Calvino’s Exactitude

The three components of Calvino’s exactitude are:

  • A well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question
  • An evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images
  • A language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination

He believes that literature is the fulfillment of language and defines good literature as “straining toward exactitude.” Literature is meant to create order out of a chaotic universe, as is science, Calvino says. Both are methods of knowledge that attempt to organize the world and define it in precise, constant terms. In science and in literature, we must be able to derive universal, infinite laws from particular, finite instances of those laws.

Exactitude reminds me of a sonnet, a poem which follows strict rules concerning meter and rhyme. There are two types of sonnets, Italian and Shakespearean, each with different rhyme schemes, but both are fourteen lines long and written in iambic pentameter. Sonnets are challenging to write because the poet must work within these constraints, but they are nevertheless rewarding. It takes an extraordinary amount of discipline and skill–what Calvino would call exactitude–to write a good sonnet. I chose one of my favorites, Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116,” as my example. As you read it, think about how the sonnet implements the three elements of exactitude listed above.

Let me not to the marriage of true mindsreading
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

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