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Poets Pushing the Limits: Doing a Lot with a Little

A recommended reading list by the author of the new book Limited Verse.

Book Cover Limited Verse

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit. —Igor Stravinksy

Many writers and artists would take in the quote from famed composer Igor Stravinsky with a certain amount of horror. After all, art is supposed to be about freedom and seeking ways to unleash the imagination, so how can limits and constraints act as an opportunity for creation? Nevertheless, a number of writers have claimed that by imposing restrictions on how they create their literary work, they can in fact unlock hidden potentials and ideas that would have ordinarily gone unexplored.

For my latest poetry collection, Limited Verse, I created a speculative world in which the main character is being forced to only speak and understand New English, a restricted language made up of 850 words (based on the historical and short-lived Basic English). The unnamed protagonist then sets out to translate well-known English poems into this constrained language, as a way to preserve the verses they love and to maintain a link to their old life. What I found through this kind of extreme experimentation is that a great deal of generative possibility lies concealed within a constraint, and that poetry can indeed flourish when only given a limited set of linguistic tools.

In light of the publication of Limited Verse, I thought it would be worthwhile to offer a list and recommendation (though by no means complete) of other books by Canadian poets who chose to abide by strict limitations and yet created innovative and expansive works.


Book Cover The Place of Scraps

The Place of Scraps, by Jordan Abel

In this 2013 collection, Jordan Abel draws from the writings of Marius Barbeau, an ethnologist who studied Indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest, including Abel’s own ancestral Nisga’a Nation. For his constraint-based poetry, Abel applies forms of erasure to discover ways of thinking about what really lies behind the words of a man who sought to preserve Indigenous culture, but who ultimately contributed to its diminishment: “the // plentiful / day // already // burned.”


Book Cover Same Diff

Same Diff, by Donato Mancini

There are a number of different poetic experiments in Donato Mancini’s collection (which was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2018), but one of the most moving poems limits itself to using only found text of a very specific nature. “Bottom of the Pot” is constructed from fragments of memoirs by those who had been imprisoned during times of war or because of political persecution. In selecting an assortment of sentences that focus on a single aspect of prison life—the soup that prisoners were served for meals—Mancini is able to conjure an entire world of deprivation and incarceration that spans centuries.


Book Cover Poets and Killers

Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, by Helen Hajnoczky

We are surrounded by commercial messaging and advertisements every day, and these words of consumerism are determined to shape not only how we spend our money, but also what kind of lives we lead. With Poets and Killers, Hajnoczky constructs a person’s life story built entirely out of phrases and slogans borrowed from print advertising, thus attempting to subversively fashion an individual behind the words that are aimed at commodifying everything they touch.

oems, by Matthew Tomkinson

In his 2022 collection, Matthew Tomkinson employs a different kind of constraint by deliberately limiting himself to writing only with “flat” words, ones that do not contain ascending or descending letters. This restriction is a method for Tomkinson to enact his own lived experience with OCD, and the reader is able to experience the discomfort of an unrelenting pursuit for a kind of perfection: “excessive sunniness / nauseous miasmas / resinous messes.”


Book Cover Zong!

Zong!, by M. NourbeSe Philip

This influential poetry collection uses the text of the legal ruling Gregson v Gilbert, following the death in 1781 of approximately 150 enslaved Africans, as its entire lexicon. From this minimal resource, M. NourbeSe Philip generates the history and anguish behind this haunting massacre. Philip writes of her process, “I use the text of the legal report almost as a painter uses paint or a sculptor uses stone—the material with which I work being preselected and limited.” This process is used to unearth a story that cannot be told, but one that must be told.


Book Cover Whitemud Walking

Whitemud Walking, by Matthew James Weigel

Matthew Weigel, a Dene and Métis poet, works with the constraint of utilizing historical documents, such treaties and government reports, as a means to uncover a more representative history of colonization in Canada, one that “official” texts often obscure. Archival excavations
reveal the complex narratives of the land we live on, and help to restore the legacy of those who have been excluded from traditional histories. As Weigel writes, “I belong to the land. I am grateful for being a part of these relations.”


Book Cover Eunoia

Eunoia, by Christian Bök

The final recommendation of poetry books that are born out of deliberate limitations is perhaps one of the most well known of such experiments in Canada. Christian Bök took on the task of writing poems that only use a single vowel within each chapter of his collection Eunoia, which was awarded the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002. Somehow, he manages this feat, and the results are often strange and beautiful: “Lightning flicks its riding whip, blitzing this night with bright schisms.” What’s more, each vowel begins to take on its own unique personality and tone when allowed time in the spotlight.


All of the poets mentioned decided on a constraint or limitation of some kind for their poetry, and yet from such restrictions they were able to create expansive, challenging works that might not otherwise have been written. While not all poets will feel the need to take up the cause of limits, it’s clear there is creative power waiting to be released from this type of experiment.


Book Cover Limited Verse

Learn more about Limited Verse:

At the close of the twenty-first century, a prison population awaits transport to a world where their memories will be Cleaned, and where they will be Harmonized into the language of New English, made up of only 850 words. One person, knowing of this inevitability, secretly translates poetry into this limited tongue, a gift to a self who will no longer be able to understand the literature they love.

In the years beyond this time, two scholars make a remarkable discovery: a book of poems, a work of translation, and a record of a desperate experiment. This manuscript becomes a window to an impossible realm, and they work diligently to understand the storied document and its tangled history.

Limited Verse is an uncanny collection of familiar poems made newly strange, wrapped in a fascinating speculative mystery. Inspired by the real-life restricted language Basic English, a project of linguist C.K. Ogden, and by the work of George Orwell, H.G. Wells, and Jorge Luis Borges, author David Martin invites you to a place where nothing—not our words, not the building blocks of worlds—is quite what it seems.


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