Christian Bök returns to York with ‘beautiful thinking’

On Sept. 20, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented poet Christian Bök (PhD ’98). York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

Thinking within strict limits is stifling. Whilst Viking
knights fight griffins, I skirmish with this riddling
sphinx (this sigil – I).

from Eunoia
by Christian Bök

The 2007-2008 Canadian Writers in Person series began with a crash of sound poetry. When Christian Bök (right), York alumnus, University of Calgary professor and best-selling poet, entered the room dressed impeccably in a dark suit and speaking in measured tones, one might have assumed that a stockbroker had mistakenly wandered into the Accolade West Building. This perception changed dramatically when he launched into a reading of his sound poem, "Seahorses and Flying Fish". Bök’s delivery of the piece, which can only be described as that of a caffeine-addicted alien with a Scottish accent, set the tone for a rousing night of experimental poetry. This first impression of the writer seems to embody his work – bound by formal constraint but wild underneath.

Though Bök is neither Scottish (he only rolls his r’s in the poetry) or caffeinated, "alien" is not too far off the mark: he was commissioned to create languages for sci-fi programs such as Gene Roddenberry’s "Earth: Final Conflict". He treated his audience with an alien hymn from that project which had all the power of a celestial Gregorian chant. He has in fact been composing his own Cyborg Opera which blends influences from both literary traditions and pop culture (Nintendo: Mario Brothers). In an even more ambitious project titled "Xenotext", Bök is working with geneticists to create a living poem, encoded in the DNA of living bacteria. Such a biological "poetry machine" might not only survive extreme disaster, but might also mutate and write new poetry.

What emerges is the sense that Bök is not satisfied with ivory tower academics or cliché poetry but is striving to push the boundaries of his art form, whether alone or in collaboration. Just as in other disciplines, his aim is for new discoveries to contribute to the advancement of new forms. This spirit led to his most famous work, Eunoia, primarily composed of univocal lipograms in which each poem uses only one vowel. This had never been done before with such thoroughness and took seven years to complete after combing through the entire dictionary five times. 

He discovered that each vowel has its own personality: the "I" is lyrical while the "U" is practically obscene. In his performance of these poems, Bök’s intonations and precise pronunciation drove home these different personalities. He performs every syllable with his whole body, and the strain of sharply defined facial muscles attests to his vocal athletics. This kind of commitment to words is what Bök believes is required of the modern writer. He stated that writing needs to be as crucial as personal hygiene and nourishment, citing an "impoverished vocabulary" in many would-be poets.

A common question Bök is asked about his poetry is "What does it mean?" He suggested that there is a better approach and compared it to the experience of buying a lawnmower: you don’t ask the salesperson, "What does this lawnmower mean?" but rather "How does this lawnmower work? What are its features? Why is this one better than that one?" As a poet and professor, Bök believes it is his job "to teach people how to buy lawnmowers." 

The Greek word eunoia is the shortest word in English to contain all five vowels and quite literally means "beautiful thinking." It was originally coined by Aristotle to describe the state of mind required to make a friend. As the reception to his work grew more enthusiastic throughout the evening, it was clear that eunoia was spreading.

For more detail about Bök’s past and present projects, read Stephen Voyce’s interview with the poet at

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. Author Eden Robinson delivered a reading from her novel Bloodsports on Oct. 4.