Category: Writing Techniques

Oulipo: N+7

Oulipo: N+7

Although poetry and mathematics often seem to be incompatible areas of study, the philosophy of OULIPO seeks to connect them. Founded in 1960 by French mathematician Francois de Lionnais and writer Raymond Queneau, Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (OULIPO), or Workshop of Potential Literature, investigates the possibilities of verse written under a system of structural constraints. Lionnais and Quenuau believed in the profound potential of a poem produced within a framework or formula and that, if done in a playful posture, the outcomes could be endless.

One of the most popular OULIPO formulas is "N+7," in which the writer takes a poem already in existence and substitutes each of the poem's substantive nouns with the noun appearing seven nouns away in the dictionary. Care is taken to ensure that the substitution is not just a compound derivative of the original, or shares a similar root, but a wholly different word. Results can vary widely depending on the version of the dictionary one uses.

By applying the N+7 rule to Wallace Stevens's poem "The Snow Man," you get a new poem called "The Soap Mandible":

One must have a miniature of wisdom
To regard the fruit and the boulders
Of the pinions crusted with soap;

And have been colic a long time
To behold the junkyards shagged with Idaho,
The spun-yarn rough in the distant gloom

Of January surgery; and not to think
Of any mishap in the south of the winter,
In the south of a few lectures,

Which is the south of the language
Full of the same winter
That is blowing in the same bare plague

For the lithographer, who listens in the soap,
And, now himself, beholds
Now that is not thermal and the now that is.

Another OULIPO exercise uses the "snowball" technique, where the first line is one word long, the second line has two words, and so on. A snowball poem can also be made up of lines comprised of progressively longer words, in which two lines might read:

I am far from happy Mother reduced
A no-fly zone using yellow ribbons.

If the results of these formulas are strange, unintelligible, or seem too drastic, the OULIPO artists would argue that for generations poets have set structural constraints on themselves, from the sonnet to the sestina.

Oulipo stands for "Ouvroir de littérature potentielle", which translates roughly as "workshop of potential literature". It is a loose gathering of French-speaking writers and mathematicians, and seeks to create works using constrained writing techniques. It was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Other notable members include novelists Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, and poet and mathematician Jacques Roubaud.

The group defines the term 'littérature potentielle' as (rough translation): "the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy".

Constraints are used as a means of triggering ideas and inspiration, most notably Perec's "story-making machine" which he used in the construction of Life: A User's Manual. As well as established techniques, such as lipograms (Perec's novel A Void) and palindromes, the group devises new techniques, often based on mathematical problems such as the Knight's Tour of the chess-board and permutations.

Oulipo History

Oulipo was founded on November 24, 1960, as a subcommittee of the Collège de 'Pataphysique entitled Séminaire de littérature expérimentale. However at their second meeting, this first name was withdrawn in favor of today's Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or OuLiPo, at Albert-Marie Schmidt's suggestion. The idea, however, preceded the first meeting by roughly two months, when a small group met in September at Cerisy-la-Salle for a colloquium on Queneau's work. During this seminar, Queneau and François Le Lionnais conceived of the society.

During the subsequent decade, Oulipo was only rarely visible as a group. As a subcommittee, they reported their work to the full Collège de 'Pataphysique in 1961. In addition, Temps Mêlés devoted an issue to Oulipo in 1964, and Belgian radio broadcast one Oulipo meeting. Its members were, however, individually active during these years, and the group as a whole began to emerge from obscurity in 1973 with the publication of La Littérature Potentielle, a collection of representative pieces.

Oulipian works

Some examples of Oulipian writing:

Roubaud's La Belle Hortense, a whimsical detective story, in which six princes, all brothers, are suspects. All six appear in turn, in a different sequence each time. One of the six breaks the pattern: this is a clue that he is the culprit.

Queneau's Exercices de Style (Exercises in Style ), in which he tells the same simple story ninety-nine times, each in a different style.

Queneau's Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (Hundred Thousand Billion Poems) is inspired by children's picture books in which each page is cut into horizontal strips which can be turned independently, allowing different pictures (usually of people) to be combined in many ways. Queneau applies this technique to poetry: the book contains 10 sonnets, each on a page. Each page is split into 14 strips, one for each line. The author estimates in the introductory explanation that it would take approximately 200 million years to read all possible combinations.

    Oulipo Constraints

  • The "N+7" method: Replace every noun in a text with the noun seven entries after it in a dictionary. For example, "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago..." (from Moby Dick) becomes "Call me islander. Some yeggs ago...". Results will vary depending upon the dictionary used. This technique can also be performed on other lexical classes, such as verbs.

  • Snowball: a poem in which each line is a single word, and each successive word is one letter longer.

  • Lipogram: Writing that excludes one or more letters. The previous sentence is a lipogram in B, F, H, J, K, Q, V, Y, and Z (it doesn't contain any of those letters.)

  • The prisoner's constraint (a.k.a the "macao" constraint) is a type of lipogram that omits letters with "legs" (b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q, t, and y).

  • Palindromes

Oulipo Founding members

The founding members of Oulipo representing a range of intellectual pursuits including writers, university professors, mathematicians, engineers, and 'pataphysicians:

* Noël Arnaud
* Jacques Bens
* Claude Berge
* Jacques Duchateau
* Latis
* François Le Lionnais
* Jean Lescure
* Raymond Queneau
* Jean Queval
* Albert-Marie Schmidt


Category: Creative Writing Techniques