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What words can do

Essay | 13 minute read
One novel eschewed the letter 'e'; another contained the solutions to ninety Guardian crossword puzzles from 1985. Camille Ralphs reflects on the cryptic conundrums and word games of the Oulipo movement

‘We are in bondage to the law in order that we may be set free.’ – Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Legibus (~43 BCE)

‘Imagine it’s imaginable. Think of it / as a lemon, and give it another squeeze.’ – Matthew Welton, ‘Instruction with obstructions’ (2016 CE)

Reading Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest, a novel in the form of a police procedural, the reader detects something odd: each half-page or so, an apparently random word is emphasised in bold. ‘Ocarina royal road Hoffman stag …’ The connection appears to be arbitrary. And it is – to an extent.

White’s novel employs, with other techniques fished from the pool of ‘Oulipo constraints’, a ‘mandated vocabulary’ – a list of words to be incorporated into the text. But his list is not purely haphazard. It comprises the solutions to the Guardian’s quick crossword from a stretch of ninety days in 1985, following the Miners’ Strike on 3 March, on which the novel and its two sequels are set. The constraint plainly has an ulterior conceptual motive. White makes his debt to Oulipo constraints clearer when, in his preface, he states that his chapter titles are inspired by the French Revolutionary Calendar, with chapters named, like each day in the calendar, after nouns: ‘Vélar (Hedge mustard)’; ‘Sylvie (Anemone)’…

The Oulipo, or Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, began as a subcommittee of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique in 1960. The Collège – an intellectual and artistic institution founded in Paris in 1948, and described as ‘taking seriously the business of taking nothing seriously at all’ (Kenneth MacLeish) – has included in its membership Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx. Oulipo ‘rejects spontaneous chance and the subconscious as sources of creativity’ (according to The Poetry Foundation), but still bears a resemblance to its zany, anti-bourgeois predecessor in the reasoning behind its strictness. It is the best known direct descendent of ‘pataphysics.

Oulipo might be defined as literature employing seemingly arbitrary constraints in its production, then attempting to confound these restraints by crafting meaning nonetheless. Raymond Queneau termed Oulipeans ‘rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape’. As such, Oulipo’s relationship with form is purposely fraught. It suggests that such constraints are a reflection of humanity’s operating within deterministic bonds of various kinds, some of which are self-imposed, including language itself. Oulipo seeks, like ‘pataphysics, to slip behind the metaphysical. It reaches beyond the known unknown into the gap’s gaps. At the same time, it hints that such attempts court failure in the form of human fallibility and presumption – the search for meaning, and the biases that claim to find it. In every case, it suggests that form is a frame, a constructed context (see ‘Wordoku #2’, below).

The works of the original Oulipo group are the most renowned. The group includes Queneau, who conceived of Oulipo in September 1960, while writing his Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes with the mathematician François Le Lionnais. This sequence of ten sonnets has become notorious for the fact that it is rather a sequence of ten to the power of fourteen, or 100,000,000,000,000 sonnets. Its pages are cut into fourteen strips, one for each sonnet line; the alternative lines end with the same rhyme, so they invariably fit the scheme. It is, essentially, an exploding of form, simultaneously evading restraint and remaining in power to the sonneteer’s controlling number (fourteen). It suggests an array of worldly possibilities contained in lawful boundaries – suggests, even, that such boundaries are what makes possibility possible.

If Queneau is an exemplary Oulipean practitioner of poetry, Georges Perec is an exemplary novelist. His La Vie mode d’emploi (Life a User’s Manual) was generated using forty-two lists (much like those employed by White) and ‘The Knight’s Tour’ technique: his narrative travels, chapter by chapter, like a knight in a chess game between the ten by ten rooms of the apartment block setting. The reader, who only encounters the story version produced by the knight’s tour, cannot know the alternatives – what if, for example, the narrative moved like a pawn or rook between the rooms? Perec knows the options he excludes intuitively. For anyone else, these options are guesses at best. It’s worth mentioning, at this point, that this is far from the only time the knight’s tour has assisted artistic purpose. Gabriel Orozco’s sculpture Horses Running Endlessly (1995), in which a vast tricolour chessboard is strewn with knights, each free to move about the board, is described by MoMA as ‘changing the logic of a rational, rule-bound game’ to create ‘an endless imaginary trajectory of space and a compelling vision of time without end’.

‘Pataphysics was described by Alfred Jarry as ‘the science of imaginary solutions’. Oulipo is imagined, then, as one such solution – an imaginary trajectory, identifying boundaries and subverting them. More than this, Oulipo attaches conceptual significance to these boundaries, sometimes politicising them, as in The Fountain in the Forest. Georges Perec’s most famous work is La Disparition, a novel-length lipogram (a text disallowing the use of particular letters) which eschews the letter ‘e’; the same letter is omitted in Gilbert Adair’s English translation, A Void (1968). Perec’s decision to exclude this letter is not only an exploration of boundaries but, on a level removed from the obvious, a reference to those lost in the Second World War: ‘e’, pronounced ‘eux’ in French, is homophonic with the French for ‘them’.

On the use of rhyme and metre in poetry, Peter McDonald has written that working within such boundaries is, perhaps, analogous to exercising free will in a world that is always to some extent predetermined. It may even be analogous to exercising free will while remaining in the pocket of God. One of Oulipo’s main lines of defence against accusations of rigidity links attractively to this suggestion: constraints have always been applied not only to human interaction, via societal norms, but to literature via rhyme, metre and other formal considerations. We might ask, extending McDonald’s comments, how writing produced under such superficially capricious constraints as those used in Oulipo might be interpreted. Might it be analogous to operating freely, or attempting to do so, in a world of baffling bureaucracy and checks and balances? An evaluation of conditions conducive to literary innovation would require another essay, but it’s hardly controversial to suppose that Oulipo arose in part as a response to the twentieth century’s wholesale assumption of neoliberalism, and to the pervasive perpetuation of the Washington Consensus (in its broadest sense, the general shift towards free-market policies and the neoliberal agenda since the 1970s) to this day. After all, an impetus for Dada, forerunner of ‘pataphysics, was the rejection of bourgeois assumptions. Recent conceptual writing has tackled this theme directly. Vanessa Place’s $20 (2013), for example, is a chapbook comprised of twenty $1 bills, and is priced at $50. It has, of course, sold out. Our economic environment may seem an overly expansive target but, as Matthew Welton reminds us in ‘A note on the title’, ‘Maybe the more precise the target, the greater the scope for missing it completely.’ Maybe this too is part of the point.

Georges Perec in France in 1978

The engagement of the literary with its own failure is a hot topic in recent literary criticism, especially in poetry. Perhaps since T. S. Eliot wrote ‘It is impossible to say just what I mean!’ in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), and certainly since Wittgenstein wrote up unsayability and separate language games, the poet has known that to work with language is to work across its gaps, and to own the possibility of falling into them. In 2007, Tom McCarthy and Simon Critchley stated that ‘poetry is… trying (and failing) to speak about the thing itself and not just ideas about the thing’. And failure is also a consideration that governs the Oulipean novel. In works like those of Perec, the gaps and inconsistencies that inevitably arise, reflecting the shortcomings of our attempts to build narratives within life’s and language’s restraints, are embraced or even highlighted. This is the case in La Vie mode d’emploi, in which it turns out that the single piece left over to complete the puzzle at the end is w-shaped, but the gap it’s intended to fill is x-shaped instead. This painful irony is recalled in the endgame of an Interactive Fiction version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984), designed by Douglas Adams, in which the item required for the player to complete the game turns out to be the item they did not pick up at the start. In each case, the puzzle remains tantalisingly, frustratingly incomplete. We might illuminate this aspect of experimental writing by reference to Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry (2016), in which he states that literature cannot achieve the perfection it claims is in artistic reach. He writes, ‘The lyric… that can authentically encompass everyone is an impossibility in a world characterized by difference and violence.’ Experimental work discerns this: ‘For the avant-garde, the poem is an imaginary bomb with real shrapnel: It explodes the category of poetry and enters history.’

The entry – and disruption – of history is a genuine goal for one of the most successful modern experimentalists, the Canadian poet Christian Bök, who this November lectured on ‘atomic ‘pataphysics’ for Festival Vértice at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), having previously authored ‘Pataphysics: The poetics of an imaginary science (2001). His Eunoia, which won the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize and was a startling commercial success, selling 20,000 copies in Canada and later becoming the UK’s bestselling poetry book of 2008, comprises a sequence of prose poetry lipograms, each of which uses only one vowel. The work reveals that every vowel (in English, at least) has ‘a unique personality: A is courtly, E is elegiac, I is lyrical, O is jocular, U is obscene’. ‘I skirmish with this riddling sphinx . . . I finish writing this writ, signing it, kind sir: nihil dicit, fini,’ Bök writes; meanwhile, ‘Ubu stuffs Ruth’s bum (such fun) . . . Ubu humps Lulu’s plump, upthrust rump.’ Fun indeed.

Bök’s current project, fifteen years in the making, is ‘the Xenotext‘. For this impressively ambitious piece, he is encoding a poem in amino acids, titled ‘Orpheus’ after the Greek myth, into the genome of an ‘indestructible’ bacterium; in response, the bacterium will produce another poem, ‘Eurydice’, and a red glow. The Xenotext is not only an Oulipean poem (such tight constraints have rarely, if ever, been applied before) but also a work of bio-art. It is a physical engagement with the trope of katabasis, the trip to the underworld as exemplified in Virgil’s Aeneid and other stories, including that of Orpheus and Eurydice. As Margaret Atwood has written, all literature is somehow motivated by ‘a desire to make the risky trip to the underworld, to bring something or someone back from the dead’; in Bök’s case, the poet appears to believe that, where death is concerned, prevention is more viable than a cure. His work is revolutionary. It not only reminds us that there is a language out of which our genes have cast our persons, but props open the door to more extensive bio-poetry in future. As Susan Sontag wrote in ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’ (1967), ‘There are ways of thinking that we don’t yet know about.’ Bök’s project undeniably risks failure – bacteria, like other lifeforms, evolve – but, as already noted, this is far from problematic to an Oulipean writer.

There are other contemporary poets whose work engages with Oulipo, their work straddling the line between the lyric and the avant-garde. A recent example is Luke Kennard’s Cain (2016), which makes extensive use of anagram to transform a Bible passage, letter for letter, into a script for a metaphysically motivated sitcom. Perhaps more than Kennard, though, Matthew Welton dominates British Oulipo. His work, through pinioned realism, magnifies realities. The Number Poems (2016) is guided by multiple constraining factors: accentual-syllabic metres, planned line lengths, rearranged ‘found texts’ and sentence symmetries, and so on. It frequently retains a lyric beauty nonetheless. ‘Construction with stencil’ offers, in its musical parallelism, a quality not unlike Gerard Manley Hopkins’s or Dylan Thomas’s loose handling of the Welsh bardic metre cynghanedd (in which vowel and consonant sounds are crossed upon and between lines): ‘A yellow swallow hollers in / a hollow yellow willow tree,’ Welton writes, and ‘A yellow yaffle snaffles up / a pile of apple waffles.’ ‘Obstruction with abstractions’, on the other hand, reads as a broad comment on conceptualism, constraint and semantic saturation. It progresses from the statement, ‘A thing within context is a thing in itself, and a thing without context is nothing,’ to end on, ‘A thing almost in context is almost a thing in itself, and a thing almost out of context is almost almost nothing.’ What does it mean to be ‘almost almost’ anything? An edge of an edge, a blur of a blur… The point is not simply that context is a framing device, though this is true as well. It is that all frames are constructed contexts. And the image out of frame is not in focus. Context, and the concepts that inform it, rules.

For an example of contemporary Oulipean prose, we need only turn back to White. The Fountain in the Forest demonstrates that he, like Perec, is a serious cruciverbalist, having first encountered his ‘mandated vocabulary’ when filling out the original Guardian crosswords in 1985. He comments in an endnote that ‘writing these words out again activated a kind of linguistic “muscle memory” … this smattering of words was woven into … my experience of those days’. Is it coincidence that the time of Thatcher and Reagan should feature in White’s novel, when our present situation – a Trump presidency and tax cuts for the rich in the US; a prime minister bearing no conservative resemblance to Mrs Thatcher – is so similarly (literally) austere? The lady’s not for turning; what of the page? Interestingly, one of the early settings in White’s novel is the ‘paint frame’, a theatre filled with ‘enormous wooden constructions’ where ‘theatrical scrims and gauzes had been hand-painted for centuries’. The image out of frame… Contemporary Oulipo practitioners are at the same game as their predecessors, updated for a world in which constraints proliferate online and IRL.

Raymond Queneau

It seems rare that a successful Oulipo experiment is carried out entirely for its own sake. Frequently, as noted multiply above, especially regarding Perec and White, the experiment is chaperoned by a conceptual intention. But in less openly politicised work, like that of Welton, Oulipo nonetheless comes equipped with the concept of its own formal friction. A glance at Queneau’s sonnet sequence is enough to inform us that constraint or context is what makes imagination (and, later, interpretation) possible; in the light of ‘pataphysics, ‘the science of possibility’, this seems unsurprising. Though Oulipo may have risen from recognition of, or contempt for, the attitudes that structure our world, this is not its sole relevance. It will retain its value for as long as the eerie coalescence of freedom and containment demands our attention. It might even attain renewed significance in future. Consider, for example, the concentrated absurdity of early twenty-first-century ‘Flarf’ poetry, lifting poems out of Google search results. What constraints will we be confounded by and confound ourselves with next? Who, beyond Bök and Welton, will try to make art of them? The world remains a theatre, a scaffolding of frames. The one we hold, in the end, is unlikely to perfectly fit or contain the gap lying open ahead of us. But so what? There’s worth even in that.