The Oulipo: Constraints and Collaboration

William Gillespie

Even as I invented them, it became clear that the assignments offered by the Portmanteau Lecture Series are not original. The assignment called triple anagram asks the poet to rewrite a preexisting text three times: by rearranging the sentences, words, and letters. Neither the anagram nor the term “anagram” was my idea. What I did was explore the new potential of an old form. This way of thinking about poetry allows me to reinvent techniques that have already been in use for centuries. The subtraction poem was first introduced to me by composer and friend Mark Enslin. The subliminal sentence is yet another example of an idea which is not ours. Like the triple anagram, it is an old idea reapplied on different scales. This form could be described as a prose acrostic or an as an epic acronym. It has probably been given other names in the past. I have discovered a perfect twenty consonant poem (in which each vowel is used exactly twice) attributed to a nineteenth-century poet named Edwin Fitzpatrick. There is little evidence that Edwin Fitzpatrick ever lived or wrote at all. Though seldom considered literature, all these attempts to permute ideas by manipulating the alphabet are as old as the alphabet. This is an important point: the anagram, palindrome, and lipogram, are inherent in any alphabet. They cannot be invented, only discovered and used. The only way in which the Travelling Portmanteau Lecture Series declares itself innovative is in considering these ludic forms true poetry, and valuable aids in the teaching of writing.

The history of ludic forms—also known as recreational linguistics (word games)—is scribbled in the margins of the canon. It seems as though only forms involving recognizable systems of rhyme and meter have appeared in the context of literature. Forms such as the palindrome and anagram, while as well known as the sonnet, are not recognized as poetic forms in quite the same way. While I have read numerous palindromes, I have only seen two published in books of poetry. The authors of such canonical palindromes as “Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas” are largely forgotten. Palindromes are considered word games or children's literature and are not offered the slight cultural prestige that poetry is.

It is noteworthy that serious essays bearing such ponderous titles as “The Political Responsibilities of the Poet” occasion us no surprise, because poetry is an art; but a title such as “The Political Responsibilities of the Palindromist” would strike us as risible. Behind this lurks the entrenched thought theat the palindrome (ditto the anagram) is not Art. (Bergerson, vi)

The idea of the "palindromist" is certainly different from, and much less familiar than, the idea of the poet. Whether or not palindromes are regarded contemptuously by the literary community, they seem to belong to a different world of text in which the notion of the author is alien. It is as if the palindrome is the author of the text, and the author merely a filtration device, rather than the other way around. “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama” has been anthologized numerous times. It appears that the author has been forgotten, while the text, instantly memorable due to its brevity and use of only one vowel, cannot be forgotten. It is a text which perpetuates its constraints and not the author who responded to them. While a Shakespeare play is Shakespeare, a Shakespearean sonnet is a sonnet. (Bergerson vi)

In America, there is a sophisticated underground of playful people who are interested in constraints. Word Ways: the Journal of Recreational Linguistics, currently edited by A. Ross Eckler, has been published quarterly since 1968. It is a community of specialists who frequently write articles in response to one another. They look for the strange properties in words—usually an unusual sequence or combination of letters. The articles in Word Ways are frequently about anagrams, palindromes, crossword puzzles and word squares. The journal's origins can be traced to Dmitri Borgmann's 1965 Language on Vacation, a compilation and taxonomy of literary exercises published as a puzzle book. Members of this group have referred to themselves as “logophiles.” This name implies that they have a strange sexual fascination with language. This description demonstrates that they consider their work to be pleasurable and perverse—in no way noble. Their aims would appear at first not to be literary or political. However, the ideas in Word Ways are frequently presented in the form of a poem or story. Edgar Allen Poe's “The Raven” has been rewritten at least three times using at least three different constraints (in addition to the constraint of trying to reproduce the original text). Howard Bergerson's Nonpattern Sonnet Pathetique is a sonnet which does not repeat a word. At these moments, the aims of the writers seem to be a demonstration of ideas for those interested in using them to generate other texts. To those overly acquainted with “The Raven,” these poems are tremendously sophisticated mockeries. To those who are thrilled by constraints, these writers make Edgar Allen Poe seem shoddy and oblivious to the subtleties of the English language.

While the work of the Oulipo has received more attention with the translation of Georges Perec's La Disparitions (a novel without the letter E) into its English counterpart, A Void, it seems as though their explorations have been presented to be admired, rather than utilized. The Oulipo, both in their practice of writing with innovative constraints and the fact of their shared laboratory, offers its knowledge to writers and writing teachers alike. Their work has been slow to circulate in America because almost all of their writing was done in French, and much of it is untranslatable. A Void is an example of an untranslatable book which has been translated anyway. The Oulipo began when Raymond Queneau, stalled in the composition of his poem “One Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets,” enlisted the help of mathematician Francois Le Lionnais. Queneau, already an amateur mathematician of considerable ability, and Le Lionnais, already interested in the possibility of applying mathematics to literature, formed a group whose purpose was the investigation of new literary forms through old and new constraints. Their name is an acronym of “Ourvoir de Litterature Potentialle,” which (loosely translated) means “Sewing Circle of Potential Literature.” The word Ourvoir was chosen deliberately. The idea of the sewing circle, with its image of a modest collaboration of skilled individuals. The idea of “potential literature” is important as well. The aim of the Oulipo is not to generate literature but to open up possibilities by introducing new constraints. This is a process that will open up new languages and ideas. As Francois Le Lionnais writes in “Lipo: First Manifesto”:

Should humanity lie back and watch new thoughts write ancient verses? We don't believe that it should. That which certain writers have introduced with talent (even with genius) in their work, some only occasionally (the forging of new words), others with predilection (counterrhymes), others with insistence but only in one direction (Lettrism), the Ourvoir de Litterature Potentialle (Oulipo) intends to do systematically and scientifically, if need be through recourse to machines that process information. (Motte, Oulipo, 27)

The Oulipo described their work as analysis and synthesis. Anoulipo involved seeking out texts written using literary constraints since the beginning of the alphabet. The intention, according to Le Lionnais, is “to find possibilities that often exceed those their authors had anticipated.” (Motte Oulipo 27) When an experiment that had been undertaken by a member of the Oulipo was found to have been tried in history, the previous attempt was called “plagiarism by anticipation.” This joke suggests that the Oulipo considered their forms to be not entirely their intellectual property. These “plagiarists” were acknowledged and honored. Georges Perec's “The History of the Lipogram” traces the lipogram back to the origin of the alphabet with astonishing detail, including how many copies of certain texts he believes are still in existence.

Synthoulipo refers to the process of using the new and old constraints to generate texts. The Oulipo published numerous pamphlets containing literature by members of the group. The purposes of these pamphlets was to publicize the constraints using the texts they had written. There was a consensus among many Oulipians that the group should publish only a few demonstrations of each constraint. There was a debate within the group as to whether or not an author should publish her constraint along with the text. (Leamon 18)

There is very little in Oulipian manifestos to explain their philosophy behind collaboration. Some of its members were writers, others mathematicians. The Oulipo saw itself as opening an infinite space of potential literature and assumed that the writers of the future would benefit as much from their work as they themselves did. They were also aware that many of the ideas they collected had histories of their own. The work of the Oulipo was compilation as well as invention. They saw their work as part of a larger textual tradition extending across history and potentially all cultures, including those with spoken alphabets. By meeting as a group, there was a lot more each of them could learn, and, given that they saw the constraints as existing independently of texts and their authors, there was little to lose from sharing their ideas with other authors.

The texts themselves are described as “voluntary literature.” Queneau, in particular, believed that writing was always a matter of constraints. What the writers of the Oulipo do is make the constraints a conscious decision. He did not believe in free verse. He did not see freedom as coming from the systematic removal of constraints. Inspiration was plagiarism, recycling. The Oulipo was founded to help writers “escape from that which is called inspiration.” (Motte Oulipo 10)

Whether they are quaint literary curiosities or Great Books, a few texts published by individual members of the Oulipo are worth noting. Queneau's “One Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets” is a series of ten sonnets which all use identical rhyming and grammatical structures, and carefully controlled subject matter. The fourteen individual lines of these ten sonnets are all interchangeable, and thus 1014 different sonnets can be constructed from the ten. In an act of formal acrobatics, Queneau made this task more difficult for himself than necessary. It would have been possible, for example, to have each line of every sonnet end on the same word, thus reducing the number of rhyming words Queneau had to write by ninety percent, but Queneau reuses only two rhyming words, and even then in an ingenious fashion (using a word as a noun once and again as an adjective). Warren F. Motte lists the ways in which this work “stands as the foremost model for the Oulipian enterprise.” It is analytic in that it strives to honor and resuscitate an ancient form. It is synthetic in that it presents a new technique: combinatory poetry.

This leads to a final conclusion about the text: like a hulking iceberg, the Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes manifests only a fraction of its bulk.... it is obvious that even in a lifetime of diligent reading, one can read only a fraction of the sonnets theoretically engendered by the combinatory mechanism: ars longa, vita brevis. The rest remain in the potential state, and this fact, more than anything else, accounts for the status of this text within the Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle. (Motte Oulipo 4)

As I have speculated, constraints have a tendency to outlive the authors who use them. I find this desirable. It is refreshing to read and teach a style of writing which is not overshadowed by geniuses. The text I have just described, however, may be a Great Book (even if untranslatable) in the narrower context of potential literature. Here the authors are recognized less as geniuses and more as acrobats. While they are still firmly within patriarchy and a hierarchy resembling that of the canon, the author is recognized for their skill and dexterity and less for their innate gifts. The shift of metaphor to acrobat implies that what is being honored can come about through practice and diligence, rather than through unique talent.

In a stagnant literary tradition implicated in perpetuating a number of social injustices, any serious attempt to alter the status quo constitutes a revolution. This assertion applies to everyday spoken language as well as literature. One convenient and popularly recognized example is the patriarchy inherent in academic English, visible when “man” is used to mean “people.” In this case, one can develop an awareness of this function of the language and substitute gender-neutral terms. This is addressing a specific problem with a specific solution. But what happens when you write without nouns, or write without using three letter words, or write without the letter “a?” Normal vocabularies and syntaxes are transformed to render this sexist convention impossible, along with many other conventions. These rules are not based on the problems they can solve, they are based on the structural elements of the language. Can a program of trying out different constraints and recording their political effects open opportunities to shape language and reality in politically interesting or desirable ways?

In the case of 20-Consonant Poetry, a desirable language is being tried by analogy to a desirable society. Although, as I later discovered, 20-Consonant Poetry had been attempted as a ludic literary experiment before, I adapted its idea from twelve tone music. Twelve tone music has never been popularly considered “pretty.” It is a B-side of the Western musical tradition. Its intention is to undo the hierarchy of tonal music and create a tonal system in which every note is considered equal. Similarly, twenty consonant poetry puts an end to the tyranny of R, S, and T. Whenever a person attempts to compose twelve tone music or 20-Consonant Poetry, they cannot use a note or letter without considering all the other letters or notes. Imagine a society where every person would have to consider all the other people and coordinate each action with their community such that everyone would always be included equally. This experiment by analogy is being undertaken in A Void as well. In a sense, the book is abolishing the oppressive dominance of the E. But that was not Perec's aim. His analogy is the opposite. The letter E is being eradicated by the other letters, as well as by the events in the story. In this astonishing sense, it is a book about its own constraint, which is used as a metaphor for genocide. Perec's rage at the loss of his own family to the Nazis, through a skillful analogy and the ancient tradition of the lipogram, brings great political significance to his use of constraint.

While twenty consonant poetry has political intentions, it is too quirky to articulate them. Does the fact that a language with political intentions is incapable of speaking in a way that is recognizably political present a paradox? Each constraint opens up a new vocabulary, new structures, and new ideas. I consider all of them to be in a similar stage. They are experiments to find out what can now be said. These new ideas are now alive in the old language even if only in obscure logological tracts. I hope to continue the work of the Oulipo and perpetuate their use as a writing teacher, writer, and user of the language.

Oulipo Bibliography

20 Consonant Poetry


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