Raymond Queneau’s poem Cent mille milliards de poemes (One hundred million million poems), written in 1961, would take 200,000,000 years to read, even if you read twenty-four hours a day. A set of ten sonnets printed on a cut page with each line on a separate strip, any line of one sonnet can be combined with any line from the other nine sonnets, making possible 100,000,000,000,000 distinct poems. The idea came from children’s books that are cut into strips so one can combine different heads with different bodies, etc. The sonnets have the same rhyme scheme and the same rhyme sounds. He was aided by mathematician Francois Le Lionnais, and together the two created interest in a new form of literature, and the seeds of Oulipo were planted.
Ouipo is the acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or “body of potential literature” (known in the U.S. as “The Workshop of Potential Literature”). It was founded in 1960 as a subcommittee of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique. (“’Pataphysics” is a pseudophilosophy, a word coined by Alfred Jarry, a French writer. It has been described as “resting on the truth of contradictions and exceptions” by Queneau, the study of what is beyond metaphysics.) Although the group involved was active since their inception, it was with the publication of a collection of their pieces, La Littérature Potentielle, in 1973 that they gained international notice. The work of this Paris-based writer’s group has become better known in the U.S. now that English translations are available.
The group was devoted to searching for new structures and patterns for literature and used constraints to inspire ideas. Many of these techniques relied on mathematical problems, using the precision and structure of math. The constraints used push writers to play with language and construct writing that is “outside the box”. Some of the constraints are listed below.
S+7, also known as N+7: Replace every noun in a work with the noun found seven entries after it in a dictionary. Different dictionaries produce different results. One can also use verbs or other parts of speech instead. What a great way to encode messages if all parties use the same dictionary!
Palindromes: The entire work is a palindrome. (Palindromes don’t offer their authors fame – who can remember the authors of any of them, much less my favorite - “Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas”?)
No Repeats: Writing a piece that is as lengthy as possible without repeating any words.
Anagrams: Each paragraph of a work is an anagram of an outside source. Just to make things more interesting, try a triple anagram, where one rewrites a selected piece three ways – rearranging the sentences, then the words, and finally the letters.
Lipogram: Omitting the use of one or more letters in a piece, the more the merrier, albeit harder.
Macao or Prisoner’s Restraint: This is a type of lipogram where letters with ascenders and descenders (i.e., b, d, f, g, h, j, k, p, q, t, & y) are excluded.
Univocalism: A poem that uses only one selected vowel.
The Knight’s Tour: Ostensibly a mathematical problem involving a knight on a chessboard who, moving in accord with chess rules, must visit each square once. Used as a literary constraint since the ninth century, and notably by Georges Perec.
One of the quirkiest works is Georges Perec's La Vie mode d'emploi (Life: A User’s Manual). This is a collection of interwoven stories based on a fictitious apartment block in Paris. Using multiple writing constraints, each story adds a new layer of complexity. Perec created a system which generates for each chapter a list of items, references, or objects that the chapter would contain. There are forty-two lists of ten objects each, grouped in ten units of four. The last two are lists of special couples (i.e. Tom and Jerry, Antony and Cleopatra, etc.) These lists apply to each chapter in an array of a Graeco-Latin square. There are many further complications and complexities to the book, which can be read from cover to cover or by chapters out of order. Thus it utilizes the Knight’s Tour model.
Queaneau wrote another piece in the Oulipo repetoire in 1947 - 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. It is the retelling of the same story 99 times, each by a different style. The basic story is of someone who gets on a bus, witnesses an interaction between a zazou (sort of the French equivalent to a zoot suiter – they dressed in a particular fashion and were into bebop and swing jazz) and another person, then spots the same person two hours later getting fashion advice. This was turned into a graphic novel by Matt Madden, which includes parodies of horror comics, comix, manga, and fantasy, and from unusual perspectives, including the refrigerator.
I can’t help thinking how much Charles Dodgson would have loved Oulipo. As a master of puzzles and a mathematician, I think he would have been a major player. If you are a logophile you may be interested in subscribing to this quarterly journal, Word Ways.
Want to entertain both your right and left brains simultaneously? Try some Oulipo. Make sure you are well-rested and/or stoned. These writers are truly cerebral boinkfesters.