August 21, 2002
9:32 PM   Subscribe

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden imbeciles...

The Oulipians dis Wordsworth. [via Follow me Here]
posted by slipperywhenwet (23 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The more constraints one imposes,
the more one frees oneself
of the chains that shackle the spirit...

I think this is a much neater sentiment that the incredibly annoying cliche "think outside the box". It's got a sort of zen humility to it that recognises there are boundaries you never can escape. The question then becomes what's the most interesting response to those boundaries.
posted by slipperywhenwet at 9:39 PM on August 21, 2002

Hello, fellow Oulipo fan.
posted by liam at 9:47 PM on August 21, 2002

Does replacing random nouns in the Star Wars scripts with the word pants count? Or Robert Graves' schoolboy trick of replacing the romantic invocation 'Oriana' in Tennyson's Oriana with 'bottom upwards':

They should have stabb'd me where I lay,
Bottom upwards!
How could I rise and come away,
Bottom upwards?
How could I look upon the day?
They should have stabb'd me where I lay,
Bottom upwards
They should have trod me into clay,
Bottom upwards.

Interesting Atlantic article. We need more articles from The Atlantic and fewer from the NYT. Thank you. It's a little unfair to Wordsworth; most poems and prose would not improve from N+7.

It would seem to be easy to implement N+7 in software, but I can't find any examples of it on the net.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 10:03 PM on August 21, 2002



It's a little unfair to Wordsworth; most poems and prose would not improve from N+7.

Can't argue one way or the other, but this is pretty cool:
I wandered lonely as a crowd
That floats on high o'er valves and ills

Rose is right - that is much more memorable than the original.
posted by slipperywhenwet at 10:16 PM on August 21, 2002

"It's all so nauseatingly bourgeois."

With that I dismiss anything anyone involved in this enterprise has to say. Ah! The height of proto-Marxist 'criticism': It's all so nauseatingly bourgeois!

I submit that there is nothing more 'borgeois' than a group of impotent French 'intellectuals' scanning through dictionaries looking for funnies. While I agree that the idea of 'authenticity' is often given too much currency, pseudo-intellectual arrogance (that smacks of the arrogance of every cynical smarty-pants I ever encountered in college writing workshops) is no antidote. "Gee, we're so clever and so post-modern. It's like Foucault is back alive all over again!"

It's all so nauseatingly nauseating.
posted by evanizer at 10:49 PM on August 21, 2002

Richard Grantham's already done this -

Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud's thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine: at certain times
Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes
The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst:
At other times - good Lord! I'd rather be
Quite unacquainted with the A.B.C.
Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst.
posted by emf at 12:02 AM on August 22, 2002

A decade ago, I was studying writing at university and dabbling with computers and the Internet (pre-WWW) and so on, and was a fan of Oulipo. I had a lecturer, a well-known poet, who insisted that we all keep a diary, which we had to show her at the end of the semester.
So I copied out long-hand a half-dozen poems composed by a shareware poetry generation program I had picked up into my diary, without comment. When she read them, she told me I should try to get them published. When I told her that I hadn't written them myself, and that they were just the output from a computer program, she didn't believe me at first, and then got angry.
I also experimented with markov chains and so on. I learned that due to the error handling built into human language, such that most communicated messages can still be deciphered if only partially received, for example, that even randomly chosen series of words could be interpreted as having meaning and intention.
Unfortunately, strange and bizarre (and usually meaningless) imagery has become something that undergraduate students trying to write poetry and Literature with a capital L aspire to. Nobody seems to know what a mixed metaphor is any more. A classmate of mine won an award for a story that contained the sentence: 'His belly button popped up over the top of his jeans like an eye coming up for air.' This was what passes for poetic language.
But by using Oulipo methods, which are generally made much easier to realise using a computer, you can come up with much more wacky imagery, because of the completely arbitrary nature of the choice of words.
What I learned is this: if a computer could have written it then it has no value. A human being trying to communicate something, whatever it is, should be able to do so in a way that is distinguishable from the meaningless output of a software program that has no understanding of the words that it is spewing out.
And certainly, as a result of this belief, I feel quite confident in saying that most undergraduate poetry is crap.
posted by chrisgregory at 12:15 AM on August 22, 2002

the oulipo kick ass.
though i do agree with evanizer about the bourgeois comment.
i think it's gotten to the point where the true mark of being bourgeois is going around calling stuff bourgeois.
posted by juv3nal at 12:29 AM on August 22, 2002

I think the bourgeois comment is fair. I think it was made in the context of the bourgeois novel (ie madame Fucking Bovary), which ultimately defined the well-formed novel as being a realistic story about middle-class people relating to each other.
I don't think the comment was made as a criticism of any political import, just of the bourgeois novel form.
And isn't it much hipper to criticise other people for criticising other people (for criticising other people)?
PS I'm making a funny there.
posted by chrisgregory at 12:46 AM on August 22, 2002

Madame Bovary was surely more an attack on the "empty" bourgeoisie, rather than simply a novel about them relating to each other.

Anyway, we covered Perec at University and I loved that stuff. OK, it's consciously trying to be "clever" but you can't help being impressed by the cleverness. Perec composed a 5000 character palindrome as well as writing an entire novel without the letter "e" and then wrote another using only "e" from the 7 French vowels.

posted by jontyjago at 1:02 AM on August 22, 2002

The middle-class are omnivores. They'll consume anything, whether it's for them or against them, just as long as it's about them...
The point being that the world doesn't revolve around the interpersonal relationships of a particular social class. It revolves around the sun according to a precise set of mathematical rules.
When was the last time you read a book where the characters spent all their free time watching TV? I think that's a realistic description of the way most people fill up the spare moments in their lives. When was the last time you read a novel that was as relevant to your own life as, say, a Dilbert cartoon?
Maybe we need to undertake major aesthetic change to escape the influence of the bourgeois novel.
The Oulipo are trying to offer some alternatives.
posted by chrisgregory at 1:44 AM on August 22, 2002

His belly button popped up over the top of his jeans like an eye coming up for air.

I like this sentence. It's true that eyes don't breathe, but I think it works anyway. It evokes an image; that's what it's supposed to do.
posted by bingo at 2:17 AM on August 22, 2002

I don't read books to mirror my own life. I read books to escape it, or to augment my understanding of it. "Relevancy" is a ridiculous term. I consider Blake's Jerusalem to be relevant to my life, or Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Edmund Spencer's The Faerie Queene (stop snickering, I know what you're thinking). Relevant does not necessarily mean a drear, imperfect proletariat mirror held up to reflect the life of the suffering, TV watching people. That's just boring, and without a scintilla of imagination or dreaming. But that's what we're trying to eradicate with these little writer's workshop exercises, isn't it?

What am I going on about anyway? I hate most fiction, and read mostly history, philosophy and poetry. There's no such thing as the 'bourgeois' anyway. And if there is, sign me up. I'd love to live an angst-ridden, pot-boiled life. Full of daffodils.
posted by evanizer at 2:17 AM on August 22, 2002

I can't see any reference to that Wordsworth poem without thinking of a certain Monty Python sketch: "And to start off I'm going to ask Mr Wadsworth to read his latest offering, a little pram entitled 'I wandered lonely as a crab' and it's all about ants."
posted by diddlegnome at 2:42 AM on August 22, 2002

I think I must be missing something here. I've heard of these people before, but it has always struck me that members of the Oulipian movement have far, far too much time on their hands and are so absorbed with the technical aspects of writing that they utterly ignore the aesthetic qualities which form the basis of good literature.
Personally, I fail to see how self-consciously devising constraints on the process of writing can somehow free oneself of 'the chains that shackle the Spirit', rather than simply force the writer to conform with self-imposed constraints.

What is the purpose of Oulipian writing? Surely literature should be about more than just being clever and wacky for the sake of being clever and wacky?
posted by Doozer at 2:50 AM on August 22, 2002

*SCREAM* Sorry, just had a nightmare that I was back at University studying Barthes and Calvino. I'm OK now.
posted by Summer at 3:48 AM on August 22, 2002

heh. i'd kill to be back at university studying barthes and calvino.
posted by juv3nal at 6:21 AM on August 22, 2002

Well, it could be worse... For instance, the l'Academie Francaise, responsible for the preservation of the purity of the French language, simply rejects certain words when there is no French equivalent. In fact, they JUST introduced the words "hovercraft", "walkman" and "bilingualism" into the ninth edition of their official dictionary.

And regarding this whole bourgeous thing...
(found in

1. A person belonging to the middle class.
2. A person whose attitudes and behavior are marked
by conformity to the standards and conventions of the
middle class.
3. In Marxist theory, a member of the property-owning
class; a capitalist.

So does that mean Wordsworth was written for the Middle Class?

Or perhaps just 'from the town of Bourg'(the French root for the word)?
posted by FilmMaker at 6:33 AM on August 22, 2002

The middle-class are omnivores. They'll consume anything, whether it's for them or against them, just as long as it's about them...

It's statements like this that make middle-class folks (like me, and durn it, sometimes I read them there books!) deploy their indolent, pampered middle fingers. This is as unsupportable as any other lazy, inflated generalization.

Maybe we need to undertake major aesthetic change to escape the influence of the bourgeois novel.

So if I wear bowling shoes and Hawaiian shirts to work I won't have to endure The English Patient again? Cool! (This sentence was composed mainly because I have no idea what you could mean when you talk about escaping the influence of certain books that you don't seem to like.)
posted by Skot at 8:38 AM on August 22, 2002

With that I dismiss anything anyone involved in this enterprise has to say. Ah! The height of proto-Marxist 'criticism': It's all so nauseatingly bourgeois!

That's some trenchant literary criticism there, Evanizer. If your knee hadn't been so busy jerking, you might have addressed the previous two sentences: "Before Wordsworth and the Romantic poets, he said, personal feelings were just a small part of what literature addressed. Because of Wordsworth, emotions became the subject of literature: sincerity moved to the center of the literary enterprise, and to be morally responsible meant that one had to account for one's feelings." Those guys are clearly missing the deeply affecting poetic resonance of Wordsworth's verse, which clearly is not at all about his sincere, earnest interior life.

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Regardless of what one thinks of Wordsworth as a writer (I think The Prelude and "Intimations of Immortality" are pretty ghastly, myself), it's not a stretch to call him a "bourgeoise poet"; early in his career, he was a supporter of the French Revolution, but as he aged and the Revolution led to the Terror, he beat a hasty retreat towards conservativism. He inherited money and spent the later years of his life living with his sister (and later, his wife) in the Lake District, walking about and writing poems about nature and the depth of the human soul. He lived a comfortable, middle-class life, but is there any doubt that they had the second meaning of the word "bourgeoise" in mind?

But once I pierced the mazes of a wood
In which a cabin undeserted stood;
There an old man an olden measure scanned
On a rude viol touched with withered hand.
As lambs or fawns in April clustering lie
Under a hoary oak's thin canopy,
Stretched at his feet, with stedfast upward eye,
His children's children listened to the sound;
--A Hermit with his family around!

It's a Hallmark card, Evan.

I mean, you don't have to be wild-eyed radical to think that poetry can have more fire than that; it can, say, tell stories (like that of the wicked revolutionary Byron or nasty, Satan-obsessed Milton) or serve the function of poetic mockery (like that of those Marxists bastards in OuLiPo Alexander Pope) or even serve as propaganda (like that terrible Mr. Kipling, history's greatest bad poet). Wordsworth's poetic reputation has ebbed greatly since his death, due a great deal to the fact that Wordsworth's later verse is not very good at all. Certainly the great artistic depracation of earnest sincerity had something to do with it. But it's also due, in no small part, to non-Marxist T.S. Eliot efforts to return Donne and the other Metaphyiscal poets to prominence and, perhaps, a growing sense that Wordsworth's "everyday language - heightened" made for better poetry when expressing ideas that were less quotidian. If you really get your knickers in a twist from the use of the word "bourgeoise", why not substitute "twee"? I look forward to your defense of poetic tweeness.
posted by snarkout at 8:39 AM on August 22, 2002

Oops. My Wordsworh-induced rage caused me to forget -- a "nonce word" is one coined (in this case, an extant word which had a new meaning coined) in a specific work or on a specific occasion. See, for instance, "chortled".
posted by snarkout at 8:50 AM on August 22, 2002


Voila, une boule de neige. (More exercises at the Cybership of Fools)
posted by liam at 9:38 AM on August 22, 2002

Oulipo is over a century late in dissing Wordsworth. The best dis of Wordsworth came from Percy Bysse Shelley who incisively pointed out how Wordsworth sold out his once radical ideals in old age.
posted by jonp72 at 11:43 AM on August 22, 2002

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