Five CanPo Titles: Christian Bök’s Eunoia

Eunoia by Christian Bök
Year: 2001
Publisher: Coach houseBooks
Province: Ontario

Ubu gulps up brunch: duck, hummus, nuts, fugu,
bulgar, buns (crusts plus crumbs), blutwurst, brüh-
wurst, spuds, curds, plums: munch, munch. Ubu sups.

from Chapter U

Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001)

I really can’t remember which number in this series of favourite Canadian poetry titles of the decade I’m on, but I don’t think I could go any further without mentioning this entry’s book. Since first being published in 2001, Eunoia has become, if memory serves me correctly, the top-selling Canadian poetry book ever. The copy I have is the 17th printing of March 2005 and, believe it or not, the darn thing is still selling remarkably well, not just here at home but abroad (this is especially true in the United Kingdom of late). It seems to have become quite the phenomenon and any self-respecting poet across the country has at least heard of the work and its significance, if not read it themselves.

So what’s so damn great about it? Ok, the title’s kind of interesting: “eunoia” refers to a somewhat normal mental state or “beautiful thinking”, but beyond that it is the shortest word in English that contains all the vowels. Better than that, it has only one consonant. Christian Bök didn’t arrive at this title by accident. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the book is divided into sections or chapters that each contain only one vowel. Chapter O has eighteen pages, all of which has only one vowel corresponding to that mentioned in the chapter’s title. I kid you not. It’s a master work of formal writing (not formal in the traditional fixed-form sense, but a strict structure of a new poetics, very much avant-garde).

When I first read Eunoia I was struck dumb by the great effort and time Bök must have taken to write and compile these poems (seven years in total), so much so I nearly found this fact alone enough to distract my reading of the book. In some cases the poems are very much natural sounding to the ear: Chapters E and I seem more suited to this, since poetics of lyricism use the latter vowel anyway, but also due to the arrangement of words in our language that contain these letters. Here’s an example from Chapter E:

Westerners revere the Greek legends. Versemen retell
the represented events, the resplendent scenes, where,
hellbent, the Greek freemen seek revenge whenever
Helen, the new-wed empress, weeps. Restless, she
deserts her fleece bed where, detested, her wedded re-
gent sleeps. When she remembers Greece, her seceded
demesne, she feels wretched, left here, bereft, her needs
never met.

The language is quite fitted to an epic poem, as is the vowel sound itself (an effect central to Bök’s purpose). Each vowel takes on a character of its own. Chapter U is incredible in that it must have been the hardest for the poet to write, the patience required to find each word depthless (see the quote at the beginning of this entry).

What’s so exciting about this book is that it really made poetry about language again. The unifying structure to the whole thing is centered around the smallest parts of our language; single letters and sounds. What Bök does is truly experiment with our ability to communicate ideas, but not just ideas: emotions, impressions, and perception all through the medium of the vowel. I think any poet interested in sonics or the structure of sound within a poem would do well to expose his/herself to the pages in this volume. How something is said, or how a poem sounds when read is proven here to be vital to the intent of the work and, if extended, to the reader’s comprehension of the intent.

The value of such a work may be debated in the future, partly due to Bök’s extreme poetics and partly due to the nature of the avant-garde as being outside or on the periphery of the main path of poetry. Regardless, this is a book that demands to be read which, as has been seen by sales in the five-figures, is certainly the case.

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