A last dip into N+7 (for now) as we wrap up this brief survey of Oulipo thought and activity, with a look at some offshoots and a tentative evaluation.
The Creditors of Crinkle and Myxoma - the Oulipo Enlarged, part 4
By now, it should be clear that the application of constraints/restrictions to stimulate creativity need not be confined to literature. Hence ‘Ou-X-Po’, where X = an abbreviation standing for a form of media, as a blanket title for a slew of groups, each dedicated to developing methods of creativity within its field.
One major group is the Oulipopo (Ouvroir de Littērature Policiēre Potentielle), consisting of the creators of crime and mystery stories. It is their pleasure to convert the plots of Agatha Christie stories into complex mathematical formulae and they are devisors of the ‘Cartes Noir’, a series of 36 playing cards ‘which allow the player to construct complex plots for detective fiction in only a few hours’.
Another is the Oupeinpo (derived from peinture/painting) which covers visual, graphic and plastic arts. Codes, matrices, isomorphisms, rotations, superimpositions -–these and many more are amongst the constraints they have explored & developed since their foundation in 1980.
Then we have the Ouarchipo (architecture), the Oubapo (band dessinēe/comic strips), the Oucuipo (cuisine), and the self-explanatory Ouhistpo, Oumathpo and Oumupo…
You probably get the idea by now.
But What Does It All Mean?
So? A bunch of intellectual types and a bunch of curious word games. Aren’t there a few steps between the potential and the literature? Have any of these guys written best sellers? Queneau’s sonnets are pretty darn clever, but do any of them – permutated or otherwise – have the depth and resonance of a sonnet by Shakespeare or Shelley? Can any kind of ‘workshop’ spawn profound and emotionally powerful pieces of art?
Critics of the Oulipo will tend to fire questions of this nature their way and doubtless Oulipians have answers ready to fire back. Myself, I wouldn’t have written this piece if I didn’t think they were on to something worthwhile. For a start, they don’t take themselves too seriously and their stated interest is in technique – so what they do is pretty much free of pretension and psychobabble.
The value in Oulipian techniques, I think, is that they open up possibilities. As we’ve seen, they enable discoveries to be made. When you write with a constraint, it can take you in new directions, free you from habitual patterns. (This would also be the case in any other art form – hence the diversification of Ou-x-Po.) As for what’s done with those discoveries, that’s up to the writer. The writer needs both a burning urge to say something worth saying and the patience to craft a piece of work from tentative beginnings to polished product. There might just be a bit of Oulipo in anything you read, literature or otherwise.
So making value judgements on their creations is beside the point. As ‘the Oulipo’, they provide a service (developing techniques) and they produce writing to explore and illustrate those techniques. As writers, assess them on the entire body of their work, not on their Oulipian membership. There will be more to them than that.
Oulipians appear to eat and drink very well at those monthly meetings, and they appear to have a lot of fun. You may or may not be a writer, but I hope that what I’ve got across here is some of the fun.
So now you know. Google Oulipo for plenty more where all this came from. I'd like to thank the writer Joe ('Submarine') Dunthorne for bringing the Oulipo to my attention at a reading he did in Swansea a few years back. A recent user of the 'univocalism' constraint who I thought tackled the task with flair, venom and passion, is Essex poet Luke Wright. Check out his piece on Iain Duncan Smith on https://soundcloud.com/lukewrightpoet/recording-2 - a little outdated since IDS' opportunistic resignation recently, but still a fine piece of work.
What next? Have I mentioned that I've been trying to sell you a book? I may possibly mention it next time. Then again, I may not. And on that nail-biting cliffhanger, I leave you for now.
May you make it somehow on the dreams you still believe in.