this appreciation (“I never said that I am the only poet who works hard” versus “whenever critics try to diminish the kind of superhuman commitment that has gone into the production of a book like “Eunoia” (saying, for example, that the writing of lyric poems requires the same degree of hard work)”).

    I agree with your point about ambition, but would suggest (as you might, also) that a book’s ambition is not simply the product of the degree of difficulty its creator sets out for it in advance of its writing. Eunoia is, to my ear, a great book, but not (as I said) because it exists despite its contrived obstacles. Rather, because it exists so gracefully, with so much energy and surprise.

    I don’t think that my comparison absolves lyric poets of the need to excel, unless you don’t think that lyric poetry is capable of that in the first place. On the contrary, the great gift of books like Eunoia is in its display of just how difficult and barely attainable greatness is. It requires a great ambition, and also a great ear, a great understanding of language, and a great mind. These components (ambition, rhythmic attention, linguistic dexterity, and imagination) work independently of genre or tradition, they are simply the components of great poetry. All of it.

    Nobody works with “identical diligence”, as the things poets choose to be diligent of vary slightly from poet to poet. This is voice. I submit though that great books like Modern and Normal, Eunoia, and the upcoming #1 on my list, share in the expression of their authors’ great diligence, perseverance, and stubborn singlemindedness, whether the desired outcome of the book was to express that diligence openly, or fold it into a more natural, or common, voice.

    You understand, I’m not saying all poets are created equal. I am saying that, to my ear, all great poets possess share in a great diligence.


  7. […] This post was Twitted by coachhousebooks […]


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