N+7 time again as I sub-head a further exploration of the Oulipian concept of the 'constraint'.
One Izzard Always Appears on the Agiotage - the Oulipo Enlarged, part 3
One item always appears on the agenda for the Oulipo’s monthly meetings. It is ‘Creation’, and at this point participants are invited to present and discuss new constraints. Remember they’ve been doing this for 56 years. There are a lot of constraints, some of near-perverse complexity, others of elegant simplicity. Some existed long before the Oulipians – rhymes and verse forms, such as sonnets or sestinas are, of course, constraints. The Oulipians have a profound respect for these, and a corresponding disdain for free verse. More playful forms have also been devised over the centuries, & where they are attributable to known writers, they are charmingly referred to by the Oulipo as ‘anticipatory plagiarists’. They include Lewis Carroll and, inevitably, Alfred Jarry.
We’ve already encountered some constraints. Here are a few more. If you find them interesting and appealing, I urge you to check out the ‘Compendium’ or the Oulipo website where you will find as many as you can handle. My selections tend to be amongst the easier to grasp constraints. Many, particularly those that involve manipulations of existing texts and or mathematical/geometric procedures, require careful study. Others are even more challenging variants on constraints we’ve already seen, such as ‘univocalism’, an adaptation of the lipogram in which a text is constructed using words containing only one vowel.
Ten, else even eleven, men met, entered tents, then merely regressed. The event engendered excess, yet even here elements erred. They detected the elect, then recessed. The end.
Well, it nearly makes sense. Perec’s follow-up to ‘A Void’, by the way, was an entire novel constructed of words in which e was the only vowel. Strict Oulipians claim he cheated here and there, but whatever… these guys are in it for the long haul.
Another constraint that tempted me to try my hand was the ‘snowball’. This is a poem, one word to a line, which begins with a single letter word (generally a vowel). The second line is a two-letter word, the third three, and so on.
Variants on this procedure include the ‘melting snowball’ in which the procedure is reversed – it starts with the longest word and dwindles down to a single letter word at the end. Combine the two and you have a ‘diamond snowball’, beginning and ending with a single letter word.
Constraints that involve manipulation of text can be complex, but there are also simpler ones such as ‘perverbs’ – which involve taking pairs of existing proverbs and switching phrases from one to the other, thus:
A chain is only as strong as its best friend.
A dog is a man’s weakest link.
Accidents must pass.
All things will happen.
And the somewhat scary:
Absolute power is a joy forever.
A thing of beauty corrupts absolutely.
There’s a parlour game element to this kind of wordplay and that’s not a bad thing, but – you might be wondering – ‘potential literature’? Oulipian writer Harry Mathews has developed the idea, incorporating first or second segments of perverbs repeatedly and rhythmically in stanzas of poems. There are also narrative possibilities in exploring the new meanings created by these juxtapositions.
The ‘beautiful in-law’ is another way of restricting the letters of the alphabet that are available for use – this time to those that appear in a person’s name. Obviously, you’re going to struggle a bit if you go for ‘Joe’ or ‘Eva’, but taking a forename/surname combo of reasonable length can provide interesting results. Here, I’ve used my own full name:
I am no rich man,
No finder of fame,
No form of a fan,
No more of a name.
For I am more rare,
I reach for a charm –
I’m fine, dear, and fair;
A force for no harm.
Whilst I make no claim to depth or richness of meaning (it’s a work-in-progress, dammit!), what struck me was the way it led me into rhythm, rhyme and alliteration that I might not otherwise have found – constraint as a path to discovery.
I’ll wind up this section with a briefer trawl through one or two more. The ‘cento’ (also known as ‘patchwork verse’ or ‘mosaic’) is a way of making a piece of writing by combining lines of poetry, or sentences of prose, from other writers to make a new poem or narrative. The process known as ‘larding’ also works by using sentences from an existing piece as a starting point. Here, the aim is to insert sentences of one’s own devising in the intervals between the existing ones. These ‘must either enrich the existing narrative or create a new narrative continuity’. The writer then proceeds to insert further sentences at the intervals created in the new piece. It is necessary only to start with two or three existing sentences. Gradually, an original piece of writing evolves, extending or digressing from the opening fragment.
The Oulipians were pioneers of the concept of the ‘multiple choice narrative’, in which alternatives are created by the writer, from which the reader is free to choose, thus charting his or her own path through the narrative. They looked at the possibility of how this could be done as theatre. Even with just a two-fold branching system, they calculated that by the 5th scene, 32 alternative and playable scenes would be required in addition to the 31 preceding ones. Not a practical proposition, thus they devised a system which provided an illusion of repeated choice, whilst restricting the scenes to a manageable number.
Oulipian explorations foreshadowed possibilities thrown up by computers and the internet, where many forms of multiple choice narrative are now currently available. With the mathematical element in their approach, their own works are well suited to onscreen presentation. A programme has been devised for
Queneau’s ‘100,000,000,000,000 Poems’, for example, which presumably makes for easier manipulation than 10 pages cut into 14 strips.
Finally, a couple of additional concepts which can be applied to the constraints… The first is that of the ‘clinamen’ – where the writer may deviate from the strict consequences of a constraint on aesthetic grounds. However, the writer must be able to demonstrate that following the initial rule is still possible. So the clinamen can only be used if it isn’t needed. (The concept goes right back to Alfred Jarry and his ‘science of exceptions’.) Secondly, we have the concept of ‘combining restrictions’, where the writer may chose to operate two or more constraints simultaneously.
Clearly an entertaining method by which to drive oneself to the brink of insanity.
And should you not have descended into the depths of madness (or climbed onto the mountains thereof), join me again next blog, when we look at some Oulipian offshoots and conclude with a query or two as what the hell it all means. How can you miss it? Until then, may you find youself dancing to the finest of tunes...