Museing on the limits

Having a brand new blog is a good thing, but every now and then one must find topics to write about. This is time to let loose something which has been sitting on my mind for a while. For this I first need to quote two poems by oulipian author Francois Le Lionnais. They are referred to as ‘Tentatives à la limite’ (‘borderline attempts’) by their author.

The first one is a poem reduced to one word:


which translates into English as:


The second one is a poem reduced to one letter (the inspired reader will provide their own translation):


Now beside the amusing student-joke character of these poems, they actually raise an interesting question. Namely, what minimal amount of text is required to obtain something which can reasonably be referred to as poetry? How many words are needed to convey some feeling, to carry sufficient emotional charge and be recognised and appreciated as poetry?

Obviously, one full sentence can already be recognised as a poem. For example, Chantre by Guillaume Apollinaire:

et l’unique cordeau des trompettes marines

or in English, ‘and the single cord of marine trumpets’. Here the classicism of a textbook alexandrine is reinforced by the single line, reminiscent of the unique chord of a marine trumpet. The construction like an unfinished sentence, along with the starting ‘et’ suggest that the verse is part of a longer stream, thus acquiring an air of melancholy, similar to the one expressed by the instrument’s sound. Further, marine trumpets, even though they has little to do with trumpets or the sea, can also conjure up pictures of a large ocean on a calm grey day.

Conveying such feelings with a one word poem is harder. Alright, fennel could remind one of happy childhood times when fennel salad was a beloved dish, of the adventures of La Famille Fenouillard, or of a Sahara fox. Here the associations are either more primitive (based on word similarity for example), or extremely dependent on the listener’s own experience: the poet himself has little influence on how the work will be perceived.

A single letter now, is, in my view, much less likely to convey much at all (with some notable exception though). Maybe this could be the initial of someone you like? Maybe the shape of the letter can be evocative of something, effectively making the poem the smallest possible calligram? But this is all too much like a shot in the dark, leaving the listener to make all the effort to see any meaning in the letter. This is not to say that a single letter cannot be used to make a work of art though, but all in all I don’t think it works very well as a poem.


Picture credit: tanakawho.


About the quiet one

I ain't never ever had the gift of gab, but I can talk with my eyes. Words fail me, you won't nail me, my eyes can tell you lies. View all posts by the quiet one

3 responses to “Museing on the limits

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: