On Mellifluousness

Tonight I keep wanting to post to my facebook wall ‘How good is Herbert Howells by the way?’, but stopping because I can’t be bothered to get into a discussion about who Herbert Howells is and when I stopped to think about why I’m feeling the love for ol’ Herbert tonight, I realised that the answer was more of a blog-post than a spontaneous ejaculation.

Howells is the sort to get categorised in the ‘honorable second-rank’. Eek. The piece of his music I’m listening to is ‘In Gloucestershire’ String Quartet (here’s another of his I could find online) as I catch up on some correspondence, and as I type, I keep getting buffeted by a wave of beautiful warm sound, or fibrilating texture that makes me type hard and impetuously like I’m a silent pianist in accompaniment. The experience is making me think how much I appreciate sensual beauty in art, which it’s easy to feel has become problematised, or at least difficult to access in contemporary work which truly owns up to the experience and thinking of this time and place. I quite often have thought that mid-twentieth century composers/poets whatever were fortunate in being able to write at a time when fractured beauty was a workable contemporary compromise, and you could get away with writing lushly, in contrast to darkness and austere patches/breaks. I think of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, of T.S. Eliot in 4 Quartets (but prob more in the earlier Waste Land) and also of poets like Larkin (High Windows eg). Now it can feel as if to indulge a glowing phrase is to risk tendentiousness or naivety. ‘Keep it all awkward’ my inner voice says, ‘keep the reader on their tiptoes’. Something like that.

At the moment, I’m starting to read through F.T. Prince’s Collected Poems (as I mentioned in yesterday’s post) and he’s very much a poet who can sweep me off my feet. The poem of his that I, that everyone, first fell in love with was Soldiers Bathing of course, and I didn’t want to own up to that yesterday as it felt hackneyed to always take a discussion of his work there. Soldiers Bathing is a poem that almost makes you suspicious that you’re enjoying it for all the wrong reasons, pervily, and that feeling seems to be backed up when you get bored at the extended art historical reference that you have to google, excusing the depiction of nakedness as it seems to be doing. And that sense and reputation that he is a ‘one-hit wonder’ poet, like Gray with his elegy (also untrue I think) stops people generally from feeling the need to seriously look for good content throughout the writer’s work.

In that way, I would say Prince is a victim of this suspicion of pleasureable sensation in serious art. He was rather overtaken by subsequent generations and made to look old-fashioned in his own long life.

I feel like these are initial, not fully worked-out thoughts, but I want to say that I am looking for a way, a clear way, to write for now, to write for now intelligently, but to retain a pleasurable motivation/impulse/experience at the centre of what I’m making. I need to keep that because these unfashionable sense-merchants have me by the balls.


F.T. Prince’s last poem ‘Last Poem’


I was excited to buy F.T. Prince’s Collected Poems from Carcanet’s Fyfield imprint today. Have been wanting to read more of his work for a long while. In fact, I’m sure I ordered a collection Amazon about 10 years ago that never arrived.

I wanted to share the last poem in the book, which I read for the first time today and which confirmed that I am going to find lots to enjoy and to think about.


Last Poem

Stand at the grave’s head

Of any common

Man or woman,

Thomas Hardy said,

And in the silence

What they were,

Their life, becomes a poem.


And so with my dead,

As I know them

Now, in his

And her

Long silences;

And wait for, yet a while hence,

My own silence.

On 5 Nov 2012, at 19:06, zoe fothergill wrote:

excellent great response my dear

i ditto love the way levine talks about his work

i also find that more interesting than the work itself

and prob would have selected the same section re futility too

i totally agree that it is barely intelligible but not really in an interesting way

but also agree at times new languages evolve from this kind of mania

i find it diffcult and frustrating but still i’m pleased it exists

i geek too


i think you are right to question the quailty of the output

the relation between content and structure – meaning and form

but i guess i’m also interested in work that pushes past

to make the form the meaning or the structure the content.


i just ordered ‘a void’ – the ‘e’ less novel that focuses on the pursuit of e as the main thrust of the plot

intrigued to know whether it is unintelligible or if as you say re the 5hr opera

you got to ride with it

til it starts to infiltrate and reveal its inner logic.

in part i’m blown away by the fact it was written

for the sheer ‘what if ness’ of it

but even more so by the translation efforts

originally in french

then to english

and also spanish with no a instead

translators unsung heros

will report back.


ok so i say structure because i think it’s far more precise.

form has many more interpretations for me.

and oed agrees so it must be right – pasted below

but maybe the more openended nature of form appeals to you more

i guess for me structure feels more inside

more understanding relations within

and form is a step remove

surveying the whole

what say you?


thanks for including your poems

great examples of responses to struture/form

for me it always begs the question

when are rules freedom and when are they hinderance / stricture?

start without and impose as you go or start with and mould to fit?

i’m with you too that the second balances the relationship better

i love the interplay between prefixed and not vocab

oh so similar and yet not and yet sometimes yes

and then it building to a fuller interplay across the whole

that tantalisingly reveals itself – it’s fun it’s cheeky – i love it

while the first has a complex structure

it is almost invisible to me

so the second seems generous

with the listening/reader included

in the unravelling of the fun and games


did you see the andrew grassie show at trg

years ago now 08

one work driven by structure

that at trg was out of context

i would have loved to have seen in situ

was at mobile home in london

he hung a group show by open call

photographed it from 8 view points

then returned all the work

and made meticulous tiny paintings of the photos

then hung the photos in the 8 places

so that the exhibition space was practically empty

and yet the ghosts of the secret show

were presented in what i imagine to be

uncanny – making you double take in the space

couple images attached to aide explanation

the structure is elaborate

and maybe unnecessary

but i love its convolution

and for me it becomes the principal subject

anyways enough from me for now

soon soon



Definition of structure


1 the arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex:

the two sentences have equivalent structures

the company’s weakness is the inflexibility of its management structure

[mass noun] the quality of being organized: we shall use three headings to give some structure to the discussion

2 a building or other object constructed from several parts: the station is a magnificent structure and should not be demolished


Definition of form


1. the visible shape or configuration of something: the form, colour, and texture of the tree [mass noun]: the flowers of this shrub are remarkable both in form and colour

• the body or shape of a person or animal: his eyes scanned her slender form

• [mass noun] style, design, and arrangement in an artistic work as distinct from its content: these videos are a triumph of form over content

2. a particular way in which a thing exists or appears: essays in book form energy in the form of light

• any of the ways in which a word may be spelled, pronounced, or inflected: an adjectival form

• Philosophy the essential nature of a species or thing, especially (in Plato’s thought) regarded as an abstract ideal which real things imitate or participate in.

3. a type or variety of something: sponsorship is a form of advertising

• an artistic or literary genre: a form is as good as the writer who chooses it

• Botany a taxonomic category that ranks below variety, which contains organisms differing from the typical kind in some trivial, frequently impermanent, character, e.g. a colour variant. Also called forma.

4 [mass noun] the customary or correct method or procedure: an excessive concern for legal form and precedent

• [count noun] a ritual or convention: the outward forms of religion

• [count noun] a set order of words; a formula: a form of words

5. a printed document with blank spaces for information to be inserted: an application form

6. chiefly British a class or year in a school, usually given a specifying number: the fifth form

7. [mass noun] the state of a sports player or team with regard to their current standard of play: they are one of the best teams around on current form

• details of previous performances by a racehorse or greyhound: an interested bystander studying the form

• a person’s mood and state of health: she seemed to be on good form

• British informal a criminal record: they both had form

8. British a long bench without a back.

9. Printing, chiefly USvariant spelling of forme.

10. British a hare’s lair.

11. another term for shuttering.

Early response to Zoe’s initial email

Just in case you’ve arrived at this post without context, it’s an excerpt from a continuing dialogue I’m having with visual artist Zoe Fothergill in the run up to a performance-lecture we’re doing in 2013 as part of Jennie Temple’s Project!!WAKAKA! Scroll back through this blog for earlier posts.


Sent: Monday, 5 November 2012, 17:35

Subject: Re: Green for go – whizzing away off the blocks

Here’s a few thoughts in response to your dossier to keep things flowing, à la our best efforts.

So, the lists of contrained/constraint-writing, in terms of a conversation about structure and content (I’m going to keep wanting to say ‘form and content’ so you’ll have to catch me if I go off piste) is a useful place to start i think. It certainly got quite a strong reaction from me, as much of it seemed to be the geekery that used its formal/structural qualities as a way of avoiding content in any helpful way.

I was interested that Lawrence Levine in his introduction to his palindromic novel ‘Dr. Awkward & Olson In Olso’ said of an earlier effort ‘[…] I suddently realized the futility of proceeding along that line of palindromania. I could go on forever and would always end up with vritually nothing. A formless monster of dismaying length, a rodent in a squirrel cage, going nowhere very rapidly and very tediously, and ending up exactly where he started!’, exactly where he started, in a literal sense of course because of a palindrome’s nature, but probably not in terms of meaning, which I think is harder to chart the course of than these obsessive rules (and perhaps that’s the attraction?).

Levine goes on to say that when he started work on the novel (Dr. Awkward…) he ‘wanted to be a purist. Use only common English words was the dictum: no variable spellings, no oddments, no obscure names of places of peoples, no obsolete words, no foreign phrases or Latinisms masquerading as good English. But of course this was all quite impossible.’

I found the generous segments of the novel’s text completely unreadable. The bits of text were unable to solve the problem of working forward and backwards with equal success and relevance at their twin-appearances in the novel. It was obvious when you read through whether a section was really for this half of the novel or the other. For example do you think that Levine came up with, ‘Eye enos, sor cad, na, Hades sap. Olson in Oslo’ before realising that it handily reversed into ‘Olson in Olso passed a hand across one eye.’? No, me neither.

I am much more interested in where the structure/form is in balance with content in an equally matched game of chess. In that situation, the ideal as far as I think, both aspects are pushed into areas that stretch their previous bounds. One thing I like about the palindrome experiment is that is forces the writer to discover new words. I don’t like the fact that it is used so stringently that it admits no chance to mean.

Levine might counter my argument by saying, as he does in the same introduction, that in his text ‘the eccentric soon becomes the commonplace, and the reader, to his pleasant confoundment, accepts the strangeness as the norm. Or so one hopes.’

I am willing to go along with that. It may be true for some readers of certain tastes and I wonder if there’s an element of perceptual shift that can happen with an artist’s/author’s/composer’s language.  I wonder if the single-minded pursuit of a strangely new way of composing in sound/text/image eventually convinces as a new language which reveals its rules to its intimates. I’ve had experiences that would suggest this is possible. I always found Messaien’s music impenetrable, for example. He used various semi-mystical procedures to structure his compositions and turned more and more to his best attempts at accurate transcriptions of birdsong to provide the melodic layers of his dense style. I went to see a performance of his 5-hour long opera St Francis of Assisi (call me reckless!) and actually, after after an uncomfortable half an hour something clicked and it made real aesthetic sense.

I heard about an experiment that was done where people were given glasses to wear that flipped everything upside down. Because they were forced to wear the glasses the brain after a while compensated by turning the image back up the right way round. I believe in its ability to overcome obstacles and make sense of data.

I know I’ve gone on at some length here, but let me mention a couple of examples of my own writing that show where I am with this question of form and content. Sorry, structure and content, i keep doing that! Maybe we can unpick the specific differences of the meaning of the word ‘form’ in poetry as opposed to visual art….anyway…

This is a poem I wrote a couple of years ago. I was trying hard to follow a rule in which there were units of three syllables (amphimacer feet if we’re being technical) whose sounds were closely echoed in the lines on either side of it, but with a shift forward or backward in the line.


Inverse Relations

The ball of blue string had begun to unravel

loose triads it spun through a savage arena

where one who would have an idea of culture

Comes after a clear gap. No wonder there wasn’t

an ear claps got up for applauses.


Some lately in Norway have said’s said in boardrooms

what might be just hearsay: life’s eerie live, God have

a mercy or call my bluff Mary, as easy

to blame her as fairies or kelpie, unwavering

many who claim for my bairnie.


And those rotes got noticed and therefore were practiced

Gott noticed and therefore were practiced and those rotes

And therefore were practiced and got those rotes noted

Were practised and those rites rotated and therefore

Those notes got notated and therefore


Religion’s not just why recorded performance

endures, ‘Lies!’ according, before my short script, to

Elijah’s. Yet years I’ve accreted, absorbent

through summers which each dropped off dewy recourses

To think that most numbers still injure. most numbers. still.


So you can maybe see that happening. Looking at the first verse, ‘blue string had’ is echoed by ‘loose triads’ before that grouping drops off the left of the line. Also follow the sound echo of ‘unravel’, ‘a savage’, ‘would have an’, ‘comes after’.

I felt really constrained, too constrained, by this patterning and it was only a rare moment in this poem that I felt meaning got the upper hand. A useful exercise though.

Now look if you still have energy(!) at this poem from very recently in which I apply a rule much more loosely, or in fact, it’s just a looser rule. The two verses of ‘in relation to’ follow some of the same rules as a palindrome, but rather than reverse the letters of words individually, I just work backwards through the same vocabulary, picking out my meaning (much more successfully I think) as I go.


    i    in relation to


Your sofa is flammable, sorry, I mean inflammable,

my tone is pertinent, or it’s rather impertinent.

You light here to ask my opinion I don’t know

if I should give it to you I give it to you it’s the same

discoloured, coloured, no difference to the two of us

as divided into posits our indivisibility deposits off limits,


limits indivisibility poses our opposites at, divisions in two

into us the indifferent, discoloured, coloured all the same

it’s for you to give in to me should you give in to me

if I don’t know my opinion? I ask you here too lightly.

It’s impertinent, or is my tone pertinent rather?

I mean, sorry, you’re inflammable. Your sofa also is flammable.


Yes, in the second verse I’m being pushed to say things I wouldn’t have come up with had I sat down afresh, but my meaning is pushing back just as hard and compromises are won between what the form requires and what the meaning can accommodate.

I actually think I like Lawrence Levine’s language in explaining his palindrome much more than the palindrome itself. The language is quite fun enough with its squirrels in rodent cages etc. I wonder how much of his writing style has been influenced by his adventures in vocabulary, and might that not be the real fruit of his exercise?


Enough from me!

Iain x

p.s. things that I do find interesting in that list you sent were ‘aleatory’ writing (where the reader supplies a random input) – not sure if that’s a universally accepted definition, but I like it. Also, ‘mandated vocabulary’ where a writer has to incorporate given words in amongst their own. That’s something I realise I’ve used as a process and have found useful.

A list from Zoe F of some other sorts of constraint writing

The list below is the second half of Zoe’s original dossier of info, sent to kickstart our structure/content discussions. Some of it was new to me. Other things I’ve employed without ever knowing that there was a given term for what I was doing. I enjoy using ‘mandated vocabulary’ for instance, thinking of it as a bit like what Auerbach is reported to have done with his long-running paintings, by leaving a deliberate problem, such as a smear of paint, at the end of each session in the studio, so that he had a something to deal with when he came back to the easel. I find using set words that you have to use, gets you thinking creatively about how to guide your meaning around the word, or indeed to change the course of your meaning to include it – often with greater breadth than your solipsistic starting point.


Other Constrained Writing

  • Lipogram: a letter (commonly e or o) is outlawed.
  • Palindromes, such as the word “radar”, read the same forwards and backwards.
  • Pilish, where the lengths of consecutive words match the digits of the number π.
  • Alliteratives, in which every word must start with the same letter (or subset of letters; see Alphabetical Africa).
  • Acrostics: first letter of each word/sentence/paragraph forms a word or sentence.
  • Reverse-lipograms: each word must contain a particular letter.
  • Twiction: espoused as a specifically constrained form of microfiction where a story or poem is exactly one hundred and forty characters long.
  • Anglish, favouring Anglo-Saxon words over Greek and Roman words.
  • Anagrams, words or sentences formed by rearranging the letters of another.
  • Aleatory, where the reader supplies a random input.
  • Chaterism Where the length of words in a phrase or sentence increase or decrease in a uniform, mathematical way as in “I am the best Greek bowler running”, or “hindering whatever tactics appear”.
  • Univocalic poetry, using only one vowel.
  • Bilingual homophonous poetry, where the poem makes sense in two different languages at the same time, thus constituting two simultaneous homophonous poems.[1]
  • One syllable article, a form unique to Chinese literature, using many characters all of which are homophones; the result looks sensible as writing but is incomprehensible when read aloud.
  • Limitations in punctuation, such as Peter Carey‘s book True History of the Kelly Gang, which features no commas.
  • Mandated vocabulary, where the writer must include specific words, chosen a priori, along with the writer’s own freely chosen words (for example, Quadrivial Quandary, a website that solicits individual sentences containing all four words in a daily selection).

The Oulipo Group

The group defines the term littérature potentielle as (rough translation): “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.”

Oulipo was founded on November 24, 1960, as a subcommittee of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique and titled Séminaire de littérature expérimentale. At their second meeting, the group changed its name to Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Oulipo, at Albert-Marie Schmidt’s suggestion. The idea had arisen two months earlier, when a small group met in September at Cerisy-la-Salle for a colloquium on Queneau’s work. During this seminar, Queneau and François Le Lionnais conceived of the society.

La disparition or A Void

Perec’s novel La disparition, translated into English by Gilbert Adair and published under the title A Void, is a 300-page novel written without the letter “e,” an example of a lipogram. The English translation, A Void, is also a lipogram. The novel is remarkable not only for the absence of “e,” but it is a mystery in which the absence of that letter is a central theme.

Steven Cox show

Yo. Was out and about at some of the art openings in Edinburgh tonight. Thought I’d say a word about Steven Cox’s painting show, which is on this weekend only at The Old Ambulance Depot (btw, the old ambulance depot is a great space in a secret courtyard run by a design agency I think. seems to be accessible to art students and early career artists, which makes it doubly valuable).

Steven showed paintings done on small canvases (+one bigger one), which all were more or less brown. But wait! Don’t be fooled into thinking that would be boring – they were great, and because he’d carefully controlled the different processes between each painting, I felt like he achieved a huge variety of expression within what seemed like an impossible constraint. The subtle patterning of paint and organic-seeming change and flow within and between the nicely-spaced-out canvases gave me the feeling of listening to different expressions of the same musical idea, like a book of fugues. I should also say I loved the titles. There was one called ‘Days of Being Wild’ which, when you looked at the brown-ness in front of you seemed incongruous, but then forced your brain to start making a connection between the words and the image. I found myself thinking about black-outs, things your eyes might see if opened in the dark, shapes forming that might be imagined or might be as much as you can see of the real, and also feelings. There’s also the other meaning of ‘wild’ present, as in nature, where the brown makes a more literal sense. It felt pretty rich. I’m lucky – it was also the second great painting show I’d seen that night after Serge Charchoune at The Talbot Rice Gallery.


Here are all the titles in Steven’s show for interest. I recommend getting down if you can: 11am-6pm tomorrow, Sunday and Monday.


Worlds Apart



A Moveable Feast

The Younger

How Near How Far

Days of Being Wild

Roaming Wild Pastures

The Elder

Where It Belongs


Writing them all out just now, they made me think of the poem titles of Edwin Muir, the way they seem to sit in a mythic present, if such a thing is possible. I think the one in this picture might be ‘Roaming Wild Pastures’, but apologies if I’m wrong.

Fothergill-collaboration. Excerpt #1

So, earlier this week, I posted this blog post about the collaboration I’m doing with artist Zoe Fothergill. This is the first of the windows onto our discussion on structure and content. With the following words, Zoe launched us off into collaboration again:


‘so i contacted jennie and she i quote

would LOVE

for us to do a KL

she suggests a wee visit

to reccie the venue

as they have new hoos

but just around the corner

what say you, fancy a gander?

let me know when might suit

we chatted about a blog or sommat

to gather our thoughts

but i remember you wanted to use yours

so i haven’t set up another

not exactly sure re mechanics

so have attached a word doc

with some intial thoughts

and a pdf that relates

so just show me the way

and i’ll happily work

with what works for you’


Zoe started us off with some ideas on structure, going back to the Romans:

and ‘…starting with the simple palindrome.’

The Sator Square

79 AD –“The farmer Arepo has works wheels”

Another Latin palindrome,

In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni” (We go wandering at night and are consumed by fire)



Never odd or even

tattarrattat, coined by James Joyce in Ulysses (1922) for a knock on the door



[this was one of my favourite discoveries from Zoe’s list!]

Weird Al Jankovic – Bob




In English, two palindromic novels have been published:

Satire: Veritas by David Stephens (1980, 58,795 letters),


Dr Awkward & Olson in Oslo by Lawrence Levine (1986, 31,954 words).


In French, Oulipo writer George Perec’s “Grand Palindrome” (1969) is 5,556 letters in length


In Hebrew, Noam Dovev wrote a 363-word, 1331-letter palindromic story called, “Do god”


Iain again!:

There’s more to come on different types of constraint writing, but I’ll break it down into another post later in the week.


Enter stage left: Zoe Fothergill!

Hello all, and hello particularly Zoe Fothergill, and welcome back indeed.

I had interesting, productive fun collaborating with Zoe about a year ago (see earlier blog post here). Zoe’s a visual artist with a strong interest in science and in particular the science of perception, I’d say. She’s invited me to collaborate with her again in a discussion leading to a possible ‘kitchen lecture’ with Project!!WAKAKA! which is all rather apposite because Zoe and I met for the first time at one of the Annuale 2011 kitchen lectures and were the sole members of the pub quiz team called ‘the fuck you uppers’. I still remember Deborah Jackson’s attempt to resolve a tie by getting us to ‘do something extraordinary’. That shared look of panic/inspiration that led to the singing of The Bangles ‘Eternal Flame’ eternally linked us in some way. Or am I misremembering/mythologising? Either way, a spark was sparked and it’ll be fun to go back into that Wakakacontext again as a different sort of unit.

Zoe’s initiated a conversation with me on structure and content. It’s something we talked about in our earlier project a lot, while we wrestled/wrested with where one becomes the other, and the extent to which form is the stuff of content. I’ve just done there what I keep doing, which is to slip from talking about structure to calling it form. We’re working out at the moment what the difference might be. I wonder if partly there’s a culture of talking about form in poetry where the word means something different in visual art, but we haven’t resolved that one yet.

I’m going to be using this blog to post updates on and windows onto our conversations, which at the moment involve mainly emails, handily for cutting and pasting. So, if you’re interested, keep an eye on this space. And of course, come to the lecture! But that’ll be a while yet, probably in Spring. This online activity is part of the project though, and hopefully will be interesting in addition to whatever we end up with in performance.


I live on Edinburgh’s West Port and it’s a noisy tonight out on the street. You really notice the passing drunk groups mid-week, because the castle-dominated lulls are so quiet, I guess. People like to be loud and happy. Am pretty sure someone just went past strumming a ukelele.

Jacket 2 snaps poetry in Scotland

Brilliantly eclectic selection (with a lean perhaps towards the experiementalists among us) from Sandra Alland who’s chosen poets to represent a snapshot of Scottish writing at present. She’s over the other side of the wee pond at the moment and the selection appears in the American online institution Jacket 2.

Do enjoy these, passing through.


Lennox/The Lover Speaks lines about language

Just listening to Annie Lennox singing ‘No More I Love Yous’ and thought the lyrics were interesting about language, so I thought I’d share them:

No more ‘I love yous’
A language is leaving me
No more ‘I love yous’
A language is leaving me exiled
No more ‘I love yous’
Changes are shifting me outside the words

Actually makes me think of some other great song lyrics by The Associates, who are all over the place with puns and wordplay and clever syntax on Party Fears Two, for example, but maybe I’m most reminded of these ‘language’ lyrics that I’ve come across recently in a great song called ‘The Beat and the Pulse’ by Austra:

Capture something read
Paste it to the edge of your bed
Someone will be there
Someone who will know what it says
What it says

……and then later…..

Elevate your fingers
Motion makes it hard to write

….which I think are beautiful lines 🙂