AFTER OULIPO: INTRODUCTION

In the summer of 1977, when everything that seemed to matter was being articulated loudly and clearly by the Sex Pistols, I came across a slim volume of short stories based on the tarot pack by an Italian writer called Italo Calvino. Nothing could have been more different from the stridency of punk rock – these were delicately wrought miniatures telling tales of questing knights, evil enchantresses and vampires – but I was instantly won over. Years later I came across another writer who seemed to share something of Calvino’s sharpness and luminosity, a French writer called Georges Perec who had written a mock-epic novella about a Frenchman whose name nobody could remember trying to get out of his military service. Not long after this I went to work in France and one afternoon browsing in Fnac I came across a book by a group of writers called Oulipo, and when I read the back cover and saw that both Calvino and Perec belonged to this group I bought it immediately. This book was Oulipo’s La littérature potentielle and it was packed full of strange and inspiring ideas about writing based on palindromes, graphs and word games couched in a quasi-scientific language. It was like structuralism on absinthe and I was hooked at once. As the years have gone by others too have become hooked as a steady stream of Oulipian writing has appeared in English. David Bellos’ translation of Perec’s great novel, Life: A User’s Manual, has now been through a 20th anniversary edition, and in the same period many important Oulipian texts have been translated, notably in Alasdair Brotchie and Harry Matthews’ Oulipo Compendium which has introduced Oulipo to a whole generation of readers in English. Today, Oulipo has been picked up by a vast array of writers from playwrights to performance poets, and a number of notable additions to the Oulipian canon have been written in English, among them Matt Madden’s cartoon response to Queneau, Exercises in Style: 99 Ways to Tell a Story, Dan Rhodes’ 101 word stories, Anthropology, Kevin Jackson’s A-Z essays Letters of Introduction, and Christian Bök’s bestselling sequence of monovocalisms Eunoia. Indeed, so popular have the ideas of Oulipo become in English that when the craze for flashmobbing, where crowds gather to carry out random acts, spread from New York to London in summer 2003, the first such event in Britain was marked by a meeting outside a sofa shop where people spoke without the letter “o”.

When I was asked by Jesse Glass, after a poetry reading he gave at Essex University in summer 2009, to edit a special issue of Ekleksographia to celebrate 50 years of Oulipo I jumped at the opportunity, and when I sent out a call for work I was rapidly overwhelmed by contributions of breathtaking ingenuity and inventiveness. Oulipo has never had any truck with the apartheid of genre, and this was echoed in the work that came in, in a dizzying variety of forms, from translation and mistranslation to fiction, both long and short, to poetry and prose poetry, to chronogram, and even an interview, conducted from beyond the grave.

Oulipo, or to give it its full name, the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature) was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François le Lionnais with the aim of exploring the potential benefits of mathematics and rules for literary production. A secretive group to begin with it has become enormously influential in its five decades of existence, celebrating its 50th anniversary in April 2010. As David Bellos writes: “It has already lasted far longer as a structural group than any other in the history of French (or indeed, European) literature: romanticism, realism, naturalism, Parnassianism, symbolism, acmeism, futurism, vorticism, surrealism, structuralism, telquellism – all such ‘doctrines’ and chapels rose and fell within the span of a decade or two, and often far less. Oulipo is very different and probably more important.” While there are many aspects to the work of the Oulipo, three principle strands stand out: the search for new literary structures or constraints, where Oulipo argue, counterintuitively and in direct revolt against surrealism, that constraint is liberating for the creative imagination; the use of mathematical concepts in writing as in what Oulipo call “combinatory literature”, which explores the potential of permutation for writing; research into methods of transforming or translating existing texts to create new ones. All of these are generously represented here.

One of the central Oulipian constraints, the lipogram, most famously explored in Perec’s e-less novel La disparition, translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void, is taken up by several writers. In his novel, Perec included lipogrammatic translations of a number of well-known French poems, which Adair’s translation replaces, with a certain logic, with English classics, such as Poe’s “Black Bird”. Poet and translator Timothy Adès here gives us e-less versions of the poems selected by Perec, from Hugo, Mallarmé, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, restoring what was arguably lost in bringing the novel across the channel. Novelist Richard Beard’s remarkable posthumous interview with the author of La disparition, “Interview with Georges Perec”, an incisive introduction to the work of Perec and the Oulipo, is itself playfully lipogrammatic in form. While Ross Sutherland, one of a number of young performance poets to have embraced the comic possibilities of the monovocalism, gives us a virtuoso display of what is possible with only a single vowel at your disposal in “Two Moons for Mongs”. And this is not to mention Alexei Vernitski and Christian Bök, who both add their inventive twists to the lipogrammatic tradition in “Not in my Name” and the vocalic reduction of Rimbaud, “AEIOU”.

Another central area of experiment for Oulipo has long been fixed form poetry, and this is picked up by several contributors. In “Leaves of the Yukka” and “When the last holds on reality”, Oulipian Ian Monk breathes new life into the haiku and sonnet sequences. The former is part of an ongoing series in which strings of poems start from a haiku, forming sequences of 5,7,5,7,5... syllables, from which any sequence of 5,7,5 can be extracted to form a free-standing haiku, which, like a tuber, can then be used as the starting point for a fresh sequence. The latter is part of a series of fourteen “shattered sonnets”, where the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet determines the structure, but at no time coincides with the beginnings or ends of the poems it contains (except for the first and last). Sonnet form is similarly the focus of David Miller’s work, where Oulipian experiments with pushing forms to their limits, as in the one word and single letter poems of François le Lionnais, find their ne plus ultra in visual sonnets containing neither words nor letters. While Robert Sheppard’s heteronymic poems experiment with the quennet - the fixed form poem created by Raymond Queneau - as does my own work.

Other poets here, like Geraldine Monk and Peter Hughes, use constraint as a way of generating new poetic forms, just as other writers use restricted vocabularies as a way of generating their worlds, as in Simon Smith’s startlingly original synthesisation of the language of Celan as filtered through his translators, and Will Ashon’s powerful recreation of the nightmare world of the immigrant through the 1500 words of Globish, represented here by the two opening chapters of his novel Work, where the patois of Globish enables Ashon to evoke the other as if from the inside, writing the reader into the protagonist’s brain with a directness reminiscent of Joyce. One of the criticisms often levelled at Oulipo, is that while they have a great deal to say about form, they have somewhat less to say about content. Here, Will Ashon demonstrates how in the fully mature Oulipian work form and content are one.

All constraints, like Ashon’s, put limits on language and creative agency, and this is nowhere more clear than in the cento, a form which Perec had experimented with before he joined the Oulipo. Alan Halsey, in “Memoirs of the Last Man”, uses the cento to explore the limits of the late romantic imagination, while Andy Brown’s clown poems experiment with the “chimera” where the language of one text is mixed with the language of another to create a monstrous, and often comic, hybrid. Oulipo’s experiments with found text have on the whole tended to stick to literary sources. Tony Lopez and Ken Edwards, in “Experimental Subjects” and “A Memoir of Our Father”, extend the realm of such work into the uncharted territory of the non-literary. Lopez’s work, in particular, takes Derrida’s concept of intertextuality and applies it consciously and deliberately on a large canvas, with only intuitive and discrete intervention, reducing the role of the author to that of compiler and editor. Jesse Glass, too, takes on the role of editor, making poetry out of text ripped from the belly of newspaper articles, while in his found text, “The Phonemes of Swahili” Peter Manson reduces the role of the author to that of archaeologist. His unearthed postcolonial narratives at once remind us that the found poem is essentially Oulipian in its nature, an “anticipatory plagiarism” of their methods, and, given its source in Z.S. Harris’ Structural Linguistics, reminds us of the connections between Oulipo and structuralism, a movement contemporaneous with the birth of Oulipo, connections the history of which remain to be written.

Founded by a mathematician, le Lionnais, and a gifted amateur mathematician, Queneau, mathematical procedures have always been at the heart of Oulipian practice, and they underpin many of Oulipo’s most important literary productions from Queneau’s seminal A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems to Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. One of the oldest and most popularised of Oulipian procedures involving elementary mathematics is the technique invented by Jean Lescure called N+7, where each noun in a source text is systematically replaced with the seventh noun following it in a dictionary. The technique is used to startling effect by Tim Atkins in his reinvention of Petrarch, “Petrarch#57”, as it is in Jeremy Over’s “so much depends”, a transformation of William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” using the Dictionary of Ornament, and Polish poet Tadeusz Pioro’s “Oedipus on Melodrama”, a rendition of Keats’ famous ode. Mathematical principles also underpin the work of Harry Mathews, Alexei Vernitski, Johan de Wit, Harry Gilonis and Leopold Haas. Mathews’ “Clocking the World on Cue: the Chronogram for 2001” is an example of a centuries-old literary form following a simple but demanding rule: when all the letters corresponding to Roman numerals (c,d,i,m,v, and x) are added together, they produce a sum equivalent to a specific year of the Christian calendar. Mathematician Alexei Vernitski’s riddling diptych “Life of a non-Buddhist. Life of a Buddhist”, takes mathematics and constraints to levels previously unimagined, creating literature entirely out of mathematical symbols, a feat all the more astonishing when you realise that all the formulas are correct from a mathematical point of view. Johan de Wit, on the other hand, uses mathematics to reinvent poetic form in his sequence “All Bar One”, nine poems each consisting of nine lines, each line composed of nine monosyllables. It is less Oulipo than the serial music of Schoenberg and Webern, in which all twelve tones of the octave are sounded before repetition, that provides inspiration for Harry Gilonis and Leopold Haas. Gilonis’ minimalist poem “Webern sings The Keel Row for Howard” works on the principle of 12 words treated serially, while Leopold Haas, in his retelling of the story behind Gericault’s painting “The Raft of the Medusa”, applies serialism on a grand scale. As he explains: “Interpreting tone as voice – The Raft serialises and permutates twelve voices or tones over twelve moments, in order to imagine a poetic/prosaic form that is not simply lyrical, epical, or dramatic, but tonal – a raft of voices, each with their own ‘pitch’, and each sounding off in accordance with the rules of twelve tone, for the duration of the work.”

Rupert Loydell, in “A Fire in the House of Ice”, draws inspiration from another artist, Mario Merz, in particular his igloo sculptures, in a poetic sequence structured around the Fibonacci number series, which also underpins Merz’s work. And Roger Moss, in his tale “Day of Atonement”, offplays echoic narratives of estrangement and terrorism with mathematical precision in a way which takes one to the very heart of the narrative. The piece is structured around 10+7 paired sections of equal length in which the 7th word in the first is repeated as the 10th word of the second: Yom Kippur, the day on which Esther and Reuben Palzur and Abraham Avery were murdered in 1985, an event which is pivotal for the story, falls on the 10th day of the 7th month of the Hebrew ecclesiastical calendar. I have emphasised the mathematics in the above pieces, yet in many cases, not least those of Haas and Moss, the mathematics provides a structure or constraint, which, in typically Oulipian fashion, allows that to be said which could not have been said otherwise. That is to say, where I have stressed the mathematical, one might have discussed the same work in terms of constraint – the two are not readily separable in many cases. Other pieces, similarly, like the work of Tim Atkins, could equally have been discussed in terms of translation, to which I would now like to turn.

The idea of translation for Oulipo is closely linked to that of variation. Queneau’s Exercises in Style, 99 variations on a theme, has become a key Oulipian text, spawning other Oulipian variations including a number of collective works like Winter Journeys, and Harry Mathews’ “Shakespeare Variations”, itself a homage to Perec, which demonstrates a number of Oulipian techniques by ringing the changes on the phrase: “To be or not to be: that is the question.” Matt Fallaize’s “Twenty-seven variations” takes its cue from Mathews, offering variations of the phrase “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, as lipograms, anagram, palindrome, N+7, homovocalism and so on, while Christian Bök’s translations of Rimbaud explore, as well as more conventional methods of translation, homovocalic, homophonic, anagrammatic and lipogrammatic methods. Their work offers not only a portable compendium of Oulipian techniques of translation, but reminds us how forms like the lipogram can themselves be used as translation methods, both between languages and within the same language.

As well as the idea of variation, Robert Hampson and Harry Gilonis explore the possibilities of mistranslation, in ways reminiscent of the maverick translator Ernes Marana in Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, who spreads chaos amongst the publishing industry by translating with the aid of computers, or from languages he doesn’t know. In his “six translations of the same haiku by Mutsuo Basho furyu-no/hajime ya oku no/ta-ue-uta, inside a poem for Cecilia Vicuña”, Gilonis translates Japanese using a Spanish-English dictionary (Cecilia Vicuña, the poem’s dediacatee, is Peruvian, Spanish her second language after Quechua), while in “Hyena Variations” Robert Hampson translates a poem by Heine using spellchecker, where machine misrecognition plays a key role in the translation process, in combination with homophonic translation. Homophonic translation also plays a part in Jeremy Over’s startling revisioning of Yeats, “The Lambent Itch of Innuendo”, which combines the method freely with N+7. Other poems explore in different ways the idea of erasure which underpins the lipogram, as well as other Oulipian procedures such as haikuisation: “Delight in order” erases Herrick, while “Notes on um” pays homage to Tom Phillips’ practices of erasure in A Humument, and “The Cumbrian Coast” erases any signs of optimism from a guidebook. This pessismistic note is echoed in Tony Trehy’s work. In 2006, when Iceland was at the height of its cultural and economic optimism, Safn museum in Reykjavic published and exhibited Trehy’s text “Reykjavic”. “Nnot in Reykjavic” rewrites this text, applying negative numbers and substitution to the original to reflect the downturn in Icelandic hope, and hope in general. The method is very close to that called antonymic translation by Oulipo, a method which also plays its part in Matt Fallaize’s poems, including “Mr Sincerity” where the starting point is an antonymic translation of “The Charlatan” by Unsi al-Hajj. Among the most inventive of translators over the last ten years is the poet Tim Atkins, whose radical translations, blurring the boundaries between original and translated work, both explore and extend the possibilities inherent in Oulipo. His work is represented here by some of his Petrarch translations, including “Petrarch#312”, which uses N+7 in combination with the Oulipian method of definitional literature, where dictionary definitions and the like are substituted for words in the original text, and “Petrarch#96”, a translation using a method of Atkins’ own invention called “myopic translation”: glasses are removed, and the translator writes down what he thinks he sees.

Some of the writing here is by members of Oulipo, some is by writers who, though not members of Oulipo, have drawn inspiration from Oulipian techniques, sometimes adding or bringing something new to these techniques, some is by writers with little or no knowledge of Oulipo, whose work nonetheless has a kinship with Oulipian methods. Of this final group, it is perhaps no coincidence that many – like Geraldine Monk, Alan Halsey and Tony Lopez – are poets, for not only is poetry always already Oulipian (which is why Oulipo have been so preoccupied with forms like the sonnet and the sestina), but the practice of poets over the last half century has often anticipated or echoed Oulipian ideas, as in the homophonic translations of Louis Zukofsky, the mesostics of John Cage, the procedural poems of Jackson Mac Low, and the mathematical patternings of a whole host of poetry from Tom Raworth to Ron Silliman.

One debate within Oulipo which rose to prominence in the 1980s, but has never really gone away, relates to the visibility of the constraint. For some the constraint is an integral part of the writing, for others it is more like the scaffolding used in constructing a building, to be dismantled once and for all when the building is complete. For some writers, too, like Paul Griffiths, it is important that the reader first comes to the text innocently. His story “I went to the house but did not enter”, which combines constraint, mathematics and translation, is presented here without preface, but with an endnote attached for the curious. If I have generally described the constraints at some length in the introduction, it is however for the good reason that one way to understand the “potential” in Oulipo is that any particular constraint can be used by any number of writers, inside or outside Oulipo, giving rise to theoretically infinite numbers of works, but in order for this to happen the constraint needs to be understood. If the reader doesn’t wish to know the constraint, they should skip over this introduction, or quickly forget it, and plunge into the writing. In all but a few cases, where the author wished to include a detailed note on the method of composition, the texts have been published detached from any reference to their procedures.

Wave 3.5c
After Oulipo

November, 2010