Be like Shakespeare: use constraints to free your writing

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Graham Stewart
4 min readJan 26, 2021

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Yup, that’s my old Everyman edition

Working within certain limits — whether self-imposed or not — can often be liberating. This is especially true when it comes to creativity. A specific material, a defined word count, a time limit.

The most famous among modern writers who embrace limits are the members of Oulipo. And possibly the most well-known of their creations is La Disparition (The Void) by Georges Perec. This is a novel written without a single use of the letter ‘e’. That’s hard enough in English; in French a task only a madman (or genius) would attempt. The purpose, of course, is not only to have fun and solve some sort of puzzle but to create works that, well, work.

Self-imposed limits have been around for as long as writing.

Shakespeare worked well with constraints. He also worked well with others, according to some accounts but that’s neither here nor there. Constraints. The most obvious place to look at those constraints is in the Sonnets. A sonnet is, by definition, a poem written to a particular format and Shakespeare’s Sonnets have a format that he made very much his own. In his own way, Shakespeare is an Elizabethan Oulipoist. Oulipotary? Oulipont?

So, what’s with the sonnet?

The sonnet’s origin lies with Petrarch, an Italian poet of the 14th century who decided to give up the priesthood after gazing upon the beauty of a young woman called Laura. (I like that name but I have yet to write any poetry dedicated to my wife.) The sonnet then came to England through translations of Petrarch by Thomas Wyatt in the 16th century. It quickly found popularity, not just in its original Petrarchan form of two quatrains followed by a sestet in the rhyming pattern of ABBA ABBA CDCDCD but in many variations.

So, basically, what we have is a poem of fourteen lines adhering to a strict rhyming pattern.

Variations are the life-blood of literary games — and development. This was Oulipo before Oulipo. Poets reading sonnets grasped how the constraints of the form could liberate their creativity. As could changing the constraints.

The constraints lie not just in the rhyming pattern but in the length of the poem and even in the line…

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Graham Stewart