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Updated: Feb 2

Lessons sometimes come in waves; one serendipity leads to another and we no longer can avoid recognizing what is right before our eyes.

Lately my poetic, musical, and personal life have been inundated with a sole message to pay attention to -- constraints.


True enough I used to write poetry in a constrained style: the cozily-familiar form of the ballad in quatrains (verses of four lines usually with the ABAB rhyme scheme and a 4-3-4-3 meter). Images that occurred to me were heartfelt but mostly benign and only sometimes inspired or in rare moments when I was seized by my funny bone, even hilarious. So when this fall I decided to finally study the craft of writing poetry and learn to appreciate the secrets of the great poets in order to enhance my future poetry, I thought I should avoid constraints.

Then I learned that: "Constrained writing is a literary technique in which the writer is bound by some condition that forbids certain things or imposes a pattern. Constraints are very common in poetry, which often requires the writer to use a particular verse form" (Wikipedia).

But why? And what good was it for me to move backwards into even more constraints, rather than less? Although I never aspired (nor aspire) to write blank or free verse which to me seems lazy and often rambling and obscure, still and all, wasn't more freedom better for me?

True enough, my poetic muse had free reign of me for two years in two volumes of poetry. Gallons of poems came pouring out unbidden, like a major dam breaking so that I could do no other than write down the rushing flood and catch the thought and rhyme before it disappeared downstream into a rivulet and dried up in the warming sun.

Each poem appeared to me like the burst of a magnificent aerial firerocket blown straight up to the heavens and at the top spewing into a rainbow colored umbrella, then immediately halving in intensity and falling to earth in rivulets of disintegrating stars. If I waited one second in taking up my pen, I would miss the moment and the poetic phrase or thought would step back into the darkness from which it came. I put no constraints on my muse because I thought she would rebel and resist and, as I noted, disappear if I did so.

But after all -- maybe not!

In two zoom poetry classes I took this past fall, students were to see if we could jump start our creativity in requested ten-minute writing exercises applying a specific constraint.

My most successful assignment introduced me to the lovely, musical form of the villanelle with it's strict, formalistic three-line stanzas ending in a four-line stanza, with sequential repeats of the first and third lines, and a rigid rhyming pattern. How could I possibly be inspired to force my muse into that quaint form, or say anything of importance?

Yet I immediately fell in love with the villanelle! It's the most musical of poetic forms as far as I can tell; think of the waltz's "3/4 time" with respect to the constraints of this poetic form.

By now I've written five of them, one about music (below) and the rest about life. Some are better than others, as I struggle to become more imaginative in images I choose and clear about what I am trying to convey in my poems. I actually enjoy the constraint of fitting my ideas into this rigid form.


As I consider the possible benefits of constraints, I began to realize that not having delved deeply into fine art classes beyond basic figure drawing, or use of various media such as in watercolor or pastel classes, I was unaware that applying constraints is a fairly typical teaching technique.

Wanting to elicit the ideas of my fine artist friend Jordan Hines, I asked if he would think about the topic and tell me how constraints operated in his production of fine art? He suggested that constraints are marvelous, and told me that the impressionist artist Matisse, used to paint with charcoal taped to the end of a three to six-foot bamboo length (pictured above and to the right). I was gobsmacked and looked it up, and sure enough: there are a number of photographs of Matisse using this very process! But why?

"This unusual practice stems from the artist's discovery, dating from the time he was working on his 1906 Bonheur de vivre, that squaring up a small sketch, as has been the standard procedure for large paintings and murals since at least the Renaissance, was incompatible with his aesthetic." (Photo right by Robert Capa; see online article from a professor of art history at Reed College. For those interested and unaware as I was, Matisse is part of the early 20th-century Fauvist movement (women fauvists) in art which challenged traditional European art standards of the time).

Like my poetry professors, one fine art teacher asked her students to replicate Matisse's technique, and predicted the following results: "This will lead to a very sensitive responsive mark. Even if you struggle to get an accurate representation of your subject, you’ll have a super-accurate representation of your own struggle!" Another artist, Alison MacPherson, reported on her experiments using a brush on a wobbling stick.


As I reflected on the applicability of constraints in music, I realized that Julliard professor Noa Kageyama had us students applied constraints in his five-session "Psych Essentials" class designed to teach efficient ways to practice and then surmount performance anxiety. He asked students to produce 30-45 second videos playing their instrument while applying one simple technique. Each class we did the same exercise but used another type of "constraint."

As an example, in one we were to explore exaggeration and push ourselves to the limit, trying to reach an "11" in our mind regarding dramatic expressiveness. Most all of us reached only a 9 or less when judged by other class participants! This result opened my eyes to the fact that I can definitely push my outer limits when I play music, and experiment more with nuance before I settle into a final decision about how I wish my piece to sound.

For another class we were to choose three famous instrumentalists then sequentially play a few bars or phrases "in the style" of that pianist, and exaggerate if we must. Afterwards the other students in our small group were to guess who we were representing -- and most all of us guessed correctly in every single instance!


I can't here explore all beneficial possibilities of applying constraints in producing art, but I have accrued sufficient evidence to identify some of the ways that constraints can actually work in order to free up my creativity.

When I discovered the villanelle poetic form (and most recently, the acrostic poetic form*) and practiced it, I felt a distinct pleasure in the mental struggle to fit into the rhyme and stanza schemes. It was like the challenge of a puzzle that, once solved, brings immense pleasure in the accomplishment! Not only that, some of my villanelles and all of my acrostics have found favor with my friends who don't always laud or love all of my poetry -- and why should they? Much of it so far has been undisciplined.

When I exaggerated my expression, or pretended to be Yuja Wang, Lang Lang, and Horowitz in Noa's class, these exercises opened up my imagination and helped me free up my physical and tonal expressiveness, but I'm unsure exactly how that worked!

I can guess that constraints kick start my brain and imagination, bringing other options to my awareness. Options from which to choose, can build confidence that I am more accurately and selectively expressing the passion I hear and feel inside when it come to making music and writing poetry.

Simeon Walker, a young music composer, has also been examining the benefits of constraint. He recently set himself to explore limitation in his compositional work. In fact, it was his interesting blog regarding his reaction to all-white paintings in a fine art gallery he visited, that inspired this blog.

While others found the no-color paintings boring, Simeon says "To me, I see these pieces as being free. Free from the baggage of expectation; free from artistic convention; free from the pressure to conform to a set of rules about how artistic works should be seen; free to be." A reader responding to Simeon's blog said: "Limits ... I also sometimes apply to photographic projects. Limit to breadth of subject, or the use of a single focal length, shoot in monochrome only, in the rain(!), etc. Results are some of the most pleasing."

Isn't it a fascinating, perfect paradox:

put a constraint on oneself in order to free oneself up!


*Heartfelt acrostic written as an anticipated New Year's Evening Dinner gift (along with a chocolate torte!) for my neighbor, Amanda:

Always a smile and a friendly word,

Musing as we do across our backyard fences

And sharing our adventures and life events,

Never without stories or our ears lent,

Doing our best to give our best to our muse

And to those whom we encounter in our daily tasks.

– Happy New Year 2024! Ann

Who knew acrostics have been so deliciously and somewhat slyly been used to impart political barbs?

--- "On 19 August 2017, the members of president Donald Trump's Committee on Arts and Humanities resigned in protest over his response to the Unite the Right rally incident in Charlottesville, Virginia. The members' letter of resignation contained the acrostic "RESIST" formed from the first letter of each paragraph"

-- "In October 2009, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a note to assemblyman Tom Ammiano in which the first letters of lines 3-9 spell "Fuck You"; Schwarzenegger claimed that the acrostic message was coincidental, which mathematicians Stephen Devlin and Philip Stark disputed as statistically implausible"

-- "On 23 August 2017, University of California, Berkeley energy professor Daniel Kammen resigned from his position as a State Department science envoy with a resignation letter in which the word "IMPEACH" was spelled out by the first letters of each paragraph" (all above from Wikipedia).



(A villanelle, taking a few gentle liberties -- acceptable to do in modern

poetry said my teacher -- such as slightly changing the words in the

repeating first and third lines)

Music transports the soul like a special lover,

Allows raw feelings in through an open door;

Honor what music elicits like no other.

Appreciate other arts but expect them to move over

If music lifts you up to feel much more,

Music transports our soul like a special lover.

Once open from inside you may discover

A heavy weight you feel from a greater risk in store;

Respect what music touches like no other.

Beware the one you trust, if blind or then belabors

Your gentle soul sourced in your deepest core,

Music exposes our heart like a special lover.

Expect silence if your essential truth’s not savored,

Or careless words do discount what you adore,

Accept what music risks like no other.

But if reciprocation comes just as you’d druther

And with one quiet reflection your faith restores,

Music will transport your soul like a special lover

And you’ll know musical bliss like no other.

# # #

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