The Magazine

Words at Play

Cracking the code of the Workshop for Potential Literature.

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By SARA LODGE
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Anyone who has ever seen a sign in the street reading “Bill Stickers will be Prosecuted” and has felt tempted to add the time-honored retort “Bill Stickers is Innocent!” has experienced the protean energy of language, which allows it to say more than we intend. Oulipians love to expose and embrace the “accidental” pun, the “misspelling” that turns out to be full of suggestive meanings. Attempts at censorship inevitably speak of the very matters they seek to repress. Oulipians are drawn to exploring, via literature, the paradoxical relationship between limitation and freedom.

In the immediate postwar period, that relationship was fraught with historical significance. Like Calvino, François Le Lionnais—cofounder of the OuLiPo—had been a member of the Resistance. Le Lionnais, by profession an industrial chemist, was interrogated, tortured, and put to work designing (and sometimes sabotaging) V2 missiles for the Germans. He was sent to concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dora-Mittelbau. He survived by reconstructing, in his mind’s eye, in astonishing detail, favorite paintings that he had seen. He then imagined characters from one masterpiece visiting and interacting with ones in another. He countered the physical confines of imprisonment by creating an imaginative plane in which the boundaries of art—time, materiality, the distinctness of the individual work—dissolved. 

The OuLiPo was born over a decade later, but its playful, yet serious, postmodern experimentation can in part be traced to the need for escape and renewal that the trauma of Nazi occupation produced. That Oulipians are “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape” is a powerful metaphor for citizens choosing to revisit, by their own volition, the notion of constraint as a source of artistic power.

Becker’s account of the OuLiPo begins with the 2008 funeral of an Oulipian, François Caradec, and introduces us, with wry observation, to the current characters and workings of the Oulipian group. He then doubles back to offer us a history of the OuLiPo, his experience of working as a volunteer cataloguer of its archives, and his induction to its practices. Becker is a shrewd and entertaining writer: His youthful enthusiasm is infectious and his style, which has hints of modern American intellectual goofballers such as David Foster Wallace, combines the erudite with a cheerfully self-conscious admission of obsessive word-nerdiness. His footnotes become impressive, digressive asides. He confesses to having edited graffiti in bathroom stalls and to having “jeopardized romantic relationships by correcting completely inconsequential confusions of which and that.” Among the Oulipian projects he dreams of completing is a cycle of stories whose themes are determined by their word count.

While not everyone will share Becker’s fanatical delight in the formal patterns of language and the “coolness” of constrained writing, his insistence that this type of writing can open unexpected creative doors is persuasive. We are all familiar with the sonnet, the haiku, perhaps also the sestina: limited poetic forms with strict rules that inspire writers. But why not try creating a sardinosaur, a poème de métro, or a beau présent

A sardinosaur is a composite literary animal, an “inter-species lovechild,” in which the tail of one creature is shared with the beginning of another. Thus, you might populate your imagination with anteloppossums, ocelotters, or camelephants

A poème de métro is a free-verse form with rigid compositional rules. When you board the metro train, you compose the first line of a poem. When the train makes its first stop, you write the line down. When the train starts moving again, you compose the second line. At the second stop you must write it down. You can’t compose while the train is stopped or write anything down while it is moving. You write the last line when you arrive at your destination. According to Becker, it is “surprisingly challenging” since the time strictures make it “like a suicide-aerobics drill for the parts of your mind that usually make observations into ruminations and ruminations into language.”

A beau présent, meanwhile, is a poem that contains only the letters in the recipient’s name. Writing one for Malcolm X would thus pose a challenge. But writing one for Daniel Levin Becker is a breeze. To prove it, I had a go myself:

Carved in red and black

A riddle

I revealed. 

Driven live and

Never end.