Constraint Based Poetry: Notes on craft talks by Shane McCrae & Teemu Manninen

[This post is part of a series of my notes on a video lectures from the free How Writers Write Poetry e-course from The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.]

Generative Distraction

Shane McCrae = 3 books of poems + 2013 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship + teaches at Oberlin

“Generative distraction”: a fancy way to say that sometimes it helps when writing to have something to distract your mind.

TS Eliot put for the theory of “disassociation of sensibility”: that with the rise of Milton and Dryden and Pope, “there came a divorce between head and heart.” Anxiety about expressing feeling; poems became more intellectual, idea-based.

To reunite idea and feeling, you need spontaneity, so that “even if your poem is labored, even if it takes you years to do it, it has to feel as if, in some way, the poem is discovering itself as it goes along.”  That’s what poetry tries to do now and what readers expect.

Often the problem for young poets is that they write poems based on ideas about feelings. This doesn’t really work because it takes the spontaneity out of the poem – there is no surprise, just the idea that the poet wanted to express.

You can still achieve this if you have an idea you want to express, by adding a constraint. For example, an elaborate rhyme scheme:

Ode To a Nightingale by John Keats

Another example of a rule – French novelist who wrote a whole book without the letter e.
[There are actually a few novels that do this, like this and this.]

This forces you to find a way to say things that are fresh; to discover.

Constraint as Inventive Balance

Teemu Manninen = Finnish poet + critic + part of a poetry publishing cooperative + co-editor of encyclopedia of contemporary Finnish poets

Two models of the artist:
• Penelope (from the Odyssey), who worked at the loom all day and unraveled her work every night. Toiling as the route to skill.
• Athena (Greek goddess of wisdom and inspiration), who emerged fully formed. Instinct & intuition as the route.

Often writers use both. One way to the find the balance is constraint.

The Oulipo (“workshop of potential literature”) group of writers, philosophers, mathematicians used this technique a lot. One of the founders, Raymond Queneau, is credited with saying that one should be like a mouse that builds itself a labyrinth in order to escape it. Neither total freedom nor total constraint, but a self-chosen constraint. Writing is always under some kind of constraint: grammar, metaphor, line. We can fall under the thrall of unconscious constraints.

In choosing a constraint for yourself, be very conscious of everything you do, be very careful and faithful to the standards you set out for yourself.


Write a poem with a constraint.

Christopher Merrill gave a “diabolical” example that Richard Kenney assigns: write a 10 word poem in which each word has one letter more than the previous word. Engage your mind with obstacles.

Other examples: A poem that has to have 6 book titles; or 4 windows.

Note from Minal

I love writing constraint-based poetry, but I found these talks overly general (like many in the series). They were more “why” than “how,” which I don’t find very useful. I would have preferred more current and diverse examples, since this is how most contemporary poets write now, and specific prompts from the speakers.

I’m also surprised to see this topic discussed without reference to the American artists who started working with this concept consciously in the 60s/70s (John Cage, Meredith Monk, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman), let alone the experimental poets (Lyn Hejinian, Sesshu Foster) or anyone more recent. This has been a weakness throughout the course; it’s had minimal ethnic or global diversity even though it’s produced by the “international” side of the Iowa program. The Iowa teachers seem to rely very heavily on Yeats, Keats, Shakespeare, Roethke, Hopkins, Wordsworth, Frost, and a handful of other (yes, mostly dead white male) poets as their canonical examples. A few writers of color have given brief talks in which they do refer to more diverse and more contemporary poets. But it’s amazing to me that so far, no one has cited major figures such as June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich, either for their intellectual contributions to the craft nor for their technique. I can only guess that this lack of diversity is an accurate reflection of the “gold standard” in academic poetry education, even in the year 2014. I do wonder where young poets in these institutions go to find what their contemporaries are writing; after spending so much time and money for an MFA education, are they required to supplement the official curricula with their own investigations? I’m curious!

Anyway, after hearing these two lectures, I wasn’t satisfied and went looking for examples of constraint-based exercises.

Here are some from avant garde poet Bernadette Mayer:

  • Systematically eliminate the use of certain kinds of words or phrases from a piece of writing: eliminate all adjectives from a poem of your own, or take out all words beginning with ‘s.’
  • Systematically derange the language: write a work consisting only of prepositional phrases, or, add a gerund to every line of an already existing work.
  • Structure a poem or prose writing according to city streets, miles, walks, drives. For example: Take a fourteen-block walk, writing one line per block to create a sonnet.
  • Write five short expressions of the most adamant anger; make a work out of them.
  • Write a work gazing into a mirror without using the pronoun I.

Now those are some ideas I can work with!

I also have some in my 10-minute Writing Exercises for Muscles of Steel:

  • Write a 10-minute sentence about one person, no periods.
  • With your non-writing hand, touch or hold an object out of your sight. With your writing hand, write the colors, etc. that it feels like, even though you can’t see it.
  • Practice randomness: Make each sentence (line) completely unrelated to the previous.

(Get more muscles here.)