Mark Keith’s constrained writing

I’ve long been a fan of Mark Keith. For sheer technical prowess consistently demonstrated (leaving aside questions of e.g. literary standing), he’s probably one of the greatest practitioners of constrained writing in the world, certainly the most impressive I’ve ever seen (Georges Perec of La disparition fame included).

A very easily verifiable way of giving people the impression of “frightening intelligence” is to write a long piece under a very difficult constraint, for instance writing a read-worthy thousand-word essay that reads the same forwards and backwards. It’s easily verifiable because laypeople like me can quickly spot where you screw up without having to cross vast inferential distances through long years of training (contrast pure math, about which for instance von Neumann has written on how hard it is to get people to appreciate the field’s otherwise remarkable insights – putting it that way, it almost sounds like cult initiation rituals, except that the latter’s frowned upon by society for good reasons – and often verifying a solution is easier than finding the solution itself), and it’s easily appreciated as very very hard because we can immediately think of toy examples (to bastardize Tao), for instance writing a ten-word sentence that reads the same forwards and backwards instead of a thousand-word one, that we’d still find very hard to construct ourselves – and furthermore make read-worthy (otherwise there’s always computers for that; read-worthiness is a function of the valuer so let’s not succumb to mind projection here).

Some variants of constrained writing seem easier than others. A cursory inspection of the relevant WIkipedia article reveals “limitations in literary punctuation” (e.g. Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, where no commas were used) alongside essay-length palindromes e.g. David Stephens’ Satire: Veritas (nearly 60,000 letters long) and anagrams e.g. the Archive of Literary Anagrams, which includes the longest one ever created, all of which look much harder. This isn’t to say that “limitations in literary punctuation” is an easy constraint by any stretch of the word. It just looks less impossible, the way the prospect of vaulting over a ten-foot barrier looks less impossible than doing the same over a fifty-foot one.

That longest one, by the way? It’s an anagram of the complete text of Moby Dick by Herman Melville created by rearranging the 935,763 letters of Melville’s novel, it’s written with several other constraints on top of that (in particular a variant of the Oulipo group‘s “N+7” procedure, described in more detail in the essay itself), and it’s authored by none other than Mark Keith. (And I didn’t actually know that until about five minutes ago when I decided to search for “longest anagrams”, so wow serendipitously kewl beans!)

See, what’s even more impressive to me than Mark’s feat here is that it isn’t a one-off statistical-blip-type thing, the way you’d try to convince someone who’s never heard of X that X is impressive by pulling a Sturgeon on them (e.g. “Kobe is great because 81 points“, which has to me the flavor of a hypothetical argument that Corey Brewer is a great scorer because he had a 51-point game – give me consistently replicated results, give me career averages, any day). What’s more impressive is that this tendency to start with one main constraint that’s already ridiculously hard even compared to other constraints that could have been chosen, and then piling additional constraints atop the first as if it weren’t hard enough, is such a consistent theme in his works that you could almost call it an identifying feature of them.

(Nothing wrong about pulling a Sturgeon in general. It’s just not as convincing when you want to say someone “is really really good” at something, because if that were so the law of large numbers (the Wikipedia article has a pretty cool graph for you visually-oriented thinkers) says it should eventually show up more consistently than that, so much so that you wouldn’t even have to pick the top ten percent. But I digress.)

Here’s Mark Keith’s own webpage, if you’re interested in surveying his works for yourself; below I’ll give a sampling of the ones I personally liked best.

“Poe, E.’: Near a Raven”, one of Keith’s earlier poems, has a particularly lyrical quality to it that makes me want to sing it out loud. It’s written in Standard Pilish: the lengths of consecutive words match the digits of the number π, with two consecutive digits if the number of letters n is a word exceeds 10.


Poe, E.
Near a Raven

Midnights so dreary, tired and weary.
Silently pondering volumes extolling all by-now obsolete lore.
During my rather long nap – the weirdest tap!
An ominous vibrating sound disturbing my chamber’s antedoor.
“This”, I whispered quietly, “I ignore”.

Perfectly, the intellect remembers: the ghostly fires, a glittering ember.
Inflamed by lightning’s outbursts, windows cast penumbras upon this floor.
Sorrowful, as one mistreated, unhappy thoughts I heeded:
That inimitable lesson in elegance – Lenore –
Is delighting, exciting…nevermore.

Ominously, curtains parted (my serenity outsmarted),
And fear overcame my being – the fear of “forevermore”.
Fearful foreboding abided, selfish sentiment confided,
As I said, “Methinks mysterious traveler knocks afore.
A man is visiting, of age threescore.”

Taking little time, briskly addressing something: “Sir,” (robustly)
“Tell what source originates clamorous noise afore?
Disturbing sleep unkindly, is it you a-tapping, so slyly?
Why, devil incarnate!–” Here completely unveiled I my antedoor–
Just darkness, I ascertained – nothing more.

While surrounded by darkness then, I persevered to clearly comprehend.
I perceived the weirdest dream…of everlasting “nevermores”.
Quite, quite, quick nocturnal doubts fled – such relief! – as my intellect said,
(Desiring, imagining still) that perchance the apparition was uttering a whispered “Lenore”.
This only, as evermore.

Silently, I reinforced, remaining anxious, quite scared, afraid,
While intrusive tap did then come thrice – O, so stronger than sounded afore.
“Surely” (said silently) “it was the banging, clanging window lattice.”
Glancing out, I quaked, upset by horrors hereinbefore,
Perceiving: a “nevermore”.

Completely disturbed, I said, “Utter, please, what prevails ahead.
Repose, relief, cessation, or but more dreary ‘nevermores’?”
The bird intruded thence – O, irritation ever since! –
Then sat on Pallas’ pallid bust, watching me (I sat not, therefore),
And stated “nevermores”.

Bemused by raven’s dissonance, my soul exclaimed, “I seek intelligence;
Explain thy purpose, or soon cease intoning forlorn ‘nevermores’!”
“Nevermores”, winged corvus proclaimed – thusly was a raven named?
Actually maintain a surname, upon Pluvious seashore?
I heard an oppressive “nevermore”.

My sentiments extremely pained, to perceive an utterance so plain,
Most interested, mystified, a meaning I hoped for.
“Surely,” said the raven’s watcher, “separate discourse is wiser.
Therefore, liberation I’ll obtain, retreating heretofore –
Eliminating all the ‘nevermores’ “.

Still, the detestable raven just remained, unmoving, on sculptured bust.
Always saying “never” (by a red chamber’s door).
A poor, tender heartache maven – a sorrowful bird – a raven!
O, I wished thoroughly, forthwith, that he’d fly heretofore.
Still sitting, he recited “nevermores”.

The raven’s dirge induced alarm – “nevermore” quite wearisome.
I meditated: “Might its utterances summarize of a calamity before?”
O, a sadness was manifest – a sorrowful cry of unrest;
“O,” I thought sincerely, “it’s a melancholy great – furthermore,
Removing doubt, this explains ‘nevermores’ “.

Seizing just that moment to sit – closely, carefully, advancing beside it,
Sinking down, intrigued, where velvet cushion lay afore.
A creature, midnight-black, watched there – it studied my soul, unawares.
Wherefore, explanations my insight entreated for.
Silently, I pondered the “nevermores”.

“Disentangle, nefarious bird! Disengage – I am disturbed!”
Intently its eye burned, raising the cry within my core.
“That delectable Lenore – whose velvet pillow this was, heretofore,
Departed thence, unsettling my consciousness therefore.
She’s returning – that maiden – aye, nevermore.”

Since, to me, that thought was madness, I renounced continuing sadness.
Continuing on, I soundly, adamantly forswore:
“Wretch,” (addressing blackbird only) “fly swiftly – emancipate me!”
“Respite, respite, detestable raven – and discharge me, I implore!”
A ghostly answer of: “nevermore”.

” ‘Tis a prophet? Wraith? Strange devil? Or the ultimate evil?”
“Answer, tempter-sent creature!”, I inquired, like before.
“Forlorn, though firmly undaunted, with ‘nevermores’ quite indoctrinated,
Is everything depressing, generating great sorrow evermore?
I am subdued!”, I then swore.

In answer, the raven turned – relentless distress it spurned.
“Comfort, surcease, quiet, silence!” – pleaded I for.
“Will my (abusive raven!) sorrows persist unabated?
Nevermore Lenore respondeth?”, adamantly I encored.
The appeal was ignored.

“O, satanic inferno’s denizen — go!”, I said boldly, standing then.
“Take henceforth loathsome “nevermores” – O, to an ugly Plutonian shore!
Let nary one expression, O bird, remain still here, replacing mirth.
Promptly leave and retreat!”, I resolutely swore.
Blackbird’s riposte: “nevermore”.

So he sitteth, observing always, perching ominously on these doorways.
Squatting on the stony bust so untroubled, O therefore.
Suffering stark raven’s conversings, so I am condemned, subserving,
To a nightmare cursed, containing miseries galore.
Thus henceforth, I’ll rise (from a darkness, a grave) — nevermore!

                        — Original: E. Poe
— Redone by measuring circles.


Here’s “Nine Views of Mount Fuji”, one of his more ridiculously constrained poems. Quoting Mark:

The construction of these nine stanzas is based on a number of simultaneous constraints. Each stanza is, obviously, connected thematically to one of Hokusai’s famous Views of Mt. Fuji. In addition, hidden within the 729 words of the whole poem are several artifacts relevant to their subject which can be revealed by following this recipe:

(1) Arrange the 81 words of each stanza in a 9×9 square by writing the words of the stanza, one word per location, across the first row, second row, an so forth of the 9×9 square.

(2) Associate with each square a 9×9 grid of numbers (D). Each cell in the grid gets the number “1” if the sum of the letter values (using A=1, B=2, C=3 etc.) in the corresponding word of the square is exactly divisible by 9, “0” otherwise.

(3) Make another grid, L, with a “1” in each cell if the corresponding word has exactly 9 letters, “0” otherwise.

(4) Stack the nine D grids vertically to make a 9x9x9 cube; same for L.

(5) Imagine Cube D and Cube L as a physical object made of 729 small cubes. Make each small cube labelled “1” transparent, the 0’s opaque.

(6) Shine four beams of light on the two cubes as shown in the following picture, and observe the shadows.

The red, green, white, and blue shadows coalesce into four Japanese Kanji characters pertinent to our text: fire, mountain, wealth (“fu”), and samurai (“ji”). The first two combined make the compound Kanji symbol for volcano, the last two combined make the proper name Fuji.

As a final constraint, the poem was also required to be a text that can be formed by rearranging the 3,345 letters in the excerpt below from Lafcadio Hearn’s 1889 essay “Fuji-no-yama.” Hearn’s tale informs our fourth stanza as well.

The last paragraph was italicized by me (not Mark) because it blew my mind. I guess that’s how 2014 Fields Medalist Martin Hairer’s colleagues must have felt when they compared his paper to the Lord of the Rings trilogy (actually no, who am I kidding). Hearn’s essay is reproduced in full in the link above. Here’s the poem.


Nine Views of Mount Fuji

I

Fuji’s perfect outline points heavenward

     near the river’s mouth.

The firm peak in the tan sky

paints across the lake an odd reflection,

     with dirt draped in snow

     rather than brown land almost up to the top.

Perhaps the elder pedagogue of Edo

     is making a subtle point.

The old boatman of Kai

     rowing to the tranquil village there

And the middle-aged Buddhist

     who once pined for youthful times

Endorse this bitter truth:

Seen on reflection, things are often changed.

II

Summer at midday.

The deck of a tea house on the warm road to Kyoto

     is almost full of men and women.

Two brusque men work on their master’s carriage.

Two others pause for a nap.

A courtesan demands her favourite drink,

     adding quite haughtily

“That you are tired does not matter to us.”

Only one heeds with kind regard

     the voluptuous plain,

     Mount Fuji on the horizon,

     the cities beyond.

A group which imitates the leaders

     of certain nations today.

III

The gifted artist devoted this panel to a scene

     that evokes the refined tea-house tableau

     but is, we deduce with careful study,

almost the opposite.

The building is bigger, grander:

     not a house of commerce and commotion

     but a noiseless temple of silent sanctuary.

Nearly everyone is staring at the fine view of Fuji.

The small girl, her view of the vista blocked,

     ponders the old riddle:

If a peak dwells in the distance

     but is hidden, does it exist?

IV

Footsteps go east.

Two sufferers, a weatherman and his wife,

     hunker down to run through hueless snow

     on the dead, lifeless, ice-bound turf

back to their little hut on the dew-fogged top

of Edo’s storied mount.

Inside, a buttercup flower

     in a kettle on a naked table:

     the third thing in danger

of being dead before the cherry blossoms break.

Death before dishonor is their shared motto.

(If politicians followed that rule

only about seventeen

would remain breathing today.)

V

Gray-tinted clouds befogging the base

     are fouled with piercing zigzags of pure white

as heavy rain runs down slopes to the basin below.

The peak tries hard to stay unspoilt,

     but it may or may not;

The mountain does not speculate,

     nor the awful deluge.

Hidden from view,

a wealthy samurai bows his head,

     rebukes in gruff tones

     the rough path his feet walk upon

     then thinks a while.

The round ruddy sun sets,

painting his mountain’s profile fiery red.

VI

A large conifer claims its dominance

     in the center of this oddly phallic vista.

Below, curious men attempt to measure its girth,

     encircling its woody body beneath

     the dense timber and rugged matter,

     even as protruding pine needles and offshoots

scratch and hurt them.

Up there in the heated canopy

     blue birds live with the quail

     in nests made of new shoots;

Chaos, pain, weapons, or mythological dragons are not found.

While at the severe woodland’s leafy bottom,

     everything is weighty.

VII

The tired fisherman perches there

on the cramped rock, holding four lines

     in the turgid updraft of water

     that lashes and breaks unto the shore.

A small figure (son or daughter, perhaps)

holds a basket of surf clams, tuna, damp cereals:

     their nutriment for the coming days of heavy work

     with plow and web and cogged wheel.

So in accord with nature are the widower and kid

     they fail to notice how often their tableau

     imitates that renowned formation,

     Mount Fuji.

VIII

Going west on Tokaido Road

     seven humpbacked travelers are beset

     with a sudden gust of wind

     that sweeps down the highway,

scattering papers here and there

under gray leaves which fly through the air like dead fowls.

Outwitted and confused by

     the drama of streams and currents taking place there

no one even notices this:

The papers that hold the weighty writings of

     The Great Teacher,

once believed to be so great and essential,

are blank as the face of Fuji.

IX

Pinnacles are rarely reached easily.

Ever since the master drew this classic water scene,

     all waves are expressed

     (knowingly or not)

by how they match

its rugged nucleus of foam and fluid.

Mad men in miniature schooners go by,

Heaved on fat swells high up in the air

     then (ebb inevitably pursuing flow) earthward.

Shipmates cast off dire hopes.

Quiet pervades the peak.

As dusk falls like a knitted blanket

     we apprehend Fuji’s rueful theme:

Summits easily reached rarely are pinnacles.


Here’s a poem whose constraint relates to the Periodic Table. Mark Keith:

The poem below is a transformation of William Blake’s “The Tyger”….

In “The Hydra”, the first letter of successive words is required to be the same as the first letter of the chemical symbols (in order) in the Periodic Table, thus producing a constrained language that might be called Elemental English. Note that this constraint is not equivalent to using the first letter in the chemical names, since some of the one- and two-letter chemical abbreviations begin with a different letter than the name (e.g., Na for Sodium). The current international-standard periodic table was used for this composition, using all 109 elements which had official names at the time this was written.

There is one symbol that begins with X (Xe = Xenon); for this one, we have taken the liberty of using an ex– word rather than the an x– word, a not-uncommon trick with acrostic constraints of this type.

The poem itself is reproduced below.


The Hydra

Hydra, hydra, looming bright
(Be calm now, O forest night!),
No man’s art – so plainly, see –
Can ask, know, capture symmetry!

Translate, villain – can man feel,
Capture now Creator’s zeal?
Gauntly go as sorrows brew,
Knowing, really seeing you?

Zounds! No more! This riddle rare
Puts a catch in Satan’s snare.
Thus I exorcise, cast by,
Lucifer’s cursed progeny.

Now, please, sir, elucidate,
Grapple thus, disseminate:
How e’en thrives your lofty heads?
Tell, what reigneth overhead?

I pause, asking: has this place
But possessed a ravaged face?
Resurrect again, tonight,
Precious unseen Nazarite!

Polyhead and crafty blight,
Creeping eastward from my night;
Lord remote – descend, supply,
Break his multisymmetry!

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