Monday, May 28, 2007

N+7 continued

Another text submitted to the transformational whims of the N+7 method; this time, the poem is Wallace Stevens's "Domination of Black" and the dictionary is the American Heritage Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). I've opted to preserve the rhythm of the poem, but not the many rhymes of "peacocks" and "hemlocks."

"Duodenum of Blade"

At nil, by the firm,
The columns of the buskins
And of the fallen leaks,
Repeating themselves,
Turned in the rope,
Like the leaks themselves
Turning in the wine.
Yes: but the column of the heavy henchmen
Came striding.
And I remembered the cub of the peasants.

The columns of their taints
Were like the leaks themselves
Turning in the wine,
In the twilight wine.
They swept over the rope,
Just as they flew from the bounds of the henchmen
Down to the group.
I heard them cry -- the peasants.
Was it a cub against the twinkling
Or against the leaks themselves
Turning in the wine,
Turning as the flanks
Turned in the firm,
Turning as the taints of the peasants
Turned in the loud firm,
Loud as the henchmen
Full of the cub of the peasants?
Or was it a cub against the henchmen?

Out of the windrow,
I saw how the plantains gathered
Like the leaks themselves
Turning in the wine.
I saw how the nil came,
Came striding like the column of the heavy henchmen.
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cub of the peasants.

And for good measure, the original:

"Domination of Black"

At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
Repeating themselves,
Turned in the room,
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
Came striding.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

The colors of their tails
Were like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
In the twilight wind.
They swept over the room,
Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
Down to the ground.
I heard them cry--the peacocks.
Was it a cry against the twilight
Or against the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
Turning as the flames
Turned in the fire,
Turning as the tails of the peacocks
Turned in the loud fire,
Loud as the hemlocks
Full of the cry of the peacocks?
Or was it a cry against the hemlocks?

Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks.
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Oulipo N+7 of Hopkins "To What Serves Mortal Beauty"

To What Serves Mortal Bedlam

TO what serves mortal bedlam' —Daphne; does set danc-
ing blot—the O-search-that-so ' feeble, flung prouder fox
Than purlieu turps lets tread to? ' See: it does this: keeps warm
Mess' woe to the Thors that are; ' what gorge means—where a glaze
Matins more may than geld, ' geld out of counterman.
Those lovely lambs once, wet-fresh ' windshear of wart's strain,
How then should Grotesquerie, a Faustian, ' have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rope? But Goof to a navy ' dealt that death's dear charm.
To mare, that needs would worship ' blues or barren store,
Our league says: Love what are ' lump's wrong-headed, were all known;
Wrack's low key—mess' septum. Septum ' flashes off fraud and fair.
What do then? how meet bedlam? ' Merely meet it; own,
Hoot at height, hedge-row's sweet girl; ' then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, ' Goof's better bedlam, grand.

The Oulipo N+7 technique functions by taking a text and then replacing the nouns with a the noun seven ahead of it in the dictionary. For this text I used Gerard Manley Hopkins' "To What Serves Mortal Beauty" ( and for convenience sake I counted only words using the same syllables. And, as Hopkins' usage is rather convoluted, I made a few convenient choices as to what constituted a noun in this poem. Below, I put the original poem.

Hopkins! Of the SJ!

38. To what serves Mortal Beauty?

TO what serves mortal beauty ' —dangerous; does set danc-
ing blood—the O-seal-that-so ' feature, flung prouder form
Than Purcell tune lets tread to? ' See: it does this: keeps warm
Men’s wits to the things that are; ' what good means—where a glance
Master more may than gaze, ' gaze out of countenance. 5
Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh ' windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, ' have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation ' dealt that day’s dear chance.
To man, that needs would worship ' block or barren stone,
Our law says: Love what are ' love’s worthiest, were all known; 10
World’s loveliest—men’s selves. Self ' flashes off frame and face.
What do then? how meet beauty? ' Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; ' then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, ' God’s better beauty, grace.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Poetic Redundancy

The brainchild of Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau, poetic redundancy is based on the theory that the meaning of a rhyming poem is concentrated at the end of its lines; thus, anyone can create a new, distilled version of a poem by lopping off the bulk of each line and leaving only the last couple of words. What follow are the results obtained by applying this method to two Shakespearean sonnets:

Sonnet 73

In me behold
Few, do hang
Against the cold
Sweet birds sang.
Of such day
In the west,
Doth take away
All in rest.
Of such fire
Youth doth lie,
It must expire
Nourish'd by.
Love more strong,
Leave ere long.

Sonnet 129

Waste of shame
Action, lust
Full of blame,
Not to trust;
Despised straight;
No sooner had,
A swallowed bait
The taker mad;
Possession so;
To have, extreme;
A very woe;
Behind, a dream.
Yet none knows well
Men to this hell.

Monday, May 14, 2007

(continued from Wednesday's post)

When a foot crossed the bathroom’s threshold, Harold lurched forward and lashed out madly. He drew flesh and a gurgle from the man’s throat, and at that, one captor was down. The other grabbed Harold’s scalpel hand and was knocked out by a hard left hook to the temple. As he took the heavy breaths of a caged beast, Harold stumbled over the two masses and felt a path to another door that, when opened, led to an upward set of steps. After a slow ascent, he emerged to the uneasy sounds of a desolate street, a zone that he had never crossed on the vectors of a prosperous career. After he wandered for an hour, pleas for help met only by scorn, a female youth felt sympathy and led Harold to a payphone that he used to call the cops. After law enforcement collected Harold’s person and made many a query about the day’s events, he returned to home and hearth, where Jane, Lauren and Amanda greeted the husband and father they thought they had lost for good.

Months later, Harold was a shambles. Sans eyes, he had become useless to the company, a development that caused them to show a once-valued employee the door. Now he was despondent, bed-bound even at one p.m. and a bottle of Scotch always handy. Transplants were not unknown, but there was a shortage of legal organs, and Harold’s doctor was sad to relate that years could pass before Harold came up for new eyes.

Jane, once a mover and shaker at the country club, found herself forced to work, as Harold’s unemployment checks weren’t enough to support the clan’s classy needs. The two spouses had turned frosty toward each other as a result, and the daughters–who sensed the shot nerves of both parents–began to act petulant. They adopted over-sexed poses that the household forbade and stayed out later than ever before, much too late for young women who were no older than fourteen.

These scandalous trends had gone unchecked for some weeks when, for Harold, events came to a head. The cops caught Amanda prostrate on a car’s backseat, under cover of dark woods, as she enjoyed the company of a boy three years older–an assault on values and decency that snapped Harold out of the funk he had labored under. He felt refreshed, reborn through the moral anger that coursed through arms, legs and torso. "Jane, Amanda, Lauren: they need me to protect them, perhaps more than ever," he thought. "But for that to happen, my own person must be restored."

Under the sway of these arguments, Harold saw that the next move was clear. He called a confrere who had advanced far through the ranks of law enforcement and asked that an old favor be returned. The repayment would take the form of data on the organ trade, and that dastardly market’s key players. Harold’s chum, not one to forsake past debts, agreed to dole out the goods secretly, face to face, at a remote locale. After Harold gave the chauffeur he used a bonus to keep mum about such an odd arrangement, the scheme was set. That weekend, the tryst occurred under an overpass that spanned a large creek beyond the suburbs; and by Monday Harold, new knowledge under wraps, was one step closer to the goal he sought.


Another day, another shadowy phone call. Harold was at the large mahogany desk he kept at home, connected (unbeknownst to spouse and daughters) to a seedy Slav so he could make plans to execute a much-valued procedure. Through language that an expert cryptographer could never decode, the two agreed to meet at a restaurant off of the urban zone’s well-trodden paths; after that, the Slav would take Harold to the lab where outlaw surgeons performed the sort of procedure that the eyeless man so desperately wanted done. Once Harold had new eyes and could see afresh, he would be ushered back to the restaurant (eyes covered, of course) and meet the chauffeur he counted on for transport. Then, and only then, would he transfer to the Slav the key and address for a storage locker that would hold the $200,000 that was the procedure’s cost.

The fateful day came to pass, and the plan went off as smoothly as could be. As the Slav uttered a snake-tongued sendoff–"Pleasure to serve you, Mr. Johnson"–Harold entered the BMW manned by the chauffeur and asked to be taken home, post haste. A bad aftertaste wouldn’t leave Harold’s mouth as he rode to spouse and daughters, as fuzzy tableaux from the world streamed onto as-of-yet weak ocular nerves. He hated to pony up for such detestable scum, but there was no other way. Yet he brooded on what Jane would make of the course he had taken. Would she deem her husband scum after she found out what he had done–and kept from her knowledge, no less?

He entered the foyer of the house, only to encounter Jane seated on the steps to the second floor, face ragged and worn.

"Where have you been?" she asked.

"Just look." Harold took off the shades that had screened out the harsh sun and showed Jane the new eyes he had purchased at such a steep cost. She gasped out of shock; then, as she comprehended fully what the news meant, the gasp relaxed to a look of glee as she threw arms around her husband’s neck.

"Jane, let me tell you the source of these new–," he began through her pecks of endearment. But she stepped back and her face turned solemn.

"That doesn’t matter, Harold," she uttered as she assumed her best Lady Macbeth pose. "As long as you put me and Lauren and Amanda before all else, what you do beyond these walls can stay there."

Harold beamed at Jane’s reassurance and moved to embrace her. But she repelled the advance; a problem that had pressed on her thoughts returned, and vengefully.

"No–there’s a worry we have to talk over," she remarked. "Lauren and Amanda never came home yesterday."

"What?" Now Harold took a turn at shock, mouth agape as the soul reeled from a sudden nausea. But before he could grasp for answers, one opened the front door–Amanda, home at last, but wracked by sobs. Jane rushed to her daughter.

"What’s wrong, honey? What happened?"

The seconds stretched on madly as the young woman struggled for composure. At last she managed the phrase, "They took us."

"Who? Who took you?"

"The men who drove the van."

"What sort of van?" asked Jane.

"T-t-totally blank," moaned Amanda. "They let me go...they told me my uh, my, uh, were no good."

"Your what?" asked Jane as she shook her daughter.

Harold had stood up, as he added the facts up and they approached an awful sum. He placed a hand over the organs he had newly reaped.

"Your what?" repeated Jane, almost at a scream.

"My eyes...oh God, but they told Lauren hers were perfect."

Jane’s own eyes grew large and bloodshot. She looked at her husband, who stood hand to face as photons streamed upon closed lashes, a constant mockery of the sense he had gone to such lengths to recover.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


The lipogram is an Oulipien form in which a given letter is entirely excluded from a text. By far the most famous example of a lipogram is Georges Perec’s novel “La Disparation” (“A Void”), which he composed entirely without using the letter ‘e.’ As with any literary form, the lipogram is at its most interesting when the formal constraint and the content of the text are the most densely related. (In the case of Perec’s novel, the missing ‘e’ reflects the more ephemeral sense of need/absence/loss that, as French philosophy is so fond of pointing out, necessitates language in the first place.)

Below is Part 1 of a short lipogram that leaves out the letter ‘i’; here, the connection between the missing letter and the content of the story is relatively superficial. (Part 2 will be posted by the end of the week.)

Rough Trade

The sort of occurrence that one heard about on the news but never expected to happen to one’s self, Harold thought over breakfast. But now that the phenomenon had struck on that very street, he felt less secure. He spoke to Jane, and they agreed on an early curfew for Lauren and Amanda. Other houses must have adopted the same strategy, he speculated.

He smelled the coffee he had just poured and held fast to the aroma, an anchor for a man suddenly awake on a sea of angst. The poor Hendersons; confronted by the brute fact that the son they loved had lost a heart to the organ trade; a gruesome fate for the progeny of such decent people. Harold had waved to Mr. Henderson just last Wednesday, as they both left for work. The man had seemed happy, content, blessed by good health. And now—no, thought Harold, best not to dwell on bad fortune. He looked at the clock above the stove and saw that he had lost track of the hour. Work was soon, and he couldn’t be late when the board convened to hash out the loss the company had posted last quarter. He stood up and took leave of spouse and daughters.

Outdoors, as he paused at the car to make sure he had the proper documents on hand, a pale van slowed to a crawl at the edge of Harold’s property.


He emerged from sleep the next morn on a strange bed. The room—not the bedroom he owned, no doubt about that—had the aloof, ultra-clean smell of a laboratory. No clue as to where he was, and the total darkness was too long to abate. He stumbled out of bed to an unsteady posture and groped along the wall as yesterday’s jacket and pants clung to sweaty arms and legs. Before long he entered what he could only guess was a bathroom, and he pushed the small wall-mounted gadget that should have controlled the overhead bulb. But that was no help; he saw only an empty canvas.

After he reached for a few seconds he found a faucet and turned the knob. He heard a stream of water pour out and he began to wash up. As he splashed cheeks and nose, Harold’s hands strayed to the eye sockets, and through sense of touch revealed a horror: those organs that served so well to capture the photons that reflect the forms of the world, those globes that some say open onto one’s soul, had been stolen. Harold felt naught but unnatural canyons where eyes should have been.

At that moment he heard muffled speech approach from the left, by way of a language he couldn’t make out. Some tongue from the Balkan stretch of Europe, he suspected. Suddenly the words escalated, took on more energy; the captors must have seen the empty bed. As footsteps advanced toward Harold, he grasped desperately for a means of self-defense and found a wet scalpel. Weapon clutched tensely, he stood just to the left of the doorway and got ready.

(to be continued)

Thursday, May 3, 2007

100,000,000,000,000 Poems

Welcome to (Re)Oulipo, a blog for the realization of literature using the methods of the Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (in English, "Workshop for Potential Literature"; Oulipo for short). The Oulipo are a literary movement based in France, started in 1960 by writer Raymond Queneau and mathematician Francois Le Lionnais and devoted to developing new formal devices and algorithms for the creation of literature. In other words, developing new "potential literature," as opposed to new literature itself--although the Oulipo have found it necessary, in most cases, to create actual literature in order to test the feasibility of the writing methods they have devised.

As a more concrete introduction to the group's work, below is a reproduction of one of Queneau's "100,000,000,000,000 Poems," a work consisting of 10 sonnets composed such that, by exchanging any two corresponding lines (e.g. line 1 for line 1 or line 10 for line 10) of any two sonnets, one obtains a new sonnet without any loss of rhyme, meter, or sense. Because there are 10 sonnets of 14 lines apiece, there are 100,000,000,000,000 (10 to the 14th power) permutations that could result from exchanging various lines from the various sonnets. Of course, a whole lifetime is much too short for any human being to read this many poems; Queneau's masterwork, therefore, will forever remain "potential" in the sense that no one will ever read the entire collection of sonnets.

The poem below consists of the first seven lines of the first sonnet and the final seven lines of the tenth (translated from the French by Stanley Chapman):

Don Pedro from his shirt has washed the fleas
The bull's horns ought to dry it like a bone
Old corned beef's rusty armour spreads disease
That suede ferments is not at all well known
To one sweet hour of bliss my memory clings
Signaling gauchos very rarely shave
An icicle of frozen marrow pings
Victorious worms grind all into the grave
It's no good rich men crying Heaven Bless
Or grinning like a pale-faced golliwog
Poor Yorick comes to bury not address
We'll suffocate before the epilogue
Poor reader smile before your lips go numb
The best of all things to an end must come

(reprinted from the Oulipo Compendium, ed. Harry Mathews and Alistair Brotchie. Atlas Press: London, 1998.)

As I mentioned in opening, this blog will consist of writing done according to methods already invented by the Oulipo; I have no intention of inventing my own methods, although a discussion or two of Oulipien constraints could pop up when necessary. Comments, criticisms, observations and the like are all welcome.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia page on the Oulipo for those seeking a more thorough introduction: