Limitations, Constraints, and False Barriers

We began the term reading Maggie Nelson’s essay “Writing With, From, and For Others” (Tin House blog, Oct. 30, 2012) and explored the idea of “leaning against” another text or some other artifact in our writing.  As we close the term exploring Nelson’s early published work, two chapbooks titled Not Sisters and The Scratch-Scratch Diaries, I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit this essay, with attention to her comments on limitations.  Some of Nelson’s early poems work within the limitations of a particular form, e.g., sonnet, pantoum.  Her later poems are less formally constrained.  Still, for all we’ve said about Nelson’s freeing herself from the limitations of genre classifications, she does seem to value limitations.  Read, for example, this paragraph from the essay:

>For many years, I had a quote by the Chinese poet Mo Fei on my wall; it reads: “Poetry has to do with a satisfaction with limited things, a paring down. It is the acceptance of a certain form of poverty. It is not endless construction.” This sense of surrender resonated with me. It helped me with my writing (and living) far more than enthusiastic encouragements to just go for it, to let loose one’s rampant creativity. Likely, it resonates a bit more for those of us entranced by the generative limitations of nonfiction writing, which Janet Malcolm once usefully compared to renting rather than owning—in which case the writer/renter “must abide by the conditions of his Lease, which stipulates that he leave the house—and its name is Actuality—as he found it.”<

Perhaps we could talk about constraints that Nelson has chosen to work with in all of her work and about how constraints have shaped her work and might shape ours, whether poetry, non-fiction, or fiction, or something that resists categorization.

This page includes links to some examples of writing within extreme constraints.

A footnote from the Yale Anthology of Twentieth-Century French Poetry that mentions Maggie Nelson might also be relevant in a conversation that considers constraints much more broadly: “As the poet Maggie Nelson puts it, American women poets seem to be ‘always constructing some kind of false barrier that we then enjoy crossing and re-crossing’ (conversation with the author in fall 2002, upon which much of the material comparing French and American poetry at the present relies).  ‘We are beginning again,’ she says, burying this tiny large statement in the middle of a prose poem, ‘Palomas’ (from ‘The Scratch-Scratch Diearies,’ in Jennifer Barber, Mark Bibbins, and Maggie Nelson, Take Three, AGNI New Poets Series, vol. 3 [St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 1998], p. 133).  Aren’t we all?”


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