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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Language as art: one vowel at a time

“Awkward grammar appalls a craftsman. A Dada bard as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an alpha (a slapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A madcap vandal crafts a small black ankh—a hand-stamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a ark that sparks an ars magna…

Notice anything odd about the first paragraph? Try reading it aloud. Hear anything strange about it? Does it seem ‘A’ little lacking?

Because it is. Lacking every vowel except A, that is. There are no E’s, I’s, O’s or U’s in it, just as there are no E’s, I’s, O’s or U’s in the chapter that it’s excerpted from: Chapter A from Eunoia, a book written by Canadian poet Christian Bök. This week’s column is devoted to a different kind of art than columns past—the manipulation of language.

Eunoia is a five-chapter series of univocalic lipograms. A lipogram is a form of constrained writing or a word game which excludes certain letters or a group of letters from a piece. A univocalic lipogram is a lipogram that excludes all but one selected vowel.

Each of Eunoia’s chapters uses just one vowel: A in the first, E in the second, and so on. The name of the book comes from the Greek word which can mean “well mind,” “beautiful thinking,” “to carry favor,” or “ingratiate oneself with.”

I probably don’t need to stress how difficult omitting vowels from sentences can be… After reading the first chapter of Eunoia, a friend and I tried to hold conversations without using E, I, O or U this summer. Needless to say, it was pretty much impossible. I mean, how do you let someone know that you need to go to the bathroom using only A’s?

Omitting vowels in writing might be slightly easier. But it’s certainly no walk in the park. As Bök rather aptly puts it in the opening lines of his “I” Chapter: “[w]riting is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scriblling in ink this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks…”

I was drawn to Bök’s Eunoia because of the way it made me so aware of the letters that I use. It’s one thing to be conscious of word choice, but keeping track of letters is a completely different thing, totally changing how you think about language.

In terms of content, Eunoia reads like a long, bizarresounding prose-poem. Each chapter makes sense … They tell coherent stories from different perspectives in different settings.

But there is something distinctly “different” about its rhythm. Listening to passages read aloud, you can intuit this without being able to pinpoint exactly what the difference might be. To quote the French reviewer Michel Basilieres, “Bök’s constant repetition of a single vowel, while at the same time employing the widest possible vocabulary, results in a kind of aural echoing that sets rhythms and patterns moving of their own momentum.”

After reading a few pages of Eunoia, the smallest part of a book, a column, or even The First College Newspaper West of the Mississippi takes on new significance.

It’s completely overwhelming and, at least for me, renews my respect for the way we communicate with one another in writing. The rhythm of writing comes alive using lipograms and other kinds of word games. Using them and testing the limits of your vocabulary really does make you more sensitive to the words you write and the way you speak.

Recognizing written language and looking at it in a different way can elevate it in your mind. Writing is also an art form, from crafting plotlines down to the placement of each individual letter. Christian Bök’s Eunoia does an excellent job of reminding us of this fact.

In conclusion (sorry guys, this was the best I could do): Go forth, opt for words from crosswords, ports, cooks or books. Play as fawns at Accra, aptly, ably and smartly. I think frigid midnight smiling. U sculpt fun 4 urself w/ “wurds”.

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