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THE NUMBER OF LANGUAGE writing poetry the OULIPO Way

A book exists which contains so many sonnets that someone reading for a million years, at five minutes per sonnet, would never read the same sonnet twice.

Yet that book fits all hundred billion (yes, one hundred billion, that's one with FOURTEEN noughts after it) sonnets into just ten pages.

The book, 'Cent Mille Milliard Poems', by the late French writer Raymond Queneau, achieves this astounding feat by printing ten basic sonnets, each on a right-hand page, sliced into 14 strips, one per line of sonnet text. By flipping the strips to left or right, the reader obtains a combination of lines making up a sonnet that, in all probability, no-one has read before and no one will ever read again.

It is claimed, moreover, that-every one of the possible sonnets is structurally perfect and makes perfect sense, impossible and even inhuman as this may sound.

This extraordinary "sonnet machine" is perhaps the best known work of an enigmatic poetry movement called OULIPO

OULIPO - the initials stand for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle i.e. Workshop of Potential Literature - was founded in 1960 by a mathematician - Francois de Lionnais - and Queneau himself, who also had a profound interest in mathematics but was, perhaps, best known for his novel about a Parisian nymphet, The Adventures of Zizi in the Metro.

They were soon joined by others, all writers, mathematicians, or both; the writers ranged .from survivors of the Surrealist movement to experts in complex and often half-forgotten medieval forms of poetry.

The term Potential in the group's title refers to the way a specific structural formula has the potential to produce an unlimited number of specific outcomes - an area as interesting to the new science of Artificial Intelligence as to the writer.

Initial motives were almost certainly mixed- there was clearly an element of playfulness, of thumbing the nose at the stern seriousness of French Structuralism.

But alongside that element of fun, systematically taken to such extremes on occasion as to hint at madness, as with those hundred billion never-to-be-fully-read sonnets, went a sincere interest in exploring what happens to language under the constraints of ingenious structural formulae - and often , of discovering how far it can be driven under such pressures before reaching limits of intelligibility and beginning to, in effect, disappear.

This might sound similar to Surrealist, Concrete and particularly Dadaist ideas but OULIPOists insist that theirs are not formulae for random writing in the dadaist sense; rather their rules, precise in operation even if the results may appear bizarre, are akin to the algorithms governing computer programmes - hence this is sometimes called algorithmic poetry.

All well and good, but why should anyone wish to write this way other than for the mere curiosity of it?

Although Scottish poet Edwin Morgan has often written in an OULIPOish way, he is not overtly connected and the movement's only official English-speaking member is American Harry Matthews, whose collection MID-SEASON SKY: POEMS 1954-1991 was published by Carcanet.

In the foreword he gives an answer which also helps explain why, long before OULIPO, indeed throughout literature, writers have frequently bound themselves by self-imposed numerological rules, (Dante's The Divine Comedy, to take perhaps the best-known example, is structured round a highly complex Trinitarian numerology.)

To Matthews, although he may well also delight in the solving of complex writing puzzles, the true benefit of using OULIPOesque formulae is that it allows him

"a way of dealing, however indirectly, with what I could barely face as experience."

In other words, there is, to quote the title of one of his poems, "Safety In Numbers". The brain, in effect, is allowed to overleap emotional barriers and inhibitions against accessing certain material and shaping it into writing, by a subconscious sense that responsibility for making such use has been removed from the writer and laid on the shoulders of the formula .What comes out is now the 'fault' of the form, not the poet.

So, for example, Matthews is enabled to write a heart-felt tribute to a dead friend by limiting himself, in the poem, solely to using the eleven letters making up the name of that friend, James Schuyler.

O.B. Hardison, a perceptive American critic, devotes a chapter in DISAPPEARING THROUGH THE SKYLIGHT (Penguin, 1990) to OULIPO in his extraordinary 'cross-culture' study of 20th cent. trends and their relationship to changing technology. In this, he points out the way in which OULIPO formulae draw on much earlier roots. Indeed OULIPOists themselves recognise this, calling earlier exponents of complex writing formulae "plagiarists by anticipation", whether they be from the recent past or medieval and even earlier times - the key difference being that the present movement is conscious in its actions and intentions, while earlier writers may well have been unconsciously seeking the kind of liberation, of ability to access resistant materials cited by Matthews, as well as, on occasion, having religious or occult motivation, or the very human urge, perhaps, in showing their cleverness to meet the challenge.

Harrison makes the fascinating general point that

"All formulas for meters and stanzas distort language, and the strictest , most arbitrary formulas - for example, the formula of the limerick - produce writing that verges on nonsense and sometimes topples over the edge. Instead of avoiding such formulas, however, writers embrace them."

Traveling further into OULIPO thought, and on the many and varied precursor streams on which they drew, can offer much fascination in terms of widening and deepening such insights - but, for the present purpose, it is time to "let the dog see the rabbit" - in other words, to instance some of the ways in which the movement, in using new or reminted techniques, enables 'number' to overcome the expected patterns of syntax and grammar, and so overcome inhibitions of thought and expected sense, bursting out of predictable channels, liberating playfulness and 'deep level matter' alike.

As a general point, incidentally, such methods, even if a poet chooses not to use them for work intended for publication, can be extremely useful to 'free up' the mind, and produce suggestive images, ideas and directions for use in other ways. Just as there is no need to believe in an Oriental religion to learn kung fu, there is no need to become an OULIPOist -by-adoption to use and benefit from OULIPO-esque techniques.

Among their 'reminted' techniques, the LIPOGRAM is one of the oldest - the poem (or indeed novel) which totally avoids use of one or more letter of the alphabet - Nestor of Laranda translated the Aeneid, omitting a different vowel from each Book, in Ancient times. Try a long poem, for example, avoiding all words which contain the letter 'e', and you will find the effort forces fresh approaches on you. A short poem which uses only one vowel, again, can produce powerful alliterative effects.

PERVERBS can provide effective one line elements for longer poems - these are achieved by joining the first half of one proverb to the second half of another

(e.g. "a stitch in time gathers no moss")
or distorting in other ways (replacing letters by homophones, for example, like
"no fuel like an old fuel")
or truncation.

VOCABULARY CLEPT POMES are achieved by writing a poem, then giving another poet a list of the words you have used. That person then writes a new poem using only those words.

PALINDROMES are of course nothing new, though OULIPO writers have achieved palindrome poems and verse plays of extraordinary lengths. Much more novel are their MOEBIUS STRIP poems - write the first half of a poem on one side of a strip of paper, the second on the other side upside down, then twist the strip of paper, join the ends, and read the result as a continuous poem. This produces an intriguing interlacing , to be written down as a new poem.

Akin to the 'interactive' novel, and earlier than it, was OULIPO's use of JUNCTURE poems - points where the reader must choose from alternatives, and so be led to a different next section of the poem depending on the choice made. A kind of fore-runner to HYPERTEXT.

To write a HOMOSYNTAX poem, replace all the words of an existing poem with new words, while preserving grammar and syntax.

PIED POETRY involves rearranging all the words of a poem to achieve a new one (the rules permit varying punctuation and capitalization)

The SNOWBALL poem has each word one letter longer than its predecessor; in the CYCLICAL POEM the last letter of each word is the first letter of the next. To write a LESCURE ALGORITHM poem, a formula is applied, of the type N + 7. This means that each noun in a poem is replaced by the noun seven words ahead of it (or behind) in a dictionary. Related is the technique of LESCURE SWITCHING. To do this replace the first noun in a poem with the last and vice-versa then the second-from-start with the second-from-last, and so on.

A huge variety of other techniques have been used for OULIPO poetry, but these instances are enough to give a clear flavour of the approach and hopefully to encourage other poets to try for yourselves the intriguing - and, as said, liberating -effects that can be achieved.

In addition to the Harrison book referred to, many other books and articles on the topic have been written. In particular, Martin Gardner, a regular contributor to Scientific American, has written frequently on the topic as have many members of the group. A number of essays appear in OULIPO - A PRIMER OF POTENTIAL LITERATURE (University of Nebraska Press, 1986). FOOTNOTE - My thanks must go to Harry Turner for his help in suggesting sources without which this article would have been impossible.


Read another poem by Steve Sneyd.

Read Steve Sneyd's article on The Inclusion of Poetry in Novels

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This page last updated: 13th November 2006.