Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, Ouvroir de littérature potentielle: “workshop of potential literature” grew out of the French avant-garde. It is a group of (mainly) French-speaking writers, mathematicians, and artists that seeks to create works using constrained techniques.
“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.”
One of the finest examples of Oulipian writing is Georges Perec’s, A Void, a 300-page lipogrammatic novel written without using the letter “e.” Try writing even a few sentences this way and you quickly realize the enormity of Perec’s accomplishment. Another masterpiece in the Oulipean tradition was written by a non-Oulipo writer, Walter Abish. In Alphabetical Africa, Abish has 52 chapters. The first chapter uses only words starting with the letter “a” The second chapter uses words beginning with either “a” or “b”. This continues through the alphabet to “z”, then backwards through the alphabet ending back at the letter “a”. Here is the opening paragraph:
Ages ago, Alex, Allen, and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another Africa amusement…anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation. Albert argumentatively answers at another apartment. Answers: ants are Ameisen. Ants are Ameisen?
Another popular Oulipian techniques is called n+7. The idea behind n+7 is to take an existing text and chose a dictionary. Identify the nouns and replace each noun with the seventh noun that follows in the dictionary. Here’s an example from the Book of Genesis:
In the bend God created the hen and the education. And the education was without founder, and void; and death was upon the falsehood of the demand. And the sport of God moved upon the falsehood of the wealth. And God said, Let there be limit: and there was limit.
Different dictionary, different results.
Maybe n+7 isn’t your thing. Perhaps you’d enjoy snowball poetry in which each segment of a text is one letter longer than the segment preceding it. The following untitled poem is by John Newman:
do you enjoy
does word play
are you confused?
This is a snowball,
A poetic form which
was created by those
who group themselves
with the name of Oulipo.
Every line contains one
Additional letter. U like?
The Oulipo isn’t for everyone, but if you find yourselves smiling at its odd word-magic or marvel at its potential, you can learn more in the Oulipo Compendium.