The Power of Constraints

He wanted to write a symphony and put his whole being into its creation. Beginning with a slow introduction it would wend it way across wild aural landscapes towards a great climax: a peroration of bells and drums. The whole orchestra then rising to its feet in response to the audience’s thunderous applause.

But instead, a lone violinist limps onto stage and sets his crutch to one side. He lifts an ancient violin and begins to play. The symphony begins, not only on those gut strings but in the listener’s mind. The violinist playing so softly, acoustically, demands of them that they listen. The journey begins.

At the end, fifteen minutes later, a whole world has been opened up to the audience, with its sinuous variations on a beguiling melody sweeping up a huge range of emotions and ending with that glorious peroration.

This is how J.S. Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor ends. Bach wrote it for a solo violin.

Some say, constraint inhibits creation, I say no. For a poet, one “constraint” is the use of forms: from regular lengths of lines or stanzas to the rules of sestinas. Some find these limiting, I don’t.

Listen to the forms, to their quiet insistence; use them as a muse. Interweave form and content as a musician would a counterpoint. Here are some examples how the muse may encourage you:

  • to explore new words. Through the need for end rhymes, you may occasionally be obliged to search for a different word than your first choice in order to make an original slant rhyme;
  • to edit, edit and edit – through line limits such as the fourteen of a sonnet;
  • Ensure your message is clear – stanza breaks force you to think about the development of your message in the same way as paragraphs in prose;
  • Examine the music of your work – through the focus on rhythm and stresses
  • Create special effects and atmosphere – through attention to prosody, e.g. using plosives for drama.

Such is the power of constraint in a creative endeavour, especially poetry.

© Copyright Clifford Liles, July 2019


[This Chaconne is the last part of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004. Ibragimova plays it here: Although, Perlman’s historic recording referenced above is still available here: .]



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