Monday, October 1, 2007

Elementary Morality: "Methyl Gods"

In the "Oulipo Compendium," Harry Mathews notes that the poetic form the Oulipo have come to call "elementary morality" is not, strictly speaking, Oulipien. The reason is that this form doesn't involve any pre-formulated mathematical procedure for manipulating the basic materials of language (i.e. letters or parts of speech). Rather, the elementary morality is a form invented by Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau for what he said were "purely internal" reasons (according to the Compendium).

A poem of this sort opens with three sets of two-line pairs. In each of these pairs, the first line consists of three groupings of one adjective and one noun, while the second line consists of one such grouping. After these initial six lines comes an interlude comprising seven lines of one to five syllables. Finally, the poem closes with another two-line pair similar to those in the first six lines, in which words from the first part of the poem reappear in different arrangements. Individual authors, of course, are free to experiment with their own variations on the total form.

Below is a fairly orthodox example of an elementary morality. (Bear in mind that spacing, and not hyphens, is supposed to separate the noun-adjective pairs; unfortunately, the caprice of Blogger formatting has prevented me from laying the poem out properly on the "page.")

"Methyl gods"

Methyl gods - Scorched metal - Screaming wheels
Blue flowers
Clutching fingers - Ripened film - Bludgeoned zone
Joyless laughter
Dry willows - Byzantine maps - Pocket doomsday
Blackened sneakers

A picnic
Of moldy cheese
And pomegranates,
Spread out on grass
By the banks of
The River Styx

Dry gods - Screaming flowers - Joyless maps
Clutching doomsday

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