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:

No comments: