JAMES BROWN sounds out Canadian avante-garde poet Christian Bök, guest at this year’s Writers and Readers Week during the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

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IMAGINE writing that uses only one vowel, word lattices based on chemical equations, or conceptual artworks that include books built from Rubik’s cubes or Lego bricks. Welcome to the exhilarating radical poetics of Canadian poet Christian Bök, whose two books of poetry manage to push the boundaries of language without toppling into an abyss of incomprehensibility.

On the phone from the sub-zero temperatures of Calgary, Bök confesses to enjoying crosswords and Sudoku, but being uninterested in personal anecdotal poetry. ‘I do not write anecdotes about my personal life, largely because I do not think that such storytelling is going to make much of an epistemological contribution to our understanding of poetics itself.’

Also, he admits his middleclass Canadian life simply isn’t that remarkable. As an undergraduate, he studied the usual canonical Canadian authors, before encountering a book called The Black Debt by Steve McCaffery, which left him flummoxed but fascinated. It opened a door onto a whole other universe of writing that was working in ways he’d never known language could work. ‘It was as if the only music you’d ever heard was rock and roll, and then all of a sudden you got to hear everything else,’ he explains.

Bök thinks he could probably have been a mediocre writer of personal poetry, but suddenly he felt free to follow his natural inclinations and obsessions – which included a lay interest in science. His first book, Crystallography, is an exploration of the boundary between the language of poetry and the language of mineral science.

‘The word “crystallography” means quite literally “lucid writing” – and the word simply inspired my lengthy conceit about the nature of poetry itself. I tried to misread the language of poetry through the conceits of geology.’

A dazzling conglomerate of concrete poems, diagrams, facts, figures, fictions and fractals, Crystallography is fittingly dedicated to ‘the angel in the angle’.

Although he claims not to write autobiographically, Bök’s second book does perhaps reveal an obsessive-compulsive nature. Inspired by Oulipo (an avante-garde writing group whose members produce work using various arbitrary restrictions) and its most famous work – Georges Perec’s novel without the letter ‘e’ – he wondered whether it would be possible to create a work using only one of the vowels.

‘Oulipo seemed to intimate that [such] a lengthier narrative was likely impossible – but no one had put the claim to any test. So I read through the Third Webster’s International Dictionary a total of five times, consulting 7.5 million entries, transcribing by hand every univocal word for each of the five vowels. I then arranged these lists into parts of speech (noun, verb, etc), and then I arranged these subcategories into topics (pertaining to foods, animals, etc) in an effort to determine what stories the vowels might actually permit.’

“I usually tell my students that poetry signifies language on holiday – or, perhaps more cynically, language that is out of work, unemployed and on the dole. I think that poetry is supposed to showcase linguistic potentials that the quotidian discourses of communication otherwise teach us to ignore for the sake of getting the “message” to its “markets”.”


Seven years later and Eunoia, which means ‘beautiful thinking’ and is the shortest word in English to contain all five vowels, was finished. Each chapter utilises only one of the vowels. All allude to the art of writing. All describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage. And, perhaps most amazingly, all are rollicking reads. Surely the last word in lipograms (texts excluding chosen letters of the alphabet), Eunoia won the prestigious 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize.

If all this sounds a bit pointless, Bök is extremely articulate about why he writes the way he does. ‘I usually tell my students that poetry signifies language on holiday – or, perhaps more cynically, language that is out of work, unemployed and on the dole. I think that poetry is supposed to showcase linguistic potentials that the quotidian discourses of communication otherwise teach us to ignore for the sake of getting the “message” to its “markets”.’

But if communication isn’t your main aim, doesn’t that inevitably lead to obscurity? ‘In fact it’s very difficult for a text to be totally meaningless,’ says Bök, pointing out how strongly we’re conditioned to extract meaning from language simply because language is how we mostly communicate. But when we listen to music or view sculpture or abstract painting, for example, we’re far more relaxed about not understanding. Not only do we not feel the same need to ‘understand’, he suggests, we’re more than happy to impose our own meanings.

‘Lewis Carroll, I believe, has Humpty Dumpty say “take care of the sounds, and the sense will take care of itself.” I certainly think that this statement provides good advice for poets. I think that meaning is always the happy side-effect of other processes within the poem itself.’

Crystallography and Eunoia may not deliver the kinds of personal free-verse that are the bread and butter of contemporary poetry, but they certainly aren’t meaningless – or unpoetic. In fact Bök is as attuned to the sounds and rhythms of language as any traditional lyric poet. Sections of Crystallography sound, well, crystalline, and each chapter of Eunoia reverberates around the distinctive tone of its particular vowel. Bök is also a highly accomplished performer of sound poetry (fingers crossed for this when he appears at Writers & Readers Week this March) and has even created artificial languages for two TV shows – Earth: Final Conflict and Amazon.

But it is his next project that might take his radical poetics to the end of the Earth – literally. In conjunction with a geneticist, Bök is working on a poem to be encoded into the genetic sequence of an extremophile – a highly resilient micro-organism. Not only will the poem multiply and endure, the text may be re-expressed by the organism through the manufacture of a benign protein – which, if re-translated by Bök, will itself be another text. Because of the microbe’s resilience, says Bök, the poem may well outlast humanity – and perhaps even the planet itself. It seems that poetry, in one form or another, will go on forever.