100,000,000,000,000 Poems.
February 13, 2002 8:40 AM   Subscribe

100,000,000,000,000 Poems. In 1961, French writer and mathematician Raymond Queneau published a work consisting of ten sonnets with the lines cut up so that they could be recombined in this number of ways. Magnus Bodin's page offers all the variations (in English, French or Swedish). Queneau, who also wrote a book consisting of one small incident described in 99 different styles, was a member of the OuLiPo group of writers, who chose to work under systematic constraints. Other members included George Perec, who wrote a novel without using the letter E, (a lipogram cleverly translated by Gilbert Adair), Italo Calvino, and Harry Matthews. Techniques to consider when filling that blog becomes a chore.
posted by liam (10 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
i read a book by queneau once.

er... that's it.
posted by mokey at 9:16 AM on February 13, 2002

there's not much to add, other than to say "great post".

while i think some of the oulipo work verges on the gimmicky at times (certainly in some of the same ways that other groups of artists exploring the notions of constraints (ie. dogme95) do also), there are really terrific works that somehow transcend the movement, such as perec's "species of spaces" or much of calvino's work.
posted by judith at 10:54 AM on February 13, 2002

Another great post, liam. Thanks. Just so that this thread doesn't end up as just praise, as your Wittgenstein post did, here are my feeble two cents.
Queneau is popular here - and Perec had his heyday - but I think the OuLiPo writers are two word-gamey and clever-by-half to last. I read Queneau's Souvenirs d'Afrique(?) before I knew what he was on about and found it great fun. Once I'd heard about OuLiPo my enthusiasm sort of fizzled. And I'll never understand how clean, classical Calvino, whose masterpiece is probably his recounting of Italian folk tales, got mixed up with that crazy bunch.

I'd like to bring up a writer who is probably the most popular in Portugal, who everyone has read(and I do mean everyone) - Boris Vian. He also had a wacky group, Pataphysics or something, but his novels are juicy, funny, cruel and unnerving. "L'ècume des jours" and "I'll Spit On Your Graves" are bedside staples of all teenagers here. His jazz writings, pornographic textlets and detective novels(written under an American pseudonym - Vernon Something?)are constantly being reprinted and enjoyed by every new generation. He died when he was thirty something but seems headed for posterity, whereas Queneau and Perec will probably become curiosities(I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of Harry Matthews).

The question is - why are these writers so little known outside Southern Europe when far more difficult ones(Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Butor)have their faithful followers?
Boris Vian - the man and the writer, an existential hero if ever there was one - especially.

Beats me. Meaning: thanks for the package!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:57 AM on February 13, 2002 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the heads-up on Boris Vian. I had heard of but never read him. Queneau was also a pataphysician. I guess he was a clubby fellow.

Accusing OuLiPo of being too clever and gimmicky seems like accusing Brian Eno of being too ambient. Watching how language works within certain confines can be liberating and fun, and it's an interesting exercise for the writer, at the very least. To quote Stravinsky (from the OuLiPo site): "The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself
of the chains that shackle the spirit....the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution." It can also throw up pleasant surprises.

Incidentally, the Vian site led me indirectly to the Anti-Authoritarian Encyclopedia, which is good.
posted by liam at 12:06 PM on February 13, 2002

As a child, I ran into G.P.'s palindromic works. That stuff is, I think, gimmicky. A Lipogram, like this paragraph, is akin to painting with two colors, an arbitrary constraint that may bring a surprising focus. Quality, though, is not implicit.

(Thanks, Cardoso for Boris Vian!)
posted by vacapinta at 3:34 PM on February 13, 2002

I actually studied French just to read Queneau. A lot of his writing is all about wordplay and doesn't translate very well. The plot in _Le Vol d'Icare_ for example turns on several different puns, and, while the translater does a great job, it still doesn't make that much sense in English.

Most of Queneau's writing is much less gimmicky than _Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes_, though, if you're not a math geek (I am), you'll probably still find them gimmicky. I'd recommend _The Blue Flowers_, if you're interested in a novel of his that translates well. It's about a medieval Duke and a contemporary Parisian, each of whom dreams the other's life (a la "did I dream I was a butterfly, or is a butterfly dreaming he's me?").

Harry Matthews, on the other hand, has to be read to be believed. He's absolutely amazing. Just pick up one of his books in the store and start reading. It actually goes on like that for the whole book.
posted by electro at 3:58 PM on February 13, 2002 [1 favorite]

Didn't think I was ever going to get to use this link...

Here's a guy whose CV says, under "Books in progress":
English translation of Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau (Paris: Gallimard 1947). Though a classic of the OULIPO school, this remarkable work has no in-print English translation. Mine will have facing French and English pages, with stylistic and sociohistorical commentary on each of the 99 chapters. Approximately 25% complete.
A cool project—I'd like to see what comes of it.
posted by Zurishaddai at 6:00 PM on February 13, 2002

I should just point out that the inventor of 'patephysics, the science of absurd solutions, was Alfred Jarry, a turn of the century Gaul who combined drunkeness and the love of firearms in such a way that only a Texan could love. Upon having shot off his pistol during an absinthe binge, a neighbor complained that he almost shot her infant child. He responded, "if that were the case, we should have to beget you a new one!"
posted by electro at 9:04 PM on February 13, 2002

Calvino's pretty cool -- I read If on a Winter's Night a Traveler for a World Lit class. It was the first time a novel asked me if I had to go to the bathroom.
posted by dagnyscott at 4:29 PM on February 14, 2002

I just stumbled across another version of 100,000,000,000,000 Poems (Flash).
posted by rex at 9:02 AM on February 20, 2002

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