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I think when reading Oulipo works, it is important to bear in mind that the Oulipo were concerned not with the creation of literature, but with the creation of potential literature.  The constraints and combinatorial tools the Oulipo used to produce potential literature bear more significance the actual examples of potential literature produced. As stated by Queneau: “The word “potential” concerns the very nature of literature; that is, fundamentally it’s less a question of literature strictly speaking than of supplying forms for the good use one can make of literature. We call potential literature the search for new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit.” The tools of the Oulipo are not necessarily tools used to unearth meaning, but perhaps instead are commentary on the ways in which meaning is derived.

By setting rigid self-imposed constraints on their works, the Oulipo reflect on the structural constraints that poets and authors continue to abide by. For example, Le Lionnais investigated the minimum limits of literary form by restricting himself to poems of a single letter or word.  The seeming invisibility of lipograms are examined in Perec’s La Disparition, where he constricts his word usage to words without the letter e. In 100,000,000,000,000 Poems, the structural constraints, and possibilities, of the sonnet are explored. Oulipo serves to feel out the limits and rules of literature, and explore literature at its core.

I find one of the most amusing techniques of the Oulipo to be N+7. A program which produces potential literature – a literary machine! – based on this Oulipo exercise can be found here: http://www.spoonbill.org/n+7 (enjoy!)

-Nicola Overstreet

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