Ramblings & ephemera

David Foster Wallace on the importance of writing within formal constraints

From Larry McCaffery’s “Conversation with David Foster Wallace” (Dalkey Archive Press at the University of Illinois: Summer 1993):

You’re probably right about appreciating limits. The sixties’ movement in poetry to radical free verse, in fiction to radically experimental recursive forms—their legacy to my generation of would-be artists is at least an incentive to ask very seriously where literary art’s true relation to limits should be. We’ve seen that you can break any or all of the rules without getting laughed out of town, but we’ve also seen the toxicity that anarchy for its own sake can yield. It’s often useful to dispense with standard formulas, of course, but it’s just as often valuable and brave to see what can be done within a set of rules—which is why formal poetry’s so much more interesting to me than free verse. Maybe our touchstone now should be G. M. Hopkins, who made up his “own” set of formal constraints and then blew everyone’s footwear off from inside them. There’s something about free play within an ordered and disciplined structure that resonates for readers. And there’s something about complete caprice and flux that’s deadening.

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