“What The Hell Is Oulipo, You Pretentious D*ck?!”

by | Jun 29, 2020 | Poetry | 1 comment

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I went on to Twitter, six months ago, and fell down a rabbit hole. As a result I discovered there were real life poets sharing their work on Twitter. But, the standard of work was a revelation – Poetry seemed to be on the cusp of a revolution. My world had been turned upside down, for the better. From then on, long gone were the staid days of bourgeois humdrum; the art of Poetry was very much alive and on Twitter. The work that took my eye all seemed to be centred around the rules of writing outlined by Oulipo… but what the hell was that?

Oulipo (French pronunciation: ​[ulipo], short for French: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated: “workshop of potential literature”, stylised OuLiPo) is a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques.

It was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Although, there are other notable members such as novelists Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, poets Oskar Pastior, Jean Lescure and poet/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 methods, often based on mathematical problems, such as the knight’s tour of the chess-board and other permutations.

Some Oulipian Constraints:

  • N+7: Replace every noun in a text with the seventh noun after it in a dictionary. For example, “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago…” 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, J, K, Q, V, Y, and Z (it does not contain any of those letters).
  • Prisoner’s constraint, also called Macao constraint: A type of lipogram that omits letters with ascenders and descenders (b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q, t, and y).
  • Palindromes: Sonnets and other poems constructed using palindromic techniques. A palindrome is a word, number, phrase, or other sequence of characters which reads the same backward as forward, such as madam, racecar.
  • Univocalism: A poem using only one vowel letter. In English and some other languages the same vowel letter can represent different sounds, which means that, for example, “born” and “cot” could both be used in a univocalism. (Words with the same American English vowel sound but represented by different ‘vowel’ letters could not be used – e.g. “blue” and “stew”.)

Constrained Writing is something that has been on the horizon for a while, I have heartedly embraced it of late and I am writing in that style daily. I have written this blog article as a way of keeping my thoughts marshalled and keep tabs on everything. Hope you don’t mind the prompt-to-self being displayed so publicly. All in all, it is a lot of fun and, yes, I know I am pretentious.

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