poem index

A Brief Guide to OULIPO


September 19, 2004


Schools & Movements
Printer-friendly version

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.

more texts