Oulipo: Definitional Literature

Words of a chosen text are replaced with their dictionary definitions.

Oulipo: Univocalism

Only one vowel is used.

Oulipo: Slenderizing

A text will obviously contract if one can remove from it all instances of a particular letter; no less obviously, not every text can be subjected to this excision and still make sense.

Oulipo: Rhetorical Repetition

A series of statements follows the same simple form.

Oulipo: Perverb

Perverbs are obtained by crossing proverbs. If we join the first part of "All roads lead to Rome" to the second part of "A rolling stone gathers no moss," we obtain the perverb "All roads gather no moss." The remaining parts yield a second perverb, "A rolling stone leads to Rome." Perverbs have two main Oulipian uses, here exemplified: they can be organized into strophic poems; they can be "interpreted" as narratives.

Oulipo: Poetic Redundancy

Queneau felt that the essence of Mallarmé's sonnets was concentrated in the last words of each line; the rest was expendable.

Oulipo: Measures

The term applies to procedures dependent on length (for instance, of syllables, words, or verses).

Oulipo: Lipogram

Writing a text that omits one or letters of the alphabet. The most famous example is Perec's novel, A Void, where no e appears.

A lipogram (from Greek lipagrammatos, "missing letter") is a kind of constrained writing or word game consisting of writing paragraphs or longer works in which a particular letter or group of letters is missing, usually a common vowel, the most common in English being e (McArthur, 1992). A lipogram author avoiding e then only uses the 25 remaining letters of the alphabet.

An example of a lipogram omitting "e" is this version of the preceding paragraph:

A lipogram is a kind of writing with constraints that consists of full paragraphs or books in which a particular symbol, such as that fifth symbol (which is most common in writing), is missing. An author must submit to an awful handicap, allowing only consonants and A, I, O, U, and Y. This is ordinarily a quorum of six fours plus half of two.

Another example, this time challenging the reader to discover the oddity:

This is an unusual paragraph. I'm curious how quickly you can find out what is so unusual about it. It looks so plain you would think nothing was wrong with it! In fact, nothing is wrong with it! It is unusual though. Study it, and think about it, but you still may not find anything odd. But if you work at it a bit, you might find out! Try to do so without any coaching!

Writing a lipogram is a trivial task for uncommon letters like Z, J, or X, but it is much more difficult for common letters like E. Writing this way is impractical, as the author must omit many ordinary words, resulting in stilted-sounding text that can be difficult to understand. Well-written lipograms are rare.

Examples of lipograms include the above example, Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby (1939), and Georges Perec's novel A Void (La Disparition) (1969), all of which are missing the letter E (the most common letter in both French and English). Perec was one of a group of French authors called Oulipo who adopted a variety of constraints in their work. Gilbert Adair's English translation of La Disparition, titled A Void, stayed faithful to the spirit of the French original by not using the letter E either, thereby restricting the writer from employing such common English words as the and me.

Another recent example is Lost and Found by Andy Went.

Another recent example is Eunoia by Christian Bök in which each chapter is missing four of the five vowels. For example the fourth chapter does not contain the letters A, E, I or U. A typical sentence from this chapter is "Profs from Oxford show frosh who do post-docs how to gloss works of Wordsworth." Lipogrammatic writing which uses only one vowel is called univocalic (McArthur, 1992).

The eponymous cycle of poems from Cipher and Poverty (The Book of Nothing) by Canadian poet Mike Schertzer was created "by a prisoner whose world had been impoverished to a single utterance... who can find me here in this silence". The 4 vowels [a e i o] and 11 consonants [c d f h l m n r s t w] of this utterance comprise the alphabet for the subsequent poems.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn is described as a "progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable": the plot of the story deals with a small country which begins to outlaw the use of various letters, and as each letter is outlawed within the story, it is (basically) no longer used in the text of the novel. It is not purely lipogrammatic, however, because the outlawed letters do appear in the text proper from time to time (the characters being penalized with banishment for their use) and when the plot requires a search for pangram sentences, all twenty-six letters are obviously in use. Also, late in the text, the author begins using letters serving as homonyms for the omitted letters (i.e. "PH" in place of an "F", "G" in place of "C"), which some might argue is cheating.

In Sweden a form of lipogram was developed out of necessity at the Linköping University. Because files were shared and moved between computer platforms where the internal representation of the characters Å, Ä, Ö, å, ä, and ö were different, the tradition to write comments in source code without using those characters emerged. Some also used this as a pastime to write texts using this restriction.

Oulippo: Larding

Pick two or three sentences from a passage by a chosen author. Add a new sentence between each pair of existing sentences, then further sentences in the new intervals as they become available. Continue the process until the passage has attained the length desired.

Warren Motte has used the convenient term 'larding' as an equivalent of 'tireur à la ligne,' the name given by Jacques Duchateau to a procedure that is his specialty.

"Line stretching" refers to the 19th-century practice of paying magazine contributors (such as Alexandre Dumas) by the line -- a practice that encouraged them to stretch their material to a maximum length.

Duchateau describes the method in 'Atlas de litterature potentiale' (Gallimard, 1981): From a given text, pick two sentences. Add a new sentence between the first two; then two sentences in the new intervals that have become available; and continue to add sentences until the passage has attained the length desired. The supplementary sentences must either enrich the existing narrative or create a new narrative continuity. (It is permissible to start with more than two sentences where appropriate.)

p. 163 of the Oulipo Compendium (Atlas Arkhive Six, London 1998)

Oulipo: Eye Rhyme

Restricting the rhymes in a poem to those that satisfy the eye but not the ear.

Eye rhyme is a similarity in spelling between words that are pronounced differently and hence, not an auditory rhyme. Some examples are slaughter and laughter.

Many older English poems, particularly those written in Middle English or written in The Renaissance, contain rhymes that were originally true or full rhymes, but as read by modern readers they are now eye rhymes because of shifts in pronunciation. An example is prove and love.

Other eye rhymes:

* sew : blew

* brow : crow

* said : laid

* read : dead (however, in the past tense read does rhyme with dead)

* their : weir

* dough : rough

* rouge : gouge

* fiend : friend

* hubris : debris

* derange : orange

* rugged : drugged

* love : prove

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