"Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script."
July 22, 2004 12:16 AM   Subscribe

Eunoia ("beautiful thinking") is the shortest word in the English language that contains all five vowels. It is also the title of a poetry collection by Canadian author Christian Bok. In addition to writing each chapter using only words that contain one vowel, (Flash presentation of Chapter "E") Bok also greatly limits himself in other ways. An amazing accomplishment that won the $40 000 Griffith Poetry Prize in 2002, Eunoia is best experienced in its spoken form. (MP3 links) (If you don't know Bok's poetry, you still might know his other work. He has also created artificial languages for two television shows: Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict and Peter Benchley's Amazon.)
posted by Jaybo (18 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
writing each chapter using only words that contain one vowel

Incredible. I don't go in much for literary gimmickery, but any wordsmith knows that restrictions can wring jewels from pure jungle.
posted by scarabic at 12:40 AM on July 22, 2004

That must have been incredibly painful. Thanks, Jaybo.
posted by tcp at 12:54 AM on July 22, 2004

I was just going to flash my fancy schmancy literature degree and mention the Oulipo and Perec's novel written without using the letter "E", but then the author of one of the links has already mentioned it in his very first paragraph. There goes my shot at trying to sound like I've actually learned something useful.


There have been other similarly inspired works in this vein as well, such as Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa, in which the first letter of each word in the first chapter begins with "A". In the next chapter, words beginning with "B" are permitted as well, and all the way through the alphabet until you're left with "normal" text by the 26th chapter... and then the alphabet is removed one letter at a time, until the novel ends with another chapter entirely consisting of words starting with "A". Thus when the Queen is introduced, you know that her reign is destined to be a short one because, well, she's a queen and not an archbishop. It certainly introduces some interesting narrative issues, such as naming, permitted range of actions, etc.

But Eunoia is at least one (and probably more) order of magnitude more difficult than either of the above examples due to its extensive (and IMO excessive) constraints. I'm an enormous fan of this type of display of sheer technical virtuosity in writing, but at some point it becomes a soul-leeching reading exercise (never mind what pains the author must have gone through) to the exclusion of affecting the reader in some other meaningful way. I'm truly curious to spend some time reading more deeply through the full text to see whether Bok's work has fallen into this abyss, where the heavy-handed vowel repetition becomes droning instead of playful and interesting. From a cursory glance, "E" seems delightfully various but "U" is much too heavily onomatopoeic for my tastes. Still, a work where every word is filled with such overwhelming intentionality and precision certainly deserves some careful and attentive reading instead of quick judgements.

Thanks for the links!

scarabic, check your gmail.
posted by DaShiv at 1:36 AM on July 22, 2004

This word made me think of Narapoia :

"I don't know exactly how to explain it to you, Doctor," the young man began. He smoothed back his slick black hair that shone like a phonograph record and blinked his baby-blue eyes. "It seems to be the opposite of a persecution complex."

Dr. Manly J. Departure was a short severe man who made a point of never exhibiting surprise. "The opposite of a persecution complex?" he said, permitting one eyebrow to elevate. "How do you mean — the opposite of a persecution complex, Mr. McFarlane?"

"Well, for one thing, I keep thinking that I'm following someone." McFarlane sat placidly in the big easy chair, hands folded, pink cheeks glowing, the picture of health and tranquility. Dr. Departure stirred uneasily.

"You mean you think someone is following, you, don't you?" the doctor corrected.

"No. No, I don't! I mean that while I'm walking along the street, suddenly I have this feeling there is somebody just ahead of me. Somebody I'm after. Someone I'm following. Sometimes I even begin to run to catch up with him! Of course —there's no one there. It's inconvenient. Damned inconvenient. And I hate to run."

Dr. Departure fiddled with a pencil. "I see. Is there anything else?"

"Well, yes. I keep having thes feeling that people ... that people...well, it's really very silly..."

"It's quite all right," Dr. Departure purred. Feel free to tell me anything."

"Well, I keep having this strange feeling that people are plotting to do me good. That they're trying to be benevolent and kind toward me. I don't know exactly who they are, or why they wish me all this kindness, but...it's all very fantastic, isn't it?"

It had been a long hard day for Dr. Departure. Somehow he did not feel up to any more symptoms. He busied himself the rest of hour obtaining factual background. McFarlane was thirty-two; happily married; healthy, normal childhood; satisfactorily employed as a radio repairman; no physical complaints; no bad dreams; no drinking; no history of parental discord; no financial worries. Nothing.

"Shall we say Thursday at ten, then?" he smiled, ushering McFarlane out......"

posted by troutfishing at 4:54 AM on July 22, 2004

Eunoia is great -- one of my favorite books of poetry, and I love plenty of 'normal' poetry too. The MP3 files are good, but I saw Bok read Eunoia a couple of years ago, and he read it *fast* -- it was *awesome.* So, I recommend you buy the book from Coach House and try reading it to yourself at incredible speeds in your own home. It's totally unbelievable.

Thanks for posting this, Jaybo! Honestly, I find Eunoia to be pretty redeeming of the language poetry genre.
posted by josh at 5:51 AM on July 22, 2004

I once interviewed Bok for a short magazine profile. Incredibly smart guy, if a bit arrogant. Of course, if I were as intelligent as he is, my head would probably be a bit larger, too. Anyway, he told me that the writing of Eunoia was, more than anything else, an exercise in perseverance. Took him something like 8 years to write. Fun fact: Bok also developed alien languages for television, including Earth: Final Conflict.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:59 AM on July 22, 2004

Oops...boy, is my face red. Sorry, Jaybo, didn't see that you already mentioned the sci-fi languages in the post.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:14 AM on July 22, 2004

Reminds me of Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn, in which a small group of island dwellers are slowly banned from using letters of the alphabet in communication as they fall off the town's plaque. Great fun with language! I also just finished Dunn's book Ibid, a novel written entirely in footnotes. Nothing profound or earth shattering, but a whole lotta fun to read.
posted by archimago at 6:28 AM on July 22, 2004

Fact about Perec and his novel "La Disparition", written without "e"s: he decided to write it after his parents died and he was without them, or "sans eux", or, homophonically, "sans e". Still a stunt, maybe, but with special significance to him.

It's interesting that both of them have a link to speech in one way or another. The ways in which these sort of restrictions affect the sound of the text when read are not at all intuitive, but end up being very beautiful.

Thanks so much for the link, Jaybo. Great to be able to give people "Eunoia" online.
posted by louigi at 7:03 AM on July 22, 2004

Has anyone had any luck finding "eunoia" in any online dictionary?
posted by rushmc at 7:44 AM on July 22, 2004

I played with the using only one vowel thing once. Fun, fun.
posted by rushmc at 7:49 AM on July 22, 2004

On a related tangent, the publisher of Eunoia is Coach House Press in Toronto. Couch House Press in the news recently as their home may shortly be demolished for new university housing. It's likely to be saved but fear remains strong.

I had been mulling over a post covering this, but I'll tuck this news as a comment here for now. I've known a few people who've worked as typesetters there in the past and the first company I worked at was an SGML/XML spinoff that's now long merged out of existence.
posted by myopicman at 8:12 AM on July 22, 2004

rushmc Not only am I unable to find it in the standard online dictionaries but the OED second edition does not have it either. The closest match is "eunomia" which, apparently is a form of "eunomy" meaning "A political condition of good law well-administered."

I call shenanigans shenanigan: Trickery, skulduggery, machination, intrigue; teasing, ‘kidding’, nonsense; (usu. pl.) a plot, a trick, a prank, an exhibition of high spirits, a carry-on.
posted by Grod at 9:49 AM on July 22, 2004

hmm, for those without access to the OED online (or those who would have to pay) a word search looks through the second edition first then the most recent updates. The fact that no definition appeared means that the OED does not recognize this "eunoia" as a word. Despite the constant additions of new words.
posted by Grod at 9:52 AM on July 22, 2004

This is excellent. Thanks jaybo for your hard work. This was entertainment for quite some time.
posted by Seth at 10:32 AM on July 22, 2004

Thanks for the thanks everyone. Only my second FFP ever in the four+ years I've been lurking around here so it's gratifying that people enjoyed it.

Some follow-up thoughts lumped into one post...
- thanks for suggestions about other books - poetry and otherwise - featuring "literary gimmicks". That's probably one of the biggest debates around Bok's book - is it actually good poetry or just a great gimmick? (I'm for the former.) And I'll add my own personal favourite in the "gimmick book" category: "Time's Arrow" by Martin Amis. Written in reverse, it begins at the moment of death of the main character and then he lives his live backwards, ending with him literally being sucked back into the womb.

- I was prompted to post this after meeting Mr. Bok (pronounced "Book" interestingly enough. I thought it was a pseudonym at first!) recently. He's moved to Calgary from his long-time home in Toronto after he couldn't get a tenure track position there apparently.

- Coach House Press has an online petition to help preserve their historic office building. As of this writing at noon on July 22, 2004, they've collected nearly 3000 signatures from writers, artists and others all across Canada and beyond. Why not sign it yourself to help save a small piece of Canadian literary history?

- I knew somebody was going to call me on "Eunoia" not being in the standard dictionary. The best I could do was find a medical dictionary that states it is a "rarely used term denoting a normal mental state. Origin: G. Goodwill, fr. Eu, well, + nous, mind." and a fun with words page that confirms it is the shortest word in the English language using all five vowels and which means "alertness of mind and will". At any rate, the word is definitely being used out there by others besides Mr. Bok.
posted by Jaybo at 11:26 AM on July 22, 2004

I knew somebody was going to call me on "Eunoia" not being in the standard dictionary.

I wasn't really calling you on it...was just trying to get more info on what seems like a great word. I AM very surprised that it's not in the OED, however.
posted by rushmc at 6:35 AM on July 23, 2004

Sent to me by non-member Benjamin:

The very short Greek dictionary at the back of my Greek New Testament says that eunoia means "good will; eagerness, zeal."

The Greek word "noéo" is the first-person singular of the verb meaning "understand, perceive, discern; think over, consider, imagine, think." I think eunoia is probably related to this term. The prefix "eu-" means good or beautiful.

posted by rushmc at 8:47 AM on July 27, 2004

« Older somnambules   |   Cuddle parties Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments